Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History

“STRAIGHT EDGE: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History” (Bazillion Points, 2017) by Tony Rettman is a compiled series of interviews regarding the origins and influence of the straight edge subculture/community. All the things you need to know about this release: Tony’s book is a very well done and really informative oral history, handy, quick read that is put together nicely in chapters with awesome photos and flyers. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you go and get it. Such a great book!
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I made this interview with Tony about his book in 2017, it was originally published in Chiller Than Most fanzine, issue 5. Pics by Ken Salerno, Christine Elise, JJ Gonson, Free Thought fanzine.

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CTM – Your last book (“NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990”) covers the glory days of the first wave of NYHC, rising from the drug-infested streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the suburbs and beyond. I know a lot of hardcore kids were turning into junkies. Heroin was a real big thing, it was very prevalent back then on the Lower East Side, and I heard there was a lot of mescaline going around too, psychedelic drugs were big part of the early years. Where did the idea to write a book about the other side come from? Where did the idea to write a book about straight edge come from?
Tony – I wanted to put together a book on Straight Edge done in a fashion I personally would want to read. Most books that are out there are written from a personal angle or tell the story stripped of the musical aspect. I wanted to do a book that traced the whole history of it throughout Hardcore Punk and the various places it went throughout the past 35 (or so) years.

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CTM – How long did you work on the book, and what was the first thing you did for the book?
Tony – From January 2015 to November 2016. First thing I did was reach out to people I thought should be interviewed while also scanning through the other interviews I’ve conducted throughout the years seeing if there was anything within them I could use.

CTM – What did you find the most surprising in conducting all your interviews?
That no matter what moment in time the person came from within the Hardcore scene, their story on how they became interested in Straight Edge was the same. Strung out family members or seeing kids become potheads at 13; it didn’t appeal to them and the concept of Straight Edge seemed welcoming.

CTM – The cover photo of the book was made by Ken Salerno in 1989, CIV from Gorilla Biscuits dives into a BOLD crowd (City Gardens, Trenton). Could you please tell me something about the cover of the book, why did you choose this photo?
Tony – The photo was chosen by the publisher. I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t my first choice or personal choice for the cover image, but it looks pretty bad-ass in the here and now! And it tied Civ in to do the intro which is cool. He’s not a guy who grants himself out on the reg, so I’m shocked and honored he agreed to do it.

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CTM – You interviewed a ton of people for the book. “STRAIGHT EDGE: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History” is written out in an oral history type of layout again, each person you interviewed for the book tells the story in their own words. It seems to me you really like this format.
Tony – It’s a format that lends itself to being unobtrusive to the proceedings. You can get the story out there in its pure form without interjecting too much of yourself into it.

CTM – The early DC straight edge scene saw itself as a counter-culture movement, like the hippies were in the 60’s. Brian Baker said in an interview that people hypothesize that DC is the cradle of straight-edge, so there was this ethical sidebar that was part of everything, but DC was really just like any small town scene. It wasn’t just a straight-edge town.
Tony – Yes. I think it was a matter of it simply being the town where a band wrote a song that spurred some thought in people.

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CTM – Al Barile said that straight edge is one of the most important cultural influences of the last century. Straight edge kicked down the walls and opened the doors to music and choices that formed a new core of cool. SS Decontrol and Department of Youth Services took straight edge to a different place, the brand of straight edge was solidified in Boston. What do you think about Al’s statement and how do you feel about SS Decontrol’s and DYS’s legacy?
Tony – I think Al is 100% correct. I was the youngest of five kids. My brother and sisters were really living that American high school lifestyle you see in films like Dazed and Confused or maybe even Fast Time At Ridgemont High. I was under the impression that drinking and getting high was just what you did when you hit high school and you had no choice in the matter.
When my brother brought home SSD’s Get It Away and DYS’ Brotherhood, the way they looked (an accessable fashion that I was pretty much already wearing) combined with the lyrics honestly put this proverbial lightbulb over my head and made me think “Oh..I can do WHATEVER I want!” That epiphany not only put me on the path of being Straight Edge at that point in my life, but also blew my mind wide open on a larger scale in the aspect of how I would conduct myself for the rest of my life.

