Ric Parnell, a real drummer best known for playing in a fake band, the one chronicled in Rob Reiner’s fabled 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” died May 1 in Missoula, Montana, where he had lived for some two decades. He was 70.
His partner, McKenzie Sweeney, confirmed the death. She said a blood clot in his lungs led to organ failure.
Parnell had been in several bands, including British prog-rock outfit Atomic Rooster, when he auditioned for “This Is Spinal Tap,” a deadpan sendup of rock clichés, and got the role of the drummer, Mick Shrimpton. The central band members, though, weren’t primarily musicians, though they had musical ability; they were comic actors — Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Reiner played the role of Marty DiBergi, a documentarian recording what turns out to be a disastrous tour by Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band that is past its prime and poorly managed.
McKean said Parnell fit in seamlessly.
“He looked perfect, all hair and cheekbones, but he also got the joke and knew to play the reality without comment,” he said by email. “And he was a great drummer in the tradition of his hero, John Bonham” — the drummer for Led Zeppelin.
“Onstage,” McKean added, “he was the best kind of monster; offstage, a very nice, very funny guy.”
Parnell had only a few lines in the movie, but he was pivotal to one of its funniest gags: Drummers for the band had a habit of dying in bizarre and unpleasant ways. In one scene, he lounges in a bathtub while Marty DiBergi asks him if he’s bothered by that history.
"It did kind of freak me out a bit, but it can't always happen," Mick says, and Marty agrees, telling him, "The law of averages says you will survive."
The law of averages, alas, was wrong — near the end of the film, Mick spontaneously combusts onstage. When the film developed such a cult following that the fake band went on tour in the early 1990s, playing actual shows, that necessitated a tweaking of Parnell’s persona — he was now Rick Shrimpton, twin brother of the deceased Mick.
Life almost imitated art in mid-1992, when Parnell fell down some stairs while hurrying to a sound check as the band was rehearsing in Los Angeles. He injured an ankle.
“Despite the odds of meeting with death by remaining with Spinal Tap,” a publicist for the band said at the time, “he’s looking forward to continuing the tour.”
That “Return of Spinal Tap” tour eventually took the group to the Royal Albert Hall in London, a pinch-me moment for the British-born Parnell as he waited to go on alongside Shearer.
“I remember during ‘The Return of Spinal Tap’ standing backstage with Harry and hearing the Albert Hall crowd just chanting, ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!,’” Parnell told The Missoula Independent in 2006. “I turned to Harry, and I said, ‘Come on, now. We’re a joke! Don’t they know that?’ It was just amazing how quite massive it all became.”
About two decades ago, Parnell settled into a much quieter sort of life in Missoula, where for a time he had a radio show called “Spontaneous Combustion” on KDTR-FM, on which he told stories and indulged his eclectic musical tastes. For one show he played only artists who were alumni of Antelope Valley High School in California, among them Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
“I get to play what I want, do whatever I want — all as long as I don’t swear,” he told The Independent. “That’s the only hard part.”
Richard John Parnell was born Aug. 13, 1951, in London to Jack and Monique (Bonneau) Parnell. His father was a composer, conductor and drummer, and he said that drumming came naturally from a young age.
“I got it from my dad,” he told The Missoulian in 2007. “I could sit down at the drum kit and play a beat straight away.”
Lessons, he said, were not his thing; he learned by playing in groups.
“Over the years, I’ve built up a technique,” he told the newspaper. “I get drummers saying, ‘How did you do that?’ I say, ‘I have no idea. I’m just hitting.’ I wouldn’t know a paradiddle from a flam-doodlehead.”
His father, who worked as musical director or in other capacities on numerous television shows, sometimes added to his education by taking him to the set. He recalled sitting at the feet of Jimi Hendrix when he performed on singer Dusty Springfield’s British TV series in 1968.
Parnell’s own career was starting about the same time. He recalled touring with Engelbert Humperdinck as a teenager. He joined Atomic Rooster in 1970, and then came a stint with an Italian group, Ibis. In 1977 he moved to the United States with a band called Nova, which settled in Boulder, Colorado.
He played numerous studio sessions over the years and can be heard on records by Beck, Toni Basil and others. For a time he toured with R&B saxophonist Joe Houston. They would stop every year for a few shows in Missoula before heading into Canada to tour there. But, as Parnell often told the story, one year the group didn’t have the right paperwork to cross the border and had to extend its stay in Missoula.
“I basically got stuck here and then didn’t want to leave,” he told The Independent. “I’d always liked this place — it’s like Boulder in the 1970s, when I first came to the states. I became a Missoulian instantly.”
Parnell was married and divorced four times. In addition to Sweeney, he is survived by two brothers, Will and Marc, and two stepsisters, Emma Parnell and Sarah Currie.
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Over the last two decades he could often be found playing with one group or another at local spots in Missoula. In 2004, a writer for The Missoulian asked if he, as an accomplished musician, ever got tired of being recognized only for his joke band.
“No, not really,” he said. “Really it’s quite nice to be a part of such a legendary thing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.