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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

2004 answer from Steve "Lips" Kudlow to Ray Van Horn, Jr. regarding Anvil's comical "Mad Dog" video as to whether or not doing it "was as much of a gas as it looked," for Ray's non-fiction project:

"I thought we would have made it really big from this, and it didn't happen. For whatever reason the video was requested and enjoyed by millions but the album (Strength of Steel) failed to sell very well. We made it to the Billboard charts for the first and only time in the 30-odd years of putting out records, however (we were) near the bottom. We weren't and aren't a Top 40 band, and to keep us small we have never really had a real recording contract with a serious major label. In order to get big, you must be properly promoted, and this includes a serious touring schedule opening for a seriously big band. This is how crediblity is built."

As I began assembling the initial guest list for my still-unfinished metal book project now operating with the working title Bonded by Blood: Headbanging Over the Years, I came across Steve "Lips" Kudlow over the web in 2004. I had already grabbed a copy of Anvil's Plugged in Permanent from eBay since at the time digging up Anvil product was nearly as strenuous a task as digging up statistics on the long-ago puck champions the Vancouver Millionaires--though metal and muscle personality Jon Mikl Thor can probably help you out on that now that he owns the team's logo and legacy.

I've always had fond memories of Anvil though admittedly I'd fallen off track with their releases (currently 13 going on 14) which surprised me to find such a superfluous amount of recording output when I unearthed them in my mind a number of years ago. 13 albums and still as underground as they come, you have to wonder what has kept Anvil motivated all these years when North America once strayed from its affinity for heavy metal and hard rock in light of the Aqua Net fog which choked and ultimately disjointed said public's interest.

The hippest of the hip metal journalists and successful bands of the eighties unanimously tout the praises of Anvil. While this group of Canadian hellions might not've reached the plateau of the bands they eventually inspired such as Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica, Armored Saint and a slew of Californian metal in execution or popularity, there's no doubt Anvil, along with their fellow countrymen Exciter laid down serious blueprint material with NWOBHM-era albums such as Hard 'n Heavy, Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire.

It's the the sludgy tones, the reckless speed and the overt ballsiness Anvil projected on these early releases which helped define (if not refine) the then-growing genre, which has made their brief flirtation with success in the mid-eighties something of a tragic anti-comedy.

Certainly a guy parading around in leatherboy straps and peeling of notes nobody ever intended from his strings with dildos might not necessarily be considered a hall of famer profile, but there's no doubt Steve "Lips" Kudlow and his faithful drumming companion Robb Reiner have made a case for themselves where it could be said Anvil was robbed of their due.

Later the same year I did my book interview with Lips, lo and behold, I find a promo copy of Anvil's Back to Basics in my mailbox and ye bang, I'm on the phone once again with the man for over an hour in an interview I conducted for, one of my first journalist gigs.

The Steve Kudlow I spoke with in 2004 had a maudlin tone about him, even in the midst of releasing his 12th album. When you stop and think of the many bands who reached certain pinnacles of success and then drifted into obscurity after releasing a handful of records at best, you have to think of Kudlow and Reiner's dedication to what they love, even in a hangdog state as I found Lips during that second conversation.

Despite the heavy cloud apparently surrounding Lips that day, I could also tell his spirit hadn't been fully crushed and his optimism to be continuing on was the foundry towards keeping the sparks spitting off his proverbial anvil. The cat believed, man, I had no doubt of it.

Which brings us to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the much talked-about documentary film giving metal freaks another chance at getting reacquainted with the wildcat "Lips" Kudlow (who can still effortlessly whip out that psychosomatic glee grin in his fifties), his running mate Robb Reiner and the contingency keeping Anvil alive including longtime bassist Glenn Five.

You have to wonder how a band historically getting away with lyrical bloody murder over the years with smutty songs such as "Hair Pie," "School Love," "Show Me Your Tits," "Toe Jam," "Bondage" and "Hard Times Fast Ladies" (albeit Kiss were far worse as rock sex offenders peddling rock porn to the kiddos who gobbled up their cartoon image) managed to escape the radar of the sex-crazed metal mutants who were most certainly Anvil's target audience. The movie uncorks a few riotous television appearances from the eighties where Lips is put on parade in front of shocked and gasping females as the hostess reads aloud his raunchy penmanship. You have to wonder how a band this brazen could be quickly forgotten.

Herein lies the proposal behind Anvil! The Story of Anvil. With Lips and Reiner being chased around with a camera in a working class version of Some Kind of Monster and The Osbournes, Anvil! The Story of Anvil doesn't have poster children to work with here. You're talking two fellas of the scene who have regular Joe identities offstage, and who, despite touring around the world, don't have all of the glamourous stories to supplement their travels.

Granted, Lips told me a couple of funny stories regarding Anvil's partying days during the eighties, but Anvil! The Story of Anvil is hardly a sniffing angel dust off of groupies' nipples affair. These are elder statesmen with something yet to prove to the world, much less themselves and their families who struggle to believe in them. It doesn't hurt to have Lemmy of Motorhead, Tom Araya of Slayer, Slash and Lars Ulrich of Metallica singing their praises in the opening montage.

