Perfect Sound Forever

The SST Records story- Part 1

Greg Ginn Henry Rollins, live Atlanta 1980
Photos by Bryan Pritchard

by Dave Lang (July 1998)

"If you're cold, you're dead; if you're cool, you're halfway there"
Chuck Dukowski

At this point in history this little essay could wind up being one of the most thoroughly "unfashionable" pieces of music journalism you'll read all year, but that's OK by me; if you want fashion, go read Rolling Stone - I'm here to talk about some great music.

There was a time way back in the early to mid 1980s when a certain label out of California by the name of SST was quite the hot thing. Its roster of artists was untouchable: Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Saccharine Trust, Firehose, etc. By 1987, things were looking even better; then-groundbreakers like Sonic Youth, Bad Brains and Dinosaur Jr. were joining the stable, along with second-generation LA "legends" like the Divine Horsemen and Universal Congress Of. The label was on a winning streak. By 1989, however, the rot had set in; by 1990, forget about it, SST was dead in the water... not financially, mind you, just artistically. Let's get the bigger picture...

First is my "personal history" with SST, and secondly I'll get to the actual label and its story, and what I believe to be its choice cuts. As a 14 year-old, I, and probably just about every other punker-wannabe out there at the time, bought the Repo Man soundtrack. Already juiced up on the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys, and having just rented the video, it was a logical choice. One particular number hit home: Black Flag's "TV Party". The song made me laugh, yet like the best music at such an impressionable age, it kind of scared me too. "Who are these American geezers? They sound nuts!" I pursued the matter further with a quick purchase of the Nervous Breakdown 7" and the almighty Damaged LP. The latter, naturally, is a record I'll take to my damn grave, if need be. And so it went, drooling over fanzines at the time like Flipside, Chemical Imbalance, B-Side and Forced Exposure, I kept on reading incessant namedropping of other SST artists like the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and before you knew it I was hooked. The Minutemen quickly became an object of worship in my bedroom, and any record with an SST logo on its jacket had my name on it: it was mine. By the time I was 17, it was probably getting a bit ridiculous: if it wasn't on SST, I didn't want to know about it.

There was something just so mythical about the label; the selection of bands was so eclectic, yet so keeping in line with individualist aesthetic it so firmly believed in. I mean, they put out some tragically dorky records at the time ('70s-style psych/fusion/hard rock in 1988... the hepcats didn't want to know about it!), and while I didn't necessarily like everything they released, I could always respect their choice: SST was a label that truly followed its own vision. Well, all good things must come to an end; as with many other independent labels before and after them, their downfall came about through a general decline in quality that can be attributed to the label getting a bit carried away with its reputed "sound", and therefore signing every half-assed no-talent schmuck cashing in on that very sound. If you want to know what I mean, think of these other examples of degeneration in quality: the Touch & Go label - from Negative Approach to Slint to Rodan to June of '44; Sub Pop - from Mudhoney to Blood Circus to just about anything it's released in the last 8 years; Dischord - from Minor Threat to Dag Nasty to Jawbox, etc. Do you get the picture? That, my friends, is a trend seen all too often.

By 1990 (being 18), I gave up on them and rabidly pursued other musical matters. I even sold off a bunch of my SST vinyl in the intervening years, yet now, some eight years later, I've come back for a second look, and I can tell you straight: the best of the best still hold up strong as the finest records of their time. That's my story, now to SST's...

SST, the record label, was formed in 1978 when Black Flag guitarist/founder Greg Ginn needed an outlet to release his band's music. SST (which stood for Solid State Tuners), the electronics company, was formed by Ginn a few years previous, a business venture apparently borne from his knack with ham radios and various electronic gadgets. The band had been going for two years (originally under the title Panic) and had built up a solid fan base in the LA area, and so spurred on by the DIY spirit of the time, he did what many others like him did: he started his own label and released the Nervous Breakdown 7". Following on with the Jealous Again EP in 1980, Ginn then went on to release records by other LA greats like the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust, before branching out across the US with other musical titans of the day such as Husker Du, the Meat Puppets and the Dicks. By 1984-5, the ball was rolling and SST had a roster that piqued the interest of various well-known (even mainstream!) critics and indeed resulted in several of its artists' records being listed in the usual sundry "Year's Best" rundowns in annual polls. Do you want a timeline? 1987? Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Tar Babies? To simply list the artist and when they were signed, when they left, when the label started to suck, etc. would be too dry and not do the label the justice it deserves. To get the true vibe of the label, and an idea as to why and how SST was arguably the most important and influential record label of the 1980s, one must know about the music, as SST, much like the famed ESP label of the '60s, was first and foremost always about the music.

