In the beginning, punk rock was all about anarchy and nihilism. It was about freedom of expression and being anti mainstream. “Do what you’re not supposed to do and upset everyone.” The music — aggressive with anti-establishment-esque lyrics — matched the attitude.
But of course all things evolve. At the start of the ’80s, punk started to morph into new wave. For many, plaid was set aside in favor of suits as the likes of The Jam, The Police, Elvis Costello, and The Romantics took the music in a radio-friendly direction (it’s worth noting, by the way, that some incredible music came out of that shift — there are few finer bands from the early ’80s than The Jam, for example).
But for many of the punks, this just wouldn’t do. They couldn’t relate to this fancy-dandy version of their music. So in the States, we saw the birth of hardcore. Bands such as Minor Threat, and Bad Brains (DC), Negative Approach, and The Meatmen (Detroit), Agnostic Front, and Murphy’s Law (New York), and Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks (L.A.) rebelled against the pop-ification of punk by taking it in a far more extreme and aggressive direction, and back underground. The results were spectacular.
As with the early punk bands, drug and alcohol use was fairly rampant within the hardcore scene, and some of the musicians started to get sick and tired — of the sloppy performances, of what they deemed idiotic behavior, and of friends dying. This developed into an air of superiority among those not using drugs and alcohol and the “straight edge” scene was born.
In theory, we’re talking about something extremely healthy. The message: Don’t be a robot and do a bunch of drugs, drink gallons of booze, because you think it’s the “punk” thing to do. Think for yourself — stay healthy and you’ll live longer, your band will probably be more focussed, and all will be well.
Minor Threat coined the movement with the song “Straight Edge”:
“I’m a person just like you
But I’ve got better things to do
Than sit around and fuck my head
Hang out with the living dead
Snort white shit up my nose
Pass out at the shows
I don’t even think about speed
That’s just something I don’t need.”
People latched onto those sentiments and, as is so often the case, took them to extremes. Years later, Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman Ian Mackaye was interviewed for a 2009 straight edge documentary called Edge.
“The problem with movements is that [they] start to lose sight of humanity… In straight edge, people who really pushed the idea of a movement, especially a militant movement, really lost sight of human beings… I don’t want people to ever use my words ever to injure anybody. Ever. That is the antithesis of my desire in life… It’s unfortunate that this minority of people, who’ve engaged in fundamental and violent behaviors, have gotten so much attention and have put such a stigma on [straight edge]… I find it so disturbing when I hear about serious ugliness and it somehow evokes straight edge. It really bothers me… Can you imagine how many motherfuckers have asked me if I’m still straight edge?… It just drives me crazy.”
As Mackaye suggests, the straight edge movement became something ugly, violent, and insistent. Not only did the straight edgers want to be healthy, clean, and sober themselves, they wanted everyone else to do the same. They would knock beer out of people’s hands at concerts, and occasionally get more violent than that. Simply put, they were insufferable. Nowhere was this clearer than in Boston, thanks to a straight edge gang called Friends Stand United (or FSU, sometimes referred to as Fuck Shit Up).
FSU started off life doing great things. Vocally anti-racist and fascist, they effectively kicked out all white supremacist elements from punk shows in Boston. Then, they started robbing drug dealers and giving their money to charity. In other words, their hearts were in the right place. Or at least it looked that way.
Stories of FSU’s actions are legion. FSU founder Elgin James served a year for trying to extort $5,000 from Mest, with some reports suggesting that it’s because one of the members of that band used to play drums in a white power band called Confederate Storm. James had him routinely beaten and said that it would all stop once the payment was made. The Feds came in and locked him up. Now, incidentally, James is one of the co-creators of the Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans MC.
See, that’s the problem with so many movements. They start off with the best of intentions, and soon become overrun with violent fuckwits. Not all straight edgers are like that — there are straight edge punk bands out there that you might not even know are straight edge. 7 Seconds? AFI? There are others, such as Youth of Today (and the spin-off Shelter), who talk about their lifestyle a lot, including via lyrics, but it never feels preachy. But at its worst, straight edge is terminally awful. Some straight edgers preach a vegan lifestyle, some include sex in their list of things that should be cut out. And by god, they’ll come down hard on you if they think you’re indulging.
Straight edgers, in many cases, consider themselves moral watchdogs, which is all well and good, but nobody is appointing them. Racism, fascism — these things we know are wrong because they oppress people. Other things are personal choices, oftentimes legal personal choices, and no thug has the right to tell somebody not to do it.