An Introduction to SST Records

An Introduction To

No understanding of the American independent rock scene approaches completion without diving into the catalog of Southern California’s ultra-influential SST Records. Founded in 1978 by Greg Ginn as an outlet for his band, Black Flag, SST would attract a small-but-impressive stable of artists during its initial half-decade run; and the success of the label would establish a template for countless indie imprints in the years and decades to follow.

In addition to Black Flag, SST would release records from other SoCal punk acts, such as Los Angeles’ Saccharine Trust, Overkill, Stains, and Würm, and San Pedro’s mighty Minutemen. And while the label’s operations were closely tied to its home office in Redondo Beach, it would quickly attract a small handful of excellent bands from outside of the Southern California punk scene: namely Meat Puppets (Phoenix), Dicks (Austin), The Subhumans (Vancouver, BC), and Hüsker Dü (Minneapolis—St. Paul).

While its early signees would all employ variations on hardcore punk, SST would never fall victim to easy classification. Almost from the outset, the label’s releases edged into hard rock and metal territory, and by the time that SST had become a truly national concern, its roster had grown to include jazz, folk, spoken word, and experimental electronic artists. The label’s national reputation would also make it a prestigious destination for well-established acts, as the likes of Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr, and Sonic Youth would all sign with SST — where each would ultimately release some of their most revered work.

But it was the label’s early years, and particularly the work of its “core four” bands — Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü — that one is most likely to associate with SST. Those early recordings — with their spartan treatment from house producer Spot, and iconic Raymond Pettibon artwork — truly account for the lion’s share of the label’s legend. And, at its peak, SST truly was a legendary imprint; in 1984 alone, the label would release three of the finest American indie rock albums of all-time, in Meat Puppets’ II, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime.

But after that thrilling peak — and the significant attention that it had attracted — SST never quite felt the same again, though it continued to release some legitimately groundbreaking records. Despite issuing classics like Sonic Youth’s Sister (1987) and Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me (1987), the label began spreading itself too thin during the second half of the eighties. Dashed-off side projects from SST alumni, uncharacteristically lunkheaded metal and hard rock, and tedious jam/jazz releases led to a dramatic decline in the label’s quality control. Several key bands — including Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr — jumped ship to major labels by the end of the decade; and SST’s initial torch-carriers had already disbanded due to infighting (Black Flag) and tragedy (Minutemen) by 1986.

But those early SST recordings still brim with excitement, intensity, and ingenuity. Its those years that I settled in on for this feature. There were a few different logical ending points, but I ultimately chose the release of SST-043 (the multi-artist compilation The Blasting Concept: Volume II) as the most appropriate. By that point, the label was in something of a rut, with a series of lackluster offerings from Das Damen, Würm, and Saint Vitus dominating the release calendar. That compilation itself was a far cry from the first volume of The Blasting Concept, which included several of the classic tracks featured here. Incidentally — in another sign that things were changing for SST — the label’s next catalog number (SST-044) was the first given to an archive release: specifically a reissue of Meat Puppets’ 1981 debut EP, In a Car.

So, ahead of you are twenty-six tracks that tell this most improbable of success stories — without any of the inevitable late-era downfall to harshen the mood. I included one song apiece from the label’s signature releases from 1979-1985. While this means that you won’t hear any Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, or fIREHOSE here, understand that they are part of the SST legacy, but just a different part. Most of the tracks can be found on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page, and all of them can be found on the YouTube Music playlist.

It goes without saying that crafting an exhaustive history of the American independent rock scene — let alone one of a single label — is a fool’s errand. However, for anybody interested in diving deeper into the history of these bands, and this label, Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, is essential reading. Just as essential is the 2005 documentary, We Jam Econo; while specifically about the Minutemen, the film offers a revealing glimpse of the scene that the band emerged from, and the ethos that crafted the work presented in these twenty-six tracks.


Black Flag

“Nervous Breakdown”

from Nervous Breakdown [EP] (1979)

Comprising the entire first side of SST-001, “Nervous Breakdown” stands among the most important debut statements to ever come from an American rock band. Not only did it represent the inauguration of one of the most influential record labels of its era, but “Nervous Breakdown” is also an outstanding song to boot. While Keith Morris would only stick around as Black Flag’s vocalist long enough to be a part of this EP, he left an indelible mark — not only on this band, but the entire West Coast punk scene.

