Friday, October 01, 2010

Flash Metal Suicide: Anvil, The Story of Anvil

Lars Ulrich: "When Anvil first showed up, it was like 'fuck! This is cool, this is a statement'. Like, literally, these guys were gonna turn the music world upside down"

Scott Ian: "Seeing them was like a challenge to us, it was like, 'if we can't be better than this, we should just go home' "

Lemmy: "I always liked Anvil, they were a great band. They've got my vote"

Tom Araya: "They were thrash, man. They were a fast band. You were talking a year before the big four: Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth"

It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock n' roll. Just ask Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner--the nucleus of the band Anvil. To trot out another cliche, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but after seeing everything that Anvil has gone through in the last couple of decades and a half since their legitimate heyday, they actually one up Spinal Tap in regards to moments that you actually feel really sorry for them (unintended dose of irony--it's "Robb Reiner" the drummer, not "Rob Reiner" the director). The band and director have worked so hard to make this documentary what it is--an absolute baring of guts and soul and completely swallowing ego and pride in which to expose the true life of more bands than are willing to admit. This film is inspiring. To me, I think that your success in life is proportional to how you roll with the punches and deal with the setbacks.

And there are certainly setbacks.

The documentary starts out with the list of bands that Anvil played with in the early 80's--The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and points out that "all those bands went on to sell millions......(fade to black).....except one". Cue to Lips delivering food in his catering truck--a job that he works when he's not rocking out in Anvil. This documentary, although on cursory glance seems to play up the sympathetic or outright pathetic card, is actually more of a tale of survival; about what it takes to do what you love, night after night, when most others would have packed it in long ago. Their wives/ girlfriends/ families have had it; as one puts it bluntly, "'s a joke". And it's not hard to see why they're exhausted-- decades of the band not getting paid from record labels, and continually losing money have made them weary, and they now have family too feed and bills to pay unlike when they were younger and starting out, and none of them have very much either financially or assets-wise. One of the members, recently, actually had their things in a storage closet because they had no fixed residence. I believe that the band themselves (not in this movie) have confirmed that none of their albums had actually recouped for their record labels, so for all their influence, they'd never actually got out of the red, money-wise.

It gets worse, though. Upon getting the best news that they've had in awhile--a European tour, booked by a long time fan--it's an endless procession of missed trains and not getting to gigs or being late; not getting paid from gigs ("we played, and you're gonna fuckin' pay us, pal!"--threatening physicalities if payment isn't met), and playing to five people at some shows. Think that's bad? How about this? 174 people showed up for a gig that seated thousands of people. Any way you crunch those numbers, that's way in debt, way in the red. Even the band feels guilty taking any sort of guarantee--as Lips says, those promoters and gigs are out that money and time, too. The band is happy that a fan was gracious enough to put their time and effort into trying to make something work in Europe, but eventually she breaks down because it's an absolute mess. In actuality, they have no manager, but really, Anvil's star and cache has sunk so low that they have no other viable options than to hope and pray that something materializes out of good intentions, alone.

Sacha Gervasi--the director of this film (and long time Anvil fan)--you have to sort of wonder the same thing about him, too. He's there for every detail of the behind the scenes shit that would break up most mortal (and sane) bands--the failed European trek, the arguments and meltdown in the studio where Lips "fires" Robb, and eventually comes back crying and says "I love you, man"-- but you really have to commend the guy for investing his own time and money into the film. What's the actual demand for this film, before it was put out? How much of a risk was it? Does anyone even much still care about the band anymore? Even listening to Lips talking about what food he was catering that day--likely included in the film to underline the severity of the situation to the uninformed (some people may think, "people in bands work day jobs??")-- seems to be about the best or the most interesting thing that Lips can talk about away from anything musical.

