Book Review: ‘Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History’

Bless Tony Rettman for all his hard work putting together Straight Edge; A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History. Rettman previously wrote NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990 and Why Be Something That You’re Not? Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985. In Straight Edge, he puts together an amazing oral history of punk’s controversial sub-genre, speaking with a slew of major and minor voices spanning three decades, forming an engaging and engrossing narrative.

If you’re unfamiliar with Straight Edge, it’s simple; Straight Edge sprang up from the Washington DC scene with Minor Threat and quickly spread up the East Coast to Boston, Connecticut, and New York, with bands like SSD, DYS, and Youth of Today, then across the country inspiring bands like 7 Seconds and Ignite. These bands believed in straight, cleaning living; no drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuous sex, and later, for some, no meat. Many of the bands had positive messages of unity and anti-violence, even though these shows were not for lightweights, as far as the dance floor went.

Straight Edge started with Ian MacKaye’s lyrics for the song of the same name, where he sang, “I’m a person just like you/but I’ve got better things to do/then sit around and fuck my head/hang out with the living dead/pass out at all the shows/snort white shit up my nose/I don’t even think about speed/that’s something I just don’t need…I’ve got straight edge!” What was a personal testimony for MacKaye became gospel for an army of disaffected youth striving for survival in communities rocked by generations of drug and alcohol abuse. It was a stark contrast from the glorified dope anthems of Johnny Thunders or the overdose deaths of Sid Vicious and Darby Crash. MacKaye was never telling people how to live, but eventually Straight Edge was adopted by militant vegans and militant eco-warriors, and militant animal rights activists, probably most exemplified by the Syracuse New York band Earth Crisis.


Rettman holds nothing back. Straight Edge is anything but a self-congratulatory circle jerk. Some of the interviewees really come across as the assholes they were and are and the history and scene legends are laid out honestly. But there are tons of people from the scene that are and were and remain admirable people who have really done a lot of good, making Straight Edge an indispensable tome.

I was Straight Edge in high school and up until I was twenty. Finding Minor Threat in the early 90s was a revelation for me, growing up around beer-swilling rednecks and pot-smoking head bangers. It helped bolster my individuality as the only punk in my high school. Once I was out of school and hitting shows with greater regularity in Knoxville, bands like Earth Crisis in that third wave of Straight Edge were getting national prominence as violent gangs. It started to feel more and more like a fascist movement and I found myself shunned in the punk scene for wearing X’s on my hands. I wound up writing my final paper for Sociology in college on Straight Edge and soon washed the X’s off. I never stopped being a punk, but Straight Edge made me nostalgic for bands I used to love, like Boston’s Slap Shot and New York’s Judge. That music still holds up beautifully, regardless of my stance on drugs and alcohol and how it’s evolved in the last two decades.

Straight Edge gave me a lot of feels and taught me a lot more history than I expected. Bonus for the newcomers, there’s an essential album guide in the back of the book, which is very comprehensive, including both full lengths and 7 inches. If you’ve enjoyed books like Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk or Hardcore: A Tribal History you need to add Straight Edge to your reading list immediately.


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