Straight Edge Punk

The Complicated Contradictions of Straight Edge Punk

BY Sam SutherlandPublished Jul 1, 2006

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.”

But it was at those crossover shows that many fans wanted to burn down bridges as quickly as Earth Crisis built them. Hardcore punk has always had a facet that treated the scene like a boys club or fitness centre, as interested in starting fights and pushing people around in the pit. Infamous rock critic Lester Bangs called them "meatheads” after attending a Black Flag show; an alternate perspective came from a hardcore compilation compiled by Ian MacKaye that offered a different suggestion: Flex Your Head.

The athletic, tough guy types were early adopters of the straight edge philosophy, and for many, the two are fundamentally intertwined. It was this bulked up machismo that was the impetus for songs like Screeching Weasel’s "I Wanna Be A Homosexual.” The song, which was recently included on the band’s Weaselmania compilation along with a description of the tough-guy straight edge posturing it was a reaction to, features singer Ben Weasel proclaiming, "Call me a butt loving fudge packing queer / I don’t care / ‘Cause it’s the straight in straight edge that makes me wanna drink a beer.”

Every show we play, the first thing I say is ‘Let’s not have anyone dancing like a ninja. Or if you really want to, we can make a spot in the parking lot for you guys,” says Issa Diao, front-man for Good Clean Fun, a straight edge band from Washington, DC. "It’s important that young guys and old people should all be able to come and have fun.”

Good Clean Fun have tried to emulate the positive bands that emerged from the straight edge scene of the 1980s, bands like Youth of Today, 7 Seconds and Gorilla Biscuits. For his part, Diao laments the changes that he’s seen overtake mosh pits as the hardcore scene has evolved. "It wasn’t the same thing. People didn’t kickbox at Gorilla Biscuits shows.”

But it’s not just an in-vogue style of athletic dancing. "When we play a show with a band that’s a little more tough-guy, their fans want to fight our fans,” Diao says. "There was one particular show in New Jersey that was an absolute disaster. It was us and four mosh-metal tough-guy bands whose fans literally wanted to beat the fuck out of each other.”

Therein lies a fundamental dilemma for proponents of straight edge as a force for positive change — often the message and how it gets interpreted is out of their hands. It’s inter-scene fights that go beyond shows that have done the most damage to the scene’s reputation; when an incident of violence is associated with the straight edge scene, the whole movement is tagged with that label.

"If it bleeds it leads,” says Earth Crisis’s Buechner, whose band has certainly borne the brunt of such negative press. "It’s kind of amazing that straight edge has been around for 20 years and the only time people come out with their cameras and microphones is when something’s gone wrong.”

"I feel that hardcore is a force for change. It’s political, and it’s for everyone. Not just violent, big guys,” says Diao. "In the mid-‘90s, I think hardcore found itself down a blind alley with the extremism of the hardline movement. That turned a lot of people off things like veganism and animal rights, and that’s a shame. We had a really good thing going. We added all these cool things to the scene, but we’ve taken a step backwards into this tough-guy/animals rights thing that doesn’t make any sense.”

In 1990, Sean Muttaqi and his band Vegan Reich released the Hardline seven-inch and with it, the Hardline Manifesto. Aside from the basic tenants of straight edge, hardliners were expected to follow a strict set of dietary rules; sexual deviance, defined as any sexual act performed for anything but procreation, was not to be tolerated; and a philosophy of deep ecology was to be adhered to.

The hardline movement’s original logo was the straight edge X with two crossed M16s; the X was eventually dropped, because many hardliners no longer saw themselves as part of the straight edge community. But the violence and extremism of these individuals continues to be associated with straight edge, in some ways influencing the direction of the movement itself, especially in American cities like Reno and Salt Lake City. Hardline is merely a blip, musically, on the punk radar, but the impact of its violence has ricocheted throughout the community.

"Salt Lake City is a kind of unfortunate place,” Diao says. "I was at an Earth Crisis show in Salt Lake City in the mid-’90s and the show had to be stopped five times because of fights. This was around the time that someone got an ‘X’ carved into their back. It was every bit as bad as the media portrayed it.”

Straight edge was recently classified as gang culture by the Reno Police Department, following a string of violent incidents attributed to youth identifying as straight edge; it has already received that classification in Utah. Straight edge proponents are quick to label incidents of violence as the work of "a few bad apples,” but the fact remains that police in these cities have connected several murders to straight edge youth. It’s an uncomfortable association for the scene and its bands, one that some aren’t willing to face head-on.
"We’ve toured the planet, and I’ve never met anyone who was knocking beers out of people’s hands or attacking people for no reason,” says Karl Buechner. "It just doesn’t happen.”

Remembering Never’s Pete Kowalski, whose band is active within the straight edge community, feels the same way, noting that these types of fights are likely the result of some other argument that has nothing to do with straight edge. "No one is walking up to someone and saying, ‘Hey, you’re smoking a cigarette. I’m going to beat you up now.’”

But Kowalski also highlights an inherent contradiction within the straight edge scene, where ends are used to justify means. "If someone gets beat up for some shit, I can’t feel bad,” he says. "They shouldn’t be smoking in the first place because it affects other people. If you’re going to hurt people, you’re going to get hurt yourself.”
Where the line between personal choice and activism falls is complicated in a scene like straight edge, which defines itself by an absence: its politics are entirely founded on not doing something. When bands and fans take a more activist approach — wanting to take the courage of their convictions to try and enact change in the world at large — how they accomplish that can be challenging. While bands have a means to vent their aggression and a literal stage from which to be heard, fans that want to take their own beliefs to the next level sometimes take a misguided path, imposing them on others.

wo decades on, straight edge bands today are aware of the reputation the scene has, and bands like Good Clean Fun are, according to Diao, making "a conscious effort to bring it back a bit and start down a new path.” More established straight edge bands like Throwdown, who once promoted an in-your-face approach, have changed significantly in recent years, more interested in confronting problems within and outside of the hardcore scene.

