Several rock stars have commented on what an uncannily accurate spoof of the rock and heavy metal world this film was. Ozzy Osbourne said that when he first watched the film, he was the only person who wasn't laughing; he thought it was a real documentary. U2 guitarist The Edge said about this film: "I didn't laugh, I wept. It was so close to the truth." Marillion had five drummers in the space of a year between their first two albums, which guitarist Steve Rothery later admitted was "like Spinal Tap".
In his memoir "Father Joe", Tony Hendra admits that he attempted suicide the night before the first day of filming. He credits the joy he experienced in making the film with bringing him back from his depression.
37 different people have been in the band over the years. Excluding the two original members, one keyboard player, and the original and current bass players, that means the band has had 32 different drummers who inexplicably died.
As the film was improvised by all the performers, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer went to the Writers' Guild hoping to give proper credit to everyone. The Board of Directors voted 15 to none that the credits should stay as it was, including only the four of them.
When Nigel describes the sustain on his Les Paul guitar, he says he could "go out and get a bite" and "you'll still be hearing that one." Les Paul described the sustain on one of his own guitars: "You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding."
Nigel talks with DiBergi about being influenced by the masters, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach. During their performance of "Heavy Duty", Nigel's solo (which he plays while standing on the drum riser) is a tribute to Luigi Boccherini's "Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275".
In Norway, the film was released direct to video over two years later. The title was changed to "Help! We are in the Pop Business!" ("Hjelp! Vi er i popbransjen!"), a spin on the Norwegian title for "Airplane!" (1980), "Help! We are Flying!" ("Hjelp! Vi flyr!"). The poster showed a guitar with a knot in it, similar to the airplane on the "Airplane!" poster. Throughout the film, an on-screen disclaimer reminds the audience that the band is fake.
Contrary to popular rumor, the "too small Stonehenge" disaster is not a parody of Black Sabbath's over-sized Stonehenge sets from the Born Again tour. The Stonehenge Spinal Tap scene existed as early as 1982, when the film was a 20-minute short. Black Sabbath didn't begin using their Stonehenge sets until 1983. The Stonehenge scene was likely inspired by the setup for Led Zeppelin's final two U.S. concerts, at the Oakland Coliseum, July 23 and 24, 1977. The stage was framed by a large, Stonehenge-like monolith. Additional Stonehenge models appeared on the stage and large banners to either side of the stage featured images of Stonehenge. The concerts are infamous because several members of Led Zeppelin's entourage beat up a local crew member backstage after the first day's performance.
J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series, cited Spinal Tap as an inspiration for the repeated unfortunate events that cause all Defence against the Dark Arts teachers at Hogwarts to leave the job before completing a full school year, similar to the fate of Spinal Tap's drummers.
In the course of the film, Spinal Tap has four different drummers: John "Stumpy" Pepys, Eric "Stumpy Joe" Childs, Mick Shrimpton and Joe "Mama" Besser. The names were inspired by the four different men who played the third Stooge in The Three Stooges films: Curly Howard, Joe DeRita, Shemp Howard and Joe Besser.
According to the cast on the Criterion audio commentary, the production never left Los Angeles county during shooting. (This is noticeable in the Graceland scene; if you look closely the three stars are never seen in the same shot as Elvis Presley's tombstone, although there appears to be three body doubles in some shots)
Marillion's 1987 UK top ten single "Incommunicado" includes the line "currently residing in the where are they now file", which was taken from the film. The song was written from the point of view of a rock star struggling with the lifestyle and the pressures of success.
Before the first song, an announcer introduces the band by saying "Ladies and gentlemen, direct from Hell, Spinal Tap." That is a play on Venom's intro tape from the early 1980s: "Now, from the very depths of Hell, Venom!"
Although they portray Englishmen, none of the three lead actors are actually English. Christopher Guest comes very close, though, as he is the 5th Baron Haden-Guest by right of hereditary British peerage.
Liam Gallagher and Noel Gallagher of Oasis once went to see Spinal Tap play live. The three stars performed as their own opening act the Folksmen (their characters from A Mighty Wind (2003)). Liam was bored with the folk music so his brother explained that the Folksmen were played by the same actors. Liam then became distraught as he realized Spinal Tap was not a "real" band.
Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler took the film very personally because it came out when they were at their lowest ebb and the "Stonehenge" scene looked like the cover of their 1982 album "Rock in a Hard Place".
There was a deleted subplot involving an all-female opening act from whom all the members of Spinal Tap contracted herpes. In several scenes of the finished movie the band members have visible cold sores.
Spinal Tap are infamous for problems with their Stonehenge props. The most famous incident comes from the film, in which the prop is undersized and nearly trampled by a dwarf. On their live tour in support of Break Like The Wind, a package delivery man brings a package with an even smaller model. In The Return of Spinal Tap, the prop is far too large, and the stage crew makes every effort to cram it through the small doorway, and fails. When they performed at Live Aid (1985), the prop, signed by all the other performers, was the right size, but the "columns" were lowered without the top crossing piece, and subsequently removed from the stage. The top piece eventually lowered with nothing to land on.
To prepare for the film, director Rob Reiner attended a concert by metal icons Judas Priest. "It physically hurt my chest," said Reiner. "The reverberation in the hall was so strong that I couldn't stay there any longer."
