While former Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye has repeatedly stated that he never intended the band’s song “Straight Edge” to become a movement, Youth of Today embraced the idea of flying that flag. Formed just a few years after Minor Threat was dismantled, the band quickly became “the” straight edge band in hardcore, fleeing their prospective burbs for the center of sleaze, substance abuse, corruption, and all things lewd and lascivious: New York City.
It was in New York where the band became true hardcore legends, behind a physical, confident, and direct brand of hardcore, influenced by Minor Threat, SS Decontrol, DYS, Negative Approach, and Crucifix. Hard music for a hard message, and one meant to be shouted out loud. And to match the musical delivery, the band stood out by defying the leather and mohawk punk stereotypes, wearing varsity jackets, high-top Nikes and Vans, cargo shorts, Champion sweatshirts, and even running pants. The band and their friends stood out at matinees, looking more apt to compete at a meet, rather than shoot up or beg for change. The band and clique became known as the “Youth Crew,” spreading a purely positive message that was so boisterous and brash that many punk purists labeled them “jocks.”
In 2016, any demo or record with a collegiate font, played by some slightly fit boys bearing X’s that shares a style with Youth of Today, Bold, Judge, or other straight edge bands associated with the late-80s considers themselves “Youth Crew.” But is Youth Crew a sound or a clique? I decided to ask co-founding member and guitarist of Youth of Today (oh, he also played in the aforementioned bands and more, but you know that), John Porcelly about the origins of the crew, the look, and yes, the muscles.
FIRST OFF, WHO IS RAT BOY AND HOW DID HE END UP WRITING THE LYRICS FOR “YOUTH CREW”?
Rat Boy was this really cool hardcore kid from CT who frequented the Anthrax club back in the early days when it was an art gallery in Stamford. We called him Rat Boy, because he had one of those Sick of It All “rattail” haircuts—a flat top with a Jedi braid in the back. He was a teenager like us, while most of the early CT scenesters were in their 20s, so naturally we gravitated towards him. Plus, he skated so that meant we were instantly friends, since skateboarding was pretty underground back then and fellow thrashers were hard to come by. He was probably also Youth of Today’s first “fan,” and he would come to our first practices and sing along at all the early shows, before we had a record out.
His first YOT contribution was drawing the design for our first t-shirt: the infamous “Josh Says Mosh” shirt, depicting a musclebound dude breaking down a wall and screaming “Mosh.” We only made a few, and I think it was just Rat Boy trying to come up with something that would piss off the older punks since we wanted to set ourselves apart as the younger generation, with our own ideas and sound. He also would bring lyrics to our practices, saying, ‘Yo Ray, check this out. This is HARD!’ One of those was Youth Crew, which became one of the first songs we ever wrote.
I happened to run into Rat Boy last year in NYC, walking around the Lower East Side. He’s a DJ now and looks exactly the same, sans the rattail. I told him, ‘Rat Boy, do you understand that Youth Crew is now considered a whole genre within hardcore, and that there are self-proclaimed Youth Crew bands all around the world?’
He was amazed. Actually, I’m amazed too that a stream of consciousness poem he wrote in five minutes on the back of his math homework, when he was 17 still has staying power 30 years later. Go figure.
The original Youth Crew photo, taken by Chris Schneider, March 1986
YOUTH OF TODAY TOOK CUES FROM BOSTON CREW, BUT WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE YOU GUYS GRAVITATE TOWARD A STYLE THAT WAS VERY COUNTER TO WHAT THE AVERAGE PUNK/HC KID DRESSED LIKE AT THE TIME?
Well, we were jocks. While most punks were lifting beers to their mouths, we were straight edge as fuck and lifting weights. I played football and Ray was on the wrestling team. And, like I said before, we were young and trying to find our own identity amidst a scene filled with mohawks and combat boots. We figured it was more authentic to just dress the way we always dressed. So that meant varsity jackets instead of leather jackets, rolled up jeans instead of bondage pants, crewcuts instead of liberty spikes and Nikes instead of Doc Martens. It was cool. It was a look. It was different from everyone else and that actually made it more punk and rebellious than just looking like every other Wattie wannabe.
