You would expect a book with a title like “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records” to start with a bang. A comprehensive and extensively researched tome from SST Records – the Southern California punk label that beat legendary bands such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Minutemen, among many others – it would have been very easy to start the book with a punk rock scene- related chaos. A tumultuous mosh pit. A singer screaming into a crowd of sweaty fans. A flashback of a drug-induced moment when he hit rock bottom.
Instead, the book begins with a simple scene of Greg Ginn, the guitarist of Panic!, who later turned into Black Flag, simply trying to find a place for his band to play or a radio station in Los Angeles. Angeles who will broadcast his music. . This setting of the stage, so to speak, is much more representative of the punk ethos than the discordant chords and screaming singers. And in the case of SST Records, it’s representative of the behind-the-scenes do-it-yourself attitude Ginn had to adopt to create one of the world’s largest and most influential independent record labels.
“Even when I was young, I knew SST as a sort of big independent label,” Ruland says when asked about his early experiences with the label’s music. “I graduated from high school in ’86, so I put them in the same category as, later on, like a Sub Pop or an Epitaph, which was making progress when I was in college.”
In “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records,” a paraphrase of SST’s business mantra throughout its existence (they even printed it on their t-shirts), Ruland ably points out that the label opened the way for other independent music labels that sprang up in the late 80s and early 90s. Started in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, particularly Hermosa Beach, Ruland says he wanted paint a picture not so much of a company, but of a community that defied the odds, bucked trends, and changed music, and the music industry, forever.
“I don’t know, maybe we’re a little cooler than our parents, but I think for people of my generation, you know, Gen X people, there’s a lot of nostalgia and not just the music they listened to, but how they discovered it,” says Ruland, who spent much of his formative years in the South Bay. “And SST was a genius in terms of the efforts of marketing and mail-order sales.
As is the case with most punk bands and record labels, SST Records was born out of necessity. Dissatisfied with what he was hearing on the radio, high school student Greg Ginn first started SST not as a record label, but as an electronics storefront specializing in radio gear (the name is an acronym for Solid State transmitters). In her early Black Flag days, Ginn had her band rehearse in her electronic space.
“Music that eventually came out on the label from bands like Minutemen and Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, those bands defined indie rock for years to come,” Ruland says. “And you could even say bands like Screaming Trees and Saint Vitus paved the way for the sound that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the 90s.”
“Corporate Rock Sucks” also represents the completion of a kind of “strange trilogy”, as Ruland puts it, of books devoted to Southern California punk-rock. The Paradise Hills author also worked with singer Keith Morris (of Black Flag, Off! And Circle Jerks) on 2016’s “My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor” and wrote the definitive history of the punk band. LA Bad Religion in 2020 (“Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion”).
Ruland says he was initially reluctant to write about SST mainly because he had heard stories about Ginn’s unpleasant personality, but was encouraged by Morris and others to tell the story. He got the green light from Hachette Books, a New York-based publishing house, but found that some key players were reluctant to speak on the record due to legal issues with the label (the “fall” in the book’s subtitle refers to the financial, legal and acrimonious entanglements that have led to the label not releasing anything since 2014). Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I had all these ideas of traveling and talking to people in bands and people who had written about those bands before and it all went out the window,” Ruland recalled.
Still, Ruland says the pandemic has been, in its own way, beneficial both to his writing process and to getting others to talk with him about their experience with SST. With musicians stuck at home, unable to tour or perform, Ruland says many were more open to talking with him.
Locked away in his own home and immersing himself in his extensive library of punk vinyls, zines and periodicals, Ruland’s resulting book is as thorough an examination of SST Records and the early SoCal punk scene as one is likely to expect. to find. Moreover, Ruland constructed the book not so much chronologically, but more episodically, showing in vignettes the various ways in which the label influenced the entire region and, ultimately, the world.
“I love reading all kinds of books, weird literature and crime and all kinds of things, but I also know that a lot of people who read punk rock books, they only read punk books,” Ruland says. “So I want to make it an engaging and entertaining experience for them.”
Yet the book could also serve as an introduction for anyone interested in a pivotal moment in music history; a gripping story of one man’s ambitious efforts to expose bands that otherwise would never have succeeded. A stranger-than-fiction story of unlikely heroes and a period music scene that changed the industry. One that could, in theory, be embraced by readers with only a peripheral understanding of the scene it examines.
“I love novels and I love to read, but all my life I’ve written for punk zines,” Ruland says. “I think I bring the sensitivity of a novelist and reader of fiction to these projects. So that way I think they’re fun to read. Hopefully there is some drama and suspense, or at least a desire to know what happens next, when you read these books.
“Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records” by Jim Ruland (Hachette Books, 2022; 432 pages)