Rock and a Hard Place
Exploring the elusiveness of fame and the ethics of the mash-up in 24 Beats per Second
To the list of great and enduring mysteries of the world, from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart to the career of Jimmy Kimmel, I now add this: how a heavy metal band with a lead singer who wore a bondage harness onstage and played his guitar with a dildo didn't become superstars in the 1980s. It just doesn't make any sense.
Turns out I share my confusion with Slash from Guns n' Roses, Lars Ulrich from Metallica, and Lemmy from Motörhead. For them, Canadian hard rockers Anvil were titans, the bridge between the new wave of heavy metal that brought the world Iron Maiden and the American speed metal of Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. With their lightning-fast riffs, Saran Wrap-tight leather pants, and song titles such as "March of the Crabs," "Mothra," and "Butter-Bust Jerky," Anvil seemed destined to become one of the biggest bands in rock & roll. In 1983 the band released its masterpiece, Forged in Fire, and in 1984 Anvil toured Japan with metal giants Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi, culminating in a legendary concert at Tokyo's Super Rock Festival. Surely like those other bands, Anvil would go on to sell millions of albums, write chart-topping power ballads, and star on a reality TV series.
Then again ...
Twenty-five years and 13 albums after its Japanese triumph, Anvil isn't a successful band by any measure, but it is still a band. Their hair is thinner (though not shorter), their bellies are bigger, and their bondage gear no longer fits, but they're still here. Unlike Iron Maiden, Bon Jovi, and Metallica, Anvil's career has unfolded in almost total obscurity. Now in their early 50s, founding members Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner are still chugging through "Blood in the Playground" and "Mattress Mambo," only now they're doing so in dive bars and small concert halls in their native Ontario in between shifts at catering companies and telemarketing firms. The story of why Anvil never made it is one as old as the music industry itself – a combination of bad timing, bad luck, bad management, and any number of X factors – but the true tragedy of the band is that, even as Anvil faded into history, its influence on the bands that followed grew deeper and deeper. Slash, I think, puts it best: "Everyone just ripped them off and then left them for dead."
Just in time for the 25-year anniversary of Anvil's Super Rock performance, director (and former Anvil roadie) Sacha Gervasi is screening his new documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, as part of South by Southwest Film's 24 Beats per Second music-documentary series. Sacha follows boyhood friends Kudlow and Reiner from the snowy domesticity of their local Toronto through a misguided and mismanaged European tour and a misguided and mismanaged recording session in England before flying with them to Japan, where they make a semitriumphant return to the land of their high-water mark, Tokyo, playing the 11:30am slot at a small indoor music festival.
Along the way, they get lost driving to a show in Prague, miss trains, play in clubs where there are more people onstage than off, show off in solemn tones their absurd art collections, pontificate on the fleeting nature of fame, beg record labels to release their new album, fail to convince record labels to release their new album, fight, quit, reunite, and play on amps that actually go to 11.
If it all sounds a lot like This Is Spinal Tap, you're not far off. It's hard not to listen to Lips philosophize about his Spanish Inquisition song, "Thumb Hang," and not wonder to yourself: Are these guys for real? Apparently even Gervasi's crew thought it was shooting a mockumentary, especially after Lips and Reiner had a run-in with a dodgy Romanian club owner who had sidestepped his contractual obligations and tried to pay the band in goulash.
But the band is real. What is surreal, meanwhile, is the music industry itself and all that goes with it: the ambition, the commercialism, the trend-mongering, the lust for fame and fortune, the one-in-a-million delusion that just around the corner, just at the next gig, just after the next record comes out, unfathomable celebrity will be yours. The whole notion is a disease, a noxious distemper that makes the brain feverish with thoughts of big money and adoring fans. The fever has consumed Lips and Reiner for 30 years, and no amount of industry indifference or tour-bus lunacy can ever seem to get them well.
The real tragedy of Anvil isn't that they never made it. The real tragedy is that the virtue of ambition has mutated into a curse, making it impossible for them to view their lives through anything but the distorted lens of their own need to be famous – kids, wives, and happiness be damned.