At first it was just me and Ray but as we started playing shows a lot of the younger kids on the East Coast adopted it as a kind of “counter to the counter culture.”
Every revolution needs a uniform, and it eventually became the straight edge fashion statement.
Youth Of Today at The Anthrax, 1989; Photo by Chris Fortin (courtesy of doublecross xx)
MANY PEOPLE REFER TO “YOUTH CREW” AS A SOUND, BUT CAN YOU EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHO THE YOUTH CREW WERE AND HOW IT GREW INTO SOMETHING THAT KIDS ACROSS AMERICA—AND LATER THE WORLD—STILL IDENTIFY WITH?
In the beginning, the Youth Crew was Youth of Today and our small circle of friends, namely the kids from Crippled Youth, Dave Stein and Steve Reddy from Albany, Rat Boy, Dave Run It, Herbie Straight Edge, this kid Travis from my high school and a few CT skater kids. There were only a handful of us, because we were literally the only straight edge kids in the Tri-State area at the time. So, it was us against the world, and I think straight edge kids—who will forever be the minority—still feel like that even today.
The whole Youth Crew thing is still relevant because, like the new xgenerationx, we were young and considered naive and dumb for taking such a hard stance against drinking and still clinging to fast hardcore with breakdowns, instead of more “mature” music with complex songwriting and musicianship. Most of the older generation had moved on. But we loved that early moshtastic, super-hard hardcore and to this day I think young, energetic alternative kids find it the most powerful, moving music ever.
Youth of Today’s contribution is that we refined the sound and made it positive instead of nihilistic and violent, which was a breath of fresh air in the scene and evidently still is.
DID THE YOUTH CREW REALLY STAND OUT IN THE ’80S, ESPECIALLY AGAINST PEOPLE’S STEREOTYPICAL VISIONS OF A CITY POCK-MARKED WITH POVERTY AT THE TIME?
Yeah. The Lower East Side punk scene was a glorious mess. Lots of hard drugs, lots of runaways, lots of violence. Most kids loved the music and the energy of the shows, but didn’t really dig the darkness and the Sid Vicious “Fuck the World” thing that was still prevalent at the time. I think Youth of Today was a mixture of being a decent band and also being at the right place at the right time. NYC kids were ready for something new. That’s why when we hit the scene the whole positive hardcore thing took off like wildfire. It was an alternative to the glue sniffing and bitterness, which had become decidedly unfun.
WHEN DO YOU REMEMBER TOURING AND SEEING KIDS IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY KIND OF ADOPTING THE “YOUTH CREW” LOOK?
I don’t know what kind of weird karma Youth of Today had, but from our first show there was a kind of hype about us. Seriously, I have no idea why. We were a nobody band from the overlooked CT scene. I booked our first tour—the “Can’t Close My Eyes” tour—myself when I was 18, and promoters were actually ringing my dad’s phone off the hook to get us to play. The shows were all small clubs and basements, but there were a handful of straight edge kids in each city, totally psyched to see us. By the time we came back the next year for the “Break Down the Walls” tour, with the mighty lineup of Me, Ray, Richie Underdog, Mike Judge and Walter, things had changed. There were a TON of edge kids, every show, singing every word like their lives depended on it.
Something was happening in the scene. The old guard was being replaced and something new was taking hold. You could feel it. That’s when I first started noticing kids with Xs on both hands, Champion sweatshirts and low top Vans. It was kind of strange, but kind of cool at the same time. Like I said, I think the whole thing was bigger than just the band—it was the dawning of a new era and kids just used our clothes as a symbol of that.
“PHYSICALLY STRONG, MORALLY STRAIGHT” WAS NO JOKE. BOTH YOU AND RAY (RAGHUNATH) HAVE MAINTAINED VERY ACTIVE LIFESTYLES. WHEN YOU THINK BACK ON IT, WHAT DID THAT LYRIC MEAN TO YOU AND WAS IT REALLY A BLUEPRINT FOR YOUR LIFE IN A WAY?
