When the Hardcore Punk scene exploded across America in the early 1980’s via bands such as Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks, it was a reaction towards many things: the commercial shift from the pioneering punk bands of 1977, the banality of suburban existence and the hopelessness of a future under Ronald Reagan’s reign. But when bands like Minor Threat from Washington D.C, SS Decontrol from Boston and 7 Seconds from Nevada came onto the scene, they threw a new concept into the mix: Straight Edge, a philosophy based in a lifestyle free of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and promiscuous sex. Straight Edge was a retort to the self-destructive and counterproductive outlets that were commonplace in youth culture at the time and is still a movement within the Hardcore Punk scene to this day. Throughout it’s existence, Straight Edge been called everything from a positive force to militant and evangelical, but in the face of the hangover of 60’s exploration and 70’s excess, it was the only proper form of rebellion in Hardcore punk youth culture.
PART ONE: TEENAGE WASTELAND
As the ’70s fell into the ’80s, American youth culture was at a standstill. The promise from the previous decade’s counterculture of a better world through mind-altering substances stalled out when drug taking went from being a transcendental act of defiance to a common act of recreation among teens. Not only that, but there was a musical standstill as well. The hallways of suburban high schools throughout the country still buzzed with the sounds of the Beatles, the Doors, the Who and many other rock bands who were either broken up, dead from over indulgence or passed their prime a long time ago. The promise of a keg party in the woods on the weekend or maybe a joint snuck in before chemistry class was the be-all and end-all of a young person’s existence at the time. The damage from a previous generation’s naive indulgence drifted above their own children like a dank fog. It was the epitome of Teenage Wasteland.
At that same moment, the first round of hardcore punk rock spread throughout the country. Detached kids who found the situation of their fellow classmates dismal beyond belief latched on to the raw energy of the music and happily devoured the sounds of California-bred acts such as the Germs, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. The only thing that didn’t seem to fit with this recalcitrant, youth-oriented sound was the “Live Fast, Die Young” vibe of nihilism leftover from the school of ’77 British punk. “You had Sid Vicious dying of a heroin overdose and that sent a tone throughout the world on what they thought punk was about.” says Dave Smalley, a punk from Washington, D.C., who would eventually move to Boston to front the early-’80s Boston hardcore unit DYS. “Drinking and drugs was such an established part of rock ’n’ roll, and punk was really no different.”
PART TWO: OUT OF STEP: THE BIRTH OF STRAIGHT EDGE
In 1981, the hardcore punk scene coming out of Washington, D.C., was being led by a band named Minor Threat who self-released an eight-song debut EP on their own Dischord imprint. Among the curt tunes on the disc was a song named “Straight Edge,” where the band’s vocalist, Ian MacKaye, made a statement on how his non-consumption of drugs or alcohol didn’t make him either less or more of a punk among his peers. In the song, MacKaye proclaimed: “I’m a person just like you / But I’ve got better things to do / Than snort white shit up my nose / Pass out at the shows / I don’t even think about speed / That’s something I just don’t need.” The title of this song—along with a policy MacKaye and his previous band the Teen Idles had seen in place at punk clubs in San Francisco, where underage punks could attend gigs in bars if they brandished a black X on the back of their hands—cemented both the statement and iconography of straight edge.
Kevin Seconds, vocalist for the pioneering Nevada-based hardcore band 7 Seconds, recalls the first time hearing Minor Threat and that song fondly. “When I first heard Minor Threat, I instantly felt justified in how I was feeling as a young hardcore punk rock kid, and it revitalized my love for the music and the spirit of punk rock. Here we were, young pups who didn’t party or want to be like all of our other younger friends who were getting wasted and doing stupid shit with absolutely no purpose. Now, we had kids across the country who felt similarly. It was terribly gratifying and regulatory at the time.”
