Straight edge has a bad rep. Undeservedly, too. At its bare bones, it’s just a commitment to abstain from drinking and drugs. Simple, no?
But as either a movement or a personal choice, it’s been reviled. In 1998, Fox News ran a story linking Utah straight-edge “gangs” to domestic terror groups — something that prompted Karl Buechner, singer for influential vegan band Earth Crisis, to respond on Geraldo Rivera’s At Large. Then, bands within its native music scene — like the a capella band xJud Judx or the fake German band, xHeadwalkx — parodied straight edge’s militant corners. And, of course, there were the high-profile straight-edge relapses, from Mental to Have Heart to (gasp!) Ian MacKaye.
Nonetheless, since its origins in the early ’80s — when the term was coined by Minor Threat — it has persisted. And, like hardcore punk itself, it’s been a defining youth-culture meme. It may, in a sense, be the anti-blues. And its global popularity has touched nearly every city worldwide — and that includes Calgary. Even if, in the city, being drug-free can be isolating.
“Being straight edge in Calgary is definitely kind of weird. I didn’t claim until my 19th birthday,” says Dereck Burns, singer for local youth crew act The Chain. “Compared even to other Canadian cities, Calgary can be a pretty intolerant place when it comes to breaking from social norms. It was surprising to me that so many people within the hardcore scene met my choice with such resistance.... I got the picture after a while, and stopped waiting on phone calls to hang out. But it still kind of bums me out.”
Kevin Stebner, singer for Stalwart Sons and the founder of Bart Records and Revolution Winter, on the other hand, sees that resistance as related to Calgary’s culture — and the province’s revenue source.
“Alberta is fuelled on alcohol and oil, its two great vices,” he says.
Drunken cattle ranchers, relax. Stebner’s half-joking. “It’s not some kind of reductivist moralism,” Stebner adds. “Substance use and dependency is screwed up. This idea is not some crazy left-field weirdo movement — it’s plain obvious. Why would anyone want that? I’m too busy doing awesome things.”
This time, Stebner’s not joking. Along with his bands, he’s also involved in throwing all-ages shows in Calgary. And aside from providing a safe space, like Undermountain, for the under-aged, it’s also a space that’s focused on music, not drinking.
“I hated the way I saw [substance abuse] in other people, the weakness and dependency, and unthinking,” he says. “The only argument for it is ‘fun.’ I always saw our societies — Alberta’s in particular — complete dependency on [alcohol] as fucked. So many of our social problems are a direct result of this.”
Alec Whitford, an acoustic troubadour who performed locally for years under the moniker Straight Edge Al, agrees. And like Stebner, his personal life largely pushed him towards straight edge. “My parents were both recovering alcoholics who gave up drinking in the ’80s, so alcohol just wasn’t a part of our household really.
“I didn’t have any desire to take part in it. Also, when I was 12, my older brother got so wasted that he coated his room in puke. It smelled so bad it put me off the whole deal.”
“I’ve had friends in the hospital, even friends dead, because of their direct use with drugs and alcohol,” adds Stebner. “But to me all that stuff is beside the point. It’s not like there was some major event where I was like ‘this is terrible!’ You can see it happen a mile away.”
Still, claiming edge isn’t an easy decision. “Externally, you have a culture, both [defined by] media and individuals that doesn’t know how to have fun or deal with problems except with alcohol,” says Whitford. “Internally, you have to cut yourself off from a lot of social functions that can be healthy.... But most people who are straight edge have very good reasons for committing to it. And a lot of those reasons involve trauma, so existing around alcohol will always be difficult for a lot of straight-edge people.”
But what of the musical reasons underlining straight edge? Stebner, for his part, came to the lifestyle via Ian MacKaye’s music; Whitford found it via Winnipeg’s I Spy; and Burns found it in New York hardcore. Would it be possible, then, for Calgary to host a straight-edge community — even if its members came from different backgrounds and eras?
“I wouldn’t exactly rule [it out], but I’m not holding my breath,” says Burns. “I’m just not sure Calgary has the climate to support an actual straight-edge scene, like bigger American and Canadian cities do. It’s hard enough to sustain a punk/hardcore scene in Calgary in general.”
But it needn’t have a community to exist. At its core, it’s a personal choice. “Straight edge is a reflection of not being satisfied with the world at large,” says Stebner. “And by extension, creating music is the same way — it’s not being satisfied with your own output, and keeping on, moving forward, trying to improve.”
Then, he adds: “Being a waste, a pawn of some substance, that sucks. Duh. Being active and living rules, okay?”
At my age — I’m in my 20-somethings — I can’t profess to have witnessed some of Canada’s most historic straight-edge bands. That said, I’ve witnessed oodles of contemporary-ish Canadian edge bands in my time, most of them terrible. Here were my favourites.
• As We Once Were (Toronto): The antidote to Ontario’s metallic, vegan edge bands — hey, Maharajh! — AWOW was the band that eventually morphed into No Warning, which released a Canadian hardcore classic in Ill Blood. Closest in lineage to Shark Attack and Floorpunch — and other furious, dirty East Coast youth crew acts not named Right Brigade — AWOW’s singer, Ben Cook, evolved into one of Canada’s brightest songwriters, performing in Fucked Up, Marvelous Darlings, Young Guv, Roommates and countless others. NW guitarist Jordan Posner, he of the golden riff, now plays in Hatebreed.
• A Death for Every Sin (Montreal): Before rebranding themselves as Final Word, ADFES was Montreal’s heavy-bottomed answer to Buried Alive — and was the hardest band not considered metalcore. In a Time Where Hope is Lost, the band’s only LP, is still one of the best Canadian hardcore records ever made. Members eventually joined New Hampshire No Warning ripoffs Guns Up!, