April 15, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jim Ruland's book Corporate Rock Sucks is a well-researched and compelling history of the iconic music label SST Records.
Bad Religion's Greg Graffin wrote of the book:
"Take the most influential Southern California punk label from the 1980s, combine it with the master touch of music historian Jim Ruland, and you get this incredible historical narrative that is difficult to put down."
In his own words, here is Jim Ruland's Book Notes music playlist for his book Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records:
For a brief period in the’80s, SST was the coolest, most influential independent record label in the world. SST assembled a mind-blowing array of talent, including Black Flag, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and many, many more. The label was constantly in flux as it grew from a tiny operation to a massive international powerhouse—and then the wheels feel off. I’ve tried to tell SST’s story by picking a notable track from each year of the label’s rise to prominence—without repeating an artist—to show the depth and breadth of its incredible catalog.
“Nervous Breakdown” Black Flag
The EP that started it all. With the release of these four songs recorded in a tiny, rent-by-the-hour studio in Hermosa Beach, California, American hardcore was born. Aside from compilations, it’s the only record that features founding vocalist Keith Morris who would leave to form the Circle Jerks. Those who insist “Nervous Breakdown” is Black Flag at its finest won’t get any argument from me.
SST only released a pair of EPs in 1980: Black Flag’s Jealous Again and Minutemen’s debut, Paranoid Time. “Definitions” displays the trio from San Pedro’s thought-provoking lyrics and unique approach to song writing. It’s also one of the few tracks on the record that’s over a minute long.
“We Don’t Need Freedom” Saccharine Trust
1981 saw the release of more records from Minutemen and Black Flag, including the first LP Damaged. Saccharine Trust doesn’t always get the respect it deserves—the band was a favorite of Sonic Youth—but it was the first to get in the van with Black Flag on its first two nationwide tours. The suburban punks who swarmed to punk shows in LA in the early ‘80s gave the scene a bad rap, but this record proves there was much more to the new sounds coming out of the Beach Cities than playing fast and loud.
“Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” Meat Puppets
The shit hit the fan in 1982 when Unicorn, the label SST partnered with on Damaged, sued Black Flag. SST turned its attention to other bands on the label, including a strange trio from Phoenix, Arizona, with a psychedelic spin on countrified hardcore. The Meat Puppets knew hundreds of covers and put two on its self-titled debut, including this classic.
“Sick and Crazy” Stains
Recorded in 1980, the band had to wait three years for its record to get released. By the time it hit record store shelves the band had broken up and the Eastsiders were all but written out of the history of LA punk. This is a shame because the opening track featuring Robert Becerra’s incandescent guitar playing announces an enormous talent.
“The Psychopath” Saint Vitus
1984 saw the release of three of SST’s milestone albums: Black Flag’s My War, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. But what might by the most influential record SST released that year was by Saint Vitus. The band’s slower, sludgy metal certainly inspired Side Two of My War and made a huge impact on the sound coming out of the Northwest. Today, Saint Vitus is rightfully regarded as one of the godfather’s of doom metal.
“New Day Rising” Hüsker Dü
Always evolving and compulsively prolific, Hüsker Dü was the first SST band to get signed by a major label. This song has it all: Mould’s guitar tone, Hart’s smash and bash drumming, and the same three words howled over and over again. It’s the mid-point between the hardcore fury of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record and the pop perfection of “Makes No Sense at All.”
“I Against I” Bad Brains
Bad Brains should have been biggest punk band on the planet. After many bad breaks and self-sabotaging decisions the band ended up on SST and gave the label it’s bestselling album. Over 35 years after the album’s release, It’s still impossible to classify. Funky punk? Rastacore? Danceable metal? Bad Brains are in a category all its own.
“Stereo Sanctity” Sonic Youth
In 1987, SST reputedly released more records than Warner Bros. One of the best records was Sonic Youth’s second LP for the label Sister. The New Yorkers weren’t happy with all the releases because it created a backlog in the production and promotion pipelines, and they took their next record— Daydream Nation, one of the finest records of the’80s—to Enigma. “Stereo Sanctity” has all the hallmarks of Sonic Youth’s signature sound.
“Freak Scene” Dinosaur Jr
Like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr made the jump from Homestead Records to SST. Dinosaur Jr broke up before it could follow the band out the door, but not before delivering the hugely influential Bug. The single “Freak Scene” set the template for the indie rock of the’90s. Underneath the waves of distortion coming out of Mascis’s guitar, which he liked to play at punishing volumes, were surprisingly earnest lyrics delivered in a laconic style.
“Black Sun Morning” Screaming Trees
It’s hard to argue claims that the Screaming Trees were the godfathers of the Seattle sound. When Buzz Factory came out in 1989 it was the band’s fourth release for SST. But when I listen to Screaming Trees I hear a band following the footsteps of Northwest garage rockers like the Sonics and the Wailers. At least this record was produced in Seattle by the legendary Jack Endino who would work on so many records for Sub Pop.
“Pray Till You Sweat“ Flesh Eaters
The popularity of indie music meant more bands were making the jump to major labels. Several distributors went under and took indie labels down with them. SST’s output slowed to a trickle and by 1990 the bulk of the label’s releases were compilation records of its bestselling artists. The Flesh Eaters weren’t SST artists but frontman Chris D.’s band Divine Horsemen released several records with the label, setting the stage for another Flesh Eaters greatest hits records: Prehistoric Fits Vol. 2, which features this classic from A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die.
One of the most aggressively innovative and experimental acts of the ’80s, Negativland’s career registered as a taunt: from “Christianity Is Stupid” to Helter Stupid, the band did not shy away from controversy. With “U2” Negativland mashed up lyrics appropriated from U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with outtakes from Casey Kasem cursing a blue streak. Island Records sued SST and SST responded, strangely enough, by suing Negativland. If there’s a point that mark’s SST’s “fall,” this was it. SST was no longer the label that thumbed its nose at corporate rock, but a label that sued its own artists.
In 1992, on the strength of Nirvana’s global popularity, Bleach, an album that SST had turned down, went platinum and Sub Pop took SST’s mantle as kings of the underground. By 1993, SST was almost exclusively devoted to the founder’s projects, very few of which were commercially successful. When punk went mainstream in 1994, Dischord and Epitaph went toe-to-toe for the hearts and minds of America’s youth, and independent music that was difficult, disruptive, or down-right dangerous went underground. Some find the strange saga of SST inspirational while others regard it as a cautionary tale. For me, it’s both.
Jim Ruland is the co-author of Do What You Want with Bad Religion, and My Damage with Keith Morris, the founding vocalist of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and OFF! Ruland has been writing for punk zines such as Flipside and Razorcake for more than 25 years and his work has received awards from Reader's Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts.