“Don’t do anything by half… When you go to work, work your ass off. When you hate someone, hate them until it hurts.” – Henry Rollins, Black Flag
SST Records sparked the American underground DIY movement and rose from a cashless operation to become THE indie label of the 80s. Expanding from the core of hardcore, it ultimately shaped alt-rock with bands like HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, The Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth.
Instead of riding waves at Hermosa Beach, at age 12, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn Solid State Tuners (SST) – a mail-order business that sold modified WW II radios. In 1978 he converted it into a record company. True to the DIY ethos, Ginn picked up the phone book and directly engaged a pressing plant to print his records.
Black Flag was an enemy of the LAPD way before NWA. The police believed SST was a drug dealing front and thus tapped their phones. To evade this, Ginn used public phones and moved his business from district to district. Meanwhile, starving SST artists skimmed meals by helping Ginn build radios for sale.
Despite police abuse, SST bands began touring. To gain wider circulation, Ginn decided to release Black Flag’s Damaged on MCA. However, just prior to its release, MCA pulled-out due to the album’s “anti-parent” stance. A legal battle followed which resulted in Ginn and co-owner/bandmate Chuck Dukowski being jailed for 5 days.
SST’s retribution came in 1984 with monumental releases from Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. HÃ¼sker DÃ¼’s album Zen Arcade transcended hardcore with elements of jazz and psychedelia. But the band felt that SST was diverting attention to Black Flag, probably due to Ginn’s inflated ego, and soon left the label. SST suffered another casualty when the Minutemen disbanded after the death of their frontman. And after 10 years as a band, Black Flag raised a white.
SST signed new edgier bands – Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Bad Brains – but they, too, left one by one, though the label was still able to put out a ridiculous 80+ albums in 1987. Why did they bail? Conflicts ranged from “suspicious accounting” to “stoner administrative quality”, but all began to finally collapse as the piggybank broke when SST was sued by U2 for Negativland’s parody of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. Before the final act though, SST still managed to predate grunge with early releases from Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.
Ginn has relocated SST to Taylor, Texas where he continues to release music independently. And he lives with 85 rescued cats.
For a piece of DIY history, head over to www.sstsuperstore.com