SST Records



In 1978, SST Records was formed by Greg Ginn to put out his band Black Flag’s original release Nervous Breakdown 7”. After running SST (originally Solid State Tuners) as a mail-order WWII Surplus company, he transformed it into one of the hippest, sought after independent labels of the 1980s. His band had been playing music under the name Panic for nearly 2 years at the time, and finally took the giant step to release something after any and all labels turned it away. (1) Helping Ginn along the way was a man by the name of Joe Carducci, who was the A&R Representative, label producer, and co-owner of the label. He helped shaped the sound during his stay from 1978-1986, and was part of the reason the label had seen its demise after he left.

Often considered the first, and most
prominent hardcore band – it wasn’t all fun and games for Ginn and company after Black Flag had its first official release. Because of the violent nature of the music, the SST offices were being monitored by agents dressed as homeless people, and there phones were tapped, in fear they were causing a large scale uprising of sorts. Black Flag also ran into later problems with signing to Unicorn Records, who shelved the record after refusing to put it out, therefore the labels operations went south until Unicorn (a subsidiary of MCA) went bankrupt in 1983. (2)

Black Flag also went through many

line-up changes, and they are most well known by attaching different vocalists to different eras. The first was the pre-Rollins, Dez Cadena led era, which many considered the most ferocious and primal. The second belonged to Henry Rollins, where they would release their masterpiece, Damaged, which took the punk rock world by storm. The last era is where they saw their fan base diminishing. Greg Ginn started exploring progressive and free-jazz within the bands music, and it lost its simplistic nature that got them to where they were in the first place. Ginn finally called the band of in 1986. (1)

The mid 1980s were the formative years at SST. They would release powerhouse albums by The Minutemen, Husker Du, Saccharine Trust, and Black Flag. Their packaging was very minimalist; therefore they could afford to keep the prices affordable, which was very smart considering their demographic. They also were pioneering long form releases in the punk world – such as The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime – clocking in at 78 minutes over the course of 48 songs.

Going into the year 1987 the label had a second wave of bands that were just as influential as the first. They managed to sign the likes of Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, and Dinosaur Jr – four of the most influential indie rock bands on the planet. All of these bands went on to sign major label deals, showing the influence of SST and its trend setting at that point. But unlike labels such as Touch and Go and later Sub Pop, they weren’t interested in what the “trends” were, they built the trends, and that’s what made them so influential in providing major labels with bands that would later be extremely successful.

The demise of SST came in the late 80s and early 90s with a variety of problems. The accounting department was accused of doing shady business by the likes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as well as Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. In Michael Azzerad’s book, This Band Could Be Your Life , Mascis claimed “I like Greg Ginn and stuff, but they wouldn’t pay you.” (1) Also, The Meat Puppets and Keith Morris took the label to court for payments.(2) Joe Carducci, one of the key men involved in SST’s operations left for personal conflicts with the label. Husker Du, the labels best seller up until this point, parted ways to hit the major label circuit and sign with Warner Bros in 1986. To top it all off, the aforementioned breakup of Black Flag also took place in 1986 (1)(2)(3)

The thing that finally put the nail in the coffin was a legal battle with one of SST’s most eccentric acts, Negativland and one of the world’s biggest pop powerhouses, U2. The case stemmed from a sampling lawsuit brought by Island Records of Negativland’s usage of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and including “U2” on the album cover of their recording. The track features basically a wobbly sample of the entire song, and criticizes it throughout, using another sample from famous radio DJ, Casey Kasem, and his live breakdown on the air. Negativland would then go on to release a book/CD about fair use and was in turn sued by SST for use of confidential information. The book was called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2. Obviously, they weren’t hiding anything. (1)(4)(5)

SST also had a handful of subsidiaries: Homestead, New Alliance, and Cruz. New Alliance was the pet project of Mike Watt and D. Boon from Minutemen, a label they used to release music before they signed with SST. Ginn bought the rights, therefore allowing him to re-issue the music released on that label. New Alliance contained a respectable lineup with Rudolph Grey, Jack Brewer, and Slovenly. Cruz Records released 3 solo records by Ginn, as well as recordings by ALL, Chemical People, and more – equally probably SST’s least quality output. Issues Records put out all spoken word releases, most notably one by legendary NBA Star Bill Walton. (1)

The smartest thing Greg Ginn ever did was hang on to the majority of his catalogue, and kept the bigger titles in print for years after the label stopped putting out records. As of recent, he has signed a digital distribution deal with one of the world’s leading digital distributors, The Orchard, as well signing a physical distribution deal in 2002 with powerhouse Koch. Today, Ginn is stationed in Texas, and still runs The SST Superstore (http://www.sstsuperstore.com). (5)(6)
Key Points for SST Records:- Premier Hardcore Label- Championed the DIY Aesthetic- Built Label Loyalty- Uncompromising in Artistic Vision- Realized value of catalogue titles- Music first, Money second (which artists didn’t exactly like)- Realized their demographic

1) Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.
“Black Flag.” KFTH. 15 Mar. 2009
2) Lang, Dave. “The SST Records Story.” Perfect Sound Forever. July 1998. 15 Mar. 2009 .
3) Blush, Steven. American Hardcore A Tribal History. New York: Feral House, 2001.
4) “SST Records – Early Years.” Global Oneness. 15 Mar. 2009 .
5) “Negativland.” Negativland. 15 Mar. 2009 .

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