One would expect a book with a title like “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records” to begin with a bang. A comprehensive, extensively researched take of SST Records — the Southern California punk label that broke legendary bands such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Minutemen, among many more — it would have been very easy to start the book with a scene of punk rock- related mayhem. A riotous mosh pit. A singer screaming into a crowd of sweaty fans. A flashback of a drug-induced moment of hitting rock bottom.
Instead, the book starts out with a simple scene of Greg Ginn, the guitarist of Panic!, which later morphed into Black Flag, simply trying to find a venue for his band to play or a radio station in Los Angeles that will play its music. . This setting of the scene, as it were, is much more representative of the punk ethos than discordant chords and screaming lead singers. And in the case of SST Records, it’s representative of the behind-the-scenes DIY attitude that Ginn had to take in order to build one of the most important and influential independent record labels in the world.
“Even when I was young, I was aware of SST as kind of like a big indie label,” Ruland says when asked about his first experiences with the label’s music. “I graduated 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 strides when I was in college.”
In “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records,” a paraphrasing of SST’s business mantra throughout most of its existence (they even printed it on their T-shirts), Ruland deftly points out that the label paved the way for other independent music labels that sprouted in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Started in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, specifically Hermosa Beach, Ruland says he wanted to paint a picture not so much of a company, but of a community that defied the odds, bucked trends and changed music, as well as the music business , forever.
“I don’t know, maybe we’re a little cooler than our parents, but I think for people in my generation, you know, the Gen X people, there’s a lot of nostalgia and not just the music they listened to, but the way they discovered it,” Ruland says, who spent much of his formative years in the South Bay. “And SST was a genius in terms of its marketing efforts and its mail order.”
As is the case with most punk bands and record labels, SST Records was born out of necessity. Dissatisfied with what he heard on the radio, a high school-age Greg Ginn started SST initially not as a label, but as an electronics storefront specializing in radio equipment (the name is an acronym for Solid State Transmitters). In his early days of playing in Black Flag, Ginn would have his band rehearsed in his electronics space.
“The 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 that 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 something of a “weird 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 LA punk band Bad Religion in 2020 (“ Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion”).
Ruland says he was initially reluctant to write about SST mostly because he’d heard stories about Ginn’s disagreeable persona, 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 because of legal issues with the label (the “fall” in the book’s subtitle refers to the financial , legal and acrimonious entanglements that have lead to the label not releasing anything since 2014). Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I had all these ideas of traveling around and talking to people in bands and people who had written about these bands before and all that went out the window,” Ruland recalls.
Still, Ruland says the pandemic was, in its own way, beneficial both to his writing process and in getting others to speak with him about their experience with SST. With musicians stuck at home, unable to tour or play, Ruland says many were more open to speaking with him.
In lockdown in his own home and immersing himself in his extensive library of vinyl, zines and punk periodicals, Ruland’s resulting book is as thorough an examination of SST Records and the early SoCal punk scene as one is likely to find. What’s more, Ruland constructed the book not so much chronologically, but more episodically, showing in vignettes the different ways in which the label influenced the entire region and, eventually, the world.
“I love to read all sorts of books, weird literature and crime and all kinds of stuff, but I also know that a lot of people who read books about punk rock, they fair read punk books,” Ruland says. “So, I want to make it an engrossing and entertaining experience for them.”
Still, the book could also serve as a primer for anyone with an interest in a pivotal moment in music history; an engrossing tale of one man’s ambitious efforts to expose bands who would never have made it otherwise. A stranger-than-fiction tale of unlikely heroes and an epochal music scene that changed the industry. One that could, conceivably, 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 a novelist’s and a reader of fiction’s sensibility to these projects. So, in that way, I think that they’re entertaining to read. That there’s hopefully a little bit of drama and suspense, or at least desire to know what happens next, when you’re reading these books.”
“Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records” by Jim Ruland (Hachette Books, 2022; 432 pages)