Ground Zero for Hardcore

A review of Jim Ruland, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records (New York: Hachette, 2022).

Sutter Street, Calcutta, India, summer of 1999: It was terribly hot and I was walking down the backpackers’ strip of West Bengal’s metropolis, when I heard someone yell: “Wow, SST, man!” It took me a moment to realize that I was wearing what probably was the last remaining item of the SST mail order packages I used to receive in Austria a decade earlier: a black shirt featuring a modest SST logo on the left chest. The fellow who had spotted the shirt was an American punk rocker, and we chatted for a while, exchanged email addresses, and stayed in touch for a few more years.

Frankfurt, some venue I don’t recall, fall of 2010: I had just finished presenting my German book on straight edge when a very sociable and likable fellow approached me, namely Jan Röhlk of the German punk fanzine Trust. It didn’t take long to realize that this was probably the biggest SST fan/enthusiast/nerd I had ever met. Jan knew all the bands, had interviewed many key figures, and had endless plans for Trust contributions about the label.

These are my two most memorable SST tales from the time I no longer followed the label closely. At some point in the mid-1990s, I just lost interest I guess. Why I had paid so much attention to SST before that is hard to say. The big thing for me in punk rock has always been straight edge, and SST wasn’t a straight edge label. And as much as I liked Black Flag, it was far from my favorite band. Trying to make sense of it today, I guess there were three reasons for the liking I took to SST, some of which apply to other labels as well, but not in this particular combination: 1. Most SST artists looked like pretty normal folks. The aesthetic dimensions of punk (compared to the social, political, and, in a very broad sense, spiritual dimensions) always interested me the least, I guess it was a good fit. 2. Friends have always pointed out my eclectic taste in music, and SST fit the bill. In the catalog, you didn’t just find hardcore, surf punk, and experimental jazz, you’d also find pop, dub, and noise. 3. It seemed that there existed a vibrant, innovative community around the label that appealed to ideas of a DIY revolution.

It won’t come as a surprise that Jim Ruland’s Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records ended up on my list of books to read. Ruland calls it “the final installment of an unlikely trilogy that began with a collaboration with Keith Morris on his memoir My Damage and continued with Bad Religion’s narrative history Do What You Want”. The fact that Corporate Rock Sucks has come out with a well-established publisher says a lot about the status that a musical/cultural phenomenon once considered “underground” has reached nowadays. That’s partly due to general social and cultural changes, and partly to former adherents having made business and media careers that have opened up new audiences. It’s a contradiction that Ruland is aware of, referring to “corporate publishing” in his acknowledgments.

Corporate Rock Sucks builds on interviews with central SST figures, and on articles from punk rock zines as well as major newspapers. The book’s style and structure follow familiar US patterns, a journalistic narrative interwoven with quotes, observations, and reflections. At times, these patterns lend a little too much authority to the author but they make the reading effortless and enjoyable. Corporate Rock Sucks is no exception, the pages turn easily.

The book includes fascinating details that even the most initiated might not have been aware of, such as the Bad Brains having played shows with Slayer and Megadeth, or Greg Ginn rejecting advances by Kurt Cobain to release Nirvana’s early records. Ruland also chronicles the far reach of SST within the wider independent music scene, with everyone appearing from the Birthday Party to the Butthole Surfers to Violent Femmes. In some cases, Ruland sets the record straight, for example with regard to the circumstances of the tragic car accident that caused the Minutemen’s D. Boon’s premature death in 1985. For readers not familiar with all the individuals and bands popping up in the book, there’s a useful index alongside a complete SST discography, extensive notes, and a bibliography for further reading.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty in the book about Greg Ginn, founder and owner of SST records, and about his most famous musical project, the band Black Flag. While this seems inevitable, I suppose I was hoping for a little more info on lesser known SST acts. The ones that are covered more extensively apart from Black Flag are the ones that turned into heavyweights of the alternative and independent music industry: the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü (whose 1986 departure from SST Ruland calls a “watershed moment in the history of independent music”), Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, the Meat Puppets. My personal SST favorites (The Last, the Flesh Eaters, Blind Idiot God, Henry Kaiser, the Leaving Trains) only appear in passing. It’s not a critique of the book, however, as Ruland’s selection makes sense, it’s just a case of subjective dissatisfaction.

As far as Greg Ginn is concerned, he remains, as Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees would have it, a “huge enigma”. His business practices, the lawsuits against the likes of the Meat Puppets and, most famously, Negativland, the strained relationship with his artist brother Raymond (who, under the name of Raymond Pettibon, is responsible for most of the iconic SST artwork), and the ill-conceived reunion shows of the 2010s raise eyebrows to this day. Ruland doesn’t brush over these matters, but he’s not pointing moralistic fingers either. He’s telling the tales, letting readers make up their own mind. The verdict on SST provided by Bad Religion guitarist and Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz seems convincing: “I hope that SST is remembered as the incubator of American hardcore. Because that’s really what it was. Black Flag is ground zero for hardcore as an art form.”

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 31, 2022)