SST Records was more than just a record label. In the 1980s, it operated as something of an antiestablishment holy grail, an aspirational lifestyle brand for hardcore do-it-yourselfers who lived outside the margins and wanted to express themselves while avoiding major labels.
As bands such as Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü dropped a run of landmark albums, underground musicians flooded the label’s office, in Los Angeles’s South Bay, with demo tapes, hoping to ride with SST and the righteous credibility it could bestow.
Unfortunately, few of these bands bothered to read their contracts—and if they did, it didn’t matter. In Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records, Jim Ruland strikes a balance in his account of the strange incongruity of SST and its enigmatic founder, Greg Ginn. A musical and marketing savant, Ginn, with his defiant ethos and suspicion of the mainstream, sparked a revolutionary business model that doubled as the devil in disguise.
Ruland knows the terrain—he’s coauthored bios with Black Flag/Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris and Bad Religion. Corporate Rock Sucks hums loudest when Ruland excavates the early days of the Los Angeles punk scene and Ginn’s founding of Black Flag in the late 1970s. That laid the foundation for SST’s antiestablishment mission.
Initially shunned in Hollywood, Black Flag created their own scene in the South Bay. Gigs were hard to come by, but the band knew how to get attention. As with the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, Black Flag’s intense graphic style was a call to arms; the group’s logo, created by Ginn’s brother, Raymond Pettibon, and songs like “I’ve Had It” were mainlined by angry and frustrated kids. When Black Flag performed, the police often showed up. The LAPD, in particular, provoked crowds and shut down gigs. This, in turn, triggered the media, which made it harder for the band to book Los Angeles shows. With the success of 1978’s Nervous Breakdown EP (3,000 copies were sold) and nowhere to play, Black Flag took to the road.
Touring incessantly through the United States and Canada, the band helped create an underground road map for indie groups. Often sleeping in their van, Black Flag developed a reliable network of towns, venues, promoters, record stores, and crash pads, cementing SST into the underground consciousness.
Soon the label’s roster was loaded with a diverse stable of essential artists. Still, Ruland wants us to understand, Black Flag always ate first—their records and tours were top priority, even if it meant a band had to wait a year or more to get its own album out, as was the case with 1984’s Meat Puppets II. Even after it was released to significant acclaim, finding the album could be problematic, but there were always plenty of Black Flag records in stock. Many bands forfeited their publishing rights to Ginn—the price to be paid for signing with SST.
Despite the hype and artistry, SST was often insolvent. Ruland notes that distribution hassles, unpaid royalties, and organizational rigidity contributed to the departures of the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü, while the death of the Minutemen’s D. Boon in 1985 stripped the label of its heart.
Equally crucial, key players who helped run the label began to move on.
Ruland’s focus wanes when he turns to a replenished late-l980s roster that included Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden. The pre-SST histories of these groups feel disjointed, perhaps proving that the revolution couldn’t be rebooted. By the time they came to the label, the arrangement was symbiotic: SST juiced its cash flow, and the bands boosted their reps before moving on to more lucrative deals. Symbolic of SST’s decline is the parting gift that Screaming Trees leader Mark Lanegan—who died in February—offered Ginn, admonishing him to sign a band from Seattle called Nirvana. Ginn passed. He was too busy issuing experimental instrumental albums, highlighting Ruland’s point that legacy was never part of the agenda.
The past three decades of SST are marked by Ginn’s vendettas against former bandmates and even his brother Pettibon, to whom he hasn’t spoken in decades. The company is running on fumes at this point—a shell of a website selling music and merch that trade on the glory days.
In the end, Corporate Rock Sucks is the story of just another great rock ’n’ roll swindle. At one point, SST really did seem like an agent for change. But ultimately, Ginn’s actions sucked even more than corporate rock—because you never saw them coming.•