“Normal people did not listen to hardcore. And we liked it that way. Because you can listen to that shit…you can listen to Fleetwood Mac…go listen to that shit. We are not going to abide by it. We are about blowing all of that up. We are about destroying everything in that.”
This statement (from Articles of Faith main man Vic Bondi) sums up the enduring appeal of hardcore punk: it acts as a dividing line between yourself and the mainstream. It’s unpalatable to most ears but, to those who are tuned in, it’s a life raft in a never ending sea of mediocrity.
Just as there was a logical progression (in the UK, at least) from punk through to acid house, there was also a similar progression from hardcore punk to alternative rock, which would eventually culminate in Nirvana knocking Michael Jackson off the number 1 spot on the Billboard charts. But it was a decade long battle fought on college radio before creeping into the mainstream.
And one of the labels at the forefront of this battle was SST.
With the likes of Black Flag, Minutemen, Saint Vitus, Meat Puppets, Bad Brains and Husker Du on the roster, SST have a legitimate claim to have helped spearhead this progression. Later releases from Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees would further push the alternative into the mainstream.
And then it all went wrong.
Los Angeles Times/Flipside journalist Jim Ruland (who has written books on the likes of Bad Religion) is well placed to explore the culture that produced the label and its eclectic output. That he does in a respectful, yet critical, manner is very much a bonus.
As everyone knows, SST begins with Greg Ginn. Starting at the age of 12, he sold radio equipment via his company Solid State Tuners due to his involvement in the CB radio scene. When he discovered punk rock a number of years later, and when his band Panic metamorphosed in Black Flag, he kept the brand but rechristened it SST Records.
Thus begins ten years of relentless touring around America, which would lay a blueprint for the burgeoning alternative rock movement to follow and build support away from commercial radio and MTV. But it would come at a price, with Ginn’s restless drive and lack of attachment to people leaving a lot of people by the wayside. It’s a tale as old as time: a talented outsider with a vision explores this vision to the detriment of everyone else, with the end result being self-indulgence.
One fascinating area is the seeming double standards held by Ginn: complaining about not being properly credited for songwriting while also not crediting the original drummer on the first Black Flag release. Setting up SST as a genuine counterpoint to major record companies, and then emulating their worst practices (such as not paying bands or even offering them accounting). While it arguably helped set Black Flag (and SST) apart as being people you didn’t want to mess with, the contradictions became more glaring as time went on and undoubtedly helped foster bad relations with people. In the end, it is suggested that this is down to Ginn’s somewhat narrow worldview where people are ultimately cogs that can be replaced when necessary.
Unsurprisingly, Ginn did not co-operate in the writing of this book and his silence permeates throughout, especially in the later chapters where we are left to speculate what is going on in Ginn’s mind as he goes through a series of bizarre decisions which whittle away at his rich legacy.
Covering all of this in a direct manner that allows for some room to look at the albums in question, Corporate Rock Sucks is an enjoyable and informative read for those who are looking for somewhere to start in regards to SST. Although Black Flag are covered, they have to make room for others so anyone looking for a specific look at the band will have to make do with Get in the Van.
The timing of this release couldn’t have been any better. With Greg Ginn and a new version of Black Flag scheduled to play Belfast and Dublin in January, it seems that we haven’t heard the last of Greg Ginn. Regardless of what he turned into; he deserves eternal credit for helping lead a vanguard. And, hopefully, this book will allow more people to recognise this.
Fleetwood Mac be damned.
Jim Ruland, 2022, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records. Hachette Books, ISBN-13: 978-0306925481
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.