CD Presents: 
The Sun Records of Punk

David Ferguson affixing posters on Sunset Strip Los Angeles 1980

Waits’ comment -- made to friend and CD Presents label founder, David Ferguson --  would prove prescient.  Recent developments in American and British culture reveal a flourishing contemporary interest in punk music of the late 1970s, early 1980s: the September 2006 theatrical release of the music documentary, American Hardcore (released by Sony Pictures Classics), the announcement by London’s Barbican Arts Centre of a 2007 exhibit (entitled, Panic Attack) that will celebrate 30 years of punk music and fashion, and the DVD release NBC's Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder, featuring appearances by punk rock artists, demonstrate the extensive legacy of punk music. 

In revisiting the major punk artists and players of that era, one cannot help but notice the far-reaching impact of CD Presents – a San Francisco Bay Area label that at any given time recorded The Avengers, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains, D.O.A., Circle Jerks, and other pioneering punk acts.  The extent of CD Presents’ influence should not, however, be compared with just that of peer labels within the punk music world. 

As far as independent music labels go perhaps only Sun Records, under the ownership of Sam Phillips, wielded an overall influence on American pop music approaching that of CD Presents.  But it was not just the influence on future generations of musicians that the two labels held in common.  Comparisons could also be made between the sound of Sun Records and CD Presents, as well as the nurturing attitude of the two enterprises.

Sun Records Recording Studio Memphis, TN

Like that surging out of Memphis in the 1950s, it was the very urgency of the CD Presents sound that separated it from mainstream music and from other independent music labels. It is a common thread in the history of pop music that – in seeking to break free from artistic stagnation -- musicians will turn to a simpler, more minimalist approach. 

 Both Sun and CD Presents would create a spare yet propulsive sound, a more emotionally direct sound, that celebrated physical presence and confrontation as much as musicality and technical proficiency. Hand in hand with this attitude was a self-reliant, do-it-yourself ethic that defined the two labels.  “We record anything-anywhere-anytime” was the motto of Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, a precursor to Sun, which opened as a small studio in 1950.  

This DIY attitude was also evident at CD Presents, which at times had to marshal a seat-of-the-pants savvy to manage business necessities and recording challenges.  It was in transcending such limitations that Sun and CD Presents were able to distinguish themselves from competitors.  Take Sun. What started as a radiator shop Phillips transformed with painstaking persistence into a first rate studio with groundbreaking acoustics.  Likewise, the audio production on CD Presents records drew notice as Ferguson deployed the finest in studio equipment and engineering production.

CD Present LTD. Recording Studio San Francisco 1983

But it was also as havens for blossoming musical talent that history will remember Sun Records and CD Presents.  Both labels held out a first chance and a last hope for musicians, singers and songwriters, who came to the labels far more out of necessity than for any prospects of fame and fortune.  As a reward, musicians happened upon two companies that built reputations for treating artists with respect and honesty.

Both labels cultivated an openness and a willingness to assume risk – characteristics fundamental to the natures of the impresarios who started both labels.  Sun founder, Sam Phillips was the quintessential maverick; his label embraced artists of the same backbone and resiliency of its owner. For his part, Ferguson had been a successful concert promoter before recognizing that a battery of talented punk rockers in California had no outlet for producing their music.  His leap into the running of a record label was certainly one of faith and was fraught with a level of uncertainty and risk with which any young aspiring punk musician could identify. 

In essence, Sam Phillips and David Ferguson, above all else, championed the same thing their performers did: creating an authentic, distinctive form of artistic expression.

Circle Jerks Poster for Unreleased Live Recording 1982

Both labels presented a remarkable snapshot of American culture during their respective eras. In part, the Sun sound captured a portrait of 1950s rural life at the threshold of modern encroachment.  From the late 1970s through the 1980s, CD Presents’ songwriters confronted head on the conflicts of modern American youth, articulating the boiling restlessness of disaffected suburbia. 

Much like the fans of Sun records found a collective voice for their youthful defiance, fans of the Avengers, Black Flag and Dead Kennedys discovered in punk’s volatile presentation a suitable reaction to a growing stagnation in American music.  It is a simplistic irony that the punk music worldview – one steeped in images of nihilism, disorder and social decay – would create a sense of community in its listeners that Mayberry and Peoria would envy.

Yet, there it was from the very beginning, first heard at that fateful show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on January 14, 1978.  While the Sex Pistols unraveled and Johnny Rotten wondered aloud about the fans feeling cheated, The Avengers -- whom the Sex Pistols specifically requested as an opening act -- would instead empower with their performance the music dreams of countless concert attendees. As CD Presents' founder, David Ferguson, commented, “That was the Woodstock of punk. People came from all over the country. And I swear, out of the 7,000 people in the audience, I'll bet 1,000 bands were started the next day. So many people I spoke with, in subsequent years, said that that was a night that changed their lives.”

Bad Brains Poster for Unreleased Live Recording 1982

Of course, the influence of Sun Records on American pop music is incalculable.  It is hard to imagine the British New Wave and the American country and rock styles of the '60s and '70s coming of age without Sun Records having seeded the fields.   But for more modern rock, post-punk music, the legacy of that Winterland show and the music later recorded by CD Presents, has been equally transforming. 

In a Guitar World interview published in 1996, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain cited as his music inspiration the first time he heard bands from CD Presents: “In 1984 a friend of mine named Buzz Osborne [Melvins’ singer/guitarist] gave me a couple of compilation tapes (Rat Music for Rat People Vol. I & II) with Black Flag and Flipper, everything, all the most popular punk rock bands, and I was completely blown away.  I’d finally found my calling.  That very same day, I cut my hair short.  I would lip sync to those tapes—I played them every day—and it was the greatest thing.”

Black Flag Poster for Unreleased Live Recording 1982

Other bands and critics of today also hoist up CD Presents groups for recognition.  In reviewing the film American Hardcore for the All Music Guide, Jason Buchanan noted the impact of CD Presents bands on modern groups: “…the early-80s Hardcore Punk Rock scene gave birth to much of the rock music and culture that followed. There would be no Nirvana, Beastie Boys or Red Hot Chili Peppers were it not for Hardcore pioneers such as Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat.” 

As former Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan said about another CD Presents group, "Bad Brains were completely influential and often overlooked for the contribution they made to alternative rock.”

The Offs Studio Recording 1984

Like Sun records, the impact of CD Presents and its artists often extended beyond a band's most active years.  The Avengers album – released nearly 3 years after the group disbanded -- sold more than 100,000 copies in 1983 (often outplaying then college-radio stalwarts, R.E.M, on numerous stations throughout the nation).  

The CD Presents' compilations, Rat Music for Rat People, sold at a comparable clip.  In addition to its groundbreaking music, the art work associated with CD Presents has also achieved a collector-item stature.  Jean Michel Basquiat, for example, created the album cover for The Offs "First Record" album, one of the most legendary designs in rock music history. 

© 1984 CD Presents LTD./Buried Treasure Inc.
The Off's "First Record" Cover art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

It is worth noting that while Sam Phillips released virtually everything recorded at Sun, Ferguson by comparison has released only about half of what was recorded at CD Presents.  So, any decision to compile and release additional compilations of these seminal recordings would be a momentous event in American music.

--James Hicks