Perfect Sound Forever

The SST Records story- Pt 2

Meat Puppets- Cris Kirkwood, Dallas, '85

by Dave Lang

The MEAT PUPPETS are considered by many these days as merely a footnote in the development of underground rock, or perhaps some no-name band that had some sort of involvement with that famous band Nirvana, though it must be stated that back in the '80s, when they were on SST, they released some of the finest records of their era. Might I say, their 1982-'89 output is near impeccable, but first things first: the band. Formed in 1979 by the brothers Kirkwood, Cris and Kirk, and their friend, drummer Derrick Bostrom, and inspired by everything from various halluocagenic drugs to Hank Williams to Beefheart to ZZ Top (like all the SST greats, they never threw away their pre-punk roots), they played around the local Arizona cicuit with various other hardcore outfits of the day until they released their debut 7" EP in 1980, In A Car (since reissued on SST). Being most impressed with its mixture of chaotic thrash fuckabout (newcomers will be shocked by the sheer MESS that is early MPs) and acid-damaged country swing, SST signed 'em up quick and over the proceeding years of that decade released a total of six LPs and one 12" EP.

Skip the first LP - they were still learning their craft then - and head straight for their second effort, the aptly-titled II. Released in 1983, and sporting a beautiful desert-inspired painting and photo on its sleeve, this is where the MPs found their feet. Branching into any genre they please, from bluegrass to psychedelic instrumentals to swaying country ballads to punkish rock dirges, this is quite the essential introduction to the band. The totally (and I mean TOTALLY) clueless may also be interested to know that the two songs Nirvana covered come from this record.

Next is my fave platter of theirs, 1985's unsurpassable Up On The Sun. Branching even further into sun-drenched psych weirdness and general improvements in instrumentation and songwriting skills, this was a record I wore nearly to its bones back in the '80's. Slipping it back on again recently - after many years of having not even looked at the damn thing - I can frankly and poetically say it impresses like a motherfucker. With a bigger recording budget and more intricate (and very Beefheart-ish) guitar work, I'd be tempted to say that this is in fact one of the great psychedelic records. The lilting melodies on the title track, the offbeat whistling on (what else?) "The Whistling Song", the Byrds-y harmonies on the demented "Enchanted Porkfist" and the deep, aquatic guitar lines on "Two Rivers" have this one holding up well 13 years down the line. As with all their SST releases, some great original cover art from the band. Mesmerising.

After that, things got a bit sticky. The band had become a critics fave and continued to tour their proverbial backsides off (on those classic SST bills that criss-crossed the US constantly), though their records suffered a tad for the while. Their follow-up, 1986's EP, Out My Way, definitely had its moments, though 1987's Mirage just plain sucked (way too slick, dud songs), and the hastily-released LP from (again) 1987, Huevos, seemed perhaps a desperate move. Actually that very disc was quite a collection, once again maybe a bit too clean for its own good, though the great songs compensated, despite the presence of such dodgy titles as "Sexy Music" and "Bad Love".

However, just as it seemed all was lost, they came back in 1989 with what was possibly their best record yet, Monsters. Fans are still divided on the merits of this very release, but for my two cents this is one of the best records of the late '80s and contains some of the finest ever MPs songs. Beefing up their sound considerably, the band discarded the slickness that had marred their previous few efforts and put some of that Arizona grit back into the proceedings, with the result bordering on some sort of demented psych-metal on occasion. The best of the best are here: "The Void" (this is the Sabbath-y psych-metal number in question), "Touchdown King" (7+ minutes of scorching guitar beauty), "Strings on Your Heart" (simple, droney pop) and "Like Being Alive" (the saddest damn song they ever wrote). Unfortunately (for some), this was also their last SST release, as they were soon snapped up by London/Polydor and continue to this day to release music that I couldn't care less about. Having heard a smattering of these releases at various times throughout the years, I can firmly say that the band lost all inspiration sometime back in 1989, and are at this point in time only a shadow of their former selves. Myself, I basically totally lost interest in the band by the end of 1989 anyway. It was just too obvious the group would soon be running on empty, though despite such predicaments, I did actually catch them on their Australian tour of 1992 and they blew my collective socks off, and what the hell, if they can make a million off the success of Nirvana then good on 'em, they deserve it.

