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Life on the (straight) edge- the clean living punk subculture then and now

When you think of a night out at a punk gig, you might think of a sweaty, thrashing crowd all pogoing to the visceral noise of a DIY outfit on stage in some sticky floored venue. And you might also think of having a few beers with your mates, maybe a cheeky cig (outside the venue of course- even punks must adhere to the smoking ban) and perhaps a nice meaty kebab on the way home. Fairly standard and pleasing night for many (punk or not). However not everyone’s punk night will go the same way. For some, alcohol, cigarettes, laissez-faire sexual encounters and even meat is off limits and this abstinence is inseparably intertwined with their interpretation of punk and what it means to them and their way of life.

I’m talking or course about straight edge (sXe). A term many of us have heard and possibly associate with the vegan crust punks at the gig sipping on orange juice and exaggeratedly coughing if within 5 km of someone smoking. For many who don’t adhere to it, it was a movement that had fizzled out by the mid 1990s- an American anachronism that slid out of relevance. But that would be wrong- straight edge provided a vital political funnel for early 1980s US hardcore punks and the steadfast ethos on which it was built has as much relevance to today’s punk movement as it did 30 years ago.

So, what is it?

Straight Edge as a subculture of hardcore punk, sprang out of the west cost of America during the first wave of American hardcore punk. The term was taken from a song of the same name by austere punk icons Minor Threat. What started out as a few individual members of the punk scene taking a decision to abstain from alcohol and drugs, soon became a bona fide ideology that influenced adherents political beliefs; relationships; lifestyles and the punk scene as a whole.

Ian MacKaye- frontman of legendary hardcore outfits Minor Threat and Fugazi- is widely credited with beginning the sXe movement. He saw the nihilism and decadence demonstrated by the (largely male) members of the US punk scene as falling into the same traps as the rest of mainstream society- self destruction and self-absorption by getting drunk, taking drugs, getting laid and acting like jerks at gigs. The US hardcore scene had a reputation for violence at its gigs and this fact, and the fact that alcohol would be served at the venue, meant that many young music fans were unable to participate in the scene.

So started a sea change whereby bands agreed to play at venues where alcohol would not be served or that underage gig goers would be required to have a big black ‘X’ on their hand, so they would be guaranteed not to get served inside but could still enjoy the music. And thus the ‘X’ as a sXe symbol began- anyone adorned in that symbol would not be getting drunk.

Although it started as a movement defined by refraining from drug use or alcohol consumption, there were (and still are) a wide variety of beliefs and practices that are associated with different arms of the sXe movement. Nicotine is derided by most sXe factions but slightly less common is refraining from any intoxicating or stimulating substance (such as caffeine) and embracing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

The abstinence has two main functions:

**A one finger salute to the mass commercial companies who push their alcohol, tobacco and processed foods to the masses, furthering their profits whilst eroding our bodies and wider environment.

**A safe space at punk gigs- no drunken brawling in the pit; no concert unfit for minors; women not being picked up like chattel for conquests at the end of the night.

Straight Edge followers adhere to what they see as the core beliefs of the punk ethos- co-operation and community responsibility; anti-capitalism and globalism and self-improvement and deviating from the mainstream.

The US hardcore scene saw the first organised sXe community thrive. With Minor Threat considered to be at the helm, other bands followed suit- Gorilla Biscuits; Youth of Today; DYS and members of Black Flag that helped create a network of sXe venues; promoters and zines. Thanks to this network, the influence of sXe politics spread rapidly throughout North America and eventually made its way to Europe.

The 80s and 90s saw the expansion of the ideals of sXe and this is when vegetarianism and environmental concerns really became entrenched in the philosophy. Because of the nature of sXe getting stricter and more encompassing, it eventually got too challenging for non-sXe bands to play on sXe gig tickets and the latter separated into their own movement.

Sxe proponents were often considered rather zealous in their attitudes towards sobriety with many members of the early punk scene in the US claiming that they were ostracised heavily (and some say violently) if they did not adhere to the code. Guilt and shame were also tactics that some claim were used to get people to follow sXe- Henry Rollins would reputedly read a list of names of people who had died from drug use to the crowd at the beginning of Black Flag gigs to demonstrate the real consequences of the ‘getting high’ lifestyle.

Is it still going now?

Sxe has retained a big foothold in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where it is still thriving today. Pockets of organised sXe fans can still be found in America, particularly amongst those who still follow hardcore heroes such as MacKaye and Henry Rollins.

Any young guns out there who feel finding a sober person to look up to is going to be pretty difficult in the modern punk scene, let alone wider society in general, can breathe a sigh of relief as there are plenty of mainstream bands who have sXe members. Andy Hurley from Fall Out Boy; Chad Gilbert from New Found Glory; Davey Havok from AFI and Zach Blair from Rise Against to name a few.

Environmentalism in the age of the Paris Accord, the panic over global warming and the impact of mass meat production on our health and environment provides a fertile ground for the vegan aspects of sXe to gain a whole new generation of socially conscious followers. Rates of veganism are increasing; climate change is an urgent social cause and people are far more aware of the dangers of drugs than in any other time in history. It may be we have all the social conditions needed for a resurgence of sXe in the wider punk movement.

Is it punk?

sXe philosophy on the face of it has all the components that are compatible with the general punk ideology that has remained consistent for decades.

Anti-mass consumerism is something most people would get on board with and sXe in its purest form was a rejection of the multi-million-dollar industries that never lost too much sleep over anti-Capitalist movements as they knew they would still be buying their products when their protest was over at they retired to the pub.

If punk is about rejecting the mainstream then there is a logical process to get to the point where the mainstream idea of getting drunk, sleeping around and taking drugs is rejected and a sober lifestyle becomes a rebellion of its own. It embraces the DIY attitude and implores young fans to commit to their futures and the future of their friends and community. In its wider sense it is about the future of the planet.

Whilst there are valid criticisms to be made about the strict enforcement and interpretation of sXe ideals in some places, this is a movement where the heart is definitely in the right place. True punk is surely about looking after one another and early sXe sought to create an environment where that was easier. It is also a refreshing antithesis to the sometimes venerated nihilism of other parts of the punk movement and although I am a lapsed sXe-er, those bands were a big influence on my teenage years.

Now let’s all put down our pints and whack on a Gorilla Biscuits album.

Article by Molly Tie.

1 comment

  • Scott Bickers

    Brilliant article and educational for those who just ‘don’t quite get it’. I’m in no way straight edge myself (perhaps because of of a weakness in willpower more than anything) but the ideology behind it is absolutely understandable.
    Great article.

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