HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Anvil

Thu, 1st January 2009


Was I expecting the composer of Hot Child, Bondage and, of course, Butter-Bust Jerky to say anything quite as wise as this? Probably not.”

Only one thing could intensify the burnt reds and oranges dotted about the autumnal panorama of St James Park, and Anvil’s permanently skull-capped drummer Robb Reiner is holding it between his forefinger and middle finger. “That’s immense,” he says, passing his first joint of the day to lifelong sidekick and Anvil singer Rob “Lips” Kudlow. Ten hours from now, a year spent following the heat generated by The Story of Anvil – the most celebrated cinematic depiction of a rock band since This is Spinal Tap – will culminate at the Classic Rock Awards. Downstairs in the hotel’s Grand Room, Kudlow, Reiner and bassist Glenn “G5” Five will be up for their first ever award, seeing off Iron Maiden and Rolling Stones in the best film category.

At this time of the day, Reiner is a man of few words. However, Anvil fans both new and old will know that the same can’t be said for the Kudlow. When we walk back into the Park Lane hotel, my reaction to the swish art deco environs of the reception area – not exactly, “Didn’t you do well?’ but not too far off either – is set straight by the puppy-eyed straggle-haired singer. I tell them that this is a world away from the now-legendary European tour planned for them by hopelessly out-of-her-depth European fan Tiziana – a farce of missed trains, badly-promoted shows in empty venues and overnight stays on airport floors. However, Kudlow’s pity for the question eclipses my own. “But the thing you have to understand is that we wanted to stay on those airport floors. Why check into a hotel and spend 200 Euros on a room when you have to check out again in four hours time. We do it because it’s fun. I don’t think anyone could comprehend how much fun [being in a band] is! Every day is unpredictable!”

Perhaps the problem was that The Story of Anvil didn’t make it look like fun. If director Sacha Gervasi had wanted to make this a story about a real-life Spinal Tap, he certainly had the material with which to do that. To his credit, Gervasi – who, as a teenager, had been a fan of the band – decided not to include footage of Kudlow running offstage in considerable pain, with his hands down his trousers. Gervasi explains: “He’d sung so hard that his haemorrhoids had popped out. Then he ran back onstage and sang a song.” As it turns out, the tale that unfolded was a more poignant one: the diary of a band pursuing their musical dream when all circumstantial factors – their advancing years, the lack of a record deal, the demands of their day jobs, the sadness on the faces of their loved ones – suggest they should cut their losses. Kudlow’s belief that the world is just enough to reward his perseverance is heartbreaking. Even if Kudlow’s work as a school caterer didn’t require him to use a hairnet, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler would still spring to mind. Taking holiday leave from that job to fulfil a rare festival booking, we saw him espy guitar legend Michael Schenker – whom his band once supported – only to be greeted with blank-faced indifference by the German rocker. That Kudlow is too starstruck to even notice the snub merely adds to the pathos.

Even now, it says a lot about Kudlow that he remains reluctant to believe that Schenker was being deliberately rude. “He’s very cool. A really good guy. Hey, maybe certain details escaped him, but he knew who I was.” Happily, other bands – Slash from Guns N’Roses and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich – have been quicker to acknowledge Anvil’s influence. For a while, Anvil’s 1982 album Metal On Metal had them were neck and neck with Anthrax and Metallica as the genre’s most likely to. In 1982, Kudlow – together with the trademark vibrator he used to play his guitar – appeared on the cover of the now-defunct music paper Sounds. However, while, to quote Slash, “everyone just sort of ripped them off and left them for dead”, the terms of Anvil’s deal wedded them exclusively to Canadian record company Attic who refused to release their albums in America.

It was lost ground they never recovered – though they’re keen to add that, on the road, nothing was wasted. “We lived the rock’n’roll dream,” says Reiner, of their early years, “and for anyone, who came along with us, it was an education.” Thanks to key Anvil songs from that period, it’s an education that leaves little to the imagination. Inspired by an encounter in a car with a groupie who they came to know as Jackhammer Joan, their 1982 song Jackhammer went, “Right turn, left turn, got the boys in both hands/Playin’ in stereo like you do with most bands… Can’t get to sleep ’cause I hear you squealin’/Like a stuck little pig, you love the feelin’.” Kudlow recalls that when Jackhammer Joan heard about the song, she brought a box of eggs to a show in Ottawa and proceeded to throw them at the group.

Then, of course, there was 1983’s Butter-Bust Jerky. “That’s a great song,” confirms Reiner, “When we were on the road, we used to engage in an activity involving margarine or butter and grease down to the sweater meat. Do you know what I mean?” I do and I don’t. Sweater meat? The drummer shoots me the sort of look at teacher might reserve for one of the desk-munchers at the back. “It’s titty-f***ing. You know what that is, right?” As I nod, Kudlow helpfully adds, “It was a play on ‘butterball turkey.’”

One witness to these revels was the man who, over two decades later, would hand Anvil a lifeline. Seeing Anvil in 1982 for the first time, Gervasi underwent an epiphany of sorts. Kudlow remembers “a troubled kid, going through some serious personal shit following the break-up of his parents.” Reiner adds that “we became his surrogate family.” If the job of a family is to tell their offspring about the birds and the bees, Anvil were nothing if not conscientious. “He got his first blow job on tour with us,” remembers Kudlow fondly. “It was a parking lot. He came back all flushed, but the funniest thing was that he was trying to act cool!”

