I've been the fortunate viewer of two rather excellent music documentaries the last week. Both explore the lives of two very different bands. One of the groups eschews all showbiz hype in pursuit of an almost puritanical, Calvinistic take on the rock form; the other has been chasing that dream of musical stardom, with very little success, for more than 30 years. One has won a mountain of critical praise in their time and has, to their great surprise, sold millions of albums; the other has probably never received a good review in their whole existence and struggles to draw more than a hundred payers per show. They do, however, now have one thing in common: their records are self-released. Of course one does it out of a fierce, uncompromising spirit of independence and the other does it w/ great reluctance after being knocked back by just about every label on the planet...
The two films are Instrument, a film by Jem Cohen which documents Fugazi from the years 1987-'97, and the other is Anvil, a hilarious, cringe-inducing, but surprisingly moving look into the music, loves, triumphs and tragedies of the veteran Canadian metal band, Anvil. I've been familiar w/ Fugazi since their first demo (you can thank Scotti from Resistant Harmony for that), though I must plead complete and total ignorance of the band Anvil until the film was given cinematic release down here last year. I pride myself on being a cataclysmic music dork of the highest calibre, one who can (and will) give you a stern 10-minute lecture on the genesis and history of punk rock, hardcore, psychedelia, soul, hip-hop, heavy metal, country-rock, avant-jazz, krautrock, prog-rock - you name it - in a heartbeat. Buddy, I can bore a man to death at ten paces, given the chance. It don't matter whether I dig the music or not, somewhere along the line I've read about it. I think I've got a grasp of the essentials. And thrash/speed metal - and the history thereof - fits right in there: mix up the heaviness of Black Sabbath and Budgie with the speed and power of Motorhead, throw in various outfits from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (Raven, Diamond Head, Iron Maiden) and stew it in a broth w/ the velocity and "street vibe" of hardcore punk, and there you have the beginnings of what we now know as thrash/speed metal. Judging by the high praise heaped upon Anvil's early albums by members of Motorhead, Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer - albums of which have apparently played an important role in the development of thrash/speed metal - there was obviously one ingredient I was completely unaware of. The tragedy of the band lies in the fact that, whilst the likes of Slayer, Metallica etc. went on to sell truckloads of records in their lives and now live in Hollywood mansions for their efforts, the members of Anvil (or the two main and surviving members: Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner [and I hope I'm not the only one aware of the painful irony of that name]) have to work blue-collar day jobs the rest of their lives, whilst still keeping the band going, releasing independent albums, grinding low-rent tours and playing to drunks at local bars. More on them later...
Fugazi, on the other hand, never cared for "success" as most know it. If they did, they would've capitalised more on the success which was thrust upon them. Instead, they insisted on low door prices everywhere they went, only ever played benefit shows in their hometown, sold their CDs for dirt-cheap, refused to be interviewed by mainstream music magazines and, to make it brief, simply wouldn't play the game. Despite all this, in their lifetime (they've been on indefinite hiatus since 2002) they managed to sell over 3 million albums, and that was as of 2002; one can only guess how many now. They were considered by some to be the "voice and conscience" of their generation. And they had a film made about them. Believe it or not, but I'm not that huge on music documentaries, even on bands and artists I may be a big fan of. I'm still yet to see the Jandek and Roky Erickson films. We Jam Econo, the Minutemen pic, was disappointing (though still highly watchable), and the Germs' docu-drama I hope to never suffer through again. I approached Instrument with trepidation, but within 10 minutes found myself strangely hooked. Stylistically, it's more like an "art" film: no narrative, no threads are apparent; different film stocks and shooting styles are abundant throughout, and there are extended passages w/ little to no active or engaging dialogue. By all accounts (or at least by my filmic tastes), it should be a total yawnfest. It's the ambience which carries it: the scenes comprising of Ian Mackaye counting the money after a show (like a two-bit bar-band hack!), the band loading in their gear, the shots of the group driving from show to show. Interpersed w/ all of this, filmmaker Jem Cohen (apparently an old highschool friend of MacKaye's) has cut in some incredible live footage, the kind of footage which once again has me digging out all the old records for another reassessment. The verdict? Fugazi were one hell of a rock band, possibly the best there was for their time.
