PERFECT TIMING "Both those albums [Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire] were great and ahead of their time," says Steve "Lips" Kudlow, "but being too early is pretty much the same as being too late."
If you've never been in a band, and you went to see the recent documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil
, you might not have known whether to laugh or cry. The saga of childhood friends Robb Reiner and Steve "Lips" Kudlow and their Toronto band Anvil's frustrated 30-plus-year quest to rule the land with their particular brand of aggro party-metal might not resonate as painfully if your closest exposure to the dark side of a life in rock is the Poison episode of Behind the Music
. The Anvil story is one about the callousness of fate and the sting of failure, each seeming that much worse in light of their early success.
By 1983, the year that heavy metal was poised to take over the mainstream, Anvil had a manager full of promises, two relatively successful albums, and a string of international tours under their belt that had seen them share stages with Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Motörhead, and a slew of other metal titans. But when I catch up with Lips by phone on a quiet summer evening at his home in Toronto, he doesn't sound too upset about his band's fall from metal's heights. After all, the documentary's success has brought Anvil more mainstream attention than they've ever enjoyed. And they've been asked by Angus Young himself to open for AC/DC on several dates of their summer US tour — and that includes this Tuesday at Gillette Stadium.
"This is the guy who wrote 'It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want To Rock 'n' Roll)' asking us to play," says Lips. "It's quite fitting, like they're proving their own point. I mean, I don't know what to say, I'm freaking out!"
Metal cognoscenti have long guarded the secret of the band's first two records, Metal on Metal (1982) and Forged in Fire (1983). Both are stone classics of the form, beating Slayer and Metallica to the speed races with a technical assault that still manages to include the epic stomp of '70s hard rock and the sleaze of what would soon come to be called hair metal. Reiner was a powerhouse drummer years before metal skinsmen were expected to have a fetish for precision, and Lips' wildman antics and chugtastic riffolas kept the band grinning through the warhorse "Heat Sink," "Tease Me, Please Me" (a title later lifted by Scorpions) and the epic shredder "666."
"Those albums were great," Lips acknowledges, "and ahead of their time — but being too early is pretty much the same as being too late. They only sold around 30,000 copies each. In the US, that's virtually nothing! The albums were import-only in America, so our chance of doing well without a domestic deal was slim to none. Then we had this big-time manager involved promising all these big deals, and basically he tried to leverage our deal by daring our label to drop us. Which they did. So we didn't have an album out between 1983 and 1987."
If your reaction to that last sentence is "So what?", you don't know much about '80s metal. While Anvil labored label-less, all around them the world rattled with one big-haired sensation after another. "I wasn't bitter about it, I was more . . . disappointed that I wasn't a part of what was going on." That said, Lips maintains that becoming a huge metal hit was never his aim — that playing music, writing songs, and being creative with a team of friends was always a long-term goal, far more important than his name in lights.
Which might explain things a bit. "My intention, right from the get-go, was to be an uncommercial commodity that would keep going for years and years. I know that that seems weird, but it occurred to me then that it's better to make it, to find success, after 10 albums than on your first album. I wanted longevity, even if it meant obscurity."
By now, Anvil have put out more than 10 albums (2007's self-released This Is Thirteen being the most recent), and yet the success they've found is the result of a film that, in many ways, thrives on their doubts and defeats. But Lips isn't squeamish about those low points. "I know that most people in bands don't want to show the reality of, for example, a Tuesday night at a club in front of nobody in the middle of nowhere. 'We'll edit that out' would be the normal train of thought. But to me, all that stuff is just another day at the office! Real musicians know that."
Neither is he ready to give up. "When people ask me, 'Why don't you quit?', I think, 'Do you know how much enjoyment it is to play on stage?' I mean, if you're a family man with three kids, are you going to stop having sex with your wife just because you're not making kids anymore? It's the same with music: I persevere because I like it!"
ANVIL + AC/DC | Gillette Stadium, 1 Patriot Place, Foxborough | July 28 | $25-$92 | 617.931.2000 or ticketmaster.com