Why am I surprised to find myself surprised that Anvil behaved like all the other heavy rock bands did in the pre-PC 80s? After all, it’s not as though their songs suggested they were tucked up in their bunks reading Chekhov. If Gervasi had aspired to make nothing more than a real-life This Is Spinal Tap, we might have been able to objectify Anvil as crudely as heavy metal bands have objectified the women they sing about. One of the triumphs of Gervasi’s film, however, has been the way it foregrounds the fundamental decency of its main players: Kudlow, Reiner and the families who don’t have the heart to tell them that it’s over. When Kudlow’s sister agrees to lend the group £13,000 to fly to England and record a last-chance album with their old producer Chris Tsangarides, we know why she’s crying. It’s not because she probably won’t see the money again, but that she knows it and still her love for Kudlow supercedes all of that.

Of course, by telling the story, Gervasi influenced its outcome (and ensured that Kudlow’s sister did get her money back). For Anvil’s doubters, the ongoing postscript to the film’s success has been a humbling experience. Having sought out Gervasi to go on camera and tell the world she thought he was wasting his time, Reiner’s unfortunately-named sister Droid has driven a permanent wedge between her and the group. Ditto the EMI Executive who remained resistant to Kudlow’s impassioned attempt to persuade him that the finished album with Tsangarides – entitled This is Thirteen – was the final realization of Anvil’s dormant potential. “They’re all fing bottom-feeder pieces of f”, says Reiner in the film when the rejection letter comes through.

Inevitably, the interim period has seen offers from every major label flood in. If anything though, Reiner’s respect for those labels has plummeted further. “They’re still bottom-feeder pieces of f*** – and you know what? They always will be. That will never change. They’re all losers. Only losers get those jobs, not winners. They’re all f***ing assholes. They only care about one thing – their bottom line. They don’t care about artists. They never will. Even the bottom-feeders themselves agree with me. Capitol Records’ Canadian President came to see the movie, and afterwards, he came an introduced himself. He said, ‘Hi – I’m Dean Cameron, the bottom-feeder you talked about in the movie. He agreed with me. It didn’t change anything though. I thought, ‘Right on, buddy – you’re man enough to agree.”

This year they supported AC/DC on three American shows, playing to a total of 160,000 people. In a parallel world they might have gone on to achieve comparable success. Watching it happen to AC/DC, they seem relieved that they haven’t. “There’s no friendship in that band,” says Reiner, before Kudlow interjects, “… well, none that we found evident anyway. They don’t hang out together, they all leave the gig in different cars. Aerosmith is no different. Motley Crue. The list is a long one. Not only do many of those groups have nothing to do with the support bands, but they don’t have anything to do with each other. The only place they meet is on stage.”

At the Classic Rock Awards, table staff assiduously tend to the needs of rock A-listers such as Iggy Pop, Brian May and Iron Maiden. At Table 29, Reiner is talking about the interest he has received in his paintings since Gervasi persuaded him to talk about them on the film. The 51 year-old has had “countless offers”, but none are for sale. His Hopper-esque street scenes and the depiction of his drum kit (“that’s what will be left after I die”) depict a soul who feels at something of a remove from the rest of humanity. Albeit in a different way, some might say that the oil painting of an unflushed toilet has a comparable effect. Reiner, whose Hungarian father moved to Canada after surviving Auschwitz, explains, “I’ve always been a really, really lonely person. I mean, I have tons of friends, associates. A loving family. It’s all good. But I’m still a lonely guy.”

Dinner arrives. He stares indifferently at his medium-rare breast of duck and some green beans which have been neatly bundled in a “ribbon” made of courgette. “Are you a vegetarian, sir?” asks the waiter. “No I’m not,” says Reiner. “You can eat it?” ventures the waiter. “I can… um, look at it,” says the drummer. He pauses long enough for the waiter to move on. “This is something you go to school to learn to cook. People don’t actually want to eat it though. They’d rather have, I dunno… a Mexican.”

Having been deprived the material accoutrements of musical success for so long, you would think that Anvil would be lapping this up. “Oh, we are,” says Kudlow, “But it’s dangerous to confuse the accoutrements with the success.” Was I expecting the composer of Hot Child, Bondage and, of course, Butter-Bust Jerky to say anything quite as wise as this? Probably not, to be honest – and he still isn’t done. “Sure, if someone books me in here, I’ll stay. But I prefer really cheap rooms. Close your eyes and it doesn’t matter. You stay in places like this, and they charge you for using the internet. You get a bottle of pop and it’s ten pounds. You walk a block away from the hotel and it’s 60 pence, you know?”

Easy as it is to look upon Anvil as heavy-metal Charlie Buckets finally given access to the chocolate factory, sympathy is no longer appropriate. Indeed, perhaps it never was. One story that didn’t make it into the movie is that of Kudlow’s older brother, who – during the latter stages of filming – was diagnosed with a neuro-degenerative brain disease. Last month, Jeffrey Kudlow succumbed to what the Anvil singer calls “the most debilitating, harrowing, slow death. Up until he realised he was ill, he had everything – all the things that people told me I was naïve to forego in order to pursue Anvil. I mean, this thing has just left devastation. In my own life though, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.”

He’s in full flow now. “Do you believe me? I’m serious, man. My son is twelve. I’ve been there for every single birthday of his life. Every fing one, man. If we had become rock stars, I wouldn’t have seen that. I feel like the fairies have sprinkled fairy dust on my fing life.” At that precise moment, Kudlow receives a tap on the shoulder. His group’s name has just been called out. They’ve won. If he momentarily seems lost for words, that’s hardly surprising. He has just said it all.