Also slightly painful to watch is the backstage happenings at one show that Anvil plays with bands like Ted Nugent, The Scorpions and Twisted Sister among others; all acts that, while drawing nowhere near they did in their heyday, still can command a certain level of respect on the nostalgia circuit. That's the thing about a band--people just don't give a shit if other people ain't giving a shit. You'd think that people would just use their own judgement, but when you're on the mat, people think you're done, you're washed up. You gotta love Lips' enthusiasm, though--"there's Tommy Alridge! Hey Tommy!" (runs over to him) in absolute fan dude mode-- but seeing the blank expression on Michael Schenker's face after Lips tries to convince them that he or Anvil even existed, sorta sums it up: "Remember me? I'd play guitar with the women's vibrator?". Lips chats up Carmine Appice with a story of how Carmine was trying to get with this one woman, and Lips cuts it off before Carmine can awkwardly answer, " don't remember that, do you?", followed by an awkward silence that never happens that's instead assuaged by a couple of laughs before Appice does his best "well, gotta run" type of exit that most people do when they're talking to an in-law or something; you get the impression that if there was a bomb scare somewhere else, that he'd rather be there than talking to this guy who he has no idea of. Only JJ French (Twisted Sister) is clued in; remembering Anvil as "one of three bands" that ever upstaged them, ending the conversation in a rocker styled hug.

Slightly dejected from yet another step back instead of a step forward, Lips sends a demo of their new material to producer Chris Tsangarides--best known for producing some important heavy metal albums, as well as Anvil's own "Metal On Metal" album, in which the band has admitted that it actually sounds like a great record, as opposed to endless producers that never understood their style or captured their fire on later albums. Chris likes what he hears and contacts them back, but the only problem is that they're broke--they have no money and no labels or investors to invest in them, so Lips' sister gives them the money to do the record, out of his passion and fire and the refusal to embrace what others would have moved on from a long time ago. There's a huge meltdown as previously mentioned in which Tsangarides acts more, perhaps, as a parent and moderator not wanting to pick a favorite between their two squabbling children. You don't specifically see what sets Lips off on Robb, but judging by the words said, Robb must have commented on Lips' take and Lips didn't like what was said. Despite that, the recording sessions go pretty smoothly, with the band being satisfied that they sound the way that they should. Personally, I think that Anvil should have sought out Devin Townshend or Kurt Ballou--guys who have the connection and finger on the extreme metal world's pulse. It's nothing against Tsangarides, but I think that the band could have benefitted from the prestige that Ballou or Townshend's name comes with, just for even being involved with a project, to get it out to a newer generation.

Scott Ian and Lars Ulrich don't have an explanation in the movie as to what happened regarding Anvil's career, but Slash has a better insight and answers his own question: "They should have made it alot bigger, and I don't understand the reason why. Sometimes life deals you a tough deck. They never really got the respect that they deserved after awhile, because for as big as an influence that they had on everybody, everybody just sort of ripped them off and left them for dead". Or as Lemmy also says: "It's all about being in the right place at the right time. If you're not in the right place at the right time, you'll never do it (success)".

In retrospect, "Metal On Metal" perhaps isn't that shocking or extreme anymore. But at the time, it was a moment of rock music being pushed to it's limits, ever since guitarists realized that small amps weren't cutting it in bigger clubs, and also when they realized that they wanted to be faster and more aggressive and angrier than the previous regime. It's been confirmed by many of the most reputable names in metal that they can pinpoint that Robb's drum work (his double kick technique, in particular) and the overall galloping speed, had really defined thrash metal, as an entirely new and different genre. There were heavy bands before that, but as Ulrich states in the extended interview bonus footage, something like (not a word for word recital) "the other bands were more like heavy hard rock bands. Anvil was blatantly metal". Priest and Maiden may get the credit for upping the stakes in metal, but as far as thrash goes, Anvil did it first, and now their influence is so obscured that history has a slightly different acknowledgement of how the actual events happened.