Minutemen

“Paranoid Chant”

from Paranoid Time [EP] (1980)

Contrary to popular belief, Minutemen did not get their name from the fact that their songs were generally only a minute long. In fact, the average track length on their first EP, Paranoid Time, is well under a minute. Of those seven songs, the closing “Paranoid Chant” is practically an epic — complete with a pair of fake-out stops. It sealed the deal as a fitting introduction to the band that would make economy one of the essential virtues of the punk ethic.

Saccharine Trust

“I Have…”

from Paganicons (1981)

Existing somewhere on a spectrum between Wire and Dead Kennedys, Saccharine Trust’s debut EP, Paganicons, is one of the best early SST releases. The wild card for listeners is likely to be vocalist Jack Brewer. While Brewer’s lyrics are rightfully praised as more cerebral than the typical hardcore-adjacent fare of the era, his delivery is bound to find some detractors. However, when matched with the spindly guitar leads of Joe Baiza, they make for an intriguing combination.

Overkill

“Hell’s Getting Hotter”

from Hell’s Getting Hotter [EP] (1982)

Overkill — also known as ‘Overkill L.A.,’ to differentiate themselves from the New Jersey thrash metal band — would be one of a handful of metal-adjacent groups on the early SST roster. However, this title track from their first EP is firmly in the label’s punk wheelhouse. Unfortunately, Overkill’s metal impulses would take over by the time of 1985’s unfortunately-titled Triumph of the Will (really, guys?), but this one is kind of a classic.

Black Flag

“Jealous Again”

from Jealous Again [EP] (1980)

The title track to Black Flag’s second EP, “Jealous Again” features the short-lived lineup with Ron Reyes (aka Chavo Penderast) on vocals. Reyes acquits himself fine here, but one might argue that the star of the show is SST main man, Greg Ginn, whose frenetic lead work would raise the bar for other guitarists on the Southern California hardcore scene.

Meat Puppets

“Reward”

from Meat Puppets (1982)

One of SST’s most innovative and durable bands, Meat Puppets would blaze a trail like few of their contemporaries. Like Black Flag, they were a band averse to stasis — wildly altering their direction with each successive album and EP. And like Hüsker Dü, the Puppets would ultimately make their way to a major label, where they would enjoy breakout success with 1994’s Too High to Die. The band’s self-titled debut is light years removed from the radio-ready sound of that LP, fitting like a glove with the hardcore punk of the groups that — at least up to that point — had been affiliated with SST.

Minutemen

“Search”

from The Punch Line (1981)

We here at Strange Currencies adore Mike Watt: the bassist extraordinaire who arguably embodies the DIY spirit of punk better than anyone that the genre ever produced. While D. Boon was both the focal point and tragic lead character in the story of the Minutemen, Watt was the anchor. In addition to being the glue that kept Boon and drummer George Hurley together, Watt wrote a surprising amount of the band’s best material — including the lion’s share of their debut “full-length,” The Punch Line. It’s also his vocals that adorn “Search,” but it’s the chemistry between these three kindred spirits that stands front and center.

Stains

“Sick and Crazy”

from Stains (1983)

Among the first bands to emerge on the East Los Angeles punk scene, Stains would prove to be extraordinarily influential — even to the titanic Black Flag. Produced by Spot, the group’s self-titled debut is, today, one of the most coveted records in the SST catalog. Leadoff track “Sick and Crazy” showcases the intensity and precision of this relatively short-lived band, and arguably stands as the finest moment in their small catalog.

Black Flag

“Rise Above”

from Damaged (1981)

Henry Rollins joined Black Flag in 1981; and while he would in time become synonymous with the band, Rollins was already a dominating presence from the outset. Though the group had already recorded much of Damaged with Dez Cadena on vocals, it was the Rollins-led version that ultimately became their full-length debut. While it’s an obvious choice, “Rise Above” is the right pick here. Its anthemic nature is never matched again, despite the power of the fourteen tracks that follow in its wake.

Würm

“I’m Dead”

from We’re Off… [EP] (1982)

Though they would eventually become another SST band that drifted into a hard rock/metal sound, the debut EP from Würm is much closer to the punk end of the spectrum. The standout track, “I’m Dead” features a lead vocal performance by Chuck Dukowski, who was — at this point — pulling double-duty as the bassist for Würm, and working his “day job” in Black Flag.

