By Alan Brostoff
There is nothing better than dropping the needle on a classic record.
The only thing that comes close to music that helps you escape to a different time is a great book. One such book, a book that focuses on a record company that spoke to me as a youth, is Jim Ruland's Corporate Rock Sucks the rise & fall of SST RECORDS.
Ruland sat down with me to provide insight on the legacy of SST Records.
GOLDMINE: What is your definition of punk?
JIM RULAND: I guess I might say it’s what SST left behind. It’s interesting because I still listen to punk. I still love punk music. It is something that comes from the underground. I think you can have punk music that gets accepted by the mainstream. This is a tough question. I’m thinking of a band like Turnstile; they are a post-hardcore band. When you listen to them you would say this sounds familiar and sounds like punk, but when you see the performers and the way they dress and act, they have no punk aesthetic whatsoever in the way that I’m used to. I guess I think that punk is underground, and a lot of people are opposed to it.
GM: What is your favorite SST band?
Jim: It really depends on what era. There are some bands that I really admire. I think Saint Vitus is really one of the bands that I find myself listening to the most. When I was done with the book, there was no reason for me to listen to SST, but I still do and I seem to keep going back to Saint Vitus. I also love The Stains. That first record really captures the moment of punk rock in 1980. Before I started writing the book I was a big fan of Negativland, Sonic Youth and the Minutemen. A lot of those bands, I was already familiar with their music. And there are the Bad Brains. I was familiar with their music and was a fan. I became very interested in SST through my association with Keith Morris and working on his book My Damage and really getting into his history and the history of Hermosa Beach in the formation of Black Flag. That helped me gain more appreciation for the record.
GM: Do you have any rare or unique SST records in your personal collection?
Jim: Well, I have Zen Arcade and then these here ... (He pulls out a small stack of records including Husker Du’s "8 Miles High" and Black Flag’s TV Party). A lot of the records that I actually was seeking out and bought I got on Discogs. Many of them had the inserts including the SST catalog. I also have the Das Damen Marshmallow Conspiracy. This one is probably pretty rare as it samples Michael Jackson, so they had to recall them almost immediately. Probably this one, because it was a media issue. It contained the band promo photo, full media kit. I learned very early which ones had the inserts, sometimes they were coded like that and I wanted to get those.
GM: Is there a SST release you are dying to add to your collection?
Jim: Oh God, The Stains record, the self-titled debut. I don’t want to say I would kill for that, but I would kill for that one.
GM: Going back to something you talked about earlier, was it different working with Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks, etc.) on this book than working with him on his biography?
Jim: Yes and no. Keith and I have become friends and so we talk all the time. It’s not like we have sleep overs, but we talk quite a bit. Here is the thing, I know that Keith has been in lawsuits with Greg Ginn (SST owner and Black Flag founder) and SST and I don’t want to create any trouble for Keith, so there’s a lot of stuff I don’t ask him about. I don’t want to get someone in trouble or put themselves in legal jeopardy because of what they said in a book. I don’t put any kind of pressure on people to tell me what really happened because sometimes it’s legal stuff and I don’t want to get people in trouble. Sometimes it’s the terms of a settlement, to not talk about it and people may be angry and want to talk about it but I don’t push. Keith played a really important part of this book because of my fondness for Keith and my loyalty to Keith. I know that he did not have good feelings about Greg, but that he is able to separate his feelings for the person from the label. I think part of that has to do with him being in Flag and his having a relationship with all the other members of Black Flag over the years. When I first approached him about this I was convinced it was a bad idea, but Keith was like, “No, you should absolutely do it”. It was really his blessing that made me go froward and pursue the project.
GM: Did your view of SST records change once you started to write the book?
Jim: Yes, it changed after every chapter that I got deeper into it. It really depends on who I was talking with. A lot of people I spoke to had nothing but good things to say about Greg. That’s what makes me being an outsider so unique. I don’t have any kind of animosity or personal feelings about the label or how anyone was treated. I’m just reporting on the story, it’s not my story. There was a lot of sadness from people who could not understand why they no longer had a relationship with someone who was so supportive and so generous, so brilliant and to have the vision to create this label that put out so much good music.
GM: The history of Black Flag and SST are so intertwined. How did you make sure this did not become a Black Flag biography?
Jim: I had to read all of the other Black Flag stuff out there just to make sure that I was not telling the same stories that had been told or had already been covered in another book. I did not want this to become a redundant experience. Some people who will read this book have likely read those other stories and I did not want to waste their time, but there are also plenty of people who didn’t know the story of Black Flag and the whole story of SST, so it was a balancing act for sure.
GM: This book really gets the reader thinking. On page 46 you brought up a topic that I would really like to dive in. You talk about the violence that surrounded many of these early live shows. I think you even ask the question “Were these bands responsible for the violence that occurred at their shows?” What is your thought about that?