CTM – Youth of Today were a pioneering band. There were really important and influential bands up until that point, but I don’t think any band had the impact that Youth of Today did. Ray Cappo had an unusual talent to make changes in the scene. They had a mission statement: bring back straight edge, in a new way, they wanted to prove that it is not just a passing trend or whim but a legitimate alternative to a self-destructive drug culture. “The Youth Crew look became a stance against the violent, nihilistic, drunken mentality that was prevalent in the hardcore scene at the time.” How do you evaluate the work of Youth of Today?
Tony – Youth of Today were very important for me personally because at the time my brother started taking me to shows (summer of ‘84) it felt like I missed something. By that point, SSD and DYS went hard rock/heavy metal and Minor Threat had broken up. Bands like Stalag 13, Justice League or Ill Repute weren’t touring the east coast. When I read an interview with Youth of Today a year later in a local NJ ‘zine called Faith, I felt a connection as they really laid it out there that they were looking to rejuvenate the Hardcore scene. They meant a lot to me and still do.

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CTM – You processed the story of the youth crew fashion in the “NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990” and you will publish a chapter (“Youth crew style: more than fashion”) about this topic in your upcoming book. Varsity jackets instead of leather jackets, rolled up jeans instead of bondage pants, crewcuts instead of liberty spikes and Nikes, Adidas instead of Doc Martens, no Mohawks, Champion sweatshirts, Air Jordans, low top Vans with colored laces. The youth crew image was a powerful one, and as the new straight edge bands, most notably Youth of Today, got more popular, it seemed straight edge started becoming more externalized. Many people thought that the imagery started taking precedence over the substance. What do you think about this topic?
Tony – I think when Straight Edge went beyond a philosophy or a set of “rules” and the iconography took over in the later part of the 80’s, that’s when it gained traction in a way it never did before. The building blocks for the look came from the back covers of SSD and DYS records for sure, but I think the tie-in of hip hop fashion at the time sealed up the “Youth Crew” look and made it what it’s observed as today. No matter how much people crapped on the idea of all these kids ‘looking the same’, it gave people something to hone in on and identify with in the same way someone might have looked at the back of a Discharge record and said, “That’s me”.

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CTM – I really like what Gordo wrote about Mike Judge’s lyrics on Double Cross: “Whether you were straight edge in the past or straight edge in the present, there is no denying the sheer brutal honesty and power of JUDGE lyrics. It can be an uphill battle if you fall outside the social structure that involves drinking or even recreational drug use, but if you ever need some lyrics to help cement your feelings, having Mike Ferraro’s words handy is probably your best bet. “I’ll try to keep my cool…”” Mike is the master of being brutally honest with a life that is put into lyrics, what do you think about his lyrics?
Tony – At the time the “New York Crew” 7 inch came out, those lyrics Mike wrote were so cathartic for a guy in high school like myself who seemed to be constantly being ridiculed from every angle for not going along with the party aspect of teenage culture, but I think the lyrics of “Bringin’ It Down” still resonate more with me in the present day. After laying down these hard as nails lyrics on the 7”, it was shocking to hear him growl, “I can still remember the last time I cried’ He was showing vulnerability after taking shots for being too reactionary and it added another dimension to his persona.

I Question Not Me issue 5

The new issue of I Question Not Media fanzine is out now!
Issue 5: the Five Fingers of Death Issue. Cover star Rollie Fingers honors the Five Fingers of Death: Eye 2 Eye, Billy Club Sandwich, Sworn Enemy, Irate, Everybody Gets Hurt. https://iquestionnotmedia.bigcartel.com/

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-Five Fingers sets on Crucial Chaos
-Multifarious Mosh Forms (aquatic mosh and more)
-Mysterious Supergroups
-a look inside the Scene Report Comp – and how some other classic comps were arranged
-Venn-detta diagrams (Next Step Up + Irate, Next Step Up + Lost Empress)
-Highlights of the Dusty Digest Zine Swap
-Bands where someone else wrote the lyrics
-Hardcore Haikus
-Five Fingers Crossword Puzzle
-the Secret History of Secret Tracks & more!