Although Minor Threat lit the fuse in the punk scene with this philosophy, neither they nor the D.C. hardcore scene wanted to be known as the purveyors of a puritan lifestyle within the punk scene. “I don’t think there was anyone in D.C. who was actively waving a figurative straight-edge banner,” remembers Jeff Nelson, drummer for Minor Threat. “We were already sick of being asked about it by the time Minor Threat started touring.” Minor Threat bassist Brian Baker drives the point home bluntly by stating: “Minor Threat was just a band, and “Straight Edge” was just a song. It wasn’t like Minor Threat was united in this straight-edge cause. Minor Threat did not brand ourselves as a straight-edge entity. That came after us with the people from Boston.”
PART THREE: THE KIDS WILL HAVE THEIR SAY: BOSTON
The newly founded Boston hardcore punk scene seemed more than up to the task of taking straight edge and branding it their own via hard-hitting bands such as SS Decontrol and DYS, along with a more stringent disdain on drugs and booze. “D.C. are responsible for the iconography,” acknowledges Jon Anastas, bass player for early Boston straight-edge bands DYS and Slapshot. “They brought along the Xs on the back of your hands so bartenders can’t serve you because you’re underage. Minor Threat wrote the song, but D.C. didn’t bring that Boston tough-guy thing. They weren’t preaching lifting weights and eating red meat. We took it to a different place.”
Along with their somewhat militant ideology, Boston also brought along a look for straight edge. No more mohawks, leather jackets and the usual norms of the punk uniform. Instead, there was a clean and practical look of high-top sneakers, hooded sweatshirts and shaved heads or crew cuts. “DYS and SSD are the ones who defined the look,” states Jon Roa, vocalist for first-wave California straight-edge band Justice League. Toby Morse, singer for the long-running hardcore unit H20, thinks the look was something of a happy accident. “I think some kids were into the music but didn’t want to wear leather jackets and have liberty spikes. People were sick of that look, so they decided to dress the way they normally did, and from that, a look came for straight edge.” This classic look is something that still echoes through the hardcore punk scene today, with many straight-edge shows being a sea of flattops and sweatshirts.
PART FOUR: CRUCIAL TIMES: YOUTH OF TODAY AND THE REBIRTH OF STRAIGHT EDGE
By 1985, Minor Threat had broken up while SS Decontrol and DYS had moved on to playing heavy metal due to their waning interest in playing blazing-fast hardcore. “After all these bands changing and breaking up, there was still a hunger for the straight-edge stuff,” says Mike Gitter, then-editor of hardcore punk zine xXx Fanzine, who’s now vice president of A&R for Century Media Records. “And when something echoes back, it usually echoes back louder than when it was first spoken.” That echo came from Westchester County in New York with a band called Youth of Today.
Vocalist Ray Cappo and guitarist John Porcelly were members of the band Violent Children before forming Youth of Today in reaction to both the dismal state of straight edge in the hardcore scene at the time, as well as the apathetic attitudes of their fellow bandmates. “The end of Violent Children happened when [CBGB’s talent booker] Johnny Stiff called up Ray Cappo and asked if we wanted to open up for the Circle Jerks at CBGB’s,” Porcelly remembers. “Ray and I couldn’t believe the opportunity and the singer for Violent Children was like, ‘I don’t know. I have a softball game that day and I think I’ll be too tired afterward.’ We were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t wanna play with the Circle Jerks at CBGB’s?’ And he was like, ‘No, I can’t really be bothered with it.’ That’s when we decided we had to break up this band. Cappo and I really wanted to tour and start this hardcore recruitment tour! We wanted to spread straight edge all over the country.” Cappo concurs by saying, “We thought straight edge was an important message, and our dream was to put out a record and travel America.” The band started their dream of a straight-edge recruitment tour before even releasing their debut EP, Can’t Close My Eyes, by opening for 7 Seconds on a West Coast tour in January of 1986.
