Straight Ahead and Looking Back

By David Konow 05/09/17

Even with straight edge being a phase for many kids, the principles of the movement still echo loudly with a lot of people today.

straight razor
Discussing the straight edge punk movement and its lasting effects

Back in the eighties, when I was really into the punk scene, I became aware of straight edge or hardcore bands who stayed away from drugs and alcohol. At first I liked what the scene stood for. It was a movement launched by punk figurehead Ian MacKaye, the lead singer of DC band Minor Threat, who actually coined the phrase in the song Straight Edge. He obviously couldn’t have imagined what a double-edged sword it would one day turn into.

While straight edge inspired a lot of kids to be sober and abstain from drugs and alcohol, in some factions it became an elitist social club. Then when the Hare Krishnas got involved, it started resembling a cult, and when it became comically militant in the ‘90’s, some straight edge factions behaved more like street gangs than upbeat kids trying to make a positive change in the world.

Now it’s been decades since the dust has cleared, and a new book, Straight Edge – The Clear History of Clean and Sober Hardcore, written by Tony Rettman, looks back on the entire history of the movement. It was quite a journey for Rettman to take from an adult perspective, and in hindsight, it’s now clear what went right and what went wrong with the scene, and whether straight edge truly had any lasting impact or if it was just another teenage fad. (You can read an excerpt of the book, which will be published by Bazillion Points Publishing this summer, here.)

In talking to Rettman, I realized what drew him to straight edge were the same things I enjoyed about it. When you went to a straight edge show, it was tons of young kids who were up and positive, and it was a nice change of pace from the destructive, nihilistic anger that fueled a lot of hardcore bands. At a straight edge gig, the fans knew all the songs, screamed the lyrics back at the band, and they were practically bouncing off the walls with excitement.

There was an infectious energy with straight edge that couldn’t be denied, and similar to other music scenes, it also provided a surrogate family for many going through the lonely, painful experiences of adolescence.

“I loved the energy of the shows, and I liked feeling like I belonged somewhere,” Rettman says. “I didn’t belong in high school or anywhere else. It was a weird dichotomy to think I came to punk rock because I thought I was an individual, that I wasn’t like everybody else, but at the same time when you’re a kid, you don’t want to be alone either. It’s scary. You want to find something, and with straight edge, you were immediately connected to kids across the country.”

And indeed, as Pat Dubar, the lead singer of Southern California straight edge band Uniform Choice, told Rettman, “The message and the music is what locked it in for me. I felt like I was moving towards something instead of moving away from something…Ian MacKaye’s music changed my life.”

Rettman first learned about straight edge when he was ten years old. His brother was a punk fan, and he heard the Minor Threat songs Out of Step and Straight Edge from his sibling’s album collection. When Ian MacKaye launched the straight edge scene, he was disgusted by how a lot of punks were engaging in self-destructive behavior that gave the scene a bad name, and he tried to lead by example and show that there was a better way to live. Growing up with older siblings who engaged in typical high school partying, Rettman knew he didn’t want to follow that path either.

“As a kid I witnessed the kind of things you saw in Dazed and Confused where parents go away for a weekend, people have a party, stuff gets broken, and that just didn’t appeal to me,” Rettman continues. “It seemed like you put a lot of effort into something where nothing comes out of it, and I didn’t get it.”

Rettman also liked the contrarian nature of punk rock, and it fit in with his desire to rebel against drugs and alcohol. ”In my mind, punk meant the opposite of everything,” he says. “Instead of wearing an iZod shirt and feathering your hair, you wore a t-shirt and you got a mohawk. I saw my brothers and sisters smoking and drinking, my parents drank as well, so I thought, Okay, this makes sense. Straight edge is the opposite of what everyone else is doing. That clicked with me.”

Rettman also saw straight edge as a different way of rebelling as a teen. “Even at a young age I was a total contrarian, so it spoke to me in that way as well. You think what you’re doing is rebelling, I’m gonna rebel in a way that isn’t the norm, in a way that’s not expected of me.”

At one point, straight edge came close to becoming the dominant form in the hardcore scene with bands like Gorilla Biscuits, Bold, and Youth of Today in New York, groups like Instead and Uniform Choice in Southern California, and Slap Shot and SS Decontrol in Boston, to name just a few.

