Big in Japan

The disastrously epic story of Anvil

by Andrea Dusio

Art 13 May 2021

Japan. Super Rock ’84. One of the period’s top hard rock and heavy metal festivals, featuring a lineup that included some of the greatest bands of the time: Whitesnake, Scorpions, and Bon Jovi. Groups that in many cases, have gone on to be quite successful to this day. In fact, in May 2019, David Coverdale’s Whitesnake and Def Leppard were the stars of a very successful tour, one of the most outstanding live productions in the months before the Covid-19 pandemic. And Bon Jovi is sought after as an opinion-maker by the American media, who ask for his views on the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 presidential election.
Indeed, all of them have been able to build lasting success over the decades, despite the transformations that changing times have demanded of them. All of them, except for one band that had a radically different experience: Anvil, a Canadian quartet capable in the early ‘80s of making records that became metal classics and, above all, of influencing the roughest and most hard-line segment, from Metallica to Anthrax.
Lars Ulrich, Tom Araya, and Lemmy, of Motörhead, considered their Metal on Metal (1982) as a milestone of heavy metal’s pure age, before the major record companies got involved. Despite this, Anvil became an icon of epic failure in the world of hard rock. Perhaps due to geographical remoteness—although hard and heavy music listening is deeply rooted in Canada—they never managed to break free from their role as cult heroes, and over time were sidelined, crushed by the relentless workings of the record industry.
In 2008, Sacha Gervasi produced Anvil! The Story of Anvil, an entertaining documentary on the band’s disastrously epic story. At the time, the band still existed, but only performed for local pubs, and small groups of fans who had aged worse than them, under the illusion of signing a record contract that would rescue them from their micropopularity as old fallen glories. Singer and guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow was making ends meet by using a van to deliver prepared meals to school cafeterias. Robb Reiner, seen in the 1980s as an emerging talent among metal drummers, was working as a bricklayer.
In a way, the life of a rock star after age 30 is like that of a successful athlete. You have to manage your retirement, and prepare to give up your role as the absolute protagonist. They still invite you everywhere, but you’re just a part of the show, not the focus of it all. And you also have to know how to handle the financial aspect, to prevent the idleness of your private life from devouring you and driving you into addictions.
Anvil didn’t experience any of this. The band was candidly waiting for their huge success to happen, without realizing that their train had already left. Their condition, apparently as losers, had frozen them into a state of perpetual waiting, endlessly prolonging the time when things seemed to be just about to happen. If you didn’t make it, you might not necessarily have lost. Maybe you simply hadn’t won yet.
So, when, at the beginning of Gervasi’s film , Steve Kudlow got an email from a European fan, Tiziana, who offered to set up a European tour for them, promising $2,000 per night, he naively jumped into the venture. It sounds like witnessing the hidalgo deeds dreamed of by Don Quixote, a battle against windmills. The great deception took place at the Sweden Rock festival, a kermesse featuring some sacred hard rock legends. Old glories, still roaring, with a consistent fan following. For Anvil to be backstage with Michael Schenker, to remind Carmine Appice when they met, to chase Tommy Aldridge, is the emotion they had been waiting for all their lives. The rock stars looked at them a bit awkwardly, they didn’t remember them, and listened to them politely, but nothing more. The Anvils, on the other hand, proudly felt part of the scene, back in the world they had been unjustly torn away from.
This is how their road movie of disillusionment began: The owners of the small, half-empty places where the band performed didn’t pay the fees promised by Tiziana. Anvil missed their train connections and had to travel in a freezing van in aEuropean winter. In Prague, they scuffled with the manager of the venue where they performed, and a lawyer offered to try and get them paid. In the end, he managed to wrest $120. At Monsters of Transylvania, which mimicked the legendary Donington Park festival, they were promised that they would perform before 5,000 spectators. But the band ended up playing in an empty theater, before an audience of 174 dazed patrons.
What didn’t work out in Anvil’s career? After the success of their first albums, Aerosmith’s manager David Krebs had signed a contract with the band, convincing them to terminate their recording deal with Attic, the label that had supported their beginnings. Wrong choice: European metal labels were also interested in handling their back-catalogue, consisting of the three first albums, while Attic was unwilling to give up those rights. Krebs couldn’t get them back and stopped answering the phone, leaving the band to itself. Anvil was thus forced to find the financial resources to record their fourth album, which they released in 1987, four years after their previous one: a geological era in the world of rock. By now the world had forgotten about them.
So, they turned to doing other jobs, growing their passion for music in an amateur way and continuing to believe that sooner or later, their time would come. Like any self-respecting working-class hero, Anvil had to deal with mortgage payments, evictions, expenses that never ended. Kudlow managed to get back in touch with Chris ‘CT’ Tsangarides, who had produced Metal on Metal. They agreed to produce a new album, This is Thirteen. But they needed $17,000 to finance it. First, Steve tried to raise the money by selling sunglasses over the phone. But he didn’t make a penny. Eventually, he borrowed money from his sister. Even the self-made album, recorded in England in Dover, couldn’t attract the interest of record companies and was distributed at the band’s concerts. In Kudlow’s persistent romantic attitude, however, it was a success: their recordings were true to the roots of the band’s original sound, and the relationships within the group were strong after the musicians had argued bitterly in the studio.
As in a perfect storytelling arrangement, Anvil was invited to play a concert in Tokyo, the place where their artistic adventure had been most successful. The expression “Big in Japan” is often used in the world of rock music. After their heyday in their home markets, Anglo-Saxon bands continue to retain a strong following for years in Japan, where public tastes are less subject to fads, and there are very strong niches of fans for all genres. However, Anvil’s spirits were once again dampened when they found that their show was scheduled for eleven o’clock in the morning. Once again, their date with destiny seemed to have been postponed. So, they prepared to play in an empty venue.
Instead, the audience was large and receptive. It was as close as they could have imagined to a triumph. In the following days, Kudlow and Reiner visited the city as tourists. After a hangover of applause, they were free to be nobody among the crowds again. Faced with the melancholy sunset of many stars, facelifts and rehabs, and careers that seem to never end, but are rather the eternal continuation of a “greatest hits” that has now become unlistenable, Anvil lives inside the bubble of those who have yet to write their hit, but will never write it. This is their vision of happiness and perfection, of what will never come.