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The Unraveling of SST Records

Jim Ruland’s book on the legendary punk label helps explain why we lack a meaningful counterculture today.

Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
A Black Flag concert at Perkins Park in May 1984

In 1990, punk provocateurs Negativland cut a typically experimental single for SST Records, then America’s most influential independent label. A sound collage, it pillaged fragments of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” along with an unauthorized recording of American Top 40 host Casey Kasem disparaging the famous Irish band. The single’s artwork featured the letter U and the numeral 2. “We’re gonna get sued,” SST’s manager objected. But Greg Ginn, the label’s iconoclastic co-owner, was never one to compromise. “We’re putting it out,” he said.

When the single emerged in 1991, U2’s label, Island Records, predictably served SST with a temporary restraining order, demanded the record’s recall, and sought to recover damages. Neither SST nor Negativland had prepared for this. The band made a public plea that U2 ask their label to stand down. But SST’s actions shocked the indie underground. The label, known for many years as a champion of small artists against the corporate rock establishment, settled with Island and promptly announced its intention to recoup all losses from its own artist. Feverish exchanges followed. Negativland wrote a letter calling SST hypocrites and abandoned the label. Ginn published a press release calling Negativland “paranoid upper-middle class malcontents” and sued them for breach of contract. The national music media picked up the story and uncovered that SST was withholding royalty payments from many of its bands. The label came out looking fabulously unscrupulous.

Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records
by Jim Ruland
Hachette, 432 pp., $30.00

This drama between SST and Negativland is all but forgotten today, but it marked a major blow to the underground movement the label once nurtured, as music journalist Jim Ruland writes in a new book, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records. SST had been subversive. The label—which released formative records by bands like Black Flag, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Soundgarden, and Dinosaur Jr.—“operated for reasons that had nothing to do with the rock and roll fantasy of getting rich and famous: to make art, to document the scene, to create something new and in doing so prove that anyone could do it,” Ruland writes. Corporate Rock Sucks ably explains how SST unraveled. But it’s also a case study in how principled countercultural movements, under the iron grip of capitalist realism, have again and again made themselves toothless adjuncts of the mainstream. At a moment when it’s hard to imagine anything in American culture posing a threat to the established social order, Ruland’s book helps explain why we lack a meaningful counterculture today.

How did it come to this? In the 1980s, a vibrant opposition to mass culture thrived. Punk formed a whole DIY ethos, a collective way of life outside of mainstream structures. At any rate, that was the promise. In Los Angeles, the punk scene bristled with oddball energy around bands like X and the Germs. Meanwhile, a harder-edged discontent was welling up in the city’s suburban beach towns. It only needed a home. SST Records, like so many indie labels, began out of practical necessity. Ginn was sick of waiting on local LA labels to release his band Black Flag’s first record, so he did it himself. The Nervous Breakdown EP, which came out on SST in 1978, is an explosion of rage and desperation. It birthed the genre known as “hardcore” punk, which would come to define resistance to the corporate culture of Reagan’s America. 

Ruland presents SST’s origins as a repudiation of the “corporate rock” system that arose in the 1970s to rationalize the production of American popular music. But it quickly became more than a punk label. “What we try to do is create a situation that opens people’s minds up to something new,” Ginn said at the time. Black Flag lived with other punks in warehouses and communal art spaces that doubled as SST’s offices—like the Church portrayed in Penelope Spheeris’s raucous 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. The label released other artsy locals, like the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust, who were less punk in sound than in working-class DIY spirit. Their movement had a recognizable visual signature in the work of Raymond Pettibon, Ginn’s brother, whose lurid drawings became flyers, album artwork, and other propaganda. Sure, there was some nihilism and violence, but there was also camaraderie.

One measure of a counterculture’s power is how threatening it is to authorities. Los Angeles police routinely brutalized punks, arriving at Black Flag shows to start fights and invariably blaming the band for the riots that ensued. This harassment drove SST’s artists onto the road, Ruland explains, where they began “laying the foundation for the future of indie rock by establishing a network of clubs, crash pads, punk houses, and halls for hire across America where bands with the courage to leave home could play.” They connected inchoate punk communities, releasing early albums by Phoenix’s acid-fried Meat Puppets and Minneapolis’s hyperspeed Hüsker Dü and taking them on tours that inspired the next generation of punks. In that heroic era, the book maintains, the label was essentially anti-commercial, guided not by genre orthodoxy or profitability but by a lifestyle that rejected prevailing social wisdom.

