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SST Records: a guide to the best albums

Black Flag in 1983
(Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Getty Images)

In 1978, Greg Ginn was a Californian radio ham who ran a small electronics business and played in a local punk band called Panic. Unable to find a record company willing to release their demos, he formed his own SST label instead. The result was the Nervous Breakdown EP, under the band’s new moniker Black Flag. Ginn’s first signing was San Pedro upstarts Minutemen, whose Paranoid Time EP was released the following year.

SST quickly became the hippest underground outlet on the West Coast, specialising in hardcore and punk. Black Flag shows became notorious for run-ins with the LAPD, leading to an ongoing war of attrition between the record company and police. SST’s phone lines were tapped, cops monitored Ginn’s HQ from across the street and local clubs suddenly slapped a ban on hardcore bands.

The situation merely stiffened SST’s resolve and increased their reputation as LA’s foremost indie label. In 1982 midwestern trio Hüsker Dü became its first non-Californian signings. The next three years saw SST at its peak, loosening its hardcore roots and growing a roster that embraced post-punk, experimental music, psychedelia and beyond. 

There were seminal albums by Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets and a young New York combo called Sonic Youth. As the latter’s Lee Ranaldo explained: “It was the first record company we were on that we would have given anything to be on.” Hüsker Dü signed to a major in 1986, but SST brought in fresh blood via DC’s Bad Brains and a noisy young bunch of misfits from Massachusetts called Dinosaur Jr.

But there was also growing disaffection between SST and its charges. Allegations of unpaid royalties would lead to lawsuits later on. The label was hardest hit by Island Records, who sued it in 1991 over Negativland’s appropriation of the U2 song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

The exodus from SST coincided with Ginn’s new preoccupation with jazz and the ascent of Nirvana, who had been inspired by many of his bands. By the turn of the 90s SST’s reputation was somewhat tainted and new releases were few and far between. It soon dropped off the radar completely, though it was briefly revived by Ginn, now based in Texas, in 2007.

Black Flag - Damaged (1981)

Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984)

Dinosaur Jr - You’re Living All Over Me (1987)

Meat Puppets - Meat Puppets II (1984)

Minutemen - Double Nickels On The Dime (1984)

Sonic Youth - Sister (1987)

Bad Brains - I Against I (1986)

Soundgarden - Ultramega OK (1988)

Screaming Trees - Anthology (1991)

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.