KISS bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons has said that a lot of the film was based on the band and that they themselves once experienced a moment much like the "Hello, Cleveland!" scene. They were playing in a theater and their dressing room was on the fourth floor. They went down to the first floor and found nothing. Second floor, nothing. Then they could hear themselves being introduced, since it turned out the stage was on the third floor.
Both David Kaff and R.J. Parnell were primarily musicians who were known for their membership of English rock bands. Kaff was the pianist/keyboardist for Rare Bird (who had a UK Top 30 single with "Sympathy" in 1970) and Parnell was the drummer for Atomic Rooster (who had two big UK chart singles with "Tomorrow Night" and "Devil's Answer" in 1971).
When asked on Twitter how Derek came to be wearing a Shrewsbury Town FC jersey, Harry Shearer said, "That was me, hanging around London, and seeing a selection of football jerseys at a corner stand. The Shrewsbury one caught my eye, since Derek dreamed of, like Sir Elton, buying a team, but couldn't afford a Premier League one."
R.J. Parnell was cast as Shrimpton after he went through all of the failed bands he had been with during his audition. Ironically, Parnell would also be the drummer on one of the biggest hit songs of 1982, the year the film is set, Toni Basil's "Mickey".
The "Ooral Sea" naval cap reappears in The Princess Bride (1987), which Rob Reiner also directed. Dire Straits guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Mark Knopfler was asked by Reiner to compose the movie's score, which he agreed to do on the condition that the "Ooral Sea" hat from Spinal Tap appear somewhere in The Princess Bride (1987). The cap had to be recreated, and appears in the boy's bedroom hanging behind him. Knopfler later said he was joking with regard to the hat.
This was one of the favorite films that the British comedy duo Mel and Sue [Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins] shared while on the road because of its accurate portrayal of the travails of touring. Perkins said that Spinal Tap taught them that every bad experience would be an anecdote later. Perkins discussed the film with comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris for a podcast in 2018, during which she revealed that she even surprised Giedroyc on her 50th birthday by recreating Spinal Tap's Stonehenge in Giedroyc's back garden. In the podcast, the panel discussed how the movie endured because of the child-like innocence of its central characters, the film-makers' obvious love for the genre and avoiding of sex-and-drugs clichés, because the band were competent if desperate, and because it was filmed like a real documentary, with the story only emerging in the nine-month edit after hundreds of hours of improvisation were filmed.
Midway through the film, Spinal Tap arrives in Cleveland, Ohio, to play a show at the fictitiously named Xanadu Star Theater. While unconfirmed, it is possible that this fictitious venue name is a direct reference to legendary Canadian rock band Rush, along with two other Rush references. "Xanadu" is the title of a sweeping 11 minute song from Rush's "A Farewell To Kings" release in 1977. Secondly, it is widely accepted that Rush first achieved significant American notoriety in Cleveland, Ohio, a city where local radio DJs of the time heavily played the band's 1974 song "Working Man". The song proved to be especially resonant with the largely working class population of the city and helped put the band firmly on the musical map. Thirdly, throughout their career Rush have used emblems, graphics and imagery in the form of stars. Long-time Rush collaborator, graphic designer Hugh Syme, is credited with the creation of the now famous "Starman" emblem which first appeared on the band's 1976 album "2112".
Lt. Bob Hookstratten, who welcomes the band to Lindbergh Air Force Base in Seattle to play at its monthly "at-ease weekend", was inspired by prominent sports and entertainment attorney Ed Hookstratten.
The Spinal Tap song "Big Bottom" includes the line "the bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin'". Richard Tee, keyboard player for Paul Simon, also delivers this line in character as Clarence Franklin in the movie One-Trick Pony (1980), which stars Simon. Harry Shearer appears in both movies.
Marty Di Bergi wears two different US Navy caps - one in the film and one in 'Catching up with Marty Di Bergi' in the Special Features on the DVD release. In the film, the cap appears to read USS Ooral Sea OV-4B. This should be USS Coral Sea CV-43. The USS Coral Sea was an aircraft carrier in the US Navy 1946-90, the second ship to bear that name. In the special features, the cap is from the USS Wadsworth FG-9, a guided missile frigate in the US Navy from 1978-2002. The Wadsworth was transferred to Poland in 2002 and renamed the General Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
While the band members are not based on any particular musicians, Nigel Tufnel bears a resemblance to legendary guitarist Jeff Beck, and Derek Smalls sports a set of "friendly muttonchops" (mustache connected to sideburns) similar to those closely associated with Motörhead leader (and fellow bassist) Lemmy.
This film is part of the Criterion Collection, spine #12. Their edition has since gone out of print and featured two commentary tracks, one where the three leads all speak in character and criticize the film and DeBergi, claiming he'd done a hatchet job in representing them. The second commentary track featured Rob Reiner, producer Karen Murphy, and editors Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda. Newer DVD and Blu-Ray editions include the cast commentary track.
During Q&A at the anniversary screening from the Tribeca Film Festival, Rob Reiner noted that the inspiration for the tiny sandwich scene was from a Rolling Stone article which mentioned that Van Halen wanted all of the brown M&Ms taken out backstage.