Ambition Is the Last Refuge of the Failure

Sound Affects examines the recent trend of musical acts gaining popularity from word-of-mouth documentaries, using the cases of Death, Big Star, Anvil, and Rodriguez.

When you look at American imperialistic history, for some reason the common assumption is that country failed horribly in the Vietnam War and was embarrassed on many fronts. In hindsight, most US citizens may view it as a mistake and a failure, but that would be an incorrect way to look at it. A failure indicates an inability to reach goals set out prior to undertaking the mission, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I won’t get into it in detail, since we aren’t a political site, but it’s pretty clear from internal documents the US wanted to squash Vietnamese nationalist movements in the peasantry, and that was mostly happening in South Vietnam, not North Vietnam as widely reported. Essentially the South was all but obliterated, destroying the entire region. Looking at basic criteria, the Vietnamese war wasn’t a fuck-up; it was a thriving success.

Now, that war has been martyred a million times over, painting the picture of a bunch of soldiers running full-tilt into the jungle without even knowing what they were fighting for/against. The failure of that war (even though it was obviously a success) has been mutated into something that is romanticized on some level. The war is viewed as a failure, but mostly on a tactical level, not necessarily a geopolitical one. It’s a good reference point to jump off from, as I’d like to look at a recent “failure” movement related to music that we are now romanticizing in a way I’m still trying to figure out.

In the last couple years or so, I’ve had people approach me and passionately implore me to check out certain older acts. And in every case, I’m approached as though they are telling me about a long-forsaken album that is so criminally good my life has been a waste, and experience as a music journalist has been a total wash. All of a sudden, this sort of movement sprung out of nowhere thanks to Netflix and word of mouth documentaries that have been championing bands that did not gain any fans at time of inception, but tragically, were awesome and groundbreaking. I’ll just list em here before I go on: 

, Rodriguez, 
Big Star.

All these bands are wildly different from each other on an aesthetic level (one’s metal, one is political folk rock, one proto-punk, one is power pop) but there is a running theme between them all: “They were oh so close to making it”. Anvil was always on the cusp of making it in the metal world, Rodriguez thrived in South America decades before he got any attention here, Death got blacklisted ’cause of their name (and race), and Big Star just couldn’t find anywhere to fit in. Each case is painted as a Shakespearean tragedy of sorts, as all are victim of circumstance and wrong place, wrong time nonsense. And I agree, they make for compelling stories. But we have to look at these bands and their plights from a couple specific places before we can truly anoint them as lost gems from a generation that unforgivably, didn’t buy their records.


: They weren’t very good at all, and I’m approaching this from any criteria imaginable. I don’t know what the hell Lars was babbling about when he said “Anvil was metal before metal”. My chronology might be off, but were they hanging around and rocking clubs before Black Sabbath? I don’t think so. I also know for a fact Iron Maiden formed a good three years before these guys. Anvil was ok. But there was a lot of ok bands that didn’t ‘make it’ and didn’t deserve to make millions of dollars. ‘Metal on Metal’ is a perfectly decent song, but there has to be some substance, some songs beyond that for me to actually think they somehow got the short end of the proverbial heavy metal stick.

I’m not telling any tales out of school here, if you don’t believe me listen to their discography. It’s so far from remarkable. I’m a little irritated at myself I even watched the documentary on these delusional bastards thinking they are crafting breakthrough metal everyone needs to hear. Prior to that doc, Anvil wasn’t overrated, or underrated. They were proportionately rated to their contributions, and now everything is skewed and messy. Thanks internet. Moving on…

Rodriguez: See, unlike Anvil, Rodriguez was really, really talented. What killed me though while I was watching his documentary, is how every music expert and producer interviewed in the movie, just could not crack the big mystery why he couldn’t hit it big in the US. Were his albums great? Absolutely. The thing is, folk music wasn’t exactly going nuts at that time. Dylan had gone electric four years ago at the time of his debut. Zeppelin was going platinum after like an hour. There just wasn’t room for singer song writers who were wailing about socio-political issues with an acoustic guitar.. All of you who are crying about his lack of success ‘not being fair’ like all the participants in the documentary basically represent a couple of bald men fighting over a comb – seems important, but when you look at some pretty basic logistics, there really is no end game here.

Death: Let’s call a spade a spade here: Death didn’t gain an audience because they barely put out any music, and the music they did put out wasn’t spectacular. They were a black punk band in the ’70s, which I will concede, was fairly groundbreaking. And they had such a bad-ass name! I mean a third of the fucking documentary was talking about the name, which really is not a good sign. I actually like Death. But again, was it a horrible tragedy they didn’t get a giant record deal and tour with the Clash? Change your fucking name and write some songs, then we’ll talk.

Big Star: Big Star was amazing, one of the best bands of all time. I still listen to them all the time, in fact listened to #1 Record the other day a couple times through. But I understand why they didn’t get huge deals and stadium tours. They still don’t fit into any genre really, and holy shit were they sad. If you buy any albums out of these bands, Big Star is for sure the one to go for, but to make an argument that it’s insane they weren’t selling like the Eagles in the ’70 is pretty bizarro.

To me, the tragedy isn’t these bands didn’t hit the mega bigtime, it’s their legacy is defined by us as seeing that as the rightful end to the arc of every band we deem “deserving”. Prior to these goddamn documentaries, all of these acts were appreciated. Perhaps not on a wide scale, but still had a following. Evidently, this isn’t enough, we have to compartmentalize them into shoulda-, woulda-, coulda-been’s. The thing is, these documentaries aren’t doing them any favors. Sure, financially I guess they are, but now they are being forced to buy into our idea of success. We are traversing time, and pushing onto them what we think is just and proper.

By this I mean, these documentaries are classifying their earlier time as failures, and forcing them into success on our terms — selling songs on iTunes, buying shirts off Amazon, whatever. And I’m not against all that. This is the system we’re in, that’s how success is gauged. But what I am saying is, maybe it’s a good idea to stop and think their limited success in the industry was not only proportional, but now we’ve cheapened the cherished micro-legacy they had before. It’s entirely possible dismissing the past to make room for a better, improved future is a solution to a problem that can’t be fixed, or perhaps was never there in the first place.

This recent fad is just weird. Who decides that what happened back then was wrong, and who has the gall to think they are in a position to “make it right”? I’ve written about older bands or albums that I feel are overlooked, and I stand by that. But I also don’t try and put forth the argument that whatever points I’m making trumps the contextual circumstances/possible flaws of the band I’m applauding. Maybe, just maybe, like the Americans crushing the countryside of South Vietnam, goals were attained by Anvil, Rodriguez, Death, and Big Star. Revisionist history will always be a part of politics, let’s just keep it out of rock ‘n’ roll.


Everything You Know Means Nothing: Problematic Art and Crystal Castles’ Legacy

Sara Petite Has Fun “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood”

The 10 Best Indie Rock Albums of 2013

Liberation Blues: Tinariwen Invoke the Sahel’s Complex History on ‘Amatssou’