Perfect Sound Forever

The SST Records story- Pt 3

Slovenly: Tim Plowman, Tom Watson, Lynn Johnston, Scott Ziegler, Steve Anderson, Rob Holzman
photo by Karina Jakelski, courtesy of Tom Watson

by Dave Lang

OK, now I wish to talk about some favourite records of mine that you've probably never heard of. These are the secret gems, the lost nuggets...

One can't go past SLOVENLY. Well, one could, but one shouldn't. That is because everything they've released is an unheralded classic. Formed in the early '80s by ex-Saccharine Trust drummer Rob Holzman and other hangers-on of the LA scene, they went on to release a string of stunning, evocative and highly individual records that still amaze today. There is truly no other band that sounds like Slovenly. Sometimes they evoke memories of No Wave, Beefheart, MX-80 Sound, Wire, Television, Pere Ubu and The Fall, yet their synthesis of these influences is their own. The guitars weave throughout each other like a good Magic Band should, or Lloyd and Verlaine in Television once did, the rhythm sections anchors itself into a beat to allow their fellow members to achieve this, and the vocalist, the deapan Steve Anderson, delivers his sermons of love and woe. Three completely brilliant LP's were released in a row: Thinking of Empire from 1986, Riposte from 1987, and We Shoot For the Moon from 1989.

The first has a wirey, tinny sound not unlike a more steady-paced Fall or Wire ca. their 154/Chairs Missing days, whilst the second has a more expansive, unwinding feel where the songs slowly reveal themselves as they become more involved as the twirling guitars and cryptic lyrics give a sense of something finally bringing itself to light. I must have listened to the unravelling guitars on the opening "The Way Untruths Are" or the beautiful, surreal, almost Scott Walker-like balladry of "As If It Always Happens" roughly 500 times in my life, and I can still say they send a chill up my spine with delight each and every time. There's no way you can truly describe Slovenly; they're like a mixture of the avant-garde, roots rock and intellectualising melodrama. Sheer genius.

That prepares me for my numero uno disc of theirs, 1989's We Shoot For the Moon. Graced with some lovely full-colour art, this is a big departure from anything they'd previously accomplished. Essentially a lot rougher, sloppier and noisier, distortion levels are pushed up high with the result being a bizarre stew of The Fall, Red Crayola, Beefheart, and especially (the rather obscure) MX-80 Sound (circa Hard Attack). "Originality" is not a word I bandy around too often; god knows even a lot of my faves aren't exactly breaking down any sort of noteworthy musical barriers, but by any standards, Slovenly invented their own blueprint for music, and you'd be a wise person to check 'em the hell out. As an endnote, they've since split up (they released their fine swansong on SST in '92) and main guy Tom Watson has since gone on to the "legendary" (as they all must be) Red Krayola, joined by none less than George Hurley on drums.

Speaking of ex-Saccharine Trust members, what's Joe Baiza been up to the last 10 years? I hear you say. Well, following their demise, he formed the great UNIVERSAL CONGRESS OF, a band most fitting of the "hidden gems" category. They released 3 LPs (well, one being a mini LP) on SST in the late '80s, in turn leaving the label soon after (as nearly everyone did around 1990) and subsequently released a few others on the Enemy label over the following couple of years (which I've never heard). All that aside...

All three discs are very different, though for starters, one can't go past their self-titled debut. A simple instrumental quartet, it's your standard gtr/gtr/bs/dm set-up, though each player is used to his maximum potential, creating a mind-bending array of organic, twisted, psyched-out, and I'd be tempted to go out on a limb here and say that this is one of the greatest, most hideously ignored independent-rock masterpieces of the '80's. Unfortunately, it was just released at the wrong time in history. Believe you me, if this was released today, in a world obsessed with weird-assed psych obscurities, '70s Miles Davis, free jazz and the odd Krautrock disc here and there, you'd have to avoid the stampede of hipster-geeks leaping over the counter at the local record store trying to get their hands on this. Recorded in a day and basically consisting of one, long track split into three sections, this is the type of "psych monster" all those vinyl-loving obsessives in the hinterlands wish they could create.