It's weird how that happens, but music has always been about regurgitating some sort of influence, and it all depends on who it's "new" to, anyways. At the time, you think that the most talented or deserving will get what's coming to them, but unfortunately, that's just not always the case, and unfortunately for pioneering bands and artists in the music industry, the first and best usually isn't rewarded. The artists that get noticed usually tend to be the ones that come a little bit later that may have a different perspective on that particular style of music, where they've honed it down and refined it enough to relate to a younger audience; an influence or intention that maybe otherwise gets lost in translation by older or more established bands. For every Elvis, there's an infinite amount more of black artists that he'd taken cues and stole from; ditto for the British Invasion, which was more about mining lost American underground artforms in the 30's and 40's blues, or even some 50's American interpretations of forgotten 40's blues. In the 60's, newer garage bands upstaged each other at such a quick rate, that you didn't want to be caught dead listening to your older sibling's music--you wanted your own, even if it--in hindsight--really wasn't that different than the other music that preceded it. And sometimes, that's really only a generation span of a year or two; which is exactly why I maintain that even a year or two can be an eternity in the music biz.

My other take on Anvil's career is that you just can't override bad management. Bad or non-existent management will almost always sink a band without a trace. You can have guys like Leber and Krebs fighting to make some sense or saleability out of the New York Dolls (a situation where you have an unwilling band, but excellent management) and you can even hire Malcolm McLaren to try to help the band during the Red Patent Leather days and it will still meet the same fate. However, you can't beat a Malcolm McLaren fighting to market a young and willing band like the Sex Pistols-- it's a great gimmick to capture the youth demographic market in the industry, but even better yet, it has a better manager to push that music aggressively enough for enough of a sustained period of time in which to gain significant ground with audiences before the next trend comes and upstages what you've started. There's only so much that a band can do, themselves, before they need to pass off certain things like money and expenses and booking and other things to someone else.

Clearly, no one was really fighting hard enough for Anvil then. They had press in Kerrang and Sounds and other big music mags and a huge hype wave, and lord knows they had way more than enough of an angle to sell records to disaffected and bored youth--a wilder, heavier and faster than ever sound than before that your parents will fucking hate like the plague; bondage and leather gear, playing a guitar with a dildo, etc. And then the recognition and accolades just eroded away to nothing. Even Ulrich remarks that Anvil was the entire package--the image, the shock appeal, the backstage partying and antics and urban myth and legend--but with the music and skills to back it up. There was just the overall sense that it was an entire shift in the music industry, where the extreme underground was becoming well enough known to mainstream audiences in which it made truly innovative, uncommercial sounds hip and saleable enough for some bands, at least, to see some sort of future in just being something beyond a cult hero. But sometimes it is all a bit too much, too soon.

And then the band got out of their contract with Attic Records--thinking that the label didn't do enough to promote them--but after that, the labels weren't exactly lining up as maybe the band had thought. That--as well as with the band's lack of proper embrace of the MTV generation in the early to mid (and even late) 80's-- essentially solidified their descent into anonymity. That, I guess did it, as well as the inevitable rut for most bands of making less inspired albums past the initial few great ones, with no one as producer to really get them back on track and harness the band's potential from what was witnessed on the early, influential albums. Most of the time, you need a certain amount of money, time and support to ride out a backlash or a mid career period of time where you lose focus or perspective and aren't making the best artistic or career decisions anymore. Alot of bands have never survived those periods of time before they broke up.

Ulrich may sum it up best when he says that he's never actually met the guys in Anvil--odd, considering that they often ran in similar circles. Anvil weren't being put on the right gigs, I think....they needed to be marketed to the younger audience. For whatever reason, they weren't being put there after big shows around the '82 range, it was almost like they were being prevented from meeting key people, key bands, key industry people. Certain management (I know in the case of Todd Rundgren's first band, The Nazz) has actually kept bands away from playing out too often, in fears that it will dilute their appeal, wherein the idea is to create demand that exceeds supply. I think that's a ridiculous thing to do--the audience wants you to play, you're getting offers, you go with the flow--you play. In some cases, I think that has helped a band's career, but I think that it's failed far more than it's succeeded, because when you make supply far scarcer than demand, you have to be careful that your demand doesn't dry up in favour of other newer acts, or else you're fucked. Because by the time that trends rise and collapse in the industry, even a few months is just enough to sink a band from being on the right gigs and being in front of the right audiences, before some other band is "the next big thing".

