7/21/2012

Anvil a Taipei Hit

Anvil rocks the Huashan Culture Park (華山1914創意文化園區) in Taipei, Taiwan 


Besides Casablanca, a couple of Iranian flicks, The Thin Blue Line and Tangled, my friend Doug, an avid film-goer, hates pretty much every story ever put to film. So when he said "Patrick, you have got to see the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil," I knew it was going to be a good one. If Doug says a film is "worth seeing," that translates to "it's a masterpiece for the ages!"

The documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil begins at a Quickening of heavy metal bands in Japan: "In the summer of 1984, some of the biggest rock bands in the world toured Japan. Scorpions. Whitesnake. Bon Jovi. All of these bands went on to sell millions of records. All except one... Anvil." 

Lars Ulrich (Metallica): "When Anvil first showed up on the scene, it was like fuck! This is cool. This is a statement, like literally these guys are going to turn the music world upside down."

Scott Ian (Anthrax): "Seeing them was like a challenge to us. If we can't be better than that, then we might as well just go home."

Lemmy (Motorhead): "They were a great band. Yeah, I've always liked Anvil. They've got my vote."

Slash (Guns 'n' Roses): "Anvil was one of those bands that just put on this amazing live performance. Lips, the singer, used to come out with this bondage harness on, and he used to come out with his like dildo and play his flying v. I mean he was just complete insanity and that is why it was such a huge turn-on for us kids. It was like something we had never seen before."

Tom Araya (Slayer): "They were thrash, man."

Johnny Z (manager, Metallica, Anthrax, Anvil): "There was a certain sound that came from [Metal on Metal] that has become the basic formula for any heavy metal album made today." 

You get the picture. Anvil was supposed to be big. They should have been big. The fact that all these heavyweights would have anything to do with the documentary speaks to the appreciation that exists / existed for Anvil. So, what happened? 

Slash: They should have made it a lot bigger. I don't really understand the reason why. Sometimes, life deals you a tough deck. They never really got the respect that they deserved after a while because as big as an influence as they had on everyone, everybody just sort of ripped them off, and left them for dead."

*****

The documentary cuts to Canada in the midst of winter. Anvil's lead singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow is running delivery for a catering outfit near Toronto. Normally one to look on the bright side, he tries to sell us on the company he works for as he drives his mini van through the streets of some suburban nightmare, taking us from school to school to drop off pizzas and shepherd's pie, his long locks flattened beneath a tuque and breath fogging up the windshield. Lips still dreams of making it big. He believes it will happen too. The problem is this: the world has most likely passed him and his heavy metal by. And we as viewers know it; I mean, when was the last time a heavy metal band was hitting the charts? Lips is in his fifties now. Like his peers (above), he should be enjoying the mansions, the swimming pools and the Lamborghinis in the driveway, living some sort of drunken and sloppy rock 'n' roll middle-aged life instead of breaking his back at a crappy job that can't pay much more than minimum wage. His optimism will become the theme of Anvil! The Story of Anvil. It is sincere, and it is contagious. 

For me, the story of Lips and Anvil covers new territory. In 1984, I was a teenager, but I didn't listen to heavy metal. I was into bands like The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Waterboys, The Dead Milkmen, The Smiths, The The, REM, Violent Femmes and what have you. In other words, I was shaped by a different scene and, unlike other viewers and fans, do not have a nostalgic reaction to Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The documentary speaks to me simply for what the band has been going through recently. I'll give one example before moving on to Anvil's appearance in Taipei in early July.

In the middle of the documentary, the band gets a phone call from Tiziana Arrigoni, a booking agent in Europe; she's definitely Eastern European, I'm guessing Russian or Albanian. Tiziana wants to bring Anvil over for a five-week tour. After an email or two, maybe a phone call, the band drops everything and heads for the Swedish Rock Festival in Solvesborg, Sweden. "Heavy metal is a serious culture in Europe," explains Lips. "This is the stronghold. That is why it will never, ever go away. Sweden Rock Festival, here we are." The concert goes well; they meet up with the Scorpions, do promos for radio stations ("You are listening to 1020 Hard Rock Stockholm!"), etc., but we get a foreshadowing of what is about to unfold, starting with the band being stranded in the Solvesborg Train Station. "People bought tickets from that festival to get on that train, and now it's sold out," says Lips.

"This is a problem," agrees Tiziana, the booking agent who forgot to book train tickets. The fans go home. Anvil stays put.

"Until we become a real commodity, this is what you deal with," continues Lips, putting things in perspective. Next up are Lorca, Belgium and Helsinki, which go off without a hitch. Eastern Europe is a different story. Man oh man, we're talking night and day. At Zagreb, Krakow and Budepest, Anvil is now playing to a handful of people in cellar pubs. The Budapest gig, for example, can't include more than seven or eight diners occupying a couple of restaurant booths. Clearly, the band could use a bit of promotion. The downward spiral of disappointment culminates in Prague, when Anvil gets lost and shows up a couple of hours late to the gig. The venue, yet another restaurant, still puts them on stage, but the evening closes out with Lips shadowing a waiter as he serves tables, repeatedly asking to get paid. Tizania is in over her head and starting to freak. Lips is threatening to kick the manager's "fucking teeth in." After a few more gigs, the band heads back to Canada. Economically, the last five weeks have have been a write off. Is there a lesson to be learned? Here's Lips, back at the catering company: "Things went drastically wrong. But at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on . . . I'm grateful. I don't regret a minute of it."