The rugged rebel attitude, of course, is something of an American tradition. Before punks there were hippies, before hippies the beats. Born under the appropriative logic of capitalism, these oppositional movements have rarely been much more than an annex of mainstream structures—at least not for long. It was probably inevitable that the ’80s underground, however alienating at its outset, would eventually give rise to the ’90s “alternative” explosion, the major-label feeding frenzy that followed, Vans Warped Tour, Pitchfork, and the rest of the indie-industrial complex. Only monks, poets, and members of the band Fugazi remain untainted. 

Corporate Rock Sucks is forensic in tracking how SST brought new business savvy to punk. The label was nothing if not ambitious. It was instrumental in creating the modern indie marketing machine, and it paved the way for punk to become one more brand in the culture industry. For SST’s brain trust, the mission was “global domination”—although the results of its methods varied. An early distribution deal with a major label subsidiary, for example, famously ended with SST being sued and Ginn spending five days in county jail after he violated a court injunction by releasing new Black Flag material. Building corporate-style infrastructure proved more successful. An experienced label manager “knew which underground bands were moving units.” A series of hires developed SST’s “publicity apparatus.” The label’s biggest coup, though, was exploiting the growing power of college radio to reach a wide demographic of young people. “SST was one of the first indie labels to capitalize on what it correctly surmised as an essential tool for promoting its artists,” Ruland writes. 

These moves brought tremendous attention to the underground. They have since become requirements of any indie label that hopes to turn a profit. By 1984, Black Flag had sold around 250,000 total records, according to Ginn—an incredible number for a small operation. Hüsker Dü’s Flip Your Wig was such a hit on college radio that the band jumped to a major label in 1985. SST signed national acts, like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., that were willing to tour and had aspirations to airplay. It landed a Bad Brains video on MTV. At the end of the ’80s, working at the label’s offices was “not unlike working other nine-to-five jobs,” Ruland observes, with car pools, travel agents, and health insurance. Global domination achieved.

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What’s the problem, you may ask, if the artists are surviving? The more SST fashioned itself on the model of the establishment it despised, the more the label came to resemble it. Mainly, it started screwing its bands. Negativland was hardly the only victim. Sonic Youth, frustrated with the label’s “failure to pay,” left for Geffen in 1988. When the Meat Puppets raised the issue of “serious irregularities” in their SST royalty statements after signing with a major label, Ginn sued them for libel. It’s not that SST was hurting for cash: By 1991, the business was worth $1.2 million. “Somehow,” Ruland writes, “the label that had taken on corporate rock transformed from David the underdog into a humorless Goliath hell-bent on making its opponents pay.”

“The problem with cultural dissent in America isn’t that it’s been co-opted, absorbed, or ripped-off,” cultural historian Thomas Frank wrote in The Baffler in 1994. The countercultural idea, having offered itself to business interests, was “no longer any different from the official culture it’s supposed to be subverting.” This seems truer today than when it was written. The internet age, despite its promise of endless connective potential for the most outlandish human activity, has mainly led to cultural productions that are ready-made for the hosting, use, and profit of global companies—it often seems there’s little alternative. How would a mass countercultural movement even form today?

Those wishing to know Ginn’s perspective on all this will be disappointed: He’s holed up in Texas and has “retired from interviews.” Anyway, these days, SST is little more than an online “superstore” for its legacy catalog, Ginn’s jazz projects, and various merchandise. Some musicians have litigated to recover their copyrights from him. Others have given up. Then, of course, there are the weird and dispiriting Black Flag reunions—and the attendant lawsuits. It has long been impossible to square the label’s treatment of its community with its former image as a rebel beacon.

“For many in the music industry,” Ruland writes, “SST served first as an inspiration, then as a cautionary tale.” Indie juggernauts like Sub Pop and Epitaph Records, whose founders are quoted on SST’s importance, have become more scrupulous in business, more rational in their legal and promotional activities. But they’re hardly the bearers of anything transgressive. On the contrary, they carry the legacy of an underground that has largely self-styled to meet mainstream tastes. We might let SST’s story serve as a reminder that before the punk movement was sanitized into the “alternative” format, there was a real alternative.