Had Anvil ever reached those rarefied heights of fame and stardom, the band one day might have been lucky enough to be sampled by Girl Talk. To try to get your head around what this one-man-band-behind-a-laptop is up to, imagine a song that features James Taylor mixed with 50 Cent mixed with Pixies mixed with Nas mixed with Weezer, all played over a pounding dance beat by a biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh. Follow that with a song that features samples from Journey, Elvis Costello, Ying Yang Twins, Ludacris, Boston, and M.I.A. Then listen to the Notorious B.I.G. rapping over "Tiny Dancer." Now sit back, and imagine hundreds of sweaty kids going crazy, tearing off their clothes, grabbing handfuls of balloons, storming the stage at some outdoor festival, and letting forth howls of recognition every 30 seconds or so.
This is the world of the mash-up, and Girl Talk is its undisputed crown prince. Standing shirtless behind his laptop computer, Girl Talk creates party classics out of spare parts, scavenging through the long history of American pop music and reconstituting what he finds there to make dance music that is all but irresistible to most mortals. Which may not sound like the most intellectual activity in the world, but to filmmaker Brett Gaylor, Girl Talk is the vanguard of a new movement that is redefining art, creativity, and the notion of intellectual property in a 21st century that is constantly blurring the line between creator and consumer.
For the record, Gaylor doesn't believe in intellectual property. He believes in collaboration and sampling; he believes in concepts like fair use and public domain. And he believes in something called "open source filmmaking." So much so that he made a movie-remixing website (www.opensourcecinema.org) for his new documentary, RiP: A Remix Manifesto. Anyone who visits the site is free to take Gaylor's footage and arrange it in any way he or she likes, meaning viewers become part of the creation of what they're watching. It's a revolutionary and dangerous new approach to documentary filmmaking, one that calls into question the whole notion of authorship and ownership and only further muddies the ethical and legal waters Girl Talk and Gaylor seem so happy to float around in.
Gaylor travels all over the world to explore the debate between intellectual-property rights and public-domain usage, a debate he believes will ultimately define just what kind of global society we want to have: one based on the hoarding of copyrights by enormous multinational media conglomerates seeking to make money off every song or movie they lay claim to or one extolling the virtues of collaboration and the active reconstitution and reworking of past culture for the sake of future culture. For Gaylor and Girl Talk; professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig; the Baile Funk DJs of Brazil, who have taken over the favelas with their mash-ups of American pop music, funk, and Latin beats; and countless others, remixing is an act of democratization, of reclaiming art for artists and taking ownership out of the hands of corporations. On the other hand, for corporations, record labels, and copyright houses, remixing is an act of intellectual larceny, pure and simple, the outright theft of one artist's ideas by another at the monetary and creative expense of the originator (and his corporate sponsors, of course).
It's a fascinating debate, one Gaylor does great justice to with RiP, though in his rush to preach the word of complete artistic freedom, he fails to address a few pressing questions. How does he feel, for example, about artists who don't want their work sampled, manipulated, copied, or recontextualized? It's all well and good to thumb your nose at multimedia conglomerates trying to crush artistic growth through legal means; it seems like another thing entirely when the person complaining isn't some copyright lawyer but a poor folk musician whose song cycle about genocide in Darfur you're turning into a disco track.
And also, if the right to remix can go one way, won't it have to go both? If we make all artistic output part of the commons, doesn't that mean McDonald's can feel free to use a Fugazi song to sell its new Bacon McFlurry? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure if Gaylor's sure either, but it's to his credit that he's asked the questions at all and then opened the dance floor to debate.
24 Beats per Second
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Sunday, March 15, 10pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 18, 9pm, Alamo Ritz
All Tomorrow's Parties
Saturday, March 14, 5:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 19, 5pm, Paramount
Saturday, March 21, 8pm, Alamo Ritz
Intangible Asset Number 82
North American Premiere
Saturday, March 14, 9:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 17, 8:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 21, 9pm, Austin Convention Center
Iron Maiden: Flight 666
North American Premiere
Wednesday, March 18, 7pm, Paramount
Saturday, March 21, 2pm, Austin Convention Center
Number One With a Bullet
Wednesday, March 18, 10pm, Paramount
Friday, March 20, 6pm, Paramount
The Promised Land
Tuesday, March 17, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 19, 3pm, Austin Convention Center
RiP: A Remix Manifesto
Sunday, March 15, 9:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Thursday, March 19, 6:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 21, noon, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 19, 2:30pm, Paramount
Wednesday, March 18, 2pm, Paramount
Friday, March 20, 4:30pm,Alamo South Lamar
Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love
Sunday, March 15, 11am, Paramount
Wednesday, March 18, 4:15pm, Paramount
Saturday, March 21, 10pm, Alamo South Lamar