There's "Certain Way (Part One)", which starts with a creepy, echoing drone that builds to a dense wail within a few minutes until the rhythm section comes in and Baiza hits the wah-wah pedal and bends his strings whilst the others churn out a steady, yet "free" base of Can/Ash Ra Tempel proportions. When Baiza dives his guitar through the middle, you'd swear you were stuck listening to Miles' Agharta or Big Fun, it's that good. Things turn and sway for 20-odd minutes 'til it quietens down again for some reverb-soaked noodling, and then it's time to flip it over for Part Two. The proceedings are more chaotic here; drums are thrashed, bass strings broken, and the guitars really create an almost Hendrix/Sharrock-like racket. 15 minutes then it's up. Following that is "Chasing", part three in the "concept", if you will; a perfect comedown from the previous ear-bending noise, and somewhat resembling Fripp/Eno's great No Pussyfooting LP of '74, it's a laidback acid-guitar masterpiece that totally reeks of bong-hit jamming gone mad, yet stays totally focused as an ending coda to the previous two numbers. Like I've said, Universal Congress Of's debut is the pleasant surprise of the SST catalogue, and if it was released today I have no doubt they'd be the current fuss of the underground rock cognescenti. I'll stand by that claim.

UCO then went on to release two very different, though rather less successful discs that are still worthy of mention: Prosperous and Qualified and This Is Mecolodics. The former features some vocals and consists of shorter, straighter songs in a kind of Lounge Lizards/Prime Time vein, whilst the latter is a mixed bag of '60s beat/groove rock (a neat cover of "All Your Love"), an Ornette cover (the actual sleeve is a rip-off/tribute to Ornette's This Is Our Music LP, band members replicating the original look), some hard-bop originals and a completely useless version of the standard "Happy Birthday" (yes, as in the song you sing at someone's birthday party). Not totally essential, though if you're still curious after the first record, these might just hit the spot as well. As a token footnote, Baiza these days plays guitar in Mike Watt's Black Gang, his touring group of sorts. The guy undoubtedly deserves much more success than he's ever been granted in the past.

Another obscurity from roughly the same era are Wisconsin's TAR BABIES, who released one killer LP, Fried Milk, from 1987. I guess their only claim to fame these days is that they in fact featured Dan Bitney of Tortoise, though they should certainly be remembered for more than just that. Starting up in the early '80s in the same post-hardcore scene inhabited by their hometown pals, Killdozer, the band released a couple of locally-released independent efforts before jumping to SST for the supposed "big break". Well, that never happened, but for what it's worth, Fried Milk is an excellent stew that mixes up the best of Texas' Big Boys-style punk-funk aggression (who were good buddies with the band) and Minutemen-style politics and jazzy groove (who were also buddies). In fact, when you think of all the horribly dull bands that the Minutemen inspired (blowhards who thought that quirky stop/start shenagigans on their own added up to something) - bands that obviously didn't understand the magic that was the Minutemen - the Tar Babies really stand out. I really wish I could tell you more about the band, but other than the fact that singer Bucky Pope was apparently a "legend" in his day, and the Tortoise connection, I don't know much. Anyhow, Fried Milk, like I said, is an excellent combination for its day, a record that mixed up equal elements of punk attitude with a heavy, highly rhythmic bent based more on James Brown and Ornette Coleman than your average hardcore drek. Things are kept basic and moving, and the post-punk experimental edge gives it a perfectly suited weird angle. A keeper.

After that? 1988's No Contest, and 1989's Honey Bubble, also on SST. Both certainly have their moments, but despite the strong overtones of James Brown/Funkadelic/Hendrix (and I know I've been dropping the Hendrix name incessantly here, though one must remember that he was considered a god in the SST offices), there's also too much funky-whiteboy-isms going on for me to fully appreciate them, especially when they veer dangerously close to Red Hot Chilli Peppers territory. Still some very worthwhile moments, though you have been warned. Post SST? A 1992 "reunion" CD of sorts on Chicago's Sonic Noise label, and then I assume kaputs after Bitney hit it big with Tortoise. As a bit of trivia, by the way, bassist Robin Davies' kids were actually in that infamous kiddy-Shaggs-punker outfit, Old Skull, in the late '80s. Anyone remember them?

