It’s a Work – Anvil: The Story of Pro Wrestling

This past Tuesday night, I went to Charlotte’s newest live-music venue- the Fillmore. Anvil was performing and this past year’s documentary, ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’, depicting their history and struggles to achieve rock stardom had won me over; not with their music, but because these men have marched thanklessly to their own thrash metal drum for more than a quarter-century.

I got into heavy metal music when I was eleven or twelve years old. It was loud and aggressive and was one of three things in those tender years that captured my imagination; the others being comic books and professional wrestling. These interests shaped me and, in some ways, have never stopped being influences, but as I got older they changed- and so did I.

Wrestling evolved into sports-entertainment, and in its effort to appeal to multitudes of mainstream masses and marketing moneymen, it moved in a direction that left me in the weeds.

Comic books turned on me as well. Prices climbed and climbed, but creativity waned. Even the look and the feel of a comic in my hands felt foreign as we neared the 90s, with slick pages and computerized colors with digital dialogue. ‘Alternative’ and ‘variant’ cover-art filled the book racks- hoping to get avid collectors to buy the same book twice, while stories started arcing and looping from title-to-title- stretching thin my teenage dollar. Now and then I would bite, buying into a separate title just to get to the end of the story I was reading, and most times it left me feeling cheated, and with a comic I’d never look at again.

Heavy metal, hard rock, or whatever name you want to give it, also began biting me in the ass. It was 1985, and I remember being at my friend’s house as we waited anxiously for the MTV world premier of Motley Crue’s new video. The video would be the first taste we’d get of their new album, ‘Theatre of Pain’ which I’d been chomping at the bit for. Even the name of the album excited me, but then the vee-jay played the ‘Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room’ video and changed everything. It was with uneasiness that I picked up that album, and with confusion that I listened to track-after-track. Some songs I dug, but probably because I wanted so badly to salvage something of my love for that band. Crue became rich and famous, putting out more bad music, sounding nothing like the grit and grime of 81’s ‘Too Fast for Love’. Stripper music, ballads and anthems- polished and pretty; designed, I guess, to appeal to that wider market.

Too many other bands followed suit, and where I used to pick up magazines like  ‘Hit Parader’ or ‘Circus’ for rock and metal news and reviews, those were soon full of hair-sprayed, pretty faces after ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ of their own. Image overtook the music, and pages full of Poison and pop-metal had no appeal for me.  

I stopped buying wrestling magazines too. Where they once gave me glimpses of the stories being told in ring all over the country, they had become as boring as the stuff on TV. There was a time that a wrestler could become imprinted in my memory with no more than a gory photo and some copy covering the blood feud they were embroiled in. They had the same effect on me as comic book heroes and villains did- only they were real people. I had never seen him wrestle, but Bill Apter and others had me convinced that Bruiser Brody was the wildest and perhaps most dangerous wrestlers to ever set foot in a wresting ring- perhaps only rivaled by the Madman from the Sudan, Abdullah the Butcher- who I had also never seen wrestle, but saw enough pictures to believe he was as insane as he looked. These men didn’t need to speak, in fact I had no idea what their voices sounded like- the imagination they stirred through those photographs spoke for them- just as pro wrestlers used to in the ring. I never needed the Masked Superstar to say he was after Backlund more than once. His actions in the ring said it for him, and his style and presence made his claim. Superstar’s neckbreaker and cold cover told me that Backlund was in trouble and would eventually have to face this challenger. I was only eleven years old, but I got it- without two hours of talk to hand-feed the story to me. What Superstar didn’t say on the mic- he said in the ring, and my imagination did the rest. He was a great performer and storyteller.

Anvil are those comic book visionaries- like Alan Moore’s uncompromising ‘Miracleman’ run, the Bruiser Brodys and Abdullah the Butchers that carried on without commercial success or TV cameras, and continued to do exactly what they always had, despite the ‘changing landscape’ of their industry, and they are the heavy metal band that continues to plug in and play, twenty-five years later.

The Anvil documentary involves a loose concept of “making it”, but no matter if it’s a couple-dozen diehard fans in Denmark or ten-thousand Japanese metalheads filling a field in Fukuoka, Lips, Robb and G5 have already made it. They do what they love, enjoy it, and have never changed the original formula. That attitude may have limited them through the years, and maybe they don’t have the fanbase they could, but I have no doubt that the one they have is as faithful and devoted to Anvil as Anvil are to making their music.

I only caught an hour of their set, but the point was well-made. I rarely listen to metal anymore, and that probably won’t change, but I still love a great guitar solo and incredible drum work-and Lips and Robb delivered both.