When you talk about bands today scoring record label contracts even on the indie scale, it almost seems magical how quickly the process from actual signing to eventual product release goes. In my experience I've seen young bands score a deal, pimp their debuts with excitability and end up quickly disgruntled and disenfranchised within months of road dogging once the reality of the business hits them. The sales aren't necessarily there, the crowds aren't necessarily there and sometimes the labels aren't necessarily there, to the point these same bands materialize the following year on a different imprint.

In the case of Anvil, they've had to bare bones their entire career. Watching Kudlow meander around his day job in a children's food delivery plant with his co-workers obtuse to his worldwide notoriety is a sobering prospect. You have to understand Anvil released a fair chunk of their catalog on their duckets, Metal Blade and Attic Records notwithstanding.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil puts you right in the midst of Kudlow's anger at what he views as a royal screwing by Attic, even as he continues to dream he and his mates (very much like Jeff Waters and Annihilator) will finally smash through the barriers on their home continent to make a difference in their own rock community. Of course, if Lamb of God is playing the same night in Toronto as Anvil, current trends dictate who's going to sell more tickets.

This is heartbreaking stuff as we watch Kudlow fight tears as well as his best friend in constant intervals. You have to question why these guys won't give up when most men their ages having failed to grasp the proverbial torch could do with depressing abandon. Even more heartbreaking is to see Anvil score a potentially prosperous European tour as Anvil! The Story of Anvil tracks their adventures through continuously missed trains and cavernous club dwellings where small audiences and cheapskate venue owners turn a joyful moment into a frequently dour escapade of Metal Hell. On the flipside, you have to love Lips' ethic of fan before peer as he giddily runs up to say hello to his fellow musicians playing the festival bills such as Tommy Aldridge and Carmine Appice. That alone might've been worth having to sleep overnight in terminals and fiercely chawing for his right to be paid by the sleazy club owner in Prague.

You feel the weight upon Lips' shoulders as his troupe returns home with a handful of successful festival dates behind them but no prospects from label owners or future interested parties. The winds of what's-it-all-for gusts through Anvil! The Story of Anvil as the group express themselves candidly, while Kudlow and Reiner's family testify to a loving patience stretched thin with each Anvil album that fails to be "the one."

Even when Anvil manages to recruit their glory days producer Chris Tsangarides into helping them realize a vision culminating in their current album This is Thirteen, the airs of triumph the film stakes are stilled almost instantly as Lips is seen going door-to-door to record labels with his finished master, only to be told by EMI Canada they don't fit the label's profile.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil briefly treads close to Spinal Tap territory; in fact, you're wont to believe Lips and the boys are going to be half the night trying to make their way onstage as the camera trails behind them for a prolonged amount of time. However, the sweetest emotion posited by Anvil! The Story of Anvil is in the final moments as Anvil has been invited to play the Japanese leg of Gigantour.

As you can feel a nostalgic "made it" texture to Lips and Reiner hugging each other in a Japanese garden, the band is thrown for a small loop when finding themselves the opening gig on a morning slot. Slooping fearfully that Anvil is going to be playing to a meager audience inside a 20,000-plus capacity Tokyo venue (as the viewer, you feel it coming since said phenomenon has already occurred in previous scenes), the spirit of elation when the band is greeted by a massive crowd cheering them on and singing along to "Metal on Metal" is the saving grace and feelgood moment of the film.

I caught Anvil! The Story of Anvil with my longtime friend Bob Vinyl and I think back to who we both were when Anvil actually got played on the original Headbangers Ball in 1987, being flanked by Whitesnake, WASP and Manowar. I was hardcore metal, Bob was close to straight-edge in his punk affinity. The two of us now with our own mileage upon us, I found it unique and warming we would be sitting in an artsy Baltimore city theatre with a fair chunk of people in attendence, some appearing to be old league metalheads, others simply aficiandos of underground film. All of us have obviously come miles along with Anvil.

I can't help thinking upon my time spent talking to Lips in 2004 and how rewarding Anvil! The Story of Anvil must feel to him in retrospect. Maybe a decent repro label will pick up the Anvil classics for reissue, and maybe This is Thirteen might get a sales injection on the group's website, which Lips states in the film is perfectly the way he's happy to spread his music around. With his sister having fronted the money Anvil needed to record This is Thirteen, you'd like to hope it counted for something. Her gesture of love rescued Lips from an awkward situation (in one of the movie's funnier moments) as a flopped telemarketer who made zero dollars towards the investment needed to finance the album.

Can you look at other bands the same way after that?


DPTH International said...

Great review. I almost scored free tickets to Anvil: The story of Anvil during its run at our local Hot Docs festival, but the guy who was supposed to give me the tickets never appeared and I was left wanting.

I am itching to see though!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

I've been through that before, ugh. Go see it, though! Worth paying for, no doubt

Anonymous said...

For me, this resurrection of this band is long overdue. I had the pleasure of opening up for Rob, Lips and co. in Oshawa (30 min. outside of Toronto) about 13 years ago. Unfortunately, there was a crowd of about 20 people in the bar. I was heartbroken because I had been a fan of theirs since their first album (Hard 'n' Heavy). they were great guys, put on a great show for the 20 faithful fans and are incredible musicians. I hope they can climb out of the hole they have been stuck in and finally get the recognition they deserve.