OK, I get a feeling this little "article" could quite easily turn into a book, so I'm going to try to be brief with the following entries of worthwhile obscurities. If you want more info, then what can I say? Search it out for yourself!

MOFUNGO you may have heard of, and if you haven't, check out the PSF article for the full story, but for a brief on their records, read on here... A post-No Wave NY jitter-pop combo of sorts, they released two fantastic LPs on SST in the late '80s, Work and Bugged, both quite an impressive synthesis of Fall-ish stumble, No Wave "art-skronk" and Minutemen-type jive. Their earlier LP's on the Lost label (run by Mofungo's Chris Nelson, and also home to his other, excellent combo, The Scene Is Now) are also well worth searching out. Elliot Sharp's best work, says I.

The DIVINE HORSEMEN were actor/singer/playwrite/novelist Chris D.'s post-Flesheaters (late '70s/early '80s LA punk gods) group, and released a slew of impressive discs on the label in the late '80s. More in a slurring Stooges/Stones vein, my pick of the litter is 1987's Snake Handler, a collection of plain goddamn enchanting gothic-American "ballads" (and I do certainly NOT mean "gothic" in the Marilyn Manson/NIN sense of the word!) and string-hitting howlers with D.'s patented wail. A very under-rated band, and well worth your trouble.

New York's DAS DAMEN copped a lot of shit in their day for being Sonic Youth copiests (I remember Steve Albini once used their name as an insult in an article he wrote), and maybe they were nothing brilliant, I'll admit that, though their Jupiter Eye and Triskaidekaphobe LP's, from 1987 and 1988, respectively, are worth a gander. Basically a more "psychedelic" take on the classic Sonic Youth sound of the era, they're both undeniably disposeable, but "good" nevertheless. They soon went on to Sub Pop or Twin Tone or whatever and pretty much crumbled into a non-successful heap.

LA's OPAL, featuring ex-Dream Syndicate people and Kendra Smith, released one estimable record on the label in 1987, Happy Nightmare Baby. Grabbed this one from the bargain bin as a sixteen year-old and haven't looked back since. Imagine a bizarre mixture of Terry Riley's organ drone, the Velvets' cyclical riff-churn and T-Rex-style boogie/glam/teen rock with sexy female vocals and that's this. A perfect summer's day listen, and the title track is a classic.

San Francisco's ANGST kind of made a splash in their local scene in the early '80s with their "Neil Armstrong" song, and after having released a few DIY discs were signed to the label in 1987 or so. Pick up their 1989 LP, Cry For Happy, I say; very much a "classic SST sound" album (or should I say "second-generation SST sound" meaning it'd obviously been influenced by the Meat Puppets/Minutemen, etc.), it's a very nice, unassuming collection of topical folk-pop with a few twists and turns along the way. A record that's better than my unspeakably lame description. After this I'm quite sure they called it quits.

TOM TROCCOLI'S DOG's self-titled LP from 1986 is usually held up as a complete dog by afficianados of the label, but I don't think it's so bad. Troccoli was a general Black Flag/SST hanger-on type of guy who's backing band just happened to feature Ginn himself, which I guess tends to lend him a rep as a bit lucky or a bit of a talentless suck who just so happened to land the right circle of friends, but whatever the case, his sole LP is a fairly OK mix of stumbling Dead-style psych rock, fucking-about weirdness, and even some fine folk (a mindnumbing cover of Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" - easily the best version I've ever heard, I'm not kidding). A bargain-bin item, for sure, but not such a bad one.

DC-3 were Dez Cadena's post-Black Flag combo in which he attempted to return to his early '70s psych/hard rock roots: Blue Cheer, Hawkwind, Mountain, etc. They released more useless records than you could ever hope to smash in your life. That said, they did manage to hit the nail on its head once with a surprisingly impressive live LP in 1989 called Vida; I say "surprising" because all their other records are simply the most awful, tuneless hard-rock boogie noodling you'll ever have the misfortune to hear. So anyway, don't ask me why, but for some reason Vida works: the songs are briefer, more punked-up and don't sound so much like some sort of cheeseclothe-wearing waste cases from 1973 or something. Like I said, a surprisingly good "psychedelic hard rock" disc, with a worthy cover of Hawkwind's "Psy Power", too (a good indication of their live sound). Dez these days fronts a band with George Hurley on drums and Tom Troccoli on guitar called - what else? - VIDA.

PELL MELL, hailing from the great North-West, have been around for a good 15 years or more, and released some pretty sizeable offerings on SST in the late '80s/early '90s. An instrumental quartet, their sound isn't easy to pin down: part surf, part country, part dub, part garage rock, part spy soundtrack, with a bit of just about everything else thrown in. In a way, not too dissimilar to Slovenly's method of blending a myriad of styles into one tune. Check out Bumper Crop or Flow for starters. The band subsequently left SST, signed to Geffen, quickly got dropped for their time and trouble and have since, if memory serves, signed to Matador.

I guess SAINT VITUS should really be considered one of the early, classic SST bands, but since most people are of the opinion that they always were, and forever shall be, complete and total dogshit, I'll stick 'em in this section. An LA four-piece and early compadres of Ginn and the gang, they were what you could call "stuck in the wrong era at the wrong time". Do you really think the punk/new wave geek crowd - decked out in spikes, paisley or skinny ties as they were at the time - would want to hear Sabbath-style metal at the dawn of the '80s? Well, they didn't, and hence 'Vitus never made a dent. Myself, I can enjoy them with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Put it this way: they kind of "rock" in that seminal mile-a-day sloth-like dirge that's actually kind of fashionable these days, now that I think about it, yet they're also quite undeniably awful in their hamfisted manner, decked out in leather vests, flared jeans and Manson Family bandanas as they were. And let me make a point here: this "look" of theirs was no PR-department pose, they were genuine street-scum biker dirtbags. Well, much to their credit, my brother and I spent many a night as teenagers fisting the air with laughter and joy whilst listening to their albums. Want a choice pick? Try the Heavier Than Thou retrospective.

OK, so having said all that, there were other artists on the label that put out various items of worth in their time, and such a list would have to include: BLIND IDIOT GOD (NY instro power trio, now on Zorn's Avant label); TROTSKY ICEPICK (infamous old-time LA punkers doing some decent post-punk a la Eno/Wire); THE DICKS (Texan punk giants who released one instant classic LP - Straight From The Heart - which was deleted early on by the label for some reason); GRANT HART (you might not believe it, but this ex-Husker guy actually put out a very good, and quite experimental, LP in 1989, Intolerance); NEGATIVLAND (I'm sure you've heard of these guys and their U2/SST hassles over the years); LEE RANALDO (Sonic Youth fellow does some nice minimalist drone); HENRY KAISER (well-known guitar experimentalist; not all of it's superb, but it's worth wading through to find the good stuff); GONE (Ginn's thuggish trio instro unit, their earlier discs have their moments, whilst their latter efforts have many moments of tedious indulgence); THE NIG-HEIST (snotty punk/art/noise combo featuring Black Flag roadie Mugger, and various hangers on; released one offensive LP in 1984 on New Alliance, which was surprisingly re-released by Drag City just recently); and ROGER MILLER/NO MAN (ex-Mission of Burma leader goes experimental; again, it's not all great, though some of it's worthy)...

The turkeys? Like many other "groundbreakers" and "experimentalists", SST certainly made a few mistakes along the way, and perhaps their biggest mistake was simply signing just about any putz who fitted the "SST mould". By about 1989, it seemed that anyone with a "power trio" that mixed up elements of punk, psych, country, funk and jazz into their repoitre in a stilted, awkward manner got signed to the label. Believe me, I get no joy from documenting this part of the article, but it must be done...