As an endnote, I recently heard from an old friend of the band who reported that SST has lost the rights to their back catalogue (after a long court battle brought about through lack of royalty payments) and after the disastrous flop of their last CD (it apparently only sold about 25,000 copies, whilst the previous Nirvana-boosted release supposedly topped sales of over 750,000) the band isn't talking to each other. Whatever the case, never let it be forgotten, there was a time when that band was nearly king of the roost, and the above-mentioned vinyl offerings are proof of that. Get on it.

The name SACCHARINE TRUST probably doesn't mean much to you, but for all the early, seminal SST groups, ST would have to rate as one of the best, and certainly the most underrated by critics and audience alike. Throughout their lifespan (roughly 1980 to '86) they recorded music of unequalled terror, beauty and expression, even though I'm sure their sales history never reached above miniscule. Such is the way of the world, though I'll attempt to do them some posthumous justice, nevertheless.

The core of the band (LA natives, by the way) was essentially vocalist Jack Brewer and guitarist Joe Baiza, with a succession of drummers/bassists going through the group throughout its history (though Tony Cicero stuck behind the kit for a long time). Their sound was an unholy combination of Brewer's gutteral, emotional growl spat into '50s beat poetry, and Baiza's simply awesome six-string plucking, which, much like Ginn, combined the best of John McLaughlin's spidery twang and Hendrix's dense, wah-wah'd power chords. The term "jazz-rock" may conjure up images of fusion-hell to you, though much like Miles Davis' '70s period, early Tony Williams' Lifetime, or perhaps even the MC5's assimilation of Albert Ayler and Chuck Berry, ST combined the two with a punk aggression and aesthetic that still make them stand out as innovators today.

First in the essentials list is their debut 12" EP from 1981, Pagan Icons. Like many of their SST compadres, their debut finds them still in a very primitive, elementary stage, and this time the extreme rawness really works to their advantage. Sounding essentially like an arty punk band - perhaps a mix of Wire's minimalism and Television's sense of expansion (if you can imagine a mixture between two such opposites) - the EP is classic concoction of primal, near juvenile angst ("Mad at the Company", "Community Lie") and a more ambitious - dare I say - existential yearning ("A Human Certainty", "We Don't Need Freedom", "Success and Failure"). One crit even hailed Brewer as LA's new Jim Morrison in the rock-poet stakes.

As with many of their label partners, the stark primitivism was also soon lost and a sense of musical exploration took over. Skip the excusable Worldbroken LP from '85, a totally improvised shambles with Mike Watt temporarily stepping in on bass, and head straight for 1984's fantastic Surviving You, Always LP. This is where the "jazz-rock" elements have come to the fore, and the results are awesome. I don't tend to have "guitar heroes", and I don't intend on having any in the future, though if anyone come close, it's Joe Baiza. The sheer howl and wail he tears from his strings is incredible, and why on earth he isn't some sort of modern-day Guitar Player god just goes to show how severely retarded that little boys club is. The sound of 'Trust at this point is hard to pinpoint: the rhythm section is like a hopped-up be-bop combo, Baiza does his Hendrix thing on guitar, Brewer spits out his words in an enounciated manner somewhat reminiscent of Mark E. Smith, and the combination evolves into something not unlike a more progressive and fully expanded Minutemen. As would more so be the case, some brass slipped into the line-up, and the Doors' comparisons would be buffered more by a cover of their own "Peace Frog".

Last but not least was their final statement, 1986's We Became Snakes. This time sporting some snappy full-colour cover art, ST went the whole hog with a full-blown psych-jazz-rock killer, and the fact that this never broke them into a bigger audience in even the independent music scene of their day says more about people's taste than I ever could. "Effort to Waste" is simply an instant classic, and the general feel of the entire album - a sense of desperation in a decaying city, redemption only coming through their music - is so spot on I'd be tempted to say that ST were truly one of the great "lost" bands of the '80s. The production is much cleaner, and so if you can imagine a sparser Miles ca. Bitches Brew or Ornette with his Prime Time combo being fronted by an American Mark E. Smith, you might understand what this sounds like. Soon after this they called it quits, Baiza formed the incredible Universal Congress Of (more on them later) and Brewer released some great solo discs on New Alliance, though also worth searching out is the posthumous 1989 double LP live collection, Past Lives, which gathers good quality live recordings of the band in their prime (even abolishing Black Flag's "Six Pack"). Rumour has it Saccharine Trust has been playing the odd gig around the LA region again of late, and whether that's true or not, they were true originals, and like the best of them, their music - at the time scorned for being uncool in a sea of angry white-boy rock - has weathered well into the '90s, as their musical references - Miles, Ornette, Hendrix - have found a more appreciative audience in the rock underground.

