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Ric Parnell, Real Drummer in a Famous Fake Band, Dies at 70


Ric Parnell, an actual drummer best known for taking part in in a fake band, the one chronicled in Rob Reiner’s fabled 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” died on May 1 in Missoula, Mont., where he had lived for some 20 years. He was 70.

His partner, McKenzie Sweeney, confirmed the death. She said a blood clot in his lungs led to organ failure.

Mr. Parnell had been in several bands, including the 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’d musical ability; they were comic actors — Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Mr. Reiner played the role of Marty DiBergi, a documentarian recording what seems to be a disastrous tour by Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band that’s past its prime and poorly managed.

Mr. McKean said Mr. Parnell slot in seamlessly.

“He looked perfect, all hair and cheekbones, but he also got the joke and knew to play the truth without comment,” he said by email. “And he was an incredible drummer within the tradition of his hero, John Bonham” — the drummer for Led Zeppelin.

“Onstage,” Mr. McKean added, “he was one of the best form of monster; offstage, a really nice, very funny guy.”

Mr. Parnell had only a number of lines within the movie, but he was pivotal to one in all its funniest gags: Drummers for the band had a habit of dying in bizarre and ugly ways. In a single scene, he lounges in a tub while Marty DiBergi asks him if he’s bothered by that history.

“It did form of freak me out a bit, but it will probably’t all the time occur,” Mick says, and Marty agrees, telling him, “The law of averages says you’ll survive.”

The law of averages, alas, was improper — near the top of the film, Mick spontaneously combusts onstage. When the film developed such a cult following that the fake band went on tour within the early Nineteen Nineties, playing actual shows, that necessitated a tweaking of Mr. Parnell’s persona — he was now Rick Shrimpton, the dual brother of the deceased Mick.

Life almost imitated art in mid-1992, when Mr. Parnell fell down some stairs while hurrying to a sound check because the band was rehearsing in Los Angeles. He injured an ankle.

“Despite the chances of meeting with death by remaining with Spinal Tap,” a publicist for the band said on 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 Mr. Parnell as he waited to go on alongside Mr. 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!,’” Mr. 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 all of it became.”

About 20 years ago, Mr. Parnell settled right into a much quieter form 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, amongst them Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.

“I get to play what I need, do whatever I need — all so long as I don’t swear,” he told The Independent. “That’s the one hard part.”

Richard John Parnell was born on Aug. 13, 1951, in London to Jack and Monique (Bonneau) Parnell. His father was a composer, conductor and drummer, and he said that drumming got here naturally from a young age.

“I got it from my dad,” he told The Missoulian in 2007. “I could sit down on the drum kit and play a beat right away.”

Lessons, he said, weren’t his thing; he learned by playing in groups.

“Through the years, I’ve built up a method,” he told the newspaper. “I get drummers saying, ‘How did you try this?’ I say, ‘I do not know. 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 quite a few television shows, sometimes added to his education by taking him to the set. He recalled sitting on the feet of Jimi Hendrix when he performed on the singer Dusty Springfield’s British TV series in 1968.

Mr. Parnell’s own profession was starting in regards to the same time. He recalled touring with Engelbert Humperdinck as a teen. He joined Atomic Rooster in 1970, after which got here a stint with an Italian group, Ibis. In 1977 he moved to the USA with a band called Nova, which settled in Boulder, Colo.

He played quite a few studio sessions over time and might be heard on records by Beck, Toni Basil and others. For a time he toured with the R&B saxophonist Joe Houston. They’d stop every yr for a number of shows in Missoula before heading into Canada to tour there. But, as Mr. Parnell often told the story, one yr the group didn’t have the suitable paperwork to cross the border and had to increase its stay in Missoula.

“I principally got stuck here after which didn’t want to go away,” he told The Independent. “I’d all the time liked this place — it’s like Boulder within the Nineteen Seventies, after I first got here to the states. I became a Missoulian immediately.”

Mr. Parnell was married and divorced 4 times. Along with Ms. Sweeney, he’s survived by two brothers, Will and Marc, and two stepsisters, Emma Parnell and Sarah Currie.

Over the past 20 years he could often be found twiddling with one group or one other at local spots in Missoula. In 2004, a author for The Missoulian asked if he, as an completed musician, ever got bored with being recognized just for his joke band.

“No, probably not,” he said. “Really it’s quite nice to be an element of such a legendary thing.”

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