Robb Reiner’s drum solo during ‘White Rhino’ highlighted his skill and range- with flares of jazz, big band and Latin thrown in, and watching him at work, Reiner demonstrated the absolute joy and celebration of finding what you love in life and doing it- at any cost, and at any age. His solo went full-on for about four minutes; twice the length of Monday’s Randy Orton/Chris Masters match (with entrances), but a third of the time invested hyping the Jon Heder/Hornswaggle main event.   

‘Forged in Fire’ may not have the same appeal to me today as the same song may have in 1985, but Lips’ solo soared, reminding me of the swirling calm guitar vibe, just before it rises and storms into the last verse of Ted Nugent’s classic ‘Stranglehold’.

By the time Anvil begin their anthem, set-closer, ‘Metal on Metal’, you want to pump your fist with them, because they’d given you an experience that could never be translated in your home or on your television- one that brought you onto the stage with them.  

For those who haven’t seen ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’, skip the reviews, the wiki page, and every other way the internet typically dulls your senses, and just watch it. As I’ve told many people, both in and out of the business, it’s as much about pro wrestling as any film I’ve seen. There was no easy road for Anvil, but it never stopped them from playing. Anvil don’t look, or even sound, like the many popular bands that rose to fame from the 80s metal heyday, because they’re real people.

Steroids never made anyone a better pro wrestler; it only made them more marketable, just as having an MTV-muscled music video never made anyone a better musician. Anvil is a band that makes heavy metal music. It will never put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or bring them a top-grossing tour. They’re the independent pro wrestlers of metal- getting stiffed by sleazy promoters, suffering the woes of cheap travel, wondering if anyone will be coming to the next show and, like them or not, there’s an honesty in their work ethic and dedication that is unshakeable.

Lips ended the set by telling everyone that wanted to meet him, he’d be back out to say hello in a minute. For Anvil fans, those handshakes connect that performer directly to them, and are far more valuable than the price of the ticket.    

I left with Lips’ solo resonating in me and thought again of ‘Stranglehold’ and then of the glorious 80s and how Kevin Von Erich would bring Dallas to its feet, swimming through screaming Texans to those opening strains of Nugent’s guitar. Now, his niece sits plastically, playing strip-poker, in some scene looking like a precursor to pornographic sex.

Motley Crue changed with Theatre of Pain, and were no longer the raucous punks from ’81 under that makeup and glitter. It wasn’t the new look that bothered me about the band, but the sound. Like them, it became polished and over-produced. What started with four starving LA rockers, now had dozens of hands reaching into the pot, stirring it and emerging with fistfuls of dollars. It didn’t take long for me to see that Motley Crue didn’t care if I was still listening or not. Some Crue fans hung on and held lighters high through ‘Home Sweet Home’, and new ones joined them because, after all, MTV turned them into stars.      

Similarly, sports-enertainment continues to dress itself up, but doesn’t pretty itself enough to pass for pro wrestling- not on TV. The more TV and movie personalities they cram onto their show, the greater the distance becomes between wrestling fans and they stars they cherish. The pot gets stirred up and the stew gets served, with the fans’ bowls remaining empty- because they don’t care if wrestling fans go hungry. They’ve won over the lifeless remains of them and indoctrinated their children. Where Motley Crue sees lighters spark as Tommy heads to his piano, WWE fans hold signs high for the camera: You Can’t See Me and Somebody:3:16 says he just kicked somebody else’s ass- and the stories the performers tell are as flat as those neon oak-tag testaments- each shouting I Sharpee that we believe in mediocrity and WILL accept less.

You can no longer call yourself a wrestling fan from the chair in your living room. Fanaticism, by definition implies enthusiasm, thus the real fans are the ones in the seats, treating their senses and, if they’re lucky, feeling connected to the performers- if not with a handshake, with the story they tell in the ring- without a ton of talking or commercial interruption. Support live music and unsigned artists too, as you would independent pro wrestling. The few dollars you spend on a ticket and in gas bring a return that only live performance brings.

Those are the experiences, be it wrestling or music or local art and theatre, which turn people into fans, and they are precious. Those moments are also reciprocal. I’m sure performers like Anvil get as much reward from those handshakes and greetings as their fans do. Their doc was produced and directed by Sacha Gervasi, a fan who met the band when he was fifteen, after a club gig in London near his home. He grew up to become a filmmaker and had never stopped being an Anvil fan- and why should he have? : They never changed. Like Anvil, Sacha knew there was no fame or wealth to come from making a film about Anvil, but he backed it anyway, because he knew it was a great story. 

– Chuck LeGrande     

Thanks to CactusB and his Wrestling Clothesline for re-posting last week’s ‘It’s a Work’ over at www.wrestlingclothesline.com; a fantastic site which supports independent pro wrestling.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    Nice piece Chuck.

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