FIREHOSE were perhaps the last "classic" SST band to stick around, probably due to the fact that they didn't even get going until 1986, when Mike Watt and George Hurley picked up the pieces with Ed Fromohio after the tragic death of D. Boon, and so let's get onto their story quick. Well, you probably know the story already; after all, I've just given you the shorthand version, so let's discuss their essential recordings...

Their debut is untouchable: Ragin, Full-On. Almost replicating the funk-jazz of classic Minutemen, though building on it with a poppier, more accessible base, there's not a dud on this one. From the near Buzzcocksian melodies of "Brave Captain" and "Choose Any Memory" to the Beefheart rhythms of "Under the Influence of Meat Puppets" to the rootsy jive of "Things Could Turn Around", this is the way "pop" records should be made. A perfect follow-up to the life-changing recordings that the Minutemen spat out: another band invents its own musical language.

Their follow-up, 1987's If'n, I'm not so crash-hot on. Fact of the matter is, I'm going to skip it. Simply put: it didn't work. Too many weak, not-fully-fleshed-out songs, and too many styles sitting right next to each other just don't click. However, do not despair, as their 1989 LP, Fromohio, is my fave of the lot. Ditching most of their jazz-funk background, here the band takes a more back-to-basics roots-rock approach, and this time it works. From the cover art (random shots of mid-west America) to the song titles ("Riddle of the Eighties", "Liberty for Our Friend") to the styles featured within (acoustic folk, heavy guitar rock, cheesy balladeering, hip-hop-style yapping) perfectly bookend this release as a state-of-the-nation address. At the time, playing this on a rainy day was a treat; it's just that kind of music. Well, after that high point, who's to say what became of them? As with most of their contemporaries, they got snapped up by a major (Columbia/Sony) around 1990, and being completely disillusioned with the entire SST roster at the time anyway, and fanatically discovering other genres all the while, I totally lost interest and never kept up with their post-SST moves. Friends have assured me their following two CDs were in fact very respectable, but whatever the case, due to a lame publicity department or a lack of faith from the label or whatever, they pretty much sunk from view during their Columbia days and I for one aren't here to talk about that period anyway.

For the record: Firehose weren't the revolutionary kick in the pants the Minutemen were, yet they weren't supposed to be. This time it was three guys merely having fun and writing and playing the songs they wanted to, tipping their hats to the past and nodding onwards to the future, and back in the late '80s, when the only alternatives in the US scene appeared to be angry mid-westerners bashing their guitars or the oncoming bonehead explosion of grunge from the North West, if one wanted some "pop" that moved and had something to say for itself, one couldn't top Firehose.

When one speaks of the classic SST groups, one has to mention HUSKER DU. That is why I'll do exactly that. It's not like I don't think they were a pretty fine band in their day - they were one of the best - though unlike, say, Saccharine Trust, their overexposure in certain circles, and their unfortunate tendency of inspiring thousands of talentless dullards to copy their moves over the last decade has severely wained my enthusiasm to talk about them. Put simply: a hell of a lot has been written about the band and I won't add one iota of fascinating, revelatory information on them, so why bother? For the record: I haven't listened to any of their records in a real long time, though as for their SST releases, check out Metal Circus, Zen Arcade, and their best, in my opinion, 1985's Flip Your Wig. You probably own them all anyway, so onto other things...

Now I'll discuss some other releases on the label that, I suppose like Husker Du, are more well known and not often so commonly thought of as part of the "SST stable of artists". By this I mean to say that the bands I've previously mentioned are very much considered "SST bands": artists who helped define and mould the aesthetic of the label. These following artists, though more well known with the rock'n'roll mainstream, or "alternative" crowd, also released some gems on the label...