Jim: I think if you see a crime happening, you have a moral obligation to do what you can to stop it, whether that is to call the police, to say “Hey, stop it” or to put yourself in the position to help that person. Lots of times what was happening at these shows was basically a simple assault. It still happens at shows these days. When I saw the Circle Jerks a few weeks ago, this happened and Keith (Morris) stopped the show and said something like “Hey stop, don’t do that. We’re all here to get along," and I don’t think the music even stopped. It was not like anything came to a jarring conclusion, but it was enough to get either security involved or cooler heads prevailed. I think Los Angeles in the 1980s was a totally different situation. In a lot of these clubs, where you did not have security, there was not much distance between the musicians and the fans. I think a lot of musicians were themselves at risk. There’s a quote later in the book from Bill Stevenson, who says, “Back then we didn’t stop for anything. It was like skinheads... we’re going to beat you up if you stopped.” I think there’s a great deal of truth to that. In the book I did with Bad Religion, I remember talking to Jay Bentley and he said something very similar, like there were no metal detectors. I mean, there were straight up psychopaths that would come to the shows. Sometimes you played scared, you know if the audience got hostile the only thing to do was to play faster. To play in a way that would not provoke them. This is interesting because Black Flag had this curious thing where they seemed to get off on provoking the audience. Very early on it was like, “Let’s play as much as we can before the police stop the show. Because we know the police are going to stop the show.” Going back to the original question, I think in 2022 the band has an obligation to stop the show if they see something happening, but now is a lot different from back then.
GM: In the book you talk about Black Flag being like a sports team and where one member of the band fell out of favor with management of the band, that member should be replaced. That is an interesting way to look at it.
Jim: Yeah, this is something that other people have told me from the very beginning. Punk is very unstable. It’s a constant churn of musicians because of the nature of the music. The personalities were extreme, the venue and the people that came to the shows were extreme. The conditions in which you played and practiced were all extreme and very hard to keep any kind of continuity in those kinds of environments. If the bond is disturbed within the band, if one person leaves, well, you gotta stop the band and start a new one. Black Flag had a totally different viewpoint and I think that comes from having built an entire business about the band. Treating it as professionally as he treated SST Electronics. I think he had a... I don’t want to say incentive, because it makes it sound like he was doing it for the money; because most of the time that was not the case, but you know he definitely had “The show must go on” mentality and he would bring in different people. It did not matter if they sounded like the person they replaced. Their sound changed quite a bit over the years.
GM: Do you think SST would have gotten to where they were if there had been no (artist) Raymond Pettibon?
Jim: I don’t think so. I think that SST was blessed with a couple of geniuses and they both have the same last name. His work and his career as a fine artist has borne this out. He just had this vision and he was so willing to head that vision to so many punk bands in the early '80s and into the '90s. He helped define Black Flag and that added to the feeling of danger. So when the band started to tour; places in Kansas, Louisiana or Ohio, these flyers started to show up in record stores and things and people were asking “What is that?” We see that when Pettibon leaves SST, Black Flag, the brand, is more consistent than Black Flag the band. You’ve got the logo and you’ve got the Pettibon artwork. Then you have a band that was changing radically. You might find one record was instrumental and another record might be spoken word, another might be hardcore and one might be something slower or more metal.
GM: I think one of the most amazing things I learned in the book was that SST passed on Nirvana. Wonder if Greg (Ginn) looks back on that and realizes that could have been a game changer.
Jim: I don’t know what Greg thinks, you know I don’t speculate, but I do see how this is a little baffling because he took chances on so many bands that I point out in the book. In the year that he turned down Nirvana, he signed acts that most people had never heard of and many of those bands never went anywhere. I do believe that he really cared about all the music he released and if he honesty did not like the music, he did not like it. However, there are plenty of other examples of other SST employees turning Greg on to bands and him putting out multiple records so I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s interesting, I do remember when I did the Bad Religion book and talked with Brett (Gurewitz) that he told me he went to see Nirvana at an instore and he had a similar reaction. They we just a trashy post-punk band and it was not that special.
GM: Each chapter of the book is SST versus something. Where did that concept come from?
Jim: One of the misconceptions that I had going into this book was that SST was this label that grew out of this basement in Hermosa Beach and became this indie powerhouse and somewhere along it lost its way and became super confrontational and took this nosedive. Now I know that they were always confrontational from the beginning. Greg was someone who had remarkable clarity about what he wanted to do and because of his experience as a small business with SST electronics, he had the means and the know how to start this record label. The original concept for the book was to call it “We Can’t Win” the line from Police Story. You know there’s that famous opening line and then they sing about the rights being taken away. It’s almost like, f--k you. We are going to lose anyway. It seems so punk rock. SST was not picking fights but stepping up and fighting back when it felt like it needed to. That’s where the titles come from. It really gave me an organizing principle to kind of shape the book around.
GM: When the movie rights for the book are sold, who will play the role of Greg Ginn?
Jim: Oh wow, I don’t know. I don’t think I could imagine this as a movie to tell you the truth, or even a documentary. We would never get the music rights. I guess I don’t have an answer at this time. (Jim later emailed me and said “Russell Brand.”)
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