No Exit

The live shows are amazing when the band focuses on the music but things fall apart in between.

That’s the narrative arc of No Way, Get F*#ked, F*#k Off! an SBS/Beyond International documentary on the reformation of the Australian rock band The Angels after eight years of legal battles.  The documentary contrasts fan jubilation with the band’s in-group struggles: leadership battles between lead vocalist Doc Neeson and rhythm guitarist John Brewster over setlists and song arrangements; drummer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup’s disagreements with management over the contracts for merchandise and songwriting royalties; and the weight of the past, notably an archive trip with revelations about The Angels‘ support tours at their prime with David Bowie, Cheap Trick and The Kinks.

No Way, Get F*#ked, F*#k Off! wisely steers away from The Angels’ live performances on a small club tour.  Instead, we see how subgroup coalitions form over the tour, from rehearsals to the final gig.  Neeson and John Brewster’s strong personalities act as two magnetic poles.  Neeson appears frustrated that Brewster and lead guitarist Rick Brewster use pincer-style tactics to get their way on key decisions.  John Brewster feels compelled to defend The Angels’ management which is taking on the financial risk of the tour, and the record company which offers a favourable deal.  Bidstrup is cautious because of past contracts that signed away his
legal rights during The Angels’ 1976-81 vintage period.  He also points that Brewster-Neeson-Brewster received royalties as the core songwriters, so there are incentives and power imbalances in the group that affects the decision-making process.

As the tour unfolds the group dynamics change.  Neeson extracts an early concession to have Neeson-Brewster-Brewster on the tour merchandise.  Bidstrup demands further assurances on the scale and scope of the tour contracts.  John Brewster claims Bidstrup is being “difficult” because of his business management and entrepreneurial experience outside The Angels.  Brewster and Bidstrup misinterpret eachother in meetings as Neeson withdraws.

No Way, Get F*#ked, F*#k Off! ends on an uncertain note: management refuses Bidstrup can attend a pivotal meeting, Brewster defends their decision, and Neeson counters that he is uncomfortable with excluding Bidstrup.   As the credits roll Bidstrup wonders on-camera if he will remain in The Angels or if he joined the tour just to “close the circle” on earlier events.  Bidstrup could leave, as Jason Newstead and Joey Belladonna did respectively from Metallica and Anthrax (after their Among The Living reunion in 2005-07).  Alternatively, The Angels could partly resolve Bidstrup’s concerns with songwriting credits for new songs to all band members, as Queen did on their final studio albums with Freddie Mercury.

Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil & Prospect Theory

Music lasts forever . . . and sometimes the debt does too!
- Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, Anvil

Sacha Gervasi‘s Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) is more than a documentary on the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil: it’s one of the most poignant films yet on how our beliefs and emotions affect our decision-making abilities.

Gervasi’s film begins with Anvil’s triumph: a support set at Super Rock ’84 Japan where lead guitarist/vocalist Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow wears bondage gear and plays a guitar solo with a dildo whilst drummer Robb Reiner unleashes fast blast beats.  Anvil’s albums Metal on Metal (1982) and Forged in Fire (1983) combine two different strands of heavy metal music: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement of the early 1980s that Def Leppard and Iron Maiden popularised, and outrageous tactics that Motley Crue and other Los Angeles bands would adopt in the mid-1980s.  The other bands at Super Rock ’84 sold millions of albums: Scorpions, MSG (Michael Schenker Group), Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi.

But Anvil didn’t and Gervasi explores why.

Anvil’s peers offer several explanations.  Metallica‘s Lars Ulrich suggests Anvil’s Toronto home disadvantaged them compared to the US heavy metal subcultures in Los Angeles and New York.  Motorhead‘s Lemmy Kilmister believes Anvil’s original lineup had talented musicians who never received their due recognition.  Slash the iconic guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses and Velvet Revolver contends that other bands took what Anvil did well and just ripped them off.  Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian just wonders where did Anvil go in the past 25 years?

Gervasi tracks down Kudlow and Reiner who are Anvil’s sole original members to Toronto.  Kudlow’s day job is a driver for Choice Children’s Catering whilst Reiner is a sandblaster.  Bassist Glen Five and guitarist Ivan Hurd struggle to survive.  Anvil’s only gigs are at a local sports bar.  They have no management, no producer, no record label contract and will rely on luck and perseverence to get to the ‘next level’ of their careers.

Anvil! documents Kudlow and Reiner’s attempts to achieve the heights of their Super Rock ’84 Japan success: a disastrous European tour and the recording sessions for This is Thirteen (2007).  Gervasi captures Kudlow and Reiner’s decisions during this process, their rationalisations when things go wrong, and the reactions of other band members, friends and collaborators.  Anvil! is thus less a mockumentary like Bad News (1983) and Spinal Tap (1984) and closer to a great case study in Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman‘s Prospect Theory: decision-making about risk where there are differences, known outcomes and unconscious biases.  Despite the improbability of achieving the rockstar dream after 30 years Kudlow and Reiner continue to strive because of their ‘Loser Take All’ passion and self-image, their early success at Super Rock ’84 Japan and the path dependence of their past decisions.

