Jim Ruland takes on the history of one of the most storied and troubled labels in the American punk underground
Jim Ruland has established himself as something of an authority over the years on Southern California punk and hardcore. But even with that cred in pocket, the seasoned journalist initially had some reservations about diving into the tangled history of SST Records.
The legend of SST is in broad strokes one of independent music’s earliest and most heralded success stories. Black Flag, the Minutemen, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and others brought increased exposure to music that was defiantly at odds with the mainstream, this more than a decade before Nirvana brought grunge and punk to every mall in America. The label’s success gave credibility to punk and hardcore’s DIY ethos, proving that bands and labels could thrive swimming against the music industry current.
But it’s hard to tell the whole story of SST Records without giving equal consideration to its trials and tribulations. At the center of much of the controversy stood Greg Ginn, a man rightly appreciated as an indie music visionary but whose legacy is equally colored by his often-times acrimonious relationships with bandmates, co-workers and others who entered his orbit. Even decades later, some former SST acts are still in the throes of a legal tug of war with Ginn over copyright infringement, failure to pay royalties and other matters.
“I was convinced it was a bad idea,” Ruland said of his initial response to first being approached about writing a book on the label’s history.
Ultimately it took the encouragement of none other than Keith Morris to nudge Ruland into doing it. Ruland co-authored the Black Flag/Circle Jerks/OFF! frontman’s 2015 memoir My Damage, which he followed up in 2020 with the release of Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion.
“I had spent so much time with Keith and heard all the things he had to say about Greg Ginn and the label, and very little of it was flattering,” Ruland said. “I didn’t think he’d go for it, but he encouraged me to do it.”
Released Tuesday, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records is an exhilarating and exhaustive retelling of the legendary label’s ups and downs. Ruland traces SST’s origins from an electronics company founded by Ginn as a preteen through to its growth into arguably the coolest and most influential independent American label of the 1980s. It also shines a light on the label’s famously adversarial attitude, not just toward obvious targets like major labels, but also toward its own bands, employees and even fans.
That us-against-the-world spirit colors virtually every page of the book (each chapter is tellingly titled “SST vs…..”), and it’s something that proved to be both SST and Ginn’s greatest strength and most fatal flaw.
“I think it comes from a place of rejection,” Ruland said. “In the beginning, no one was interested in Black Flag. They were ahead of their time in terms of hardcore, but there was plenty of interesting and diverse music coming out of the Hollywood scene in the late 70s, and they just weren’t interested in Black Flag. Then they made a record, and everyone was like ‘Holy shit.’”
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Ruland’s first brush with punk came when he discovered The Ramones. He later moved west to California, where he started writing for zines. “That’s when I fell in love with Southern California punk rock,” he said.
When he later moved to LA’s South Bay area, he started getting into the early American hardcore music that was coming out of the beach cities in the later 1970s.
“I became kind of fascinated with ‘Why here? Why this place?’ When you live in the beach cities and South Bay, you quickly come to understand that it’s just different from the rest of LA. You can go to punk show in LA today, and you can pick out the people who are from South Bay.”
SST gets its much-deserved due in Corporate Rock Sucks, but Ruland deserves kudos for pushing the story far beyond the mythology that has hung around the label for so long. Ample space is given to the bands that long ago made the label its name, but it’s arguably the label’s middle period that best exemplifies SST’s relentless work ethic and obsession with cutting against the grain.
From 1987 into the early 90s, the label put out records at a backbreaking rate, signing and releasing music by artists from across the musical spectrum that most other labels, major or otherwise, wouldn’t give a first look to. While the label’s work with bands like Bad Brains, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden is well documented, there were also experimental records by gonzo rock inconclast Zoogz Rift, forays into spoken word and jazz (Always August) and even protest folk and blues (Kirk Kelly).
AUDIO: Always August Largeness With (W)holes
“People tend to regard SST as this monolithic entity, the label that Black Flag built, which is true,” Ruland said. “But it’s much more static and fluid than that, much like the career of Black Flag was. Black Flag was so many things, starting out as hardcore and moving into something that was slower and sludgier, and then they put out spoken word and instrumental records. SST really reflected that. There were a lot of great instrumental bands that came out of the label. Who could have seen that coming?”
For Ginn’s seeming willingness to take a chance on almost anything during this period, the book also points out some of the label’s most glaring misses. None were bigger than Ginn’s decision to pass on Nirvana ahead of the release of 1989’s Bleach. The band eventually signed to Sub Pop, and we all know how the rest of the story goes.
“That’s the agonizing moment, right? As huge as SST was, it’s also a story of missed opportunities,” Ruland said. “There were the opportunities they missed out on early when they didn’t have the funds and the ones they missed out on later when they had the funds but for whatever reason passed on bands that really could have transformed the lives of everyone involved with that label.”
SST lost steam in the early 90s, right as scores of bands (and even some that used to be on the label) basked in the success it had a huge hand in paving the way for. Ruland’s chronicle doesn’t end with easy resolution, but rather uncertainty. What happens next for Ginn and the label that largely put the American underground on the map? Is there another act in the SST story, or is Ginn even interested in seeing one through? In the end, only he knows the for sure. The rest of us will have to wait and see.
“I think Mark Lanegan said it best, ‘The head of the label is an enigma.’ If you try to predict what he will do, you end up looking foolish. My big hope is that the relationship between the former associates and the musicians and the label can be repaired and start from there.”
Jim Ruland’s top five SST releases
Black Flag Nervous Breakdown (SST 001)
I may be biased but Black Flag’s debut EP with Keith Morris is untouchable. “Wasted” is an autobiographical ode to Hermosa Beach and the title track is nothing less than the dawn of American hardcore.
The Stains S/T (SST 010)
The most hardcore record in the entire SST catalog. Robert Becerra’s guitar playing alone makes this a treasure.
Saint Vitus S/T (SST 022)
In 1984 SST released Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, and Black Flag’s My War, but Saint Vitus’ incendiary debut is my favorite release of that year.
Blind Idiot God S/T (SST 104)
Released at the height of SST’s obsession with instrumental music, this record is an absolute scorcher. The less you know about it the better. Just spin the disc and let it pin your ears back.
Negativland Escape from Noise (SST 133)
This is that rare release that’s innovative, experimental, and reflects the zeitgeist of its time, but still holds up today. Like Ken Nordine on acid.