Anvil: Heavy Metal

The Overnight Sensation, Thirty Years In The Making

Published in The Music Network

At the dawn of the ‘80s, Canadian metal exponents Anvil found themselves at the tipping point of mega-stardom. But the needle tipped the wrong way. Fame and fortune proved elusive. More than 30 years have passed, and Anvil is still in one piece. And still rocking. Only through an awesome quirk of fate, the band members have finally been thrust into the big league. Lars Brandle exclusively caught up with Anvil’s Steve “Lips” Kudlow, whose amazing comeback story is sure to rock the socks off Australian audiences.

“We’re an overnight sensation after 30 years,” laughs Lips, the frontman of rock music’s real-life Lazarus. It’s summertime in Toronto where the veteran rocker lives with his family. He’s enjoying the late afternoon rays in his backyard, and he’s in a playful mode. And why shouldn’t he be. Things have been pretty special of late. Anvil have just opened for AC/DC on a pair of U.S. stadium dates, and audiences across Europe have flocked to see this group, which is led by a pair of 50-something rockers. “Britain was amazing, man. Things unfolded there which have absolutely incredible,” explains Lips. But it hasn’t always been such a joyride for Anvil. Lips and his lifelong friend and bandmate Robb Reiner plugged away through decades of obscurity. The one-time stadium rockers consigned to pub gigs, the most recent of their dozen albums falling largely on deaf ears.

Cue Anvil, The Story of Anvil. Filmed by the band’s former teenage roadie Sacha Gervasi, the “rockumentary” has ignited a global following for Anvil and collected a stack of awards since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008. In the U.K., the film has become the biggest grossing music documentary, eclipsing Metallica’s 2004 film Some Kind Of Monster. The NME initiated an online petition to have the band play Glastonbury Festival. More than 1,000 fans signed, but it wasn’t enough. Instead, Anvil were made to feel at home at the mid-June specialist rock and metal festival Download, in Donington. It’s not just in the live arena where the band is taking off. Anvil’s new album This is Thirteen will finally enjoy U.S. distribution on CD and vinyl through VH1 Classic Records, which is also distributing the DVD Stateside.

“For our band to be completely barren since 1983 to come to that much life in the present is unbelievable. You couldn’t have made more of an about-face,” explains Lips.

Cinderella stories are few and far-between in the heavy world of metal. Once a band splits, or the muse leaves, there’s rarely a happy ending. That’s where Anvil rewrote the book. Apart from the odd quarrel, Lips and Reiner have never split as bandmates. And neither stopped believing they would get their break.

“The bands that seem to come out of Canada and even Australia stay together forever, like they’re friends. There’s almost a fuel of failure,” comments Lips. “AC/DC have stayed together 35 years. The same elements that kept AC/DC together have kept my band together. And it’s not money. They love what they do and they’re dedicated to doing it for their lives. When some of these bands fail when they’ve got all the opportunity, the reason is mostly because of attitude. If you don’t want it together as a unit, it won’t happen.”

Watching the opening moments of Anvil, a viewer could be excused for initially thinking they were buckled in for 80 minutes of pastiche, an update of Spinal Tap perhaps. We see frontman Lips as a brash, big-haired, constantly-smiling youngster, thrashing his lipstick red Flying V guitar with a dildo. Meanwhile, a stadium packed with Japanese fans goes positively wild. The footage is spliced with testimonies from the heavy rock fraternity’s highest ranks, one legend after the other offering the highest tributes. “Anvil was one of those bands who just put on a really amazing live performance,” Slash tells the camera. “They’re a great band. “I always like Anvil,” enthuses Motorhead’s Lemmy. Fast forward half a lifetime, and Lips still carries a happy-go-lucky demeanour. Lips’ hair is still big — few men of his advanced years could get away with such a hairstyle. Reiner, the band’s founding drummer, has lost some of the confidence of his youth. But none of the dedication.

The movie joins the band in 2005. We watch on as Lips fails spectacularly as a telesales rep (he’s quit his day job since the band’s fortunes turned), and we are taken along for the ride on Anvil’s hopelessly mismanaged European tour, which plods from one unspectacular turnout to the next. It’s compelling stuff, and as a bystander you want to get involved.

Which is precisely what Frontier Touring’s tour co-coordinator Michael Harrison did next. Having caught Anvil at the Sydney Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award), Harrison brought the project into the fold of Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Group. “Apart from being a good movie, you just want these guys to win,” Harrison recalls. “When I saw it, I went home straight away and bought the CD online.” Through a joint venture between Mushroom Pictures and Roadshow Films, Anvil will get an Australian theatrical run from September 10. “In its own way, this film will have the life of a Spinal Tap,” says Mushroom Group chairman Michael Gudinski. “It’s something that people will watch for many, many years.” Lips will make the journey Down Under for the first time, and the band will be on hand to promote the film. Mushroom’s Liberator label will release the movie soundtrack, which is ostensibly This Is Thirteen with a handful of new recordings added, including a cut of early work Thumb Hang. An Australian tour is also firming up, with Frontier Touring on board as promoter and affiliated ATM has stitched up merchandising rights. There’s also a book tie-in, which promises to fill-in the gaps.

Whether the band deserved its break just isn’t part of the equation, warns Lips. You make your own karma in this life. “Just because you deserve it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. As Lemmy says in the movie, ‘it’s about being at the right place at the right time’. For us, being at the right place was at the Marquee Club in London, England on that September night of 1982, when Sasha walked into our change room. All these rock stars were hanging around in our change room, like UFO’s Pete Way and Twisted Sister’s) Dee Snider. And in walks this 15-year-old kid. The same kid who is buying our records. In having a conversation with him, giving him all the attention and being the guys that we are, this resulted in good karma. You just never know who you’re going to meet, when you’re going to meet them or what significance that person is going to have later in life. These are the things that everything is contingent on in becoming successful.”

The future is looking bright for these sprightly half-centurions. A 14th album is in the works, and Lips is hopeful of collaborating again with Chris Tsangarides, the Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy producer who lent his formidable skills to This Is Thirteen. Anvil has at last teamed with a credible manager in Rick Sales, who also guides the career of Slayer. Anvil will return for a U.K. tour this November with Saxon, “Everything’s possible,” Lips notes. “Having been starved for it for so many years, just bring it on. It’s not like you’re watching a band go through the motions of getting the job done. For me, it’s everything. I don’t know if you ever really stop thinking about ending up at the top or hoping to be up there. It’s certainly amazing to actually live it. It’s one thing to have dreamt it and hoped that it was going to happen one day. But it did.”