Upon returning from the tour, Cappo and Porcelly came back to find straight edge had taken over the usually drug-fueled hardcore scene of New York. Notorious partiers such as Ray “Raybeez” Barbieri had turned his long-running band Warzone into a full-fledged straight-edge band. Soon after, bands such as Bold, Straight Ahead and Gorilla Biscuits began to pack out venues like CBGB’s and The Ritz. For a scene hungover on angel dust and 40 ounces of malt liquor, straight edge was an idea whose time had come.
Throughout the late ’80s, Youth of Today released landmark albums like Break Down the Walls and We’re Not in This Alone while going on numerous U.S. tours, which crystallized straight edge within the hardcore scene. These tours inspired pockets of kids across the country to form straight-edge bands such as Confront in Ohio, Turning Point in New Jersey, Insight in Utah and Brotherhood in Washington, not to mention the straight-edge scene that blossomed in Southern California with groups like Uniform Choice, No for an Answer, Insted and Hard Stance.
But similarly to straight edge’s first go-round in the early ’80s, things started to fizzle out in the ’90s when bands grew tired of playing relentless hardcore. Members of Youth of Today went on to form ’90s alt-rock bands like Quicksand and the Hare Krishna–based band Shelter. And when those bands went on to score major label contracts and get videos on MTV, it sparked a reaction in a younger generation just like the one they had in the mid-’80s. It’s just this time, that echo came packed with a dose of violence.
PART FIVE: ’90S STRAIGHT EDGE: A FIRESTORM TO PURIFY
In the ’90s, straight edge went from being a positive reaction to the party-hearty peer pressure of high school existence into something built on intolerance. Inspired by a short-lived band out of Southern California called Vegan Reich, a group of kids started to tie militant ideas on animal rights, environmentalism and pro-life into the straight-edge agenda. Bands such as Earth Crisis, Green Rage and Abnegation had metal-tinged riffs, records with titles like A Life for A Life and lyrics such as “For the fetus / For the cat / For the cow / For the rat / For innocent victims / We will attack.” In Salt Lake City, a group of straight-edge kids decided to put these statements into direct action and formed street gangs to enforce their beliefs on others. The gangs performed a series of firebombings on fast-food restaurants, as well as violent attacks on drug dealers. The latter eventually led to the murder of a 14-year-old rival gang member.
The majority of people who connected to straight edge as a positive outlet found the whole thing revolting and off base from the philosophy’s original intent. Morse parallels it with the white nationalist skinhead boom that happened in hardcore in the late ’80s: “Rednecks who hated black people saw the skinheads and said, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to shave my head and wear boots and braces and be one of these guys. Now I can be hateful in a group!’ And this was the same thing. Beating up someone just because of the color of their skin or just because they smoke a cigarette, I don’t see the difference.”
Nevertheless, the actions of this small group of individuals did not put a black eye on the movement as bands such as Strife, Floorpunch, Unbroken, Hands Tied and In My Eyes proved straight edge to be as fun and vibrant as it was in the previous decade.
PART SIX: STRAIGHT EDGE TODAY
In the present day, straight edge seems to have returned to its roots. The more popular bands on the scene today like No Tolerance, Protester, Stand Off and Clear harken back to the straight-edge bands of the late ’80s, with no lyrics of vegan retribution or a metal influence in sight. Beyond the music, it is still a vital way of life for both young and old who wish to buck the system by abstaining from drugs and alcohol. “Straight edge is a personal choice, and it’s something positive,” declares Morse. “It’s something that helped my life. It kept me off a negative path; I’m sure of it. When you have peers singing stuff you relate to, making you feel like you’re not a freak because you don’t want to do what everyone else does, it sticks with you. I’ll be straight edge until the day I die, and I know that. But I don’t wake up every morning screaming, ‘I’m straight edge!’ I just know I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I know there’s a name for it. I’m not going to drink a beer in the same way I’m never going to shoot a gun. They’re both just things I’m not interested in doing.”
Tony Rettman is the author of NYHC 1980 – 1990, and a freelance music journalist
Photos courtesy of Double Cross XX