Read the story of straight edge hardcore, a curious clean-living subculture that emerged in reaction to the excesses of punk.
Words: Ross Haenfler
By 1980, punk rock, one of the most innovative and confrontational music and art movements of the modern era, was careering towards the “No Future” refrain from the Sex Pistols’ anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. Pistol’s bassist Sid Vicious had died, possibly committing suicide, and a year later the Germs’ Darby Crash followed him. The romantic “live fast, die young” mantra was increasingly becoming a grim reality, as many punks piled hard drugs on top of abundant booze, glue, and weed.
Yet from punk came hardcore, an aggressive, fast, stripped-down style inspired by pioneers such as Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and Bad Brains. And hardcore would quickly spawn a counterculture within the punk counterculture: kids who believed true punk revolution lay in not using drugs, in not drinking oneself to death. Despite what seemed like anti-rebellious rebellion, straight edge punk persists as a vibrant element of many music scenes and as an important culture in its own right.
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While straight edge holds many different meanings to many different people, a lifetime commitment to abstaining from drugs, tobacco, and alcohol remains the cornerstone of the movement: no drinking, no smoking, no recreational drugs. Many also speak out against “conquest” sex, or using others for temporary gratification. Beyond these basic principles, adherents have blended straight edge with other lifestyles and ideologies. Many adopt vegetarian or vegan diets. Some avoid caffeine. Others combine their straight edge identity with (usually) progressive politics such as anti-fascism/racism, feminism, and animal rights. But substance-free living remains the bedrock of straight edge culture, a promise meant to be for life.
Adherents of straight edge are most recognizable when they “X up,” drawing a black X on their hands. The X began its march towards becoming the universal straight edge symbol through the cover of the Teen Idles’ Minor Disturbance EP, which features crossed hands each marked with a large X, and it reappears on countless straight edge records. Originally meant to distinguish underage fans at shows so they would not be served alcohol, the X became a sign of defiance in the face of the self-destructive punk attitude and a more general culture of intoxication.
The live performance is where straight edge hardcore truly shines. The frenetic chaos of the punk circle pit reached new levels as hardcore kids incorporated kung-fu kicks, maniacal stomping, and acrobatic stage dives into their moshing repertoire. During the most transcendent hardcore shows the band and audience are virtually indistinguishable, as kids literally crawl over one another to sing into the mic, and divers burst onto the stage before catapulting into the melee below.
Despite a few high-profile straight edgers – professional wrestler CM Punk, pro baseball player C. J. Wilson, and, controversially, Metallica’s James Hetfield – straight edge hardcore remains remarkably underground. A few successful bands, such as Rise Against, Killswitch Engage, and Throwdown, have straight edge members. Still, since its inception, straight edge has spread around the world, with vibrant hardcore scenes from Indonesia and South Africa to Brazil and Sweden. What follows is a brief tour through straight edge history using some of the key bands and records to illustrate significant moments in the scene.
Straight edge emerged with the 46-second song ‘Straight Edge’, the product of seminal Washington, D.C. hardcore band Minor Threat released on DIY punk label Dischord Records. According to the song, drink and drugs are a “crutch” and drug users the “living dead” – being drug-free or “straight” gives you an “edge”, an advantage in life.
Vocalist Ian MacKaye insists that he had no intention of starting a movement and that he was singing about his own personal choice and pushing back against a scene that mocked his abstinence. Yet the in-your-face demand for drug-free respect struck a chord with young people across the US and beyond, and Minor Threat continue to inspire kids around the world. The title track from the band’s second EP, Out of Step, spelled out the straight edge philosophy in a simple verse: “(I) don’t smoke / (I) don’t drink / (I) don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think”. Shows on the West Coast and in New York and Boston, along with connections to bands like 7 Seconds, SSD, and Youth Brigade, helped spread the straight edge philosophy.
Uniform Choice Screaming for Change (Wishingwell, 1986)
Straight edge quickly caught hold across the US, including southern California where bands Unity and later Uniform Choice became the foundation of a burgeoning scene. The SoCal punk scene followed the nihilistic, drug-dependent, violent script common to punk at the time, captured in the classic documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. In many ways, Uniform Choice became the Minor Threat of the West Coast, spreading the gospel of straight edge with songs like ‘Use Your Head’ and ‘Straight and Alert’, and forming Wishingwell Records, a DIY label that published many important straight edge releases.
