Geek obsession: SST Records
Why it’s daunting: Greg Ginn, founder of SST Records as well as its flagship band, Black Flag, recently announced the release of his own electronica-influenced music. It might have been the final straw for most SST fans—if most SST fans hadn’t given up on the label long ago. By the time Ginn started squandering SST’s good name in the late ’80s, the label had already done more than any other single entity to promote and propagate underground American rock in the post-punk era. In fact, SST’s legacy has become so exalted over the years—especially since the 2001 release of Michael Azerrad’s SST-centric history of ’80s indie music, Our Band Could Be Your Life—the label’s spotty catalog can’t possibly live up to it. Newcomers may find it especially frustrating to wade through so many of the mediocre, if not downright terrible, releases SST has put out in its 34-year history. At its height in the ’80s, though, SST not only had a solid stable of legendary bands, but also a loose but identifiable sound, one that bridged the gap between its predecessors (’70s rock, punk, and hardcore) and its successors (grunge, alternative, and indie).
Possible gateway: Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising
Why: New Day Rising isn’t Hüsker Dü’s best album, let alone SST’s. But the 1985 disc sums up everything SST stood for circa 1985, just as Ginn was cementing its position as America’s premier indie label. New Day Rising has far less sprawl—sonic or conceptual—than its predecessor, Zen Arcade, but that’s what makes the album such an immediate gateway: Bundled into a far more concise package (even though it’s still 16 songs long), New Day Rising’s potent concoction of raging punk, ragged pop, heartfelt folkiness, arty eccentricity, and classic-rock bombast boils down all the elements that make Zen Arcade a masterpiece—and that made SST an institution. Not to read too much into one of the disc’s signature anthems, “Celebrated Summer,” but New Day Rising in many ways exemplifies the celebrated summer of SST’s own mid-’80s heyday.
Next steps: SST started in 1978 as a punk label, and it went on to release many groundbreaking (and/or underappreciated) punk classics, including Saccharine Trust’s Paganicons and The Dicks’ Kill From The Heart. Black Flag, though, led the charge—and it made its mangled, indelible mark on the world with 1981’s Damaged. The debut full-length by Ginn’s famed outfit is also the first Black Flag record to feature its fourth, final, and most famous singer, Henry Rollins. Historical importance aside, Damaged simply slays; explosive and savagely erratic, the album starts out lean and vicious before devolving into a grim, primordial sludge that hints at experimentation to come—not just by Black Flag or even SST as a whole, but by the entire American rock underground they’d both go on to inspire.
Double albums aren’t always the easiest dose for a newcomer to swallow. Not so with the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime. The beloved San Pedro group’s opus was released in 1984, and it’s grown in stature ever since—not only because it’s a dizzying outpouring of soulful inventiveness, but because it never, ever gets old. Showing the world that funky post-punk didn’t have to be stiff or English, D. Boon and crew infuse every moment of the album’s staggering 45 tracks with a blistering yet deeply poignant humanism. After Boon’s death in 1985, survivors Mike Watt and George Hurley regrouped with singer-guitarist Ed Crawford to form another great SST band, fIREHOSE—but fIREHOSE was fated to be forever overshadowed by the Minutemen. And Double Nickels cast the lion’s share of that shadow.
Veering so far from any recognizable punk template that it infuriated many of SST’s early followers, the Meat Puppets mutated more rapidly and radically than any of their labelmates. And that was no easy feat. By the release of 1984’s Meat Puppets II, brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood had already perfected their gloriously imperfect splicing of prickly folk, lopsided punk, and acid-basted country-rock. The fact that three of II’s best songs (“Plateau,” “Lake Of Fire,” and the twang-warped “Oh, Me”) are covered by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged In New York—accompanied by the Kirkwoods, no less—certainly doesn’t hurt the disc’s accessibility.
After peaking in the mid-’80s, SST began a swift decline caused by band breakups, defections to major labels, and poor business practices. But the label had one last bang of vitality left in it—and that bang was Dinosaur Jr. The group’s 1987 album, You’re Living All Over Me, gathered up the fraying ends of SST’s greatness and sewed them into a loud, gloriously sloppy outfit. Infusing the brash guitar heroics of the ’70s with the mumbly, jangly songwriting of ’80s college rock, frontman J. Mascis injected a jaded yet wide-eyed precociousness into SST’s hardening arteries. In the process, You’re Living All Over Me helped formulate the rock of the ’90s—a decade deeply influenced by SST, but one in which SST itself would all but disappear.
Where not to start: Ironically, many of SST’s biggest names are not the best ways to get acquainted with the label. Some, like Bad Brains, were well-established elsewhere before briefly aligning with SST. Others—such as Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and Buffalo Tom—used SST as a wading pool before diving into the mainstream. That includes Sonic Youth. Although two of Sonic Youth’s best albums, 1986’s EVOL and 1987’s Sister, were released by SST, Ginn’s label is just one of many that Sonic Youth worked with before signing to the majors. In any case, the iconic group always had its own identity and sound, entirely independent of labels; calling Sonic Youth “an SST band” would be a stretch by any definition of the term.
As with Sonic Youth, some of SST’s best releases are less-than-ideal gateways simply because of their outlier status. All, the 1987 swansong by pop-punk pioneers the Descendents, is a staple of its own genre, but it’s an anomaly on the SST roster. (That same year, Ginn formed the SST imprint Cruz Records to handle the overflow of the less SST-ish bands he’d begun to sign, part of the bloat that watered down the label and contributed to its virtual extinction.) Other examples of SST’s good-album/bad-gateway phenomenon are Opal’s shimmering Happy Nightmare Baby—Dave Roback’s 1987 test-run for Mazzy Star—and Negativland’s Escape From Noise, the experimental collective’s abrasive, sample-addled breakthrough, also from ’87.
When it comes to understanding SST’s impact, Our Band Could Be Your Life is essential. One element the book glosses over, though, is Ginn’s love of metal. Presaging the hardcore-metal crossover that would come later in the ’80s, SST went against the grain and championed metal-tinged bands such as Würm, Overkill (not to be confused with the seminal thrash band), and, most notably, the mighty doom stalwart Saint Vitus. That said, thunderous records like Saint Vitus’ 1986 epic Born Too Late—the group’s first with sludge veteran Scott “Wino” Weinrich at the helm—should be praised on their own merits, not as any kind of representative of SST.
Also: Avoid Ginn’s numerous (and often tedious) side projects. Nothing’s worse than SST: the vanity label.