Ever since Minor Threat penned the song “Straight Edge” in the early-1980s, the culture that it spawned has continued to have an impact in both the mainstream and punk underground.
It's focus on vocalist Ian MacKaye's disdain for drug and alcohol culture allowed members of alternative subcultures like punks, hardcore kids, and metalheads to reject the drink and drug-fuel images that they were so often associated with and take these life decisions into their own hands.
However, it is so widely discussed as primarily being a American phenomenon. In the late-1980s, a group of bands from the north of England subverted their cultural norms by renouncing intoxication, shaving their heads and forming their own bands, despite the backlash from both their mainstream piers and punk rock contemporaries.
While there was some inclination towards sobriety within the punk scene for much of the '80s, and groups like Heresy, Blitz, and Napalm Death featured drug-free members, they were far out numbered by the heavy drug-users and generally avoided labelling themselves as “straight edge," perceiving it as an Americanisation of their scene.
The closest thing to a “straight edge band” for much of the decade was Statement, who while technically being entirely sober, vegan, and even having a massive impact on the development the hardline subculture, was only one person. That being Patrick “Rat” Poole, who didn't even identify as straight edge at the time.
The rampant success in the mid-1980s of thrash metal, a style that merged elements of metal and hardcore, broadened the scope of the scene to involve a wider array of alternative subcultures, namely metalheads. This group joined up with skaters and together laid the earliest foundations of the northern England straight edge scene.
“The basic genesis of the scene was from metal kids turned hardcore, older skate punks, and young skateboarders,” says No Way Out drummer Nicolas Royles. “The wider punk scene wasn’t aware of our bands at first. The people that were aware were the straight edge kids in other cities in the UK that we'd met at gigs.”
Lins Cuscani, who would go on to form Vengeance of Gaia and Tied Down was one example of these metalheads, “I was a huge thrash metalhead that had an interest in basically anything extreme music wise, so I'd been dabbling in hardcore punk and UK punk,” he says.
Cuscani became straight edge in 1987 after reading the lyrics to the aforementioned “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat while working his part time job in a restaurant. “Something struck a chord. This was the total opposite to many a lifestyle choice in Newcastle in the late-'80s and it meant separation from the mainstream. I jumped right in head first and never looked back!”
By this point, however, the scene was rather fragmented, with the crust and anarchopunks distinctly divided from those entrenched in American-style hardcore, “[the] USHC kids looked like clean-cut sports jocks, if truth be told, which was the polar opposite of the scruffy anarcho kids and skinheads,” says Cuscani. "There was a brief time when verbal conflict and sometimes even violence between the two occurred.”
This situation culminated in the founding of the MacDonalds, who were the UK's first selfdescribed straight edge band. Formed in 1988, they group's foundation was to satirise the anarchopunk scene and their commonly help beliefs, such as anarchism and vegetarianism, with their straight edge status being a part of that.
Their founding lineup of vocalist Ian “Lecky” Leck, guitarist Sean Readman, bassist Paul Rugman-Jones and drummer Tony Wright had met through skateboarding, local shows and University Union metal nights, however by the end of the year the band had dropped the satirical element and re-branded under the name Steadfast, whilst retaining their edge status.
Groups soon began forming around Steadfast like XdisciplineX and Kickback (both featuring Cuscani), Step One, Headstong, and False Face, the majority of which were straight edge bands or consisted of some straight edge members.
“There were these other bands who followed in Steadfast's wake,” says Ben Myers a writer and former bassist for Sour Face, “Lecky was the centre of [the scene], he was the Ian MacKaye figure and I credit him and Sean with instigating the scene and forming links with kids in other towns: Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool.”
Although, it was not simply Steadfast's existence that managed to fuel this burgeoning new scene, it was also the effort that its members had put into helping grow the community.
Leck began booking performances from American bands like Born Against and Quicksand and in March 1989 even organised for a fifty-two seater coach to travel from Durham to Liverpool in order to see Youth of Today at Planet X.
“I think the utmost defining moment for the straight edge scene in the UK was around the two big tours of 1989, which featured both Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today,” says Cuscani. “Around that time there was a plethora of new UK straight edge bands and a small but very active scene.”
Slightly farther south from Durham came In Touch (from Bradford) and Withstand (from Brighouse), which both featured former Sore Throat drummer Nicolas Royles, who discovered
straight edge in the mid-'80s through the members of Huddersfield punk band Xypozez.
“I was actually heading into a sober lifestyle before I'd heard of straight edge and finally owning a car sort of moved that process along,” says Royles.
“The argument between staying in my hometown drinking or having a car and travelling to concerts and skateboarding became a huge incentive.” His two bands quickly became a part of the scene, often performing on bills together, with one in particular being on the 22 April 1989, at a location referred to as “Grannys” on the show's flier.