But for many bands, the loyalty — some would say extremism — of the straight edge mindset is one that’s sometimes more burden than it’s worth. Minor Threat faced similar problems in the ‘80s, when fans "outed” members for being seen with a beer or who admitted to smoking a joint once in a while. Having been a positive force in their early years, many fans cling to their straight edge lifestyle even when every other part of their high school self falls by the wayside.

"When you’re younger, anything you believe in, you’re consciously thinking about more often. You’re consciously applying it to things,” says Throwdown’s Dave Peters. "You’re waking up in the morning going, ‘I need to wear this shirt with the three Xs so everyone knows.’ I’ve been straight edge for 13 years, and it’s not something I think about day in and day out. It’s part of who I am.” For many, however, straight edge no longer makes sense as they age. When you’re younger and feel a more persistent need to define yourself and your actions, having a label and culture can make those potentially difficult years a little easier. While there remain plenty of older punks who have stayed straight and whose lives have been enriched by the lifestyle, some stray.

"Straight edge is not for everybody,” Peters says. "I don’t gauge my respect for someone based on whether or not they share my beliefs.” Diao feels the same way, noting that, "I don’t think there’s one thing that works for everyone. I think the real value of punk rock is that it teaches people not to be followers.”

"Straight edge is a choice you recognise as your choice and not someone else’s,” Peters continues. "One of the biggest problems I have with straight edge kids these days is the same one I had with different straight edge kids when I was younger, which is trying to push that belief on others. You wouldn’t want someone telling you how to live your life.”

With such open-mindedness, how is it that straight edge has developed so many negative connotations? Likely, it is a combination of misunderstanding, and, in as many cases, genuinely idiotic behaviour on the part of those hoping to further its ideals. The overzealous reaction of the media to the problems of the culture adds greatly to the noise; as recently as last year, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera took some time to yell at Karl Buechner via satellite about what he seemed to think were a roving gang of puritanical militants commanded by Buechner. The segment, which dealt with the tragic beating death of a 15-year-old boy, was simultaneously disturbing and deeply ignorant, and its attempt to vilify Buechner was pathetic.

The straight edge scene’s greatest legacy is its influence on young people; if it provides a safe haven from peer pressure until one can make an informed choice as an adult, then it’s done its job. But its adherents also need to recognise its limitations as a political manifesto for change.

"Straight edge by itself is just a set of rules,” Diao says. "That’s fine, but it doesn’t really do anything. That’s not solving any of the world’s problems. It’s taking control of your life, which is a great first step, but to me that doesn’t count. You really have to bring it in to the bigger picture.”

In the end, all straight edge can offer is an empowering sense of self-control. It is up to the individual to decide how to demonstrate that choice to the world. It’s a template for individual choice, not an overarching political philosophy. As Peters notes, "You can’t centre a culture around a short set of beliefs that you can rattle off in one breath.”

Five Sober Moments in Punk

Minor Threat Complete Discography (Dischord, 1989)
Collecting every recording from their three-year career, this remains one of the most important releases in hardcore, let alone straight edge. From the outright aggression of "Filler” right up to the finality of "Salad Days,” the band’s sound explodes outward with an originality and honesty that continues to influence punk and hardcore to this day

Youth of Today Break Down The Walls (Revelation, 1988)
Originally released by Wishingwell Records in 1986, this debut LP from these NYC locals helped to define the youth crew movement of the late ‘80s. Adopting straight edge and vegetarianism while rejecting the negative and often violent attitude of their hardcore peers, songs like "Positive Outlook” embodied vocalist Ray Cappo’s unique message.

Gorilla Biscuits Start Today (Revelation, 1989)
Gorilla Biscuits’ Start Today has become a blueprint for countless hardcore records. With inclusionary ideals, exemplified by tracks like "Two Sides” ("It’s not who’s wrong / It’s how we get along”), the band was musically tight and ideologically exciting. Most of the band would go on to play in CIV, while guitarist Walter Schreifels would leave to front hugely influential post-hardcore act Quicksand. The band are currently gearing up for a North American reunion tour, and a re-release of this classic.

The Path of Resistance Who Dares Wins (Victory, 1997)
When Earth Crisis’ drummer Dennis Merrick was injured in a van accident in 1996, members were unable to sit still during his recovery. This result, where a triple-vocal assault created an ultra-heavy, back-to-basics hardcore sound, deviated from the metal-tinged direction Earth Crisis had taken. While the record’s message is obvious, it’s passionate in a way that even non-believers have to be impressed by; though the project was grounded after only one live show, its members have reunited for another record and a bout of worldwide touring.

Limp Wrist Thee Official Discography (Cheap Art, 2005)
In a scene dominated by white heterosexuals, queercore bands like Limp Wrist still challenge the status quo. Lead singer Martin Sorrondeguy also fronted Latino hardcore act Los Crudos, and has helped push marginalised voices in punk and hardcore to the fore with Behind the Screams: A U.S. Hardcore Latino Documentary and an active role in Queercore: A Punk-u-mentary. Limp Wrist’s official discography features 41 tracks of blisteringly fast straight edge trash-hardcore, each with their own distinct message and healthy dose of sarcastic humour, from "I Love Hardcore Boys, I Love Boys Hardcore” to "Limp Wrist vs. Dr. Laura.”

Latest Coverage