First on the chopping board is OCTOBER FACTION ("supergroup" with Troccoli and 'Flag/'Trust members doing self-indulgent jazz-noodling-rock to the delight of no-one, ever); ZOOGZ RIFT (longtime Beefheart/Zappa nut - his home/DIY recordings go way back to the mid '70s - does some atrocious Zappaesque "wacky" rock with "subversive" lyrics); TREACHEROUS JAYWALKERS (late-period band featuring Ornette bassist Charlie Haden's son, Josh [now in the band Spain], who put out a couple of hilariously derivitive and inept Minutemen/Meat Puppets-style discs); PAPER BAG (completely inane LA "improv-poetry-rock" ensemble... believe me, words won't do it justice); SISTER DOUBLE HAPPINESS (Gary Floyd's post-Dicks cheezeball blues-rock outfit); ROGER MANNING (awful "new wave of folk" NY mumblings); RAS MICHAEL (SST does reggae? You bet!); PAINTED WILLIE (lame punk/psych/rock band lead by Dave Markey, now a renowned video-clip and film-maker); RUN WESTY RUN (collegiate doofus schmaltz from Minneapolis produced by - you guessed it! - Grant Hart); ALTER NATIVES (boring, faceless instrumental punk/psych/jazz/fusion mess); SWA (probably the worst SST band of them all; Chuck Dukowski's post-Black Flag unit who specialised in utterly tuneless, dull and just plain insanely bad rock-punk, you really have to hear it to believe it); etc., etc. Of course, I've never liked SOUNDGARDEN or the SCREAMING TREES either, and only a fool would want to hear anything by CRUEL FREDERICK or HOTEL X or ALWAYS AUGUST or EVERETT SHOCK or BRIAN RITCHIE...

Anyhow, that's really only part of the story; SST also has two sub-labels: the very respectable New Alliance, and the completely awful Cruz. The latter releases mainly embarrassing pop-punk like ALL, BIG DRILL CAR and CHEMICAL PEOPLE, the "grunge" drek of JACK ENDINO and SKINYARD, as well as many of Ginn's pathetic solo records of recent years, whilst the former (which, like I said, was started up by the Minutemen but since bought by SST) has an excellent, eclectic roster that covers everyone from NY No Wave hero, RUDOLPH GREY to SLOVENLY to JACK BREWER to ROGER MILLER to OVERPASS to a few dozen commendable spoken-word CD's by an alumni of American music/art/literary noteables. Uh, yeah, start with New Alliance, venture into the world of Cruz at your own risk.

So, what happened? Well, SST is still carrying on operations as always, though they very rarely release anything new these days, and if they do, you can be almost guaranteed it ain't gonna be all that good. Greg Ginn and Charles Dukowski ("Head of Sales", and essentially the co-runner of the business for many years), it appears, are happy to simply sit on their back catalogue and make a decent living off it, and frankly, I think it would be fairly hard for them to sign any kind of decent, reputable band in this day and age, given the low profile of the label and their less-than-exceptional reputation in the royalty-paying scheme of things (and I'm not merely casting dispersions or starting rumours; Keith Morris and the Meat Puppets are but two artists I know of who've taken the label to court for payments). And besides that, their troubles with U2 and then Negativland spoiled their good name in the eyes of many, especially the label's reluctance to help out Negativland when the going really got tough for them.

Ultimately, however, I'm not here to rag on the label or its band or its owners, I'm here to bring light on their massive achievements, their vision and their complete singlemindedness in bringing some incredible music to a world that, certainly at the time, didn't really give much of a damn, but looking back in hindsight, SST was truly the independent label of the 1980s. It was almost like the Sun or Chess of its era: nearly every band of its day that went on to make a splash in the '90s, or at least greatly influenced the music of the '90s, was at one time on their label. And also, unlike a "classic" '80s indie like Homestead, which was essentially a distributor-groomed label set up to "capture talent" and make the bucks, SST - much like their fellow brothers and sisters at Dischord and Touch & Go - was a true homespun operation completely dedicated to its bands and music on an almost communal-family level.