Youth of Today Can’t Close My Eyes (Caroline, 1985)
By the mid-’80s, New York’s Youth of Today transformed the haphazard collection of straight edge individuals into a growing movement of self-identified straight edge bands. NYC spawned the “youth crew” era, mirroring YOT’s song of the same name, supported by Revelation Records and matinee shows at iconic venue CBGB. The track ‘Positive Outlook’ helped inspire the era’s “positivity” theme, itself reminiscent of the Bad Brains’ ‘PMA’, or Positive Mental Attitude. The record also foreshadows Cappo and guitarist Porcell’s eventual adoption of Krishna Consciousness, as they pledge themselves to “positive youth and positive growth”, making straight edge, for some, part of a spiritual quest for personal development. However, the movement also became increasingly hyper-masculine, marginalising women and attracting jocks more interested in fighting than positivity. The song ‘We Just Might’ suggested that drunken violence would be met in kind, and spoke to the backlash straight edge kids often felt from their fellow punks.
Not everyone was enamoured of the clean-living philosophy and many found bands from Minor Threat onwards as preachy and judgmental. Despite their professed positivity, Youth of Today faced attacks on many fronts. Mike “Judge” Ferraro, who had once played drums for YOT, teamed up with Porcell to create a heavier, more confrontational straight edge band in Judge, essentially portraying the caricature their critics envisioned. The metal-inspired riffs foreshadowed the next era of metallic hardcore and the forceful lyrics left little doubt where the band stood. Opening track ‘Fed Up’ states “I won’t have that shit [drugs] around me ever again”, while the breakdown of ‘In My Way’ declares of substance users “You’ve lost my respect”.
Manliftingbanner Ten Inches That Shook the World (Crucial Respone, 1992)
While many US punk bands wore their politics on their sleeves, youth crew straight edge bands were just as likely to sing about the scene, personal growth, and being straight edge for the sake of it. In contrast, the second record by Dutch band Manliftingbanner opens with an anti-communist propaganda rant by infiltrator and FBI informant Herbert Philbrick, followed by the track ‘Commitment’, in which vocalist Michiel shouts “Commitment to Communism!” The record cover paraphrases earlier radicals with a message scrawled across a man’s back: “Humanity Won’t be Happy Until the Last Bureaucrat is Dissolved in the Blood of the Last Capitalist.” Manliftingbanner exemplified an anti-fascist, anti-patriarchy, anti-homophobia, anti-capitalist current more common outside the US (Sweden’s Refused being another example). Their song ‘Still Straight’ echoed a common straight edge theme: professing your continued allegiance to straight edge even as your friends “sell out.”
Combining youth crew’s outspoken commitment to straight edge with Manliftingbanner’s direct politics, New York’s Earth Crisis became the face of straight edge throughout the 1990s. Earlier straight edge bands advocated vegetarianism – for example Youth of Today (‘No More’), Insted (‘Feel Their Pain’), and Manliftingbanner (‘Consume & Kill’) – but as a self-described “vegan straight edge” band, Earth Crisis made animal rights (and environmentalism) central to the scene, inspiring thousands of kids to give up animal products entirely.
The title track from Firestorm, the band’s second EP, remains a straight edge anthem, foretelling an apocalyptic “Firestorm to purify” everyone from corrupt politicians and law enforcement to drug lords. Calling for “violence against violence” and declaring “total war”, the track captures the confrontational lyrics running throughout EC’s discography. The band’s rise also corresponded with the growth of so-called “militant” straight edge and “crews” such as Courage Crew, exclusive mostly-male groups of friends thought to forcefully, even violently, espouse drug-free living.
The convergence of “radical” animal rights activism, a more aggressive “metalcore” sound, and hardcore crews led to sensational media stories about straight edge vigilantes hunting down smokers and drinkers and engaging in eco-terrorism. Various law enforcement agencies in the US declared straight edge a gang and/or a terrorist organization and Earth Crisis became one of the most controversial bands in the scene’s history. While straight edge tough guys certainly exist(ed) and fights were a fixture at shows in some scenes, the straight edge “threat” was largely a media creation, fuelled by TV programs such as America’s Most Wanted.