By the time that mainstream audiences had even heard of thrash as a legitimate genre or movement, Anvil was long forgotten. They needed to be continually supported to capitalize on what they'd started, because just a year later in around '83, Anvil's speed was being eclipsed by far more extreme sounds. Could Anvil have been Slayer? Could they have been Metallica during the "Master Of Puppets"/ "Ride The Lightning" era, had they been convinced to pursue even heavier and more ambitious, progressive albums than "Metal On Metal"? You wonder. Because even Metallica on "Kill 'Em All" in their early days, still weren't at the juggernaut level of "Master Of Puppets" or "Ride The Lightning", and Slayer also had to warm up for a few years to really hit their stride later on to define what would be their classic sound. Neither of those bands, even in '83, were at their peak. They had to take some time to hone what thrash metal would eventually become. But I don't see why "Metal On Metal" couldn't have been the impetus to forge an even heavier or more ambitious output. Look at Celtic Frost on the albums before "Cold Lake"--maybe Anvil could have gone more the direction of Celtic Frost, even. But perhaps Anvil's good time partying atmosphere made them a tad too cartoonish to go over that well in extreme metal circles--maybe you need a necromantical scream or two. I think that the bulk of the thrash movement was about negativity--at least lyrically--death, despair, loss, regret, whereas Anvil were just the rockers who were out to get laid, drink beer, and party all the time with good time song themes. Come to think of it, when I analyze it enough, that's probably a big part of why they got forgotten by fans of more extreme sounds in the mid 80's underground.

Maybe Anvil really didn't want to play the game, though--you have to want to do things that you don't want to do, and tell people things that maybe you don't believe. In the movie, when Lips tries his hand at telemarketing for many hours (a job set up through a long time Anvil fan), he doesn't even make a single sale. "These sunglasses are just like the ones that Keanu Reeves wore in the Matrix!!", he says enthusiastically from one of his canned "from the corporate office" sales lines. Lips says something like (not a direct quote word for word), "to make sales, you have to lie, and it goes against everything that i'd learned as a kid". Maybe that best sums up the whole movie in one quote. Maybe not. It's close to it, though.

When the big four of the thrash bands started gaining mainstream success, it was only a matter of time before the creative slide happened, and/ or with the bands polishing up their sound to change with the times; especially as the 80's ended, and as the industry shifted it's emphasis to alternative, grunge, punk and more abrasive DIY type music. Heavy metal just wasn't cool. It was out. I remember back in school in the early 90's, the old banger types--back patches, long greasy hair, tight black jeans, pointy guitars, maybe an acid wash here or there, etc--wasn't popular at all, and there were only still a few holdouts here and there that refused to give in and not be (overtly, at least--you wonder who secretly still listened to their thrash/ metal/ hair metal albums) known as "metal dude burnout/ banger chick" walking the hallways between classes (or ditching classes out by the smoking doors). Every school had a few of 'em. Those people were always perceived as not moving with the trends or the times, stuck in a timewarp, perhaps. But it definetely was a uniform, of sorts, and I have to give those people maximum respect for putting it all out there. Lots of fights got picked with those people or misconceptions got thrown around regarding character with those people, it was like being part of a gang.