Minutemen

“The Anchor”

from What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1983)

By 1983, most of SST’s premier acts were at work on their second LPs. And like much of punk’s vaunted Class of ’77, the SST groups would use their sophomore records to explore new musical territory. Case in point, Minutemen expanded their sound beyond the spartan confines of The Punch Line with its follow-up, What Makes a Man Start Fires?. No track on the record better displays this than “The Anchor,” which spends more time building than most previous Minutemen tracks lasted. Mike Watt described the song as the band’s “opus” in We Jam Econo, and while the studio version is great, so too is this performance that was featured in said documentary.

Dicks

“Anti-Klan (Part One)”

from Kill From the Heart (1983)

Forming in Austin during the early eighties, Dicks were among the first SST groups whose roots didn’t trace back to Southern California, but their anti-racist, anti-authority, anti-cop attitude was 100% SoCal punk. The Spot-produced Kill From the Heart represented one of SST’s furthest ventures from traditional hardcore to date, as it embraced garage, blues, and even dance elements across its dozen tracks. However, this opening track is straight-ahead punk fury: still powerful and frustratingly-relevant forty years later.

The Subhumans

“America Commits Suicide”

from No Wishes, No Prayers (1983)

Not to be confused with the UK-based Subhumans, these Canucks released their first album on a local Vancouver, B.C. label, but hooked up with SST for its 1983 follow-up. No Wishes, No Prayers is at its best when embracing the band’s hookier impulses; and several of these tracks have extremely catchy choruses. Arguably the best of the bunch is “America Commits Suicide” — a track that, in the right promotional hands, could’ve left a much larger impact. As it was though, No Wishes, No Prayers only received a limited push from SST, and it remains out of print — and little known — to this day.

Hüsker Dü

“Real World”

from Metal Circus [EP] (1983)

Hüsker Dü’s first SST release, Metal Circus, was originally slated to be an LP, but it would appear in abbreviated form as an ultra-tight eighteen-minute EP. The creative tug-of-war between Bob Mould and Grant Hart is on full display over these seven tracks. So too is the kinetic energy of hardcore’s most melodic midwesterners. While just as strong of a case could be made for including Hart’s chilling “Diane” as the pick here — we’ll go with a Hart pick from the band’s magnum opus — it’s the scintillating opener “Real World” that best characterizes this phase of the Hüskers’ career.

Minutemen

“Little Man With a Gun in His Hand”

from Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat [EP] (1983)

While it may sound blasphemous — given that they would subsequently release one of the great American rock albums — song for song, there may be no better Minutemen release than the 1983 EP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. Aside from a few brief, deliberate throwaways, everything here is gold; and none more so than this gripping track that would be revisited on Double Nickels on the Dime. It’s a cutting and powerful performance from a truly singular band.

Meat Puppets

“Plateau”

from Meat Puppets II (1984)

Jeez… How do you pick just one track from such a richly eclectic album as Meat Puppets II? No single song can capture the entirety of this record, but “Plateau” arguably comes the closest. As its arid desert main section abruptly shifts to the evocative psychedelia of the track’s final forty-five seconds — giving way to the pair of gorgeous songs that close out the album’s first side — the real scope of this improbable masterpiece comes into focus.

Black Flag

“My War”

from My War (1984)

A series of complicated legal issues kept Black Flag from releasing new material for nearly two-and-a-half years following Damaged — though they did issue a pair of compilations from their pre-Rollins era in the interim. The band that would emerge on 1984’s My War was a radically different one, and that’s just on the first half of the record, where this intense title-track comes from. The second side of the LP would find the group stretching out considerably, on a trio of songs that — divisive as they were among the band’s fanbase — would help to lay the groundwork for the sludge metal subgenre.

Hüsker Dü

“Eight Miles High”

single A-side (1984)

In listening to the Numero Group’s Savage Young Dü — a compilation of Hüsker Dü’s earliest recordings — you realize that their evolution from noisy hardcore to melodic punk was not a completely linear journey. More than anything else in the band’s discography up to that point, the Hüskers’ cover of “Eight Miles High” hints at the pop sensibilities that would begin to show more in time. With that said, it’s still a shockingly raw recording for anyone expecting a rote Byrds cover. But, as cover versions go, it’s one of the all-time greats.