Mixing fast hardcore with slow, brutal metallic riffs, San Diego’s Unbroken shook the scene with both their tempo-shifting music and introspective lyrics. Released on influential hardcore label New Age Records, Life.Love.Regret departed from the scene-celebrating positivity of the youth crew era, instead exploring darker emotions, loneliness, pain, and suicide. Several songs reflect a struggle for individuality, peace, and clarity in the face of corrupt industrial technology, deceptive religion, and addictive drugs. The poignant ‘Final Expression’ asks “Life, love, regret / What was it all worth?” Unbroken captures the emotion, politics, and musical innovations of early- to mid-’90s hardcore, influences that echo in countless bands to the present. They bridged youth crew and metalcore styles while creating something unique; sold out reunion shows around the world prove that their impact lives on.
Building upon the foundation laid by political straight edge band Trial, Champion helped forge Seattle into one of the most vibrant straight edge hardcore scenes in the world, continuing the late-’90s youth crew revival led by Floorpunch. By 2015, a variety of hardcore bands had toured the globe, but Champion was one of the first to tour extensively beyond Europe, visiting South America and the Pacific Rim. Many of the lyrics on Promises Kept capture the feelings of being let down by friends, facing life changes and challenges, reminiscing about the past, and persevering in the face of adversity, all common straight edge themes.
The youth crew era kids were now in their thirties and the ‘90s kids began transitioning to adulthood, wondering what it all had meant, and what place straight edge might hold in their future. In ‘Perspective’, they sing “And as the years go by I see what we’ve built / Pass all expectations that we’ve ever set,” while the records’ final track proclaims that “All our best days are ahead / While yours are far behind.”
Have Heart The Things We Carry (Bridge Nine, 2006)
Along with Washington, D.C., New York, and Southern California, Boston has long been a hub of influential hardcore and straight edge bands. Society System Decontrol (SSD) were early ‘80s legends, In My Eyes helped spearhead a youth crew revival in the mid-‘90s, but it was Have Heart that emerged, along with Champion, as the most influential band of the 2000s, touring the world before disbanding in 2009. Committed to positivity and political engagement, songs like ‘The Machinist’ called for resistance to not only drugs but any force that might stifle human potential: “Let our voices form the weapons.” Released on the Bridge Nine label – one of the most important contemporary labels releasing hardcore music – The Things We Carry remains one of the most vital releases of 2000s era straight edge hardcore.
Arriving in 2015, much of the political and creative energy of straight edge lies outside the US. Wolf Down, a vegan, anarchist straight edge band from Germany, are the poster children for political hardcore. Vehemently against homo- and transphobia, animal cruelty, nationalism and racism, the band pairs heavy riffs and brutal, metallic breakdowns with a resounding call for revolution. Extensive touring, including in Asia, has put them on the global straight edge map. Until 2014, Wolf Down’s singer was Larissa, sadly the only woman featured in this list and testament that the story of straight edge bands is one of straight edge boys.
Outro: This list leaves out more than it includes, as is the nature of such lists: SSD, Larm, Insted, Bold, Chain of Strength, Floorpunch, Throwdown, Miles Apart, and a dozen other bands also made their mark.
As of 2015, we are in the midst of a perpetual reunion show, with youth crew bands (including YOT and Judge) playing hardcore fests and touring internationally. Rare pressings of many of these early records sell for hundreds, even thousands of US dollars. Is this a symptom of the ‘80s kids entering their forties and being able to indulge their nostalgia now that many of them have steady jobs and some disposable income? Perhaps.
Equally, the continuing popularity of early and youth crew-era straight edge hardcore is a testament to the bands’ energy and creativity, and to the importance a positive, drug-free message continues to have for tens of thousands of youth (and old edge “kids”!) the world over.
Ross Haenfler is the author of “Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk”, and “Social Change, Subcultures: The Basics”, and “Goths, Gamers”, and “Grrrls”.