Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records
By Jim Ruland
Hachette: 432 pages, $30
What I See: The Black Flag Photographs of Glen E. Friedman
By Glen E. Friedman
Akashic, 256 pages, $40
The June 29, 1980, edition of this paper spoiled Angelenos’ Sunday morning by dropping a dire warning on their doorsteps: The punks had arrived, and they were murderous.
Audiences at punk shows “mug each other,” Patrick Goldstein reported. “Accounts of reckless violence, vandalism and even mutilation at some area rock clubs read like reports from a war zone.”
At the center of this alleged chaos was the band Black Flag, whose shows had become a magnet for police crackdowns since its formation in Hermosa Beach in 1979. They brought some of that scrutiny onto themselves: Founder and guitarist Greg Ginn finagled a slot at a family-friendly festival at Manhattan Beach by saying they were a Fleetwood Mac cover band, then delivered a typically loud, profane set. But the media’s pearl-clutching was disproportionate to the danger. Ginn wasn’t trying to sow anarchy, just locate the spaces that wouldn’t reject punk outright.
In “What I See,” his lively, lavishly assembled collection of Black Flag photos, Glen E. Friedman recalls the violence as wholly on the police side of the ledger. Promoters called in the LAPD, scared by “overwhelming crowds that were showing up that often looked threatening to them.” The band goaded the cops with songs such as “Police Story,” and its fury is palpable throughout the book — even rehearsals look like barnburners. But the response — SWAT teams, billy clubs, helicopters — was absurdly disproportionate.
“Corporate Rock Sucks,” Jim Ruland’s well researched history of Ginn and the label he founded, SST Records, puts some context around the absurdity. And it’s a thrilling story in the early going, the tale of a culture being stubbornly constructed from the ground up. In its 1980s heyday, SST released at least a dozen canonical rock albums that were notable for their rejection of convention. Black Flag’s piercing hardcore and Sabbathy sludge shared little with the Minutemen’s springy, spiky punk-jazz fusion, the Meat Puppets’ Dead-like excursions or Hüsker Dü’s blend of pop savvy and stun guitar. But together, they made SST the decade’s preeminent indie label. As Ruland writes: “Ginn was interested in punk rock as a concept — a creative call to arms — not as a specific style of music.”
In that regard, it’s a little disappointing that Ruland — a fiction writer who’s also co-authored two earlier books on Southern California punk — generally sticks to label history and doesn’t make a stronger argument on his subject’s behalf. SST’s accomplishment wasn’t just signing a host of enduring bands; it became the wellspring and prime mover for much of Gen X culture and the indie rock that followed. Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins exemplified a generation’s sour, antiestablishment, heavily ironic posture. The second side of its 1984 album, “My War,” was a grunge touchstone. Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth gave the ‘90s alt-rock explosion its melodic textbook. Negativland set a template for anticorporate pranking and culture jamming. The touring paths that indie bands across the country took — and still take — were largely developed at SST’s Torrance offices. Its ads and review copies fueled a generation of zines and their writers.