There are friends and associates of mine who simply do not like the band known as Fugazi. It's the puritanism and sense of self-righteousness which puts them off. And the music? For some, it simply never "rocked". I could care less that someone doesn't like them - I have no stake in this except as a fan - though both claims I don't see holding up. The puritanism and righteousness (or indignation) never appears to be directed outwards: the band is simply about self-discipline and living a certain lifestyle, unhindered by others. As for what other bands do, it appeared to never be of any interest to Fugazi. And as for "rocking", an ability to do so comes in a thousand different forms. There's no way I can be convinced that the near-telepathic interplay of vocals/guitars/drums/bass that the band engaged in, both on stage and within the studio, is anything less than "rocking". The dynamics speak for themselves. Fugazi never wanted anyone to mistake them for being anything other than a rock band, and Instrument, whether by accident or design, gets that point across. I'm open to any and every argument that Fugazi sucked, though I could never personally be convinced.
Instrument shows them as simply too good a band. If anything, they remind me of what Jon Savage once said of the Sex Pistols: their aim was to show that "anyone could do it", but by their sheer greatness, they showed that not everyone could. Instrument is an excellent visual document of the band, a musical documentary I actually plan to watch on repeat.
Whilst Fugazi never had any delusions of where they sat in the scheme of things, the same could probably not be said for Anvil. But you could never hate them for it. That's because Lips and Reiner never come across as assholes. Clueless perhaps, but not jerks. The band came crashing back down to earth in the late '80s, after some modest success earlier in the decade, and they've never gotten back up off the ground. And damnit, they're never gonna give up. The both of them, now in their 50s, talk like a couple of teenagers whose band is gonna take the world by storm, as if they've got the best group in the world, and if only everyone would give them a chance, they'd prove they were indeed the greatest rock'n'roll behemoth who ever scorched the land. And they really believe it! It's not that Anvil are awful, cos they're not; it's just that they're really not that great. They're a footnote band in the grand scheme of things, an outfit fated to be forever on the bottom of a festival bill, a band whose style and sound is hopelessly out of date for the metal masses, and despite all their talk of future success, you can sense in the back of their minds that they know they're never going to make it and that's OK. At the very least, they're having fun with the music and still get a thrill by engaging w/ the fans. They've accepted, in some way, their lot in life as the C-list band.
Compared to the insufferables assholes in Metallica as portrayed (with their approval) in Some Kind Of Monster, the laughs you'll have at Anvil's expense - and there's a lot of them - don't come quite as cheap and easy. In SKOM, there's a touch of schadenfreude in watching an artistically washed-out band of obnoxious, rich, spoilt bores fail in their attempt to make a half-decent album. In Anvil, you pray at the end of the film as the band slowly enters the stage area from the rear on their way to that last show at a festival in Japan, you pray that the show won't be a total washout. For Anvil's sake - two not-too-bright but well-meaning Jewish boys from nice homes in Toronto, two boys who still haven't given up on their dreams after 30 years of little of the success they constantly talk about - you just hope they get a break. And you feel kinda bad for laughing at them so much. The similarities to Spinal Tap are staggering: the scene w/ Lips and Reiner recalling their early days w/ the group and their still-to-be-recorded song, "Thumb Hang", is almost a carbon copy of the cafe scene in Spinal Tap where Nigel Tufnel and Dave St. Hubbins reminisce about their skiffle days in Squatney. The scenes of Lips running around backstage after having played a bottom-rung set at a big European metal festival to meet all his heroes like he's an old friend (and none of them appear to have any idea who he is), is the genius a scriptwriter couldn't pen. Lips' hopeless attempts to start a career in the telemarketing industry had me in stitches. The three-shot juxtaposition of the band in one scene excitedly talking about a bidding war they'll create w/ their new album, only then to be cut to their meeting w/ an obviously disinterested but unfailingly polite EMI A & R guy, and then soon to cut to a scene of the group unloading their brand new self-released album and attempting to convince the viewer that releasing the album on their own label was the best thing for the band anyway.... you know that Anvil is the stuff of greatness.
I found myself strangely moved by their plight. I found myself ordering a copy of their "legendary" second album from 1982, Metal On Metal, on ebay the instant the credits rolled. I doubt I'll like it that much, if at all, but I'm happy to support them. A band like Anvil makes the world a more strange and beautiful place, and now that I know their story, I feel informed of why they exist as a link in the chain of rock 'n roll. And the film itself is one of the funniest and most enjoyable rock 'n' roll films ever made. I've now seen it twice and I'll be back for more. You. Must. See. It.