Tony Rettman is an experienced documentarian of hardcore, the angry successor to punk rock that emerged in the ‘80s. Befitting music that was especially rigid and regimented, hardcore was (and to a degree still is) very scene-oriented. This is especially evident as independent movements across the world led to city-specific dialects and occasional territorial pissings. Rettman, having already published NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 and Why Be Something That You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979–1985, no doubt is keenly aware of this.
But the different scenes transcended mere geography. Even more important than where a hardcore band lived was how they lived. Punk kids rebelled against the mainstream, but the next generation was not as discerning. When asked what they hated, most of the folks Rettman interviews in Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History (Bazillion Points) would likely respond, “What you got?”
Interestingly enough, on the long list of things hardcore musicians and fans say that inspired them, the one common enemy—even more prevalent than Reagan—was the generation of punkers that came before them. The first generation punks spoke a big game and made headlines, but ultimately didn’t change anything. Darby Crash and Sid Vicious were dead junkies not worthy of emulating.
Hardcore kids connected those dots. They wanted to make a difference (as evidenced by one of the movement’s most seminal releases being called Screaming for Change) and decided that drug and alcohol dependence were the main reasons why the older generation failed. One city at a time, the sloppy drunk punks with needles in their arms blathering about how society sucked were shoved aside by a small army of clean-cut, athletic kids with a plan on how to fix it. That plan was a little different depending on who you asked, but the constant was that it meant not doing drugs, drinking, or smoking.
Like most books that attempt to encapsulate a specific scene, Straight Edge is presented as an oral history, interviewing mostly members of bands but also a select group of fanzine editors, record label owners, and photographers. It goes more or less chronologically, starting with Ian MacKaye and the Dischord label in Washington, DC, where the term and original tenants of straight edge were formed. Chapters usually are mini-histories of specific regions (Boston, New York, Southern California), as well as smaller areas centered around a legendary band, such as 7 Seconds in Reno, or a venue like The Anthrax in Connecticut.
The book is incredibly long for such a tome, sprawling to nearly 400 pages. It’s justified when you consider that there have been several books devoted to what happened in DC for just a few years in the ‘80s alone. However, as you keep turning the pages the book occasionally suffers for its ambition.
Three pages discussing a handful of straight edge bands in Asia is unnecessary, while the few chapters at the end detailing third- and fourth-generation disciples and pockets of revived interest in the original bands seem like overkill.
There are some interesting things that even people who know what the X stands for probably didn’t know. For example, drummer Pat Longrie says that there was mutual respect and talk of collaboration between Uniform Choice and a nascent N.W.A. which never happened but is mind-boggling to even consider.
One thing that the book makes abundantly clear is how overwhelmingly white and male straight edge was. Just looking at the many grainy, black and white photos spanning several decades you can see the lack of diversity. Of course, this isn’t Rettman’s fault, and it would be far worse had he attempted to insert some multi-culturalism that obviously was never there. However, it would have been interesting to ask the straight white males about this.
More than 35 years since straight edge first emerged, it is easy point out how they didn’t really usher in the change for which they were screaming. If the punks failed because of chemical distractions, infighting hindered straight edge more than anything else. As proponents started to bring in more rules, such as Krishna Consciousness, militant animal rights, veganism, and even anti-abortion views, it was hard to even understand what straight edge meant anymore.
Additionally, many in the ranks were intolerant towards spectators. Early on, longhairs would be chastised at shows, while drinking a beer or even smoking a cigarette outside a hardcore show could lead to a physical confrontation. It’s not surprising that Rettman didn’t interview many fans—people who didn’t start a band or a zine, people who just went to shows, bought the 7” singles, and lived (or didn’t live) the lifestyle—but it would have been interesting to hear that perspective.
For the most part, Rettman doesn’t sugarcoat the negatives of straight edge: the aforementioned internal disputes and palpable violence (almost every chapter has someone getting beat down). Yet, it is still overwhelmingly positive because the subjects—even those who are no longer straight edge—all seem to have personally thrived as a result of being straight edge and from having the tribe-like camaraderie of others into the music. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t change the world, because they changed themselves, almost unanimously for the better. It goes back to something Ian MacKaye sang back in the day: “At least I’m fucking trying.”