24 page half size zine
Released March 2021
Cover art by Mike McAuley

Justice interview by Wake Up And Live

Dead Stop and Justice. These two bands made a really huge impact on the European scene. I remember around 2004 me and my bros talked a lot about them, they were so inspirational and everybody loved to scream the “2, 3 JUSTICE” intro. A “Look Alive” era interview has gone up on the website, hope you will find it fun to read! Wake Up And Live was a really awesome fanzine from Portugal, Diego was always putting out great content and quality stuff. (Please click images to view full size.)

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Justice “Look Alive” review

What can I say about this awesome 7 inch? Really insane release, it sounds like it was recorded in the 80s at Don Fury’s studio. No words can describe how awesome the artwork is, it tells all about the band.
As Bjorn wrote in his review, while their “Breakout” cassette put them on the map and spread their name, this record showed the world that Justice has so much more to offer than catchy demo songs. It was originally released in Complete Control fanzine (2004).

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Big Cheese interview by Chiller Than Most

Don’t forget to tell the world that “Punishment Park” was released one year ago yesterday. While some hardcore records lose their luster over time, this one remains stunning. It’s a modern classic. I did this Big Cheese interview with Tom in 2018, it was originally released in Chiller Than Most fanzine. Pics by Spencer Borealis, Matt Gabell, Pali, Roman Laris, Natalie Wood, Andrey. https://bigcheesehc.bandcamp.com/

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CTM – Yo! How do you remember Big Cheese coming together, and what would you say was the driving force behind the creation of the band?
Tom – Ey up. I was and still am singing in a band called True Vision. My band mate, best mate and love of my life Maegan had recently moved in with me in Armley, a bleak suburb of Leeds where we lived with Andy Jones of The Flex fame and Sky. Maegan had written a bunch of songs that summer and said she think I’d sound good singing on them. We then asked Alex and Louis from Higher Power to join us at practice and Big Cheese became.

CTM – Rest In Pieces definitely seems to be one of the main influences for the band, but I think The Icemen had a larger influence on you when you were writing these riffs. It is very important to note the difference between being influenced and directly copying. Writing the “Sports Day Demo” and “Aggravated Mopery”, what were some of your major influences? What was the inital plan, like “we are gonna do this band influnced by …”.
Tom – Rest In Pieces was most definitely a big influence on the demo, including a lot of other stuff like Fit Of Anger, Life’s Blood and then incorporating the d-beats from Cro-Mags etc. We started writing Icemen style Ozzy Osbourne riffs and more metallic stuff akin to Crumbsuckers later on when writing the 7”. When anybody asked, I think we’d just say we started a band like Cro-Mags haha.

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CTM – You released the 7 inch last September (2017), it has been out long enough. What were people’s reactions to it? How do you feel about the responses you have been getting? What was the funniest reaction? What is one review or criticism you are most proud of?
Tom – Genuinely, I can’t say I’ve read or heard much criticism with regards to the 7” which is honestly surprising to me, especially in this day in age. Adam Malik of The Essence Records said he thought our name sucked but ya can’t please everybody. Andrew, Atko, Nicky, Ola, Don Fury and the rest of the band did an amazing job on the record and we’re all proud of it. I’m grateful for the positive reception and opportunities we’ve received subsequently. Funniest reaction is ‘what the fuck does Aggravated Mopery mean?’ They’ll learn. I’m infinitely proud of every bit of feedback we get.

