photo & text by nacrowe
my introduction to SST RECORDS as a teenager, like i presume with most people, was through the AMERICAN HARDCORE icons BLACK FLAG. for me the record label, much like DISCHORD, EPITAPH, ALTERNATIVE TENTACLES or FAT WRECK CHORDS, was the symbolic representation of the DIY ethic and the attached value system of SELF-DEPENDENCE and COMMUNITY-BUILDING that 80s HARDCORE epitomizes. BLACK FLAG, more than any other band of that era, trail-blazed and literally fought for a nationwide network of alternate venues that later bands of multiple genres benefitted from.
so for me reading CORPORATE ROCK SUCKS: THE RISE & FALL OF SST RECORDS (HATCHETTE, 2022) by JIM RULAND was pretty eye-opening in that it very much showcases the CONFLICTED, DUAL LEGACY of a legendary label that both opened doors for untapped talent (from DINOSAUR JR, THE MEAT PUPPETS, HUSKER DU and SONIC YOUTH to SAINT VITUS, THE MINUTEMEN, SOUNDGARDEN and OXBOW among countless others) yet effectively exploited them in turn. and it is that second legacy of EXPLOITATION that feels incongruous with the initial ETHOS and CULTURAL WEIGHT of BLACK FLAG, as the band exemplifies more than any other of its era the idea of uncompromising INTEGRITY. such is the crux of this incredible book.
the band and the label both came out of a bloated 1970s cultural scene in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA that saw radio and means of promotion being corporatized to the point that all ALTERNATIVE VIEWPOINTS were seemingly edged out of the conversation. what GREG GINN accomplished with his band and label was to promote an ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITY that appreciated different perspectives and musical ideas. his label very much promoted emerging scenes from seemingly unrelated genres of INDIE ROCK (DINOSAUR JR), MELODIC HARDCORE (THE MINUTEMEN, HUSKER DU, THE DESCENDENTS), DOOM METAL (SAINT VITUS), PSYCHEDELIA (THE MEAT PUPPETS) and even experimental NOISE ROCK (SONIC YOUTH). in turn, the CULTURAL LEGACY of the label was one of being at the forefront of culture, well beyond its HARDCORE roots. these bands mentioned are the well-known ones, for the label put out many, many more by more OBSCURE and AVANT-GARDE musicians that ran the gamut from JAZZ and ELECTRONIC experiments to IMPROVISATIONAL SPOKEN WORD performances. the label was very much over the map.
which gets at the current state of SST RECORDS. a dormant label that has largely been abandoned by its founder and has not nurtured the immense cultural legacies of its artists with comprehensive re-releases of landmark albums. worse, there are rumors that it has either misplaced or improperly stored master tapes. it just feels tragic that for a label that gave so many artists access to a community it fought so hard to initiate, that in the end they left it all to rot. or worse stagnate and fester as GINN refuses to voluntarily give artists their music rights back. music that his label has chosen to sit on, in some cases, for decades.
its that dual notion of GINN as both a RIGHTEOUS SUPPORTER and a CORPORATE GOON that is difficult to swallow for those on the outside. just the idea that SST RECORDS is as much a part of that soulless corporate business-as-usual approach that they supposedly were fighting against.
it is unfortunate.
photo & text by nacrowe
i was 10 when KURT COBAIN passed away and my initial introduction to the MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK (GEFFEN, 1994) record was at a friend's house when my family were living in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. we didnt have MTV back then and in fact didnt see the actual show until it came out on DVD in 2007. which i have to say was a pretty surreal experience given that by that point i had long since committed every nuance of the recording to memory.
obviously this record is celebrated for its focus on COBAIN the songwriter in a stripped-back intimate setting. in my openly biased opinion several of these performances are iconic, especially "THE WHO SOLD THE WORLD," "ABOUT A GIRL," "ALL APOLOGIES" and especially "WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT." its ironic that people use this specific live recording to espouse at length about COBAIN's strength as a songwriter as six of its fourteen tracks are covers by the likes of LEADBELLY, THE VASELINES, DAVID BOWIE and THE MEAT PUPPETS. the original songs they did opt to play were largely deep cuts with the exception of NEVERMIND (GEFFEN, 1991) single "COME AS YOU ARE," which in and of itself is quite a confident statement.
what strikes me about these performances is not COBAIN the songwriter, but COBAIN the performer. in this bare-bones environment what really shines is his voice and his preternatural ability to connect emotionally with an audience. at times his performances are so authentic and so real that they are almost uncomfortable to listen to, as if you are hearing close family arguing. he comes off so vulnerable yet in firmly in command that you really sense being in the presence of a genius. you dont sense any affectation or posturing on his part, as you do other lesser performances by peers in this series (STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, PEARL JAM, etc), with the noteworthy exception being the ALICE IN CHAINS performance in 1996.
obviously the death of COBAIN in 1994 permanently effected the public's memory of this legendary performance. when i hear it i am transported back to my teenage years and it perfectly distills a lot of what i felt back then during that period in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. that included feeling insecure and a total outsider in a close-minded, often racist ORANGE COUNTY community that i felt little in common with. its funny to me now that i feel that i have more in common with those i met a few years later in 1996 when living in NIGERIA than i ever did back "home."
i wonder if COBAIN felt that way ever. if he ever found solace within a new home or community. to my ears this record sounds like a person profoundly in touch and cognizant of his own vulnerability. aware of his own search.
legendary performance by an iconic performer. well-worth revisiting and further investigation.