The European tour becomes a series of bad decisions: the tour manager doesn’t book train tickets for transport, Kudlow and Reiner fight with a club owner to pay a gig when only seven people turn up (‘We aren’t getting paid!’), and only 174 people turn up to a Transylvanian heavy metal festival in a 10,000-capacity venue (‘How much love could one person put into something?’).  The tour manager expresses remorse due to hindsight bias, falls in love with and then marries guitarist Ivan Hurd who leaves Anvil in 2007.  Kudlow and Reiner also have to fend against adverse selection when lawyers and others cluster around to take Anvil’s money.  Kudlow takes five weeks off work for the tour in which Anvil makes no money: ‘When we’re on tour we’re on vacation’ he tells Gervasi.

In the tour’s aftermath Kudlow admits to Gervasi why Anvil have not succeeded: they made bad decisions early on in their career, have no management to promote them, the past few albums have poor material and no production, and the band was ripped off by ‘indie’ record labels who never payed their artists (’99.9% of bands never get paid’).

Kudlow’s solution is to approach producer Chris Tsangarides who worked with Anvil to record a new album.  Kudlow struggles to raise the $13,000 that Tsangarides requests: he lasts eight hours at a telemarketing job run by Anvil’s fan club president before turning to his sister who is a successful businesswoman and gives him the money.  The band decamps to Tsangarides’ studio in Dover, England, to write, record and mix This Is Thirteen
(2007).  The studio appears to consist of a band gear room, a vocalist room, and an audio engineering room with Protools software and a small mixing desk.  (Although Gervasi doesn’t explore it further the studio shots suggest that Tsangarides is also down on his luck and that his surface altruism hides the more pragmatic motive of generating income from any source to survive and trading on his past with Black Sabbath and Judas Priest).  Reiner argues with Kudlow over the lyrics and poor takes, and storms out.  Kudlow apologises and tries to bring Reiner back with a reminder about their teenage pact whilst Tsangarides tries to de-escalate the conflict and deal with the inevitable group tensions during the recording process.  Kudlow and Reiner reconcile during a Stonehenge visit.

Afterwards, Kudlow uses guerrilla marketing tactics to visit the offices of US record companies, and receives no interest after two weeks.  Kudlow then visits EMI Canada’s officer where an A&R manager turns off This is Thirteen after hearing Kudlow’s over-the-top vocals.  Gervasi ends Anvil! with an unlikely triumph when a Japanese promoter who saw Anvil on their European tour books the band to play a Tokyo festival.  Kudlow and Reiner worry backstage about if anyone will turn up and emerge to find the room full of thousands of fans who remember their Super Rock ’84 Japan performance.

Tversky and Kahneman’s work on Prospect Theory is central to Anvil!‘s narrative about Anvil’s tours and album recording sessions.  Kudlow’s nostalgia about Super Rock ’84 Japan highlights why he has an emotional overinvestment in Anvil’s self-image and appears stuck in a time-warp.  Others share this: bassist Glen Five is an Anvil fan whose belongings are in a garage because he can’t afford a house, the European tour manager has plenty of love and passion but fails in strategic execution, and Kudlow’s wife admits near the film’s end that because of her interest in 1980s heavy metal music and lifestyles she had wanted Anvil to succeed commercially in a moment that has passed.  Kudlow is overconfident about Anvil’s chances, he manages risks through the affect heuristic of immediate problems rather than consequences, and illustrates the knowing-doing problem of knowing what the barriers are and yet not developing mitigative strategies to bypass them.  Gervasi hints that Anvil might have pursued other options, from doing children’s parties at Kudlow’s catering firm to Reiner’s private collection of landscape paintings.  Luckily, Anvil!’s success has opened up new possibilities for Anvil including a MySpace page and street team.

Anvil frequently make comparisons between themselves and the successful bands at Super Rock ’84 Japan.  This is a self-narrative that illustrates Tversky and Kahneman’s anchoring a  cognitive bias which focuses on specific information in decision-making.  Anvil! would be even more interesting if it contrasted Anvil’s underdog failure with the comparison bands who have all run into major problems yet survived due to business savvy managers and major label support: albums recorded for tax purposes (Anthrax), management problems and hostile fans (Metallica and its managers QPrime), lineup, recording and tour problems (Anthrax, Black Sabbath, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Velvet Revolver), and peaks and troughs in their careers (Anthrax, Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motorhead, Scorpions).  Nor are the costs of these ‘sucesses’ explored: on the first date of Anvil’s European tour Kudlow reunites with Twisted Sister guitarist Eddie Ojeda who looks to be a drugged, emaciated mess.

If that’s heavy metal ‘success’ then Anvil’s hometown longevity, label independence, lifelong friends and supportive family may have been a better long-term choice.