CTM – You are in a couple other bands, how is Big Cheese different from your other bands? Is there something unique about Big Cheese that you weren’t able to do with other bands?
Tom – Big Cheese feels different to other bands we might play in as it seems there’s something in it for someone from any walk of life; as opposed to being quite aggregated or fitting into a box. It seems to speak to punks, metalheads, skinheads, skaters, whoeverheads. I like that. It’s almost unifying.

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CTM – The song called “TCP” is like an apocalyptic picture, dealing with how humanity as a whole is destroying the planet. Most of the people realize this, but some of our leaders don’t seem to have the courage to do much about it or against big business. What do you think about this topic?
Tom – I spent a lot of time writing the lyrics for TCP after we’d come up with the main frame of the song. I guess at the time I was trying to paint a picture of where we were living at the time, without being overly poetic. You can feel every aspect of life being sucked out of the neglected areas where money isn’t being pumped into anymore, where industry has died and the people there just seem to wilt until they’re nothing. The government don’t care, never have and never will and it certainly won’t be long until there’s nothing left, apart from a cockroach and the Aggravated Mopery 7”.

CTM – “Pass the buck.” Can you go more in-depth about the meaning of this song and what it means to you?
Tom – “Pass The Buck” is a funny one. I’d gotten into some stuff with my job at the time and was wrongly accused of something I hadn’t done and was subsequently suspended. I guess the song projected my anger towards big corporations and the notion of being disposable. It’s a dog eat dog world.

CTM – How did you came up with the idea to record the M13 cover song?
Tom – My good friend Edo Zavarella sent me a ton of stuff hidden in the corners of the worldwide web, like Emanon, ESG and Enuf and also included the M13 demo that I’d not heard up until that point. I just thought it was a good homage to the bands and sounds that have influenced us and sounded cool incorporating it into the title track, Aggravated Mopery.

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CTM – The design Andy Fletcher and Nicky Rat made for you is one of the sickest illustrations I have ever seen. How important is the aesthetic side of the band to you? How important is the layout, imagery and packaging for Big Cheese?
Tom – I love the artwork and the aesthetic we slowly came into. I think it took us a while to know exactly what we wanted to go for but the collaboration between Andrew Fletcher and Nicky Rat’s work is second to none. I think that aesthetic is particularly important in shaping the way people respond to a band but it should never overshadow the music or become a fashion statement. I’m really happy with what we’ve got going on right now. We slap Nicky’s logo on everything.

CTM – I really love your mafia concept artworks and the continuation of the “Sports Day” artwork for “Aggravated Mopery”. Every time I see the cover of your record, it reminds me of Stephen Graham haha! He played the notorious gangster Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. What are your favourite movies in this realm and why?
Tom – I’m obsessed with all things mafia and the mafioso idea for the artwork just felt right. Especially with the name Big Cheese. Admittedly, I haven’t seen beyond the first episode of Boardwalk Empire but I love Godfather, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time In America, A Bronx Tale, obviously The Sopranos. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I love those things but the satirical elements and underlying humour intertwined with violence and dark subject matter makes for great entertainment. Noir has gotta be my favourite genre of film.

CTM – Who is the big cheese in the band and why?
Tom – I think I’ve become accustomed to being the Big Cheese in the band, front persons usually do. I like steering the vehicle.

CTM – A few weeks ago the band released this biblical “NWOBHC FM” session on tape. The set mixes up songs from your 2016 Sports Day Demo and 2017’s Aggravated Mopery 7″. How did you came up with the idea of playing a live radio session?
Tom – Ola from QCHQ asked us if we wanted to do a radio show and live set when we were in London just after New Year. We were there for our record release show and did both in one weekend.

CTM – I really love listening to live sets and radio sets. What do you think, was it any different playing a show and playing a live set on the “radio”? How should we imagine this “NWOBHC FM” set?
Tom – I’m exactly the same, listening to a band live and especially a hardcore band conveys the energy you expect and grow to love from live shows. We were tucked away in a freezing cold warehouse in a tiny sound proof room. It was no bigger than a broom cupboard with a set of drums in. I couldn’t actually hear myself back when singing so shot out my voice pretty badly. It was a sick experience nonetheless and we’re all happy with how it came out! Even if a little embarrassed of the interview haha. When pressing the tape, we decided to put the demo originally dubbed to 50 on the B side which gave people an opportunity to own a physical copy of that too.