*****

The day after watching Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I happened to read in a local paper that Anvil would be playing Taipei three days hence as part of the Canada Day festivities. Besides giving a performance, the band was scheduled to appear at a screening of the documentary. Inspired by what I have just described, I looked up Lips' email address and wrote him. I wanted to ask him a few questions and just reach out. When he replied, he said he'd put me on the guest list for the show. 

The Anvil concert, staged at Huashan Culture Park (華山1914創意文化園區) July 1 had a good turn out. I'm really bad with judging numbers of people. Having said that, I'll throw out 500-ish in terms of an audience (the venue could have been full if there had been chairs). The show itself was great. The band enjoyed playing and burned a lot of calories in their excitement. Between songs, Lips engaged the audience. He was sweet, funny and sincere.

As stated, I'm no expert on the genre, but was happy to be part of it. I did manage to get some questions to Lips. He said he'd been expecting to see me at the concert. I knew he was tired after the long flight and two long, long days, so I didn't want to pester him at the end of it all. I also had my five-year-old in tow. Finally, I emailed him again: 

Me: (obligatory Taiwan question): What did you think of Taiwan?
Lips: I thought it was an amazing place. The people were extremely friendly and a super audience. We had a great time and hope that next time we'll do some sight seeing.

Me: Did you try any Taiwanese food?
Lips: Yes we did and it was fantastic.

Me: Did you see any of the sites at all?
Lips: Only as we drove back and forth from the hotel . . . we didn't have time.

Me: You guys are rocking now, but how did you manage to stay together during the lean years?
Lips: With hope and optimism. 

Me: It's just the two of you now [original band members Robb Reiner and Steve Kudlow]. What has become of the other band members from the eighties?
Lips: They became disheartened, they lost hope and gave up. They found new lives outside music. As far as I know none have gone onto continuing music as a career.

Me: In the documentary about your band, a producer at EMI declined you because he said, "you don't fit the landscape." How do you feel about that?
Lips: I don't take it seriously. The reality that heavy metal is a timeless genre of music and never goes away or out of style.

Me: Could he have a point (#3)? Or do you have a younger audience as well?
Lips: Without a doubt our audience is from 6 years old to 80 years old. We have seen entire families show up. For the most part we are considered new as the majority had never heard us before. The largest part of our crowd is 16 to 30 which is prominently a new young audience.

I should point out that I was unfamiliar with the band prior to seeing the documentary. I took my five-year-old to the concert and she loved it. After a few minutes, she was making beast horns with her hands and rocking away. 

Me: Are you worried that your audiences are nostalgia-driven?
Lips: Anvil is one of the few original metal bands relevant today. Considering the biggest bands like Iron Maiden are the same age as well as Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer. Most members . . . if not all were born in the early 1950s. This might be true if none of us were recording but all have relevant new recording out at least every two years. Nostalgia would be if all these bands first recorded songs and only toured for that reason.

Me: How has your music evolved?
Lips: I don't believe evolved is the correct term. Bands write songs as they move through their lives. The music can be better or worse but generally remains the same in its sound. This is because it is always the same musicians writing. Writing is a natural process that you don't necessarily get better with time. Some do but most don't as they didn't have enough musical vocabulary to keep it interesting.

Me: Does it need to evolve?
Lips: I don't believe a band needs to evolve as much as come up with new exciting things derived from the same thing they have always done.

Me: Who's your favorite singer or band going right now?
Lips: I honestly don't have any favorites of things going right now.

Me: The documentary goes into talking about how Anvil influenced other bands (Metallica, Slayer, Guns 'n' Roses, etc.). What bands or singers influenced Anvil then?
Lips: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Grand Funk, The Cream, Jimi Hendrix, UFO, Scorpions, Ted Nugent as well as what ever guitar oriented rock and hard rock from the 70s.

Me: Do you see yourself back in Taiwan?
Lips: We certainly hope we can return . . . We definitely want to!!

Me: What kind of impression will Taiwan leave on you?
Lips: We were left with the impression that Taiwan is a peaceful, safe and beautiful place that we want to come back to.

Me: What interested me was the position you took after coming back from Europe (in the documentary). It was a disappointment from an economic viewpoint, but you were upbeat. Why? Well, most people just grind through life; you had just come back from a five-week experience most people will never have. In my opinion, it's something to think about.
Lips: 99% of life is being there!! No tour? No tour in the movie wouldn't have made much of a movie, would have it? I would not have the experience, the memories and, believe it or NOT, fun!! The reality is we didn't turn a profit in money . . . we broke even and in the end it cost nothing but our time to do it.  The overwhelming positive aspect is that we were seen and that we got to play and travel all over Europe and at the same time got to show the entire world just how we did it. From my perspective there is not disappointment, only pure success. When other musicians are watching from their sofa they only wish they were me on the road . . . no matter what that is . . .


Fans coalesce at Huashan Culture Park (華山1914創意文化園區) for Anvil

3 comments:

Melissa Foo said...

Great read and entertaining interview! This movie is now on my must-watch list.

Anonymous said...

A great story indeed. The attached photo is also great too, after minor manipulation it looks even better, Wish I can show you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Patrick, nice write-up.