Anvil: Off the Beaten Path
Originally published in Guitar World, March 2010
After decades of getting hammered by the music industry, Anvil are learning what it’s like to wield the power. Steve “Lips” Kudlow talks about the legendary Canadian metal band’s long-overdue second chance to score a hit of its own.
Rock music history is often viewed with squinting, unfocused eyes through narrow, rose-tinted glasses. One typical example is Anthony Bourdain’s recent claim on his No Reservations Travel Channel show that the New York Dolls “pretty much created punk rock and hair metal,” and all other music in 1972 flat-out sucked. In one sweeping, superlative-heavy statement, Bourdain totally ignored proto punks like the Stooges, MC5 and Lou Reed (and Link Wray for that matter), glam rockers like David Bowie (who was rocking Ziggy Stardust drag at the time), T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, Slade and Sweet as well as timeless albums like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Deep Purple’s Machine Head and ZZ Top’s Rio Grande Mud, and countless bands that were in peak form then, including the Who and Black Sabbath.
The documentary film Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was recently released on DVD, begins in a similar fashion, with rock stars and industry folks heaping heavy praise on the Canadian metal band like Larry the Cable Guy pumping cheese on his 7-Eleven nachos. Many of the film’s sound bites—such as Lars Ulrich’s claim that Anvil “were going to turn the music world upside down,” ex-Anvil manager Johnny Z’s remark about how the band’s Metal on Metal album established the “basic formula for any heavy metal record made today” and pretty much everything coming from the mouth of the painfully nerdy Metal Hammer writer Malcolm Dome—are exaggerated and best ignored. Anvil may have been one of the better metal groups to emerge in the early Eighties, but they were just one of many spokes in a wheel that was quickly gaining momentum at the time. Contrary to the overblown testimonials, Anvil did not invent thrash, and they weren’t much different than dozens of metal bands of that era, such as Diamond Head, Saxon, Raven, Iron Maiden, Venom and Mötley Crüe.
But look past the hyperbole, and you’ll find the real story: the one about how friendship, conviction and determination helped the group survive through the years. Director Sacha Gervasi knows the band well—he met Anvil in 1982, when he was 15, and served as a roadie with them for several years—and his insights into Anvil seem to have wisely guided his directorial vision. Anvil! should inspire anyone who aspires to make music their livelihood, even while tt delivers a sobering reality check. Reviewers have described the film as Spinal Tap in real life (the plot follows a very similar arc), but the scenes that show the band getting stiffed by corrupt promoters and taking on an endless succession of crappy day jobs will hit many musicians so close to home that they may cry rather than laugh.
Anvil arrived on the scene in 1981 with the release of Hard ’n’ Heavy, but their second album, Metal on Metal, was the breakthrough effort that made the band an underground metal sensation. Touring as an opening act and appearing at festivals, Anvil enjoyed increasing success that peaked when they were billed alongside Whitesnake, the Scorpions, the Michael Schenker Group and Bon Jovi at the Super Rock Festival in Tokyo, Japan, in 1984. Unfortunately, management missteps and Anvil’s failure to sign to a major record label thwarted their progress.
Despite these setbacks, which were followed by a revolving door of bass players and rhythm guitarists, original Anvil members Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead vocals, guitar) and Robb Reiner (drums) never gave up. They continued to play shows and release albums, even though they had to scrape together studio funding on their own for most of the past decade. In 2006, the band reunited with Metal on Metal producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Yngwie Malmsteen, Thin Lizzy) to record the band’s 13th album, This Is Thirteen, which VH1 Classic Records released in September 2009. Anvil! chronicles the period that starts just before Anvil entered the studio with Tsangarides and ends just after the completion of This Is Thirteen.