“Grannies was the bass player of In Touch's grandmothers home,” says Royles, “she was in a home... [so] we had practised there several times.”
As the council were preparing to take back the house, the bands decided to give it a farewell in their own person way, “It was a fairly small event featuring straight edge and skate kids from Bradford, Brighouse, and Wednesfield,” continues Royles.
By the end of the year, however, the two bands were on their last legs, due to In Touch's guitarist beginning to lose interest in the scene and Withstand's vocalist having to consistently make long journeys from Liverpool, leading to the two negotiating a merger.
“With In Touch out of action, we had a vocalist and bassist available here... so the two bands split up and No Way Out formed,” says Royles.
Withstand's final performance was in Durham the following week, which doubled as the debut performance by No Way Out. “The first show I went to was a Steadfast gig [in Durham] in March 1990” say Myers,
“I'd just turned 14 and it was a bit of a watershed moment for me and quite a few of my friends because we all went and we'd never seen circle pits... some friends were quite scared and repelled by it but some of us were into it.”
Because of this show, Myers formed Sour Face, a punk band whose first performance was in March 1991. The members of Steadfast quickly took the band under their wing, with Leck booking Sour Face as one of the openers for NOFX, despite only having played two shows by that point.
“I had just turned 15, our drummer was 14 and our singer was 13, so we were the little mascot band of the scene I supposed, but we were never straight edge... in fact we took the piss out of straight edgers a lot” says Myers, who would joke about the scene's predominantly male population, its militancy to its cause and the rules he perceived to have formed.
“When you're fifteen you kind of want to meet girls and the straight edge hardcore scene was a sausage fest... Lecky was militant but he was quite a likeable guy, he and Sean were both formidable presences... they both were sort of charismatic figures and hard in their own ways.”
While still in Steadfast, Leck teamed up with Darrell Hindley and Gary Cousins from False Face to form a new band with bass player Buzzard, who had recently been released from prison for grievous bodily harm.
Naming themselves Know Your Enemy, they played their first show in 1990 featuring a style heavily influenced by the stomping, groove-driven sound of later US Youth Crew bands like Judge. The band only existing for a matter of weeks or months, however its dissolution led Cousins, Hindley and Leck to form the most formidable band of their careers.
You see, by 1991 the scene was on its last legs, that year Steadfast, False Face and Kickback brokeup just as No Way Out had done the year prior. This drove the members of Know Your Enemy to pursue a new project: Voorhees.
By half way through the year, the band had managed to solidify their first steady lineup that also included Steadfast members Readmann and Rugman-Jones.
“[Voorhees'] first show was supporting us [in September 1991], which was slightly odd, because we were fourteen or fifteen and they were in their early twenties and had already put out records” says Myers.
The band went on to be one of the more prominent players in UK hardcore through the decade, however it was not a straight edge band as it cycled through many non-edge members during its run and even those who were consistently a part of the line-up began to distance themselves from the movement.
In Touch did briefly reform that same year, coinciding with the reunion of Royles' previous band Sore Throat, however both were cut short due to the members of each reforming Nailbomb, another previous project. Left without a band, Royles formed Ironside the next year with Jase Fox from No Way Out and Step One, and Richard Armitage, Andrew Wright, and Tom Chapman.
The group's influence from far heavier hardcore bands like Breakdown, Integrity and Sheer Terror would be what defined the second wave of UK straight edge, featuring new groups, like Vengeance of Gaia, Withdrawn, and Slavearc, many of which consisted of former-members of bands from the first wave.
“The '90s saw quite a lot of activity regarding straight edge bands mainly focused around Sure Hand Records and early Subjugation records” says Royles. “[It was] less skate orientated, more hardcore and metallic.”
Straight edge in the UK, especially the north, has continued to have blips of prominence throughout the coming decades, the most distinguished of which was probably in the mid-2010s through Leeds groups like Violent Reaction, Rapture, and Big Cheese.
Interestingly, Leck also played a part in this scene, as he is one of the owners of [Boom] (formerly the Temple of Boom), a venue in the city which played host to a show referring to itself as the “New Breed of UK Straight Edge," featuring Shrapnel, Insist, Unjust, True Vision, and Regiment.
However, the movement has still never taken off to the magnitude that it did in America.
“It did take off, but at a very low level, a very underground level, and that was something I liked... it existed in its own little world and in that respect it was a success” says Myers. “If some of them had made records which had better production values and were a bit more melodic, they might have gone a bit further... only John Peel would have been interested in playing that stuff.”
One possibility for this could be due to the extent to which pub culture plays a part in UK life, “It's easier to be straight edge in the USA because their drinking laws are different: eighteen here; twenty-one over there” says Cuscani.
“It's easier to fall by the wayside at eighteen than twenty-one.”
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