Straight Edge: Substance-Free Counterculture

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Words || Amanda Burgess

The taste of my own blood fills my mouth. A single fist comes flying at me. People in front of me hurl their arms and legs to the music. The movements are violent, fierce and unrelenting. This isn’t your average Saturday night in Sydney. I’m at a small underground music venue hidden between an industrial estate just south of the city in Sydenham, packed with the outsiders of Sydney’s club culture. I’m witnessing the phenomenon of the straight edge subculture: a group of young people who don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. What appears to others as chaos is community here. This is a place where you can deviate from what society says is normal. This is Australian punk and hardcore music. This is a place of purity and acceptance. It’s a far cry from the Kings Cross and Oxford Street nightclubs. It’s a whole other world.  

 

There’s no denying that in Australian youth culture there is a heavy emphasis on social drinking. In high school, going out is a rite of passage for many who turn 18, or perhaps even before. Clubs. The pre-drinking parties because clubs are expensive. University parties. 21sts. Getting drunk every weekend to forget about work, study, or whatever else.

And then, there’s straight edge. Abstinence from alcohol and drugs. The other end of the spectrum. The Straight Edge subculture began in the American hardcore punk music scene in the 1980s. The term was coined by influential band Minor Threat and has continued to be a significant part of the hardcore music scene worldwide.

James has been straight edge for eight years. We’re sitting outside a small bar in Wollongong, where some hardcore and straight edge bands are currently playing.

“Straight edge began as a label, one of those really egotistical things,” James tells me. “It becomes more of a personal attire, I don’t shove it in anyone’s face and generally it doesn’t come out unless people ask me.”

James is young. He’s in a t-shirt and jeans. His brown hair ruffles as the light evening breeze rushes past. As he speaks, I see a glimmer of passion in his eyes. For straight edge people, the sense of community gained by the label and attendance at hardcore shows makes them feel accepted despite not fitting in with the mainstream.

“Hardcore shows are definitely a welcoming environment for straight edge, ’cause not only are there straight edge people but there are also people accepting of it. My friends don’t invite me to things because I’m not a drinker and that’s okay. I have definitely been excluded and it hurts sometimes… but you get over it.”

Straight edge is deeply entrenched within the hardcore music scene. I wanted to know more about the influence of music on him and his decision to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

“The most influential band is Have Heart. ‘Song of Shame’ tells the opposing story of people struggling with addiction. They say that we don’t need to hide from our pain and discomfort with the use of drugs and alcohol. The more we embrace the organic chemistry that makes us humans, the stronger and more free we become.”

We go back inside the bar. It’s a packed house tonight.  

The bar is small with art covering all four walls. We stand inches away from the band on the floor.

“This one’s a cover by a band called Down to Nothing,” the vocalist says. In a matter of seconds a meeting between friends becomes a frenzy of moshing and dancing, dominating the tiny floor space. I watch with a smile on my face as I notice the vocalist sing the line: “For the weak, not for the strong… Straight edge cause we don’t want to belong!”  

The song ends and so does the chaos. As the crowd moves away from the middle of the room, beer is all over the floor.

It’s ironic, observing straight edge in a venue associated with alcohol. Polar opposites have interjected because of music. I want to know more.

Josh was straight edge. He isn’t anymore.  

I spoke to Josh a few days after the hardcore show in Wollongong where I met James.

We sit at a café meters up the road from Mr Crown and the bar the show was held at.  

“I sort of realised the reason I was doing it was because I cared about what people thought of me. I was scared to experience things and I was keeping myself back from going out with friends or doing things that I wanted.  I was falling out with friends who started drinking and I wouldn’t go out with them for that reason.”

There’s a lot of stigma when you ‘break edge’. Straight edge is a promise and a commitment. Josh doesn’t seem too phased by it.

“I don’t really drink often and when I do it’s quite light. It’s not like I’ve gone from being straight edge to a drug addict.”

Down the road from the small bar in Wollongong is a different kind of night spot. Formerly known as the Glasshouse Tavern, the club Mr Crown has been given a new name to shake itself from its violent and controversial past.

Here, mentions of the Glasshouse brings back vivid memories of alcohol fuelled violence. It is something the city would rather forget.  

Mr Crown is a place where young people come to hang out and drink – the perfect spot to discover more about the disparity between the straight edge nightlife and mainstream nightlife.

It’s a cold and rainy Saturday night. Ideal stay at home weather. Yet, as I stand waiting outside to be let in, I can see a full dancefloor and a bathroom line thirty people deep.  

The floor is sticky and the DJ is playing a rotation of nostalgic 2000s music. It’s so loud I can barely think. The sounds of conversation are muffled by the music. People lose themselves in the sounds of the music to forget about their lives. Work, study, party, repeat. Like a hardcore show, ironically with less violence and more drunken antics. The premise is the same. It’s a cathartic release from the stress of life.  

Maybe straight edge nightlife and mainstream night life aren’t all that different.

 

I hear heavy guitars and drums while the taste of my own blood filled my mouth. A single fist came flying at me. I watch people in front of me hurl their arms and legs to the sound of the music. The movements of the crowd are violent, fierce and unrelenting. This is straight edge. This is my community.