As a teenager in the late ’80s, I was obsessed with the legendary bad-assness of SST Records. The concept of sacrificing all creature comforts for the sake of art (AKA rock’n’roll) was my Camelot. Before long, I realized that I, like most semi-normal humans, didn’t have the discipline or the work ethic that lifestyle required. In Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records, author, historian, and Razorcake staffer extraordinaire Jim Ruland documents SST’s fight-to-the-death-every-fucking-day ethos as the label evolves from a tiny two-person DIY operation into one of the world’s most distinguished independent music imprints. In the end, however, the unending sacrifices take their toll on both the label and the artists, and the ruins are anything but picturesque.
The significance of SST Records is best illustrated by the label’s discography which takes up over ten pages in this book and includes releases by the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Descendents, Dinosaur Jr, and Black Flag (Black Flag members Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski started the label in the late ’70s to release the band’s records). The SST crew is decidedly unconcerned with the financial ramifications of releasing whatever music they deem worthy, and many of its bands aren’t nearly as accessible or successful as those listed above.
The label’s guerrilla operational tactics are just as unorthodox as the music itself. In the early days, the label and its artists are constantly at war with the LAPD and must regularly relocate their base to avoid harassment. As the label grows, the staff lives and works in the office, sleeping under their desks between long shifts. There is no money, pay phones are used to run the business and book gigs, and the bands tour relentlessly on scant budgets. Unwinnable legal battles and devastating financial setbacks all but grind operations to a halt. Still, the label never stops fighting and eventually becomes financially successful; the employees even have health insurance (Kaiser Permanente—the good stuff!).
As Corporate Rock Sucks continues, mismanagement of finances and erratic behavior from the highest ranks come into focus as major factors contributing to SST’s downfall, eventually leaving Greg Ginn alone at the helm. Maybe the temporary success of the label went to Ginn’s head. Maybe he expected others to make the same kind of sacrifices he did—only with their royalty checks. I won’t pretend to know what goes on inside the mind of such an oddly wired, hard-headed alien, but I suspect he’s become accustomed to burning bridges.
The SST story isn’t new, but in Corporate Rock Sucks Ruland presents it in greater detail and more comprehensively than anyone has before. The book appropriately ends with a photo of Ginn lying on the floor flashing the two-finger peace sign to the camera and looking totally spent but satisfied. My war. Corporate Rock Sucks is one hundred percent essential. –Buddha (Hachette Books, HachetteBooks.com)