I'll divide this part of the story into several sections: first up are classic SST bands and releases you must know about; second is the slightly redundant section of bands and records you probably already know about and aren't often associated with the label (I'll explain later); thirdly are a few surprise, and generally obscure, nuggets from the catalogue; and lastly is the turkeys section, a collection of releases perhaps best forgotten.

First on the list, naturally, is BLACK FLAG. The band, as anyone who knows anything about them, went through several distinct phases. There's the pre-Rollins punk phase, the Rollins punk phase, and the post-Damaged more "progressive" phase. If you want an excellent rundown on the pre-Rollins punk phase, you can't go past the essential compendium, First Four Years. This gathers together all their pre-Damaged material and makes for a good half-hour-plus of complete and total bounce-off-the-walls punk rock mayhem. Indeed, many fans who saw the band live during this era (even Rollins himself) say that the group at this point - especially with Dez Cadena on vocals - would set a venue afire with ridiculous bouts of rioting and destruction the moment an opening chord was struck. Listening to their music, especially the constant barrage that is the Jealous Again EP, one can easily visualise such a scenario. The soundtrack of American youth gone wild, as they say.

The Damaged LP is an obvious choice. Often hailed as the greatest hardcore punk album ever (even Rolling Stone listed it as one of the best records of the '80's! Sheez!), I'm trying hard to think of a serious contender, so what the hell, maybe the critics are right for once. This record is just so ON from start to finish - yes, from "Rise Above" through to "Six Pack" through to "Thirsty & Miserable" and beyond - and such a perfect encapsulation of rage and disgust targeted at the world at large, that virtually every other "punk" record released in its wake shrinks in its shadow. Put simply: this is the benchmark. In fact, if I recall correctly, on one particularly alcohol-deluded conversation I had a while ago with a friend, I was caught out blurting something along the lines of "Damaged was truly the Funhouse of the '80s". Now never let it be said that alcohol makes you stupid.

Things start getting iffy around here. There are lots of 'Flag fans that aren't too hot on their post-Damaged material, as they branched out into longer songs and jazzier structures, but myself, I can appreciate it all. The basic fact of the matter is that most dumb punkers of the day just didn't understand what Ginn (and remember, it was his band, not Rollins') was trying to do with his music. People complained that they'd gone "heavy metal" or weren't up to playing to the thrash school anymore, but that is simply not the case. As Joe Carducci stated in his brilliant ROCK AND THE POP NARCOTIC book, Ginn was chasing after a transcendental non-categorizable rock form.

The pick of the litter as far as I'm concerned is their Slip It In LP of 1984. Gone is the thrash-punk of yesteryear, replaced with a more mid-tempo hard rocking approach and Ginn's McLaughlin/Hendrix/Williamson-style soloing. As an educated guess, I'd say this period in their work shows Ginn going back to his early '70s roots: Stooges, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, MC5, Blue Cheer. The opening title track is a killer, and much like "TV Party", a great sarcastic party-starter. "Wound Up", "Black Coffee", "My Ghetto", all the hits are here, and if anything, this sounds much better now than it did in the '80s. Only now is the world starting to catch up.

Last on my list of essential BF discs is an odd choice, since I hated it when I first bought it over ten years ago (I actually traded it in soon after purchase... and now I just re-bought it last month...crazy world), yet now have come to realise it to be possibly the most adventurous (though obviously not the best) record they made; it's their instrumental 12" EP from 1985, The Process of Weeding Out. Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone, but having long since matured from the strict three-minute rule of punkerdom (re: if the song's longer than three minutes, I don't wanna know about it) this one has come to be one of my favourite 'Flag discs. I guess my original rejection of it was based more on its concept than its actual music: why on earth was a vocal-led rock band ditching its singer for a one-off instrumental record? I just couldn't get my pea-/teenaged brain around it at the time, but now it all makes sense. There is NO NEED for a vocalist here: the music speaks for itself. If anything, with its murky guitar sound and angular rhythms, Process... brings to mind a more messy, punkish take on King Crimson circa Red or Starless and Bible Black, and whilst such a reference (and sound) might've gone down like a lead balloon in the rock underground 10 years ago, now that we're all a little older and wiser, things are falling into place. Whaddya know, even some of those Chicagoan "math-rock" geeks might get something out of it. This is truly the kind of "free rock" the MC5 never quite got on tape at the time.