First up is SONIC YOUTH. Maybe this is a bit redundant, as SST doesn't actually do any of these titles anymore (Geffen bought the rights sometime in '93 or '94), though since they were on SST for a good 6-9 years, I'll still lump them in the basket. Pretty much all the SST Sonic Youth discs are worth checking out, and I think it's safe to say that their signing to the label in the mid '80s is what saved them from the ghetto of NY art hell, and in turn brought them to a wider audience in the first place. Take a look at the subsequent careers of Lydia Lunch and the Swans to see what I'm talking about. It was SY's very appreciation of the rustic, hardcore/hard-rock derived music that SST was so steeped in (a genre termed as "New Redneck" by the label at the time) - which they in the meantime absorbed - that indeed brought them out of the art-noise shenanigans of their earlier discs towards something more graspable. By this I don't mean to say that their earlier discs sucked, or that I have something against art-noise wank (I like it as much as the next guy), and I'm certainly not patronising enough to assume that SST "guided" SY with a loving hand towards their true sound (them SY folk are mighty cluey as it is), though seeing them develop throughout the '80s, when SST was so ON, their sound - their feel - so fitted the label's aesthetics perfectly that it was almost like they'd been on the label all along. Putting it straight: SY are as much Black Flag as they are Velvets, and though most don't see it, their straddling of pure rock'n'roll a la Black Flag/Stooges and "art" a la Velvets/Stockhausen is what makes them so important as a group.

All that said, you need these three records: Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, and most especially 1987's Sister, still my fave record they ever did. After that it was onto Enigma for the equally great Daydream Nation, and then onto Geffen for a lifetime of mediocrity and, on occasion, sheer awfulness. Whether they're still relevant is irrelevant to what I'm writing about now: everything they did from 1985 - 1987 is essential listening.

Following that is yet another band who released some records on the label in the "mid" section of their career, or to put it another way: their SST releases came after their debut and prior to their subsequent major-label slide into the dregs of the music scene. Of course I'm talking about DINOSUAR JR. It seems almost unbelievable to consider this these days, since the band - or should I say J. Mascis - makes records of shocking worthlessness, but there was a time when Dino Jr. were big news in the undie-ground music cavern. Following on from their 1985 self-titled debut on Homestead (quite a primitive, sloppy record, and vastly different to anything else they've ever done), they went on to change the face of guitar rock with 1987's You're Living All Over Me. This is where everyone stood up and took notice. I still remember buying it back in early '88 and wondering how on earth they'd achieved such a revolutionary contemporary style. I'd heard Blue Cheer and Neil Young's Crazy Horse, yet somehow they managed to assimilate those kinds of influences into a heavy, obviously punk-influenced sound. And what were those lyrics, song titles and weird graphics all about? For a while the band were a true mystery, and that was undoubtedly half of their charm.

Well, as far as follow-ups go, 1988's Bug was as good as you could expect: same kinda thing, though only not quite as good. Still, it definitely has its moments, and both records still hold up well today (again, I hadn't played either of them in well over 5 years, only dusting them off for this article), despite the damage that a good decade of releasing completely forgettable crap can do to a man's judgement of one's earlier works. Post SST? Forget about it, only a masochist would bother investigating the sad and indulgent world of J. Mascis in this day and age.

And that, I'm sorry to say, seems to be an unfortunate trend with this section of the article: bands who released some great frisbees on SST, yet then went on to a lifetime of utter tripe for the remainding years of their "careers" (and careers are certainly what they've become). Next on this list is the BAD BRAINS. Their pre-SST recordings are indispensable: the "Pay to Cum" 7", debut EP and Rock For Light LP are some of the greatest hardcore ever released . You simply must hear them. Of their SST period, only one disc really stands out: 1987's I Against I. Much like Black Flag in their prime, this is righeosity in a basket. Pure hell-fire rock'n'roll just screaming of life, energy, hatred, and love, bursting at the seams yet keeping itself in control to deliver the punch. The title track, in particular, is a time-to-testify anthem on a par with the MC5's awesome "Kick Out the Jams". After that? A series of OK-ish live albums on SST and many releases on various majors that bear absolutely no resemblance to the Bad Brains I once knew and loved.

See Part Three of this article