However, SST also had some important differences from the likes of Touch & Go: firstly, SST wasn't afraid to be completely unfashionable (and you only have to look at any old Black Flag photos to see what a bunch of dorky-looking guys they were) with the hipster crowd; secondly, its owners were slightly older than the average punker and therefore more in-tuned, sympathetic and more willing to show its pre-punk roots than other labels; thirdly, its roster was far more varied and eclectic than its brethren, due to Ginn and Dukowski's (and Joe Carducci [SST manager 1981-86]'s) fanatical love for everything from the Seeds to the Stooges to Miles to Hendrix to Blind Willie Johnson to Black Sabbath to Hawkwind to Roky to Coltrane and beyond; and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, SST was totally committed to musical and personal individualism, completely rejecting any attempts to be linked up with any larger "movement". Indeed, Ginn and SST had quite open contempt for the hardcore scene of the day, bar its own groups and a couple of others it felt were saying and playing something truly worthy (Big Boys, Minor Threat, Flipper, Effigies, etc.), and it was this strong will to go it alone that greatly ostracised them from the bulk of the punk scene in their day.

Despite such attitudes, SST was never a label to stay in the musical ghetto: promos were sent to every major rock critic in America, fanzines and magazines were showered with ads and every band on the label were always to be signed only on an album-by-album basis. That is, if the band was offered a bigger/better deal from a major or bigger indie, they could jump ship with the label's permission. SST wanted the world to hear their music - because they strongly and rightly believed that they were releasing the best rock records of the day - but their sense of independence and revulsion towards the mainstream music biz, which they were only too aware of as having betrayed rock music since the start of the '70s (as well as through their own legal entanglements with MCA in the early '80s), meant that they would release their records on their own terms. If someone wanted to bail, that was fine - best of luck to 'em - because ultimately SST knew that the music was the most important thing, not fashion, labels or politics.

Back in the '80s, rock scribe Byron Coley once wrote something to the effect that many years from now he'd look back at that dreaded decade and come to the conclusion that of his "generation" the truly unheralded musical visionaries, cultural icons, people who truly gave a shit when no-one else did, were the folks at SST. Only now is the rest of the world starting to catch up.


Joe Carducci's ROCK AND THE POP NARCOTIC (2.13.61 Press, 1990; repressed and updated 1994). Carducci, as I've noted, was SST's manager from 1981-86 and helped guide and mould its aesthetic throughout its glory years. Rock and the... is far more than just a book about his days at the label; in my opinion it is the most succinct, accurate and well-written tome ever written on the phenomanen we call rock music. With an encyclaepodic knowledge of the genre, he tears apart four decades of accepted truths regarding what it is that makes good rock music, and like all great writers, he's upset many people along the way. I will not do the book justice by my brief review: it simply must be read. In regards to SST, however, he gives a great deal of insight into the make-up and politics of the label, its bands, hangers-on, and basically what Ginn and Dukowski hoped to achieve through their efforts. Not only that, but as it's been noted, through its coverage of certain artists, it gives a good indication of what made SST what it was.

Unlike many other indies of its day, SST was not steeped in some sort of fashionable UK post-punk ethic garnered by their weekly press (Carducci and Ginn appear to have nothing but absolute contempt for 99.9% of British "New Wave"), its roots lay more in their heroes of previous years: James Brown, Stooges, Hendrix, Hawkwind, Miles, Sabbath, Beefheart, etc. As Carducci notes, despite SST's feelings of pissing in the wind at the time, ultimately it was all worth it. Here's a Carducci quote from one of his letters to music journalist Simon Reynolds: "We knew we (SST) were doing the important things of our era, but by accident of history we reached virtually no-one...Black Flag was not lucky, they changed the luck, if any band can be said to have done it. We could only indirectly impact the pop culture via those we inspired. But it's a nice bonus to have our cachet build rather than fade away."