Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records

  • By Jim Ruland
  • Hachette Books
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by Daniel de Visé
  • May 2, 2022

Meet the Svengali behind some of the biggest punk acts of the 1980s.

Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records

Back in the ‘80s, an army of college deejays and record-store clerks gathered nightly at Cabaret Metro in Chicago and the 9:30 Club in Washington to worship at the feet of their idols. R.E.M., the Replacements, and the Violent Femmes all had their acolytes, but the most exciting bands seemed to record for a single label, SST Records.

SST was the Sun Records of its era, and Greg Ginn was punk rock’s Sam Phillips. Phillips discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis and seeded the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. A generation later, Ginn formed Black Flag and discovered, in rough chronological order, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, and Dinosaur Jr., enough bands to populate a history of indie rock. Latter-day superstars from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins to Green Day and Blink 182, not to mention the grunge movement and DIY labels such as Merge Records, all would be unimaginable in a world without SST.

Corporate Rock Sucks, a new book by longtime punk ‘zine-ster Jim Ruland, offers an exhaustive history of SST and its mercurial founder. With his penchant for courting controversy and dodging lawsuits, Ginn emerges in Ruland’s account as an antihero very much in the Phillips tradition. Yet, unlike Phillips, Ginn also fronted one of the bands on his label, a duality that both enriches and complicates his legend.

Ginn’s status as an L.A. punk icon gave him enormous currency with the bands he signed. Over time, though, his Black Flag duties distracted him from his other artists and sometimes put the bands in direct conflict over release dates and funding priorities.

A good history of SST Records is long overdue. The label launched several of the greatest rock bands of the 1980s. Forty years later, both the label and the bands feel like footnotes, unknown to all but a thinning crowd of aging Gen-X hipsters.

Back in the Sam Phillips era, and through the two decades that followed, the best rock ‘n’ roll music generally fared well in the marketplace, a correlation that reached its apotheosis with the Beatles. Art and commerce strode hand-in-hand through the punk and new-wave eras of the late 1970s and early 1980s: the Ramones, the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, the Cars, Blondie, and the Police all sold records in relative abundance.

And then, with the rise of college radio and independent-label rock, artistry and royalties went their separate ways. In 1984, SST placed three records in the Top 20 on Robert Christgau’s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll: the double-album masterpiece Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen’s inspired Double Nickels on the Dime, and the vastly influential Meat Puppets II.

In 1985, SST placed four records in Pazz & Jop: Flip Your Wig and New Day Rising by the ascendant Hüsker Dü, Up on the Sun by the Meat Puppets, and 3-Way Tie (For Last) by the Minutemen. Anyone with even a flickering interest in indie rock should own them all. And yet, none of those records charted. The bands counted themselves lucky if they sold 30,000 copies, luckier still if they saw a royalty check. (In the grand tradition of independent labels, SST didn’t always pay its artists in a timely fashion.)

Ruland does a great job in charting the rise of SST. Ginn, an L.A. punk with an econ degree from UCLA, came of age in the South Bay, an expanse of self-contained suburbs and industrial sprawl tucked between Los Angeles and Long Beach. He formed the band that became Black Flag in 1976 after seeing the Ramones. He then started a record label on top of a mail-order business he’d launched as a child to sell ham-radio parts, SST Electronics.

“For many young artists, the confluence of art and commerce can be difficult to navigate,” Ruland writes, “but for Ginn, making a record was no more mysterious than manufacturing a tuner or applying for a patent.”

Black Flag played hardcore punk, much of it so fast and loud it made the Clash sound like the Carpenters. Ginn played lead guitar and wrote songs. By 1981, with Damaged, Black Flag had produced a landmark of L.A. punk. That feat alone would secure a legacy for Ginn and SST. But Ginn quickly revealed an uncanny ear for A&R (artists and repertoire), signing a succession of bands that would record some of the most rewarding and challenging music of the decade.

The Minutemen, a trio of string-shredding socialists from San Pedro, released their first SST record in 1980. The Meat Puppets, acid shamans from the Arizona desert, surfaced in 1982. And Hüsker Dü, a thrash-pop trio from the Twin Cities, debuted on SST in 1983.

The bands could not have been more different: no thousand-word review can do them justice. And this is where Corporate Rock Sucks gets frustrating. Ruland chose to fix his narrative eye on Ginn and Black Flag, documenting their intertwined careers in granular detail. Maybe that was the right play, but I wish he’d told me more about the great bands Ginn brought into the SST fold. Ruland might have devoted a full chapter to each of them, and I would’ve devoured every word. Instead, he takes pains to catalog dozens of releases from obscure SST artists that didn’t sell then and don’t matter now.

I would’ve liked to know more, too, about Ginn’s million-dollar ear: What, exactly, did he hear in each band when he first encountered its work on a beer-drenched stage or hand-delivered cassette? Hüsker Dü would rewrite the rules of hardcore punk, but their early recordings revealed little of that promise — except, apparently, to Greg Ginn.

My favorite passages in Corporate Rock Sucks explore the punk-rock landmarks in the SST catalog: Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels, and Black Flag’s Damaged. Sadly, Ruland spills considerably less ink on SST’s more eclectic treasures: Hüsker Dü’s power-pop masterpiece New Day Rising, the Meat Puppets’ light-psychedelic classic Up on the Sun, and Dinosaur Jr.’s sludge-metal celebration You’re Living All Over Me, records that transcend genre and stand among the finest recordings of the decade from any label.

I suspect Ruland’s own allegiances lie with punk. That’s fine: Back in the 1980s, my college friends argued endlessly about the comparative merits of the great SST bands. Everyone had a favorite, and Ruland comes off as a Black Flag partisan. But to treat SST as a punk label is to minimize the imprint’s massive impact beyond that niche. When Kurt Cobain invited the Meat Puppets to join him on the “MTV Unplugged” stage in 1993, it was not to play punk rock songs.

Ruland writes with an easy cadence and a clear mastery of his subject, especially when he dwells within the punk canon. No one is likely to carve a better portrait of Greg Ginn, the lanky gearhead at the center of the SST storm. Ruland’s book leaves “plenty of room for further study of SST Records,” as he acknowledges at the end. Bob Mould’s excellent See a Little Light, Michael Azerrad’s beloved Our Band Could Be Your Life, and the spirited Minutemen documentary “We Jam Econo” fill in some of the gaps, and all are highly recommended. Better yet, stop reading and buy the records.

Daniel de Visé is the author, most recently, of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.

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