Ric Parnell, the drummer who appeared in the 1984 comedy musical This Is Spinal Tap, died on May 1. He was 70.
The son of a jazz bandleader, Parnell was born in London on August 13, 1951, and came from a musical family. By the age of 16, he was already touring with Englebert Humperdinck. Parnell later found fame starring as Mick Shrimpton, the doomed drummer of the fictional hard-rock band in the 1984 mock rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner. His character was one in a long line of drummers who perished from freak accidents, his being spontaneous combustion.
Throughout his career, Parnell played with the prog-rock group Atomic Rooster from 1970 to 1973, led by keyboardist Vincent Crane, along with the Italian bands Tritons and Ibis, jazz group Nova, and the pop-rock act Stars. Steve Perry once offered Parnell a spot in Journey, but he turned it down to work with the bad Zoo Drive. He also played drums for the Australian punk band Radio Birdman.
“Ric Parnell, our drummer in ‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ passed away today,” said Parnell’s Spinal Tap bandmate Harry Shearer on Twitter. “No one ever rocked harder.”
Prior to Parnell’s stardom from This Is Spinal Tap, he worked with singer and choreographer Toni Basil’s 1981 debut album Word of Mouth, and played on her No. 1 hit “Mickey.” He is also credited with working on the 1985 album 3 Ships by Jon Anderson of Yes.
“From day one, meeting him, I found him to be engaging, warm, and delightfully funny,” said Radio Birdman singer Deniz Tek in a post. “We hit it off as pals immediately. He had a cheerful spirit that made you feel good, just being around him.”
Tek added, “Ric’s amazing history in the music world is well known. I had the great good fortune to work with Ric on three albums. Studio time was casual, fun, and scattered with stories and humor. Ric never actually prepared for a session but would come up with the beat and the arrangement on the spot. He would say ‘How does this next song go?’ I’d play it to him on a guitar, and he’d think about it for a minute. Then he would say ‘Right! Got something.’ Then he would nail it in one or two takes, and it was as perfect as it gets.”
Parnell also continued playing with his Spinal Tap singer Michael McKean, who played David St. Hubbins, bassist Shearer (aka Derek Smalls), and director Christopher Guest, who played lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. Parnell performed as Mick’s “alive” brother Ric Shrimpton and is featured on the group’s 1984 self-titled debut and their 1992 follow-up Break Like the Wind.
Parnell spent his later years living in Missoula, Montana, playing golf, and running a local radio show called Spontaneous Combustion.
When asked how he landed the Spinal Tap gig that changed his life, Parnell shared the humorous story with a local Montana newspaper, the Missoulian, in 2007.
“The first question they asked was, ‘What do you think about a movie that’s going to tear your career apart?'” said Parnell. “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.'”
A GoFundMe has been set up to help pay for Parnell’s funeral expenses. “Ric Parnell, a great musician, and an even better friend, has embarked on the journey to the other side,” reads the GoFundMe post. “Ric doesn’t have the means to cover his end-of-life expenses, including rent, cremation, storage space, and memorial services.”
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images