Rockin! We ﬁnally made it — at 50
Heavy metal group Anvil took 30 years to become an overnight success.
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A documentary about a failed heavy metal band would not be everyone’s top viewing choice, but it is the unexpected hit of the year. Anvil! The Story of Anvil follows lead singer Steven Kudlow, known as Lips, and drummer Robb Reiner — both well into their fifties — as they struggle to make it as rock stars while holding down day jobs.
Back in the early 1980s, Anvil was on the cusp of stardom. But while bands of a similar ilk — Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth — made it to the big stage, Anvil slipped into underground obscurity.
But now, 30 years since they got together — Kudlow and Reiner formed the band while growing up in a Jewish area of Toronto — they are finally receiving the recognition they deserve thanks to the documentary made by their former roadie, Sacha Gervais.
Not only are crowds flocking to see the Anvil Experience, in which the band perform after the film screening, but they have had some surprise faces in their audience.
“I look out and see Dustin Hoffman doing the devil horns and singing our song ‘Metal on Metal’,” Kudlow says with childlike enthusiasm as he recalls their show in Los Angeles. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Coldplay’s singer Chris Martin is another big fan who urges his own audience to go and see the film.
Instead of their typical metal rocker crowd, everyone from elderly Jewish people to children are attending, Kudlow says. “The movie speaks volumes about what it takes for us artists to persevere. A lot of people walk round with the idea that it’s very glamorous — you travel to your gigs in limousines and are pampered like a baby. It speaks to the vast majority of musicians out there because the real truth is that one in a million makes it and the rest struggle. And we’re like the rest!”
They are not only seen as an inspiration to struggling artists — the band receives fan mail from all kinds of people who have been touched by their story.
“Some have brought tears to my eyes,” says Kudlow. “I’ve had emails from people who are dying of cancer asking me for words of help.”
Most recently, he says, he received an email from a guitar player who, wheelchair-bound after an accident, was so inspired by their story that he is putting a band together and trying again.
As well as a heartwarming tale of perseverance and dream-chasing, the film is also a story of lifelong friendship. Kudlow’s immigrant parents wanted their son to lead a Jewish life (they persuaded him to go to Hebrew school by promising him an electric guitar for his barmitzvah), and when he was 15 they moved to the part of Toronto where he met Reiner.
“The presumption that my parents had was: ‘Let’s move into a more Jewish area and maybe Steven will find a nice Jewish girl.’ As it turned out, the non-Jewish girl who I had met from my first area moved to the school where all the Jewish children went, and I got ridiculed because of that. I found that they were the kids of Holocaust victims, so of course there was a great deal of animosity towards non-Jews. I was an outsider too. But I met Robb so, of course, I’m not ungrateful for it.” Reiner, whose father was a Holocaust survivor who saw his own father die in a concentration camp, was also an outsider. In the band, his introspection is the foil to Kudlow’s highly-strung and excitable nature.
Kudlow started dropping classes to spend afternoons writing songs in Reiner’s basement. His parents, who expected him to become a doctor or an accountant like his two brothers, were none too pleased. “My parents weren’t very happy because obviously their plan was foiled,” Kudlow says. “I kept on going out with the gentile girl and I was quitting school and becoming a rock musician.”
Reiner’s parents, meanwhile, encouraged the band. “My father especially — to the point he’d break my arms if I quit,” he says. “He recognised that I had the passion and he was obsessed with my happiness.”
Copies of the band’s latest album, This is Thirteen, are flying from their website (up to 60 per day), and, at last, they have been able to give up their day jobs. But despite this, and seeing her son surrounded by fans clamouring for an autograph post-show, Kudlow’s mother still tells her middle-aged son to get a proper job.
“Even to this day my mother feels her son hasn’t made something of himself because I’m not a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. Yesterday at lunch she said: ‘Sure you’re making money? I told you, you should have gone to school’.”
You cannot please everyone, but Anvil are certainly getting non-metal fans to listen. Says Kudlow: “It’s actually opened everyone’s eyes that there are really down-to-earth people that make and listen to this music — they’re people like everybody else.”
Anvil! The Story of Anvil is out on DVD