Where a lot of bands came under fire in the eighties for their lyrical content, here was finally something that parents could be happy that their kids were listening to, a fundamentally good, positive message for impressionable teens that not only encouraged sobriety, but also the importance of unity and backing each other up.

Yet as in many movements, there were contradictions, as well as a lot of self-righteous preaching. Many people in the scene acted more straight edge than thou, and there was frequently rumor-mongering and back biting as well. (The usual gossip would center around what bands were secretly drinking and smoking dope when they thought no one was looking.)

A lot of this wasn’t clear to Rettman when he was in the thick of the scene, yet when writing the book and going through the entire arc of straight edge’s history, the cracks in the surface became much clearer.

“All this perspective didn’t come to me until I wrote the book and thought about my past life,” he says. “I was so engulfed in it, I probably had blinders on. I wasn’t paying attention to some of the hypocrisies. It was when I got a little older when I stepped back and I thought, Well hold on, this is kinda bullshit.”

With some straight edge bands, there was a militant macho bluster that bordered on comical. There were the urban legends of bands who would smack beers out of people’s hands at clubs and would bellow onstage, “If you come to a show and you’re holding a beer, we’ll kill you!” Years after the fact, Rettman learned this wasn’t true, but those kinds of rumors would build a band’s rep. “This was a bourgeoning movement, you’re trying to get your band’s name on the map. These bands would tell me, ‘We didn’t do that, we were just having fun and people took the bait.’”

Then again, as Rettman continues, “Bands like Earth Crisis were doing songs about burning down dealer’s houses, saying, ‘We’re gonna march through the neighborhood and clean it up block by block!’ No, you’re not! This is all fantasy. This is the equivalent of a metal band signing about wizards.”

And where things really started getting weird was when the Hare Krishnas got involved. Ray Cappo, the lead singer of New York straight-edgers Youth of Today, took that leap with his next band Shelter, and many fans went right along with him. (When Shelter played one show in Connecticut, some in the audience heckled, “Go back to the airport!”)

“(NY hardcore band) The Cro Mags were into Hare Krishna, but there was something cool about that because it was so out of left field. These were tough, scary street guys from the Lower East Side, but they practiced the Krishna religion, so that dichotomy was cool. And they weren’t pushing it, but when Ray Cappo came out with Shelter, it was like a cartoon. They’re gonna come in a giant bus with people in saffron robes, and they’re gonna chant and hand out beads, it was crazy.”

Not surprisingly, for a lot of fans straight edge would be a phase they would grow out of, ”like being a goth in high school,” Rettman jokes. As far as how many people from the scene are still sober today, Rettman says, “I think very few of them have stuck with it all the way. I’m not gonna name names, but there were people that fell off the wagon, who had horrible things happen in their lives, then they came to their senses and sobered up. As far as the people who stuck it out from beginning to end, it’s maybe like Ian MacKaye and Al Barile from SS Decontrol. They didn’t sway from it. But there were very few that stuck it out.”

Still, all was not for naught with the straight edge scene, and in compiling his book, Rettman discovered that many of the central figures from the time remember their glory days fondly and with few regrets.

“Everybody looked back it in a positive light, and that the good outweighed the bad,” he says. “There were only a few that were like, ‘Maybe this or that wasn’t the smartest thing (to do).’ When I talked to Ian MacKaye about it, it seemed like he was a little bit apprehensive about where it went later, where it became preachy. He was like, ‘That’s not where I was comin’ from.’ At first everybody in punk rock thought that straight edge was way too fundamentalist when it (really) wasn’t. At least the people who created it weren’t coming from that viewpoint. It was when these guys came in in the late eighties that it turned it into a fundamentalist thing. They totally codified it.”

Even with straight edge being a phase for many kids, the principals of the movement still echo loudly with a lot of people today. “I think it did have a long term effect in keeping people off drugs and alcohol,” Rettman concludes. “And even if it didn’t keep people off drugs and alcohol, there was still something there that made people choose the right decisions. It’s so weird to me that you can watch a TV show and they’ll use the term straight edge in it. It has nothing to do with punk rock, and people know it means you’re sober. They have no idea it ties into music. It’s crazy to think that it’s gone this far.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.