Similarly, Anvil continued to stay true to the things that they started out doing, but any cache that they'd had left over from the early 80's, was killed off when they didn't do any alt metal concessions. Metallica's "Load", Megadeth's "Cryptic Writings"/ "Risk" and the actually-despite-what-they-say not so bad but very maligned "Stomp 442" by Anthrax, had all, to me, signified the end of once mighty bands. They either cut their hair and changed their image, or had changed their sounds radically. Slayer never really had a slide from "form" so to speak, but as cartoonish as Anvil may have been perceived, you'd have to be either pretty demented or just outright insane to think that Tom Araya and Kerry King actually have a devil's throne that they worship at every night in their living room or something like that. If you think about it, there's something a little inherently silly about guys that old that are still apparently in cahoots with Satan in enough of a capacity for it to be seen as a viable way of maintaining the "glory years".

There is something though, that is ridiculously over the top in it's phallic-ness in metal in general that Anvil had tapped into, though--it's weird how that stands the test of time by being juvenile, but really, what are most rock lyrics about? Chuck Berry wrote the same song about the same topics--cars, girls, rock n' roll. And it's still never got old. Sometimes rock lyrics get a bit too pretentious in their grandeur, anyways. I think that I laughed at Tom G Warrior's lyrics on "Monotheist" more than anything, because really, they're kinda just no better than a band that's writing about unicorns and trolls and the whole Tolkien trip.

The part where Robb is showing his paintings--the "Left Behind" one....."this is what will be left behind when i'm not here I painted myself out of it", is what you'd call an unexpected "poignant" moment. The painting is of Robb's drums. It's with a slight sad connotation, but really, only death itself will stop these guys from being in a band and doing what it is that they love. When you see people when they're kids, making all these promises of what they'll turn out to be, and then slowly trading those in for ones that they've settled on, or worse--completely abandoning any vestige of those ideals--you see Anvil and guys in their 50's just refusing to stop doing what it is that moved them when they were young, and it serves as notice that you don't have to give them up. They're here to do one thing--rock like motherfuckers. As Ulrich says in the extended bonus interview, he respects Anvil more because they didn't give a shit and didn't pander to trends or change their game or music to suit what was popular, and eventually says something to the effect of "...i'd know" in that same general part of the interview, and part of me wonders if that was something that Ulrich really regrets, just based on his words without him actually saying "hey, I wish I would have done that, in retrospect".

To me, this documentary is just absolutely mandatory viewing--even if you don't like Anvil or metal. These guys are the last of a dying breed, and I doubt you'll see the tenacity to budge from being 100 percent full on rocker in subsequent generations of musicians that have grown up on only seeing the end result--the RockBand/ Guitar Hero generation. It's really a tough, thankless road of shitty dive clubs, sleeping on floors, embarking on long drives and endless tours with people that you're sick of after awhile. There's also alot of wondering if something's profitable enough to someone else so that they can take a risk on you to put out your albums or get behind a tour of yours, so that you can actually keep on doing what you're doing. Another way to put it is that i've always maintained that it's not the hour long set at the end of the night that kills bands--it's 23 hours of putting in work, and then lots of other bullshit that can quickly stop being fun or exciting when you're doing it night after night. Your "brothers" in the band can quickly become enemies, because most of us aren't wired to deal with living in a van or cramped quarters with anyone, let alone hear the same stories or deal with the inane quirks that all of us have. Factor in a bunch of creative types all living with each other, and you've got good grounds for massive explosions and inherent band implosions--nasty fistfights and horrid name calling and swearing against ever being in the same room as so and so again. Hell, gig offers that are probably more than the GNP of the entire world can't even get Waters and Gilmour to stand on the same stage anymore. That's some pretty bad blood.

Is it the route of popular vote that you want? Or respect? Because Anvil may not be the most popular, but you can't buy respect. It's earned. Kudos to the band's resurgence of popularity after this was put out, and to Sacha Gervasi as well, for the balls to put his time and money behind this. Ultimately, it's a tale of success--the band succeeds on their own terms, and the film ends off with a packed larger venue in Japan of fans going nuts. As the cliche goes, "you can't kill rock n' roll".

--Ryan Settee
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