Saccharine Trust

“The Giver Takes”

from Surviving You, Always (1983)

The winding post-punk of Saccharine Trust’s first release, Paganicons, gives way to something more akin to math rock on the band’s 1983 follow-up, Surviving You, Always. It’s a move that pays dividends on some of the album’s better tracks, and opener “The Giver Takes” is among those. While Saccharine Trust would stand outside of SST’s top tier of acts, they were easily among the best of the label’s B-team.

Minutemen

“History Lesson — Part II”

from Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

Minutemen could do righteous punk fury with the absolute best of them, but at their core, they were self-admitted “fucking corndogs.” At least that’s what D. Boon claims — through Mike Watt — on the sentimental centerpiece of the band’s masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime. A mission statement, and an affirmation of the brotherly bonds that kept this highly-volatile trio together, “History Lesson — Part II” says it best in its immortal opening line: “Our band could be your life.” Truth. In more ways than one.

Black Flag

“Shed Reading (Rattus Norvegicus)”

from Family Man (1984)

The long delay between Damaged and My War meant that Black Flag was sitting on a significant backlog of material while their legal issues were sorted out. What that ultimately resulted in was a deluge of new material in 1984: three studio albums and a live record. Of those, Family Man was the most divisive release. Split between a spoken-word half and a mostly-instrumental jazz-punk side, the record defied any expectations held by the group’s rabid fan base. Today, as ‘just another record’ in their catalog, Family Man is able to stand as a single piece in the puzzle — rather than bearing the weight of being ‘the new Black Flag album.’ And while this Henry Rollins spoken-word track isn’t what fans were after in 1984, it’s an intriguing diversion nevertheless.

Hüsker Dü

“Pink Turns to Blue”

from Zen Arcade (1984)

1984’s Zen Arcade was not only a landmark for Hüsker Dü and SST, but for the American punk scene as a whole. Dramatically expanding the range of the band’s earlier work, the double LP was a tour de force of buzzsaw guitars, kinetic energy, and swirling psychedelia. All of those elements congeal on Grant Hart’s haunting “Pink Turns to Blue.” There’s no shortage of worthy contenders from Zen Arcade, but this is arguably the finest track in Hüsker Dü’s catalog.

Meat Puppets

“Up on the Sun”

from Up on the Sun (1985)

If the transition from Meat Puppets to Meat Puppets II could be described as ‘jarring,’ the shift to the band’s third LP was equally so. The ultra-hyper cowpunk of II gives way to sun-drenched psychedelia on Up on the Sun, and it’s a glorious thing to behold. These are rich, evocative tracks that combine to form a daytime-to-nighttime reflection of the hidden beauty of the group’s native Arizona. If all of this sounds too hyperbolic, just check out this supremely laid back — and subtly surreal — track, and try to resist digging into the rest.

Minutemen

“King of the Hill”

from Project: Mersh [EP] (1985)

The Project: Mersh EP was an overt move toward a more crowd-friendly sound from the Minutemen (“mersh” = commercial; for those unfamiliar with ‘Pedro spiel’). And while it definitely presents them in a cleaned up form, this is still the work of a highly idiosyncratic group. Though the band were clearly in on the joke, one doesn’t have to work too hard to see the commercial potential behind the EP’s centerpiece, “King of the Hill.” It follows a more traditional structure than the band’s typical fare — even surpassing the three-minute mark — and carries a truly anthemic chorus. Tragically, it represents a path that the group would not be afforded the opportunity to explore further, as D. Boon passed away in a road accident in December 1985.

Black Flag

“Black Coffee”

from Slip It In (1984)

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Black Flag’s evolution into more of a hard rock sound in their later era. 1984’s Slip It In was a far cry from the hardcore punk of the group’s earlier years, but there’s still some value to be found in the LP — which is much more than can be said for its follow-up, 1985’s embarrassing Loose Nut. “Black Coffee” is the highlight here, as it finds a comfortable middle ground between the band’s roots and its final destination.

Hüsker Dü

“Celebrated Summer”

from New Day Rising (1985)

Let’s end it on a high note with this beloved track from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade follow-up, New Day Rising. While not quite as dense and sprawling as its predecessor, New Day Rising is arguably the easiest entry point to the group, as it synthesizes their punk roots with the more melodic undercurrent that would rise closer to the surface on their major label releases. “Celebrated Summer” is the pivot point: a track that acknowledges where the band had been, anticipated where it was going, and contemplatively revels in the present.

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