A book could, should, and in fact has been written on Black Flag, but it really doesn't tell the whole story. I'm talking about Henry Rollins' GET IN THE VAN epic. I'll admit, I'm most certainly not a fan of Rollins' solo work (once again, BF was Ginn's band, not Rollins'). Not only is his music dull, uninspired hard rock, but his general personality and tone of his work is macho to the point of self-parody. Many say that Hank in fact ruined the band once he joined - and I'm not of that opinion (it's only since he's been allowed to indulge in his solo work that he's become unbearable) - but that's a different story. That said, despite some major lags in the second half (pages and pages of Hank endlessly moaning about his deep sense of existential angst), his book does give some good insights into the band, how poorly they were treated by the police, the press (curiously, their most vocal supporter in the mainstream media was none other than blues specialist, the late Robert Palmer), their own audiences (especially in the UK, where they were loathed), the music industry, as well as some positive aspects in how BF, with their mythical work ethic and constant touring, changed the face of underground American rock in the '80's, which subsequently greatly shaped the mold of mainstream rock in the '90's. Love them or hate them, BF were undeniably one of the most - if not the most - influential US rock band of the 1980s. Ginn, for all his apparent feelings of failure regarding the band, has earned himself an enviable legacy in contemporary music.

The MINUTEMEN are a band I've raved on about before, and indeed a band that has been raved on about many other times by countless other people, so a distinct feeling of redundancy is hanging in the air here. Of course the short version runs something like this: Dennes Boon and Mike Watt of San Pedro, Southern California, friends since childhood, form the band with drummer George Hurley in 1980 out of the ashes of their previous band the Reactionaries. Inspired by punk and the avant sounds of Wire and The Pop Group, as well as their high school faves, Captain Beefheart, Dylan, Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult, they blaze a trail with their minute-length punk/funk/jazz ditties for five years across the world with a dozen or so records before D. Boon is tragically killed in a car accident in December 1985. Now that Mike Watt is considered a bona fide god (and he is!) in indie-rock circles, you've probably heard it all before, so onto the sounds...

Every Minutemen release is either on SST or New Alliance (a label started by the band, since bought by SST). Though their debut mini-LP, The Punchline, is a maelstrom of 30-second blasts of rhythmic fury, the first truly brilliant record they did starts with 1983's What Makes A Man Start Fires? The songs are slightly longer, the ideas and lyrics more fleshed out, and the Beefheart/Pop Group-ish rhythms are deeper and easier to sink into. I swear, "The Anchor", with its tale of Boon being dragged down with his lady by his side as his "anchor", is possibly the most romantic punker tune I've ever heard.

Hail Double Nickels on the Dime, for I say it's the best record of the 1980s. That's right, all the hacks/crits can fawn over Springsteen and Prince til their cows come home: this is the musical pinnacle of that wretched decade (though once again it must be mentioned that it was given some posthumous glory by making it into Rolling Stone's Best Records of the '80s list). A 48-song double LP released in 1984 (do not get the CD, as it omits 2 or 3 songs to fit the 78-minute length), Nickels is a classic double-vinyl excursion only rivalled by the likes of Trout Mask Replica or Miles Davis' Get Up With It. Everything is laid out for you to consume and exhume: life, death, love, hate, the state of the nation and the world. The Minutemen were not an art band, nor were they consciously "intellectual"; they were simply a band that asked the questions and told their own stories in an intelligent, approachable and concise manner. They were more than a band - George, Mike, D. - they were your friends. Believe me when I say this: I spent more hours listening to this set of songs than any other throughout my miserable high school years. To me it was a guide to life: punk rock, get out of that garage, make a difference. This is truly the anti-Reagan's America statement for the ages. Way too many songs to especially mention (pretty much all of them), though I do feel that "History Lesson Part 2" needs to be brought up, if only because it sums up the whole aesthetic of the band: we were liberated by punk rock, now it's your turn. Such a statement may sound corny in this day and age, and the Minutemen were in fact quite a corny band at times, though this is no Sham 69 for-the-kids bogusness, it's a band stating punk as an idea, not a musical style. Double Nickels is big on heart, ideas and sounds, and for a true understanding of modern music, you need it.

Come to think of it, the band didn't actually release a dud record, but I'll skip to their last LP as a tragic finale to their story, 3-Way Tie (For Last). Their most overtly political album 3WT saw the band lengthening the songs out and experimenting with more genres than ever before: there's shades of samba and Spanish guitar, occasional schmaltz, spoken word segments, rap (the awesome "No One"), '70s cheese-rock (a Blue Oyster Cult cover), sung-over-the-phone weirdness, wacked-out psychedelia and rootsy rock'n'roll. An eclectic mix that not only saw them leaving on a high note, but also has one wondering just exactly what they would've done had they continued on, especially since at the time they were getting lots of press attention and praise (having supported R.E.M. that year on tour) and were slotted by many to be the SST band to "make it". Well, we'll never know, and sometimes splitting up is the best thing your fave band can do anyway (though not under those circumstances). The Minutemen are a classic example of a whole being so much more than its parts: both Watt and Hurley were unsurpassed in their musicianship (and from all reports, the band were certainly one of the finest live acts of their day), and D. Boon had passion and style to burn, but together, they invented a whole new musical language that people today are still trying to emulate and match up to. Few others can say the same.

See Part Two of this article