I, like most right-thinking people, love This is Spinal Tap. It manages to not only be a hilarious film that people care enough about decades later that the band actually reunited for a concert 35 years after its release, it even portrayed such an accurate portrait of the rock and roll lifestyle at the time that artists like Ozzy Osborne, Jimmy Page, Glenn Danzig, George Lynch, The Edge, and Brad Whitford have said that it’s an accurate portrait what their lives were like. And, amazingly, all the songs still worked amazingly as songs, to the point that you’d probably have to be reminded that they’re supposed to be parodies of other songs from the era. But we’re not here to talk about that. Today, we’re here to talk about their drummer. No, not the one who died in a bizarre gardening accident, although that actually did happen to the drummers for Toto and Abba.
The man behind the drum set throughout the film is Ric Parnell. He bears the honor of being one of three members of the true original lineup (besides Christopher Guest and keyboardist David Kaff) to actually be from England. He was born in London in 1950 into a musical family, with a grandfather who did music hall, a father who ended up as a jazz drummer and the music director for ATV, and a pair of brothers who also drummed. His career wasn’t too auspicious at first. He did drums for a band called Horse that broke up after recording their only album, did drums on two albums by Atomic Rooster long past their prime, and was a part of a bunch of other bands that recorded an album or two, and then broke up with almost no fanfare, although he did play drums on this version of “Satisfaction” that inexplicably made it big in Italy in 1973.
He found himself shockingly close to success at three different points in the Eighties. First, his profile was enough that Steve Perry would recruit him to play drums for Journey. Parnell would decline due to his being preoccupied with his new band Zoo Drive, one of those unlucky projects of his that didn’t even get to the album stage. He regretted the decision, but then again, he probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play drums for Toni Basil’s “Mickey.”
But whatever, “Mickey”‘s just the extremely popular ripoff of Racey’s underrated song “Kitty.” And playing drums on a one-hit wonder wasn’t enough for me to give him an obit. What did was his performance in This is Spinal Tap. He played drummer Mick Shrimpton. In an interview, he described being recruited into the band, saying:
“The first question they asked was, ‘What do you think about a movie that’s going to tear your career apart?’ I said, ‘You should have made this movie about 10 years ago.’ They then asked me what other bands I’d been in, and I said, ‘Well, I was in a band called Atomic Rooster.’ They looked at each other and said, ‘Yep, that’s it, you’re our man.’ “
Of course, unlike Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, he doesn’t have a background in comedy, let alone the sort of improv that the film ran on, so he didn’t have too many lines. Hell, he was the band’s drummer, their designated redshirt, and it probably would have worked against the movie if they gave him too much characterization. It’s worth noting that one of the only scenes focusing on him has him talking about being accepting of his apparent fate:
But there’s still one more memorable moment from the drummer, and it’s one that still wows me 20 years after I watched it for the first time.
Yep. He exploded. And, despite having spontaneously combusted on stage, he still worked with the band over the next 15 years, going on promotional appearances on Saturday Night Live, and even on tour (this time, playing Mick Shrimpton’s twin brother Ric Shrimpton.) Even when the band decided to “reunite” in 1992 for the album Break Like the Wind, he was still behind the throne. They even played the Freddie Mercury memorial concert in 1992, even though their performance was never released as part of the many home video issues of the concert:
Sadly, when they decided to start back up again in 2001, Parnell decided to drop out of the band. They’ve worked with numerous drummers since then, but none of their tenures have had the spectacular ends of the drummers in the film.
And after that, he seems to have laid relatively low. The highest-profile thing in his discography besides Spinal Tap is playing drums on Jon Anderson’s christmas album Three Ships. He just performed on albums by other obscure acts, many of which don’t even merit a Wikipedia article, although he did finally manage to break the three-album threshold when he drummed on three albums by Australian rocker Deniz Tek in the 2010s. Apart from that, he’s mostly just golfed and hosted a radio show called Spontaneous Combustion at his adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana.
And on 1 May 2022, he died. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have exploded, but died of natural causes. Nobody seems to know what it was that did him in, but it looks like he went comparatively peacefully. There’s a Gofundme campaign for his funeral, but it turns out that as I write this, it made $8,824 of a projected $3,500. Michael McKean tweeted “Ric Parnell was a great drummer. More to say tomorrow. Right now rest in peace will have to do.” It’s currently tomorrow, but McKean hasn’t said more yet. But Michael DesBarres has provided another, more substantial tribute:
At times, I wished that he had done more with his gifts, but then I remember that many musicians don’t even get what he got. Hell, I don’t think many of the other artists he performed with have even earned the notability required for a Wikipedia article.