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CTM – Your session was the first episode of the “NWOBHC FM” series. There is a clear parallel between the WNYU’s Crucial Chaos and the “New Wave of British Hardcore FM”. What are your favourite WNYU radio sets and why?
Tom – The Outburst and Side By Side one. Just captures perfectly the essence of both bands. Both hard as fuck and keeps that spirit alive.

CTM – You are wearing a “United Blood” tee on the cover of “Live on NWOBHC FM” cassette. When the band released “United Blood”, they started using the term “hardcore” because they wanted to separate AF from the druggy and artsy punk scene. Content, lyrics and message wise why do you think this record is exponentially important?
Tom – United Blood is obviously one of the four greatest 7”s that came out of NYC in 1983 and probably laid the foundation for NYHC as everybody knows it today. “We’re fighting in the streets, trying to be free. They say the regime will save us all. It’s anti-social and gonna fall”. Still relevant. “You think you’ve got everything, but really you’ve got nothing”. Need I say more? Sound wise, there’s no contest. It’s sloppy as hell but it’s raw and you wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s a product of the time but still bears a lot of relevance to society today. Antidote- Thou Shalt Not Kill is still my no. 1 though.

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CTM – What makes a hardcore guitarist good in your opinion? What guitarist in UK hardcore today has the best moves?
Tom – Guitarists with all the gear and no idea are a turn off for me. I think the ability to play fast and hard is a must. If you can shred it’s definitely a bonus. Rhythm is key. I’d have to say Louis. He’s got a sick stage style. Foxy in The Flex too. CP cap over the eyes and destroying a Charvel.

CTM – If Big Cheese needed a third guitarist, would the band consider bringing Dave Murray or Rob Echeverria in?
Tom – Rob Echeverria no doubt. His solos are insane, especially in Straight Ahead. A real deal hard rock guitarist and wears a vest or is shirtless at all times. He also played in Helmet for a while and there’s a vid on YouTube of that somewhere which is sick.

CTM – If Big Cheese could play a bill with British bands from the 70s and 80s, which bands would be on the bill?
Tom – Stiff Little Fingers, Motörhead, GBH, Ultraviolent, Slaughter Of The Dogs.

CTM – Thanks for your time. Any closing thoughts, shout outs or words of encouragement?
Tom – Thanks for taking the time to interview me and for the interesting questions. Keep spreading the gospel and shout out NWOBHC for keeping the punk in hardcore. See you in Europe this summer with NYHC’s Illusion. Oosh.

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Icemen interview by Not For The Weak! fanzine

“It’s kinda like a band thing and it deals with the harshness and realities of the world. It’s not being cold-hearted or a cold person, it’s more like dealing with the harshness and realities of the world.” This interview was originally published in Not For The Weak! fanzine. Pics by Inward Monitor, Ken Salerno and Scott Forbes. (Please click images to view full size.)

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Underdog interview by HCPP fanzine

This Underdog interview with Daniel Darella was originally published in HCPP fanzine. It’s an entire fanzine reflecting on the legacy of Carl the Mosher, told by the people who know him best. Most of us know him from The Icemen, Underdog and Dynamo, but at one time he was the singer of The Psychos and he played drums in a band called Manhattan 13. Carl was a former singer of Agnostic Front too. He actually took over for Roger Miret on vocals in Agnostic Front just before the band recorded the Cause For Alarm LP, but right before a CBGB gig AF was supposed to play with Carl, Vinnie asked Roger to come back and play the show.

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Edoardo has a special place in his heart for Carl Demola, for those who missed it and want to read the full zine, hit him up via instagram (@edohcpp). Pics by Jersey Beat fanzine, Jennifer Buck Knies, and Krissy Bedell. (Please click images to view full size.)

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