We were out to create a revolution. Seriously. We loved the power and energy of hardcore, but we really, really weren’t into the whole self-destructive punk ethos. We were into being healthy and in-shape and living clean, mean and smart. We honestly thought vegetarianism was important and revolutionary and part of a whole new way of living. When I was in high school everyone was into junk food, shitty meaningless music, burgers and keg parties. That was youth culture at the time, so Youth of Today was a stance against. And to this day I stand against all that media-fed crap. I exercise, do yoga every day, meditate, read, and try my best to live an uplifted life. And seriously, I hope to Krishna that a new, empowered Youth of Today-type band comes along one of these days to get this new generation of kids off their mind-numbing video games and out of their sedentary, shitty, social media-driven lives.
Seriously, we need a whole new revolution. New edge kids, get on it.
DO YOU SEE ECHOES OF THE YOUTH CREW IN MAINSTREAM FASHION/CULTURE TODAY?
I always half joke about it, but I kind of invented camo shorts. Ask anyone in the 80s scene, I was the first person to wear them. I saw Agnostic Front in head-to-toe camo in the early days at CBGB’s and I thought it was way friggin’ cool, but I was so into shorts that I would wear them even in the winter with thermals underneath, so I got a pair of camos and cut them off. It was sort of a Skinhead/Youth Crew hybrid of my own invention. Abercrombie & Fitch, you can send me a royalty check any time. You’re welcome.
WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF FIRST MOVING TO NYC AS A TEENAGER IN THE MID-80S?
I vividly remember moving to NYC. Ray had found an apartment on 15th St. between 7th and 8th Ave., that was only $300 a month rent. It had one shared bathroom for all the tenants on the floor, which was kind of gross, but hey the price was right. So I told my dad I was quitting college and moving to the city to play in a full-time hardcore band. As I was packing to leave, my dad was screaming at me that, ‘You and that drifter Cappo will be back in a week begging to come home! You’ll never make it in New York!’
I was determined as fuck to somehow make it work, just to fucking show him I could stand on my own two feet. By the time Ray and I moved everything in, it was really late at night, but I decided I was going to treat myself to some ice cream for a job well done, so I walked a few blocks to the bodega. On 14th and 8th there used to be a seedy 24-hour donut shop, which I later learned was nicknamed Transvestite Donut, because after hours it became a hang-out for crossdressers and transgenders. As I walked by, a few of the drag queens blew me kisses and quite honestly it scared the hell out of my 18 year-old-suburban ass. I had never seen a drag queen in my life and I was kind of shaken up by it, thinking that I was in way over my head.
I walked another block and happened upon two gay men getting down in a doorway. Again, I had never encountered anything like that before and it freaked me out not only that they were gay, which I wasn’t used to, but that people would be having sex right on the street! I got my ice cream and walked nervously back to the apartment taking a different route.
After a few weeks, I was acclimated to it. It was good for me. I needed to learn that life wasn’t sheltered like the suburbs and that there were all types of people in the world, and it made me open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of other’s views and lifestyles. For the first time I lived with different races and cultures, as well as homeless people all the way up to uber well-off millionaires. You learn to see people as people, and worthy of respect. It was good training for what would come.
TOP FIVE “YOUTH CREW” HANG OUTS FROM THE ’80S.
Easy. In order:
1. Some Records (that was THE hangout!)
2. Schism HQ (My and Al Brown’s apartment in Williamsburg, every band you can think of slept on our couch and folded Judge sleeves with us)
3. Moondogs on St. Marks and 2nd (the only place to get a veggie hot dog in the whole city)
4. Walter and Civ’s apartment in Queens with Toby (H20) living in the closet. Like, his room was literally the closet, I don’t know how he even slept in there.
5. Dave Stein’s punk flophouse apartment in Albany (we planned the straight edge big takeover there with Kevin Seconds on couches that looked like they were stolen from dumpsters).
Opening photo by Bruce Rhodes