SST – DIY pioneers by Reza Mills

SST Records

Music Documentaries on the BBC are usually lamentable affairs, tackling the same old bands with the same old footage.  The same Beatles footage of them getting off the plane and girls screaming, The Sex Pistols gig where 2 punks are pogoing whilst mock strangling each another. You get the picture. I’m not sure why they show such a staggering lack of imagination when it comes to music provision. It would seemingly indicate a lack of imagination, originality or even knowledge. I’m done with those bands as I am with Joy Division and Factory Records. Great band and label but enough is enough please. If the BBC wanted to really push boundaries, they would be covering bands and labels people may not have heard of such as Touch and Go, Alternative Tentacles, Dischord, Twin/Tone and SST.

More than any other label, SST have had a profound impact on not only the underground but the mainstream as well. SST was a label set up by Greg Ginn in the late 1970′s initially to put out records by his band Black Flag and in fact the first release was their ‘Nervous Breakdown’ EP which featured Keith Morris on vocals, later of The Circle Jerks, Midget Handjob and Off! Eventually over time they became an outlet for other California outfits such as The Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Stains, Bl’ast! and The Descendants as well as other hugely influential outfits from across the US. Although SST is seen primarily as a Hardcore Punk label, they had a staggeringly diverse roster. Even the Hardcore outfits sounded off-kilter and hardly conforming to the loud fast rules that dominated the genre. The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust took influences from Free Jazz and Funk, even Black Flag strayed into Sabbath inspired Sludge Metal and Spoken Word. On the label you had the proto alternative-rock outfits such as Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr, Das Damen and Sonic Youth, Grunge icons Soundgarden and The Screaming Trees, desert rock courtesy of the Meat Puppets Fatso Jetson, (and Across The River had things panned out for them), Doom ala Saint Vitus, Avant-Garde in the shape of the late Zappa/Beefheart inspired Zoogz Rift, instrumentalists Glenn Phillips and Scott Colby and more besides. I could be here all day if I attempted to cover the full spectrum of artists and styles at the label. One of the drawbacks of that late 70′s/early 80′s Hardcore scene was that the fans weren’t always the most open-minded towards other types of music and of course, as the label started to expand and diversify, inevitable cries of ‘sell-out’ started. This is ironic seeing as how Black Flag toured the country with next to no money and to hostile and indifferent audiences. Henry Rollins especially bore the brunt of the abuse, both physically and mentally. For a more detailed picture of these trying times I recommend Henry Rollins’ own excellent ‘Get in the Van‘. You don’t even need to be a fan of the band to appreciate this brutally honest set of journals and diary entries covering 1981-’86. In a similar vein former Black Flag roadie Joe Cole’s superb ‘Planet Joe‘ also makes for essential reading. Both works certainly put to shame a lot of bands now who think they have it tough.

There is a point to be made that what could be more punk rock or hardcore than musically diversifying? Punk/Hardcore had by ’83 become one-dimensional and tedious what with bands looking to outdo each other in terms of speed and shock value. Even the Dead Kennedys were starting to grow bored and disillusioned with the scene as demonstrated in the song ‘Chickenshit Conformist’ from the Bedtime for Democracy album in which Jello Biafra brilliantly decries the formulaic and predictable state of Punk-Rock…

Punk’s not dead
It just deserves to die
When it becomes another stale cartoon
A close-minded, self-centered social club
Ideas don’t matter, it’s who you know
If the music’s gotten boring
It’s because of the people
Who want everyone to sound the same
Who drive bright people out
Of our so-called scene
‘Til all that’s left Is just a meaningless fad
Hardcore formulas are dogshit
Change and caring are what’s real
Is this a state of mind
Or just another label
The joy and hope of an alternative
Have become its own cliche
A hairstyle’s not a lifestyle
Imagine Sid Vicious at 35
Who needs a scene
Scared to love and to feel
Judging everythng
By loud fast rules appeal
Who played last night?
“I don’t know, I forgot.
But diving off the stage was a lot of fun.”

Greg Ginn by refusing to compromise and signing bands he liked as opposed to those who conformed to the rigid formulas of Hardcore laid the groundwork for the emerging Indie-Rock scene which led to bands such as The Pixies and Nirvana who would in turn begat Radiohead, Mogwai and other innovative and groundbreaking outfits of the 90′s onwards. SST wasn’t solely about the music, it was about an ethos and a refusal to bow to trends and fashion. The bands dressed like you and played music that they wanted not because it was hip or going to appeal to a bunch of NME/Rolling Stones reading trendies. It may be this refusal to compromise that stopped SST from entering the realms of mainstream critical acceptance ala Sub Pop. Of course SST didn’t necessarily do themselves any favours, the label’s ‘stoner administration’ was notoriously unreliable to the point where artists wouldn’t get paid. The Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr all had disputes with the label and won back the rights to their catalogue. There was also the infamous Negativland case that really put the final nail in the coffin…

These days SST acts mainly as an outlet for Greg Ginn’s solo output, much of which varies in quality. However SST’s legacy should never be forgotten, they laid the groundwork not only for alternative music but also DIY labels to come. Hell, Kurt Cobain tried to get Nirvana a deal with the label. That’s the sort of esteem the label was held in and the sooner the BBC and other mainstream media outlets recognize this fact and give the label the coverage and recognition it deserves the better.

Reza’s Rocket Reducer