Just say no. That was the message from on high during the 1980s, when anti-drug campaigns led to TV commercials like the oft-parodied "This is your brain... This is your brain on drugs” whole egg/fried egg metaphor. At a time when the conservative Parents Music Resource Center was lobbying the American Congress to enact rules about music content — that’s where Parental Advisory stickers that adorn many albums today were spawned — it was just another dictate to troubled youth that sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were a dangerous, potentially lethal cocktail infecting our young people.
Trying to keep music’s teenage core audience away from potentially harmful influences has existed since television producers tried to keep Elvis Presley’s swivelling pelvis off the airwaves, and the Just Say No campaign met with similar hoots of derision. But when high profile punks like the Germs’ Darby Crash and the Sex Pistols’ Syd Vicious were succumbing to the destructive influences of drink and drugs, a new youth-oriented movement sprung from the hardcore punk community, one dedicated to keeping harmful intoxicants away. The straight edge scene came not from concerned parents or stern government overseers, but from within.
Given that punk has traditionally had a very young audience, it was a life-changing (and potentially life-saving) development, one completely unique to punk culture. Sure, there are sober country singers, and electronic music producers who shy away from recreational party drugs, but only punk united it under a name, a scene, a sound and a political ideology. It afforded an identity for those who might otherwise be outcast in high school environments rife with peer pressure. Yet despite these high-minded ideals and earnest beginnings, the straight edge scene has developed a nefarious reputation for violence and intolerance in many circles. It remains a positive force for many, but some — like law enforcement officials in American cities like Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah — straight edge is a dangerous gang culture. It’s a split between individual personal choice and those seeking social change on a broader level. How the scene evolves is dependent on how its adherents put their beliefs into action.
In its simplest form, straight edge is a simple philosophy of staying clean and sober: no drinking, no drugs, no smoking. For some, that extends to a vegetarian or vegan diet, no animal by-products, caffeine, or even promiscuous sex and prescription medications. Though one band can’t be credited for spawning an entire movement, Washington DC pioneers Minor Threat gave it a name with their 1981 song "Straight Edge.”
"In the mid-’80s around [Syracuse, New York] there was no hardcore scene,” says Karl Buechner, vocalist for mid-’90s straight edge hardcore band Earth Crisis. "There was just a drug-and-drunk-punk scene. When we started to discover bands like Minor Threat, it was like, ‘Wow. This is what I’ve been waiting for.’”
Although they broke up by 1983, Minor Threat — and specifically, front-man Ian MacKaye — became the early poster band for the movement, and even in its earliest stages, the divisions that would split the scene became evident: they were regularly accosted by fans who alternately felt that their straight edge approach was too extreme or that they weren’t taking their stance far enough.
It was a divide that soon defined the scene between those who saw straight edge as simply a personal choice taken by an individual and those who see it as a form of social activism. Having spawned from the hardcore punk scene, which has long had aggressive tendencies, many took it upon themselves to get the message out by any means necessary. If that meant, for bands such as Boston’s SSD, knocking beer out of people’s hands, then that’s what it took.
"I think a lot of kids have a tough demeanour that they put on,” says Liam Cormier, front-man for Toronto metal outfit Cancer Bats. "It’s like, ‘It’s not that I’m not drinking because I’m a pussy, it’s because it’s fucking stupid! Ung! Fuck you!’” Cormier is straight edge, as are two of three band-mates, but he falls on the side of personal choice. If sobriety’s not your thing, Cormier jokes, "Let’s fucking hit the beer bong!”
Earth Crisis came to exemplify a more activist, politically-oriented straight edge approach during their mid-‘90s musical reign. The band combined elements of punk and hardcore with punishingly heavy metal, and added a tough guy approach to drugs, alcohol and animal rights. The band has been equally celebrated and reviled for it; singer Karl Buechner has alternately served as the scene’s most visible spokesman and its biggest punching bag when American network news needs to put a face on this underground movement.
Buechner’s a smart, well-spoken guy who has always been willing to put his politics where his mouth is; instead of keeping to a strictly straight edge scene, Earth Crisis took on all comers, in terms of sharing stages and finding new audiences. "I don’t want to separate myself from people,” he says. "When we were in Earth Crisis, we weren’t doing what most straight edge bands were doing at the time. We toured with Madball, Marauder, Skarhead, Hatebreed... I think we were a unifying factor in the ’90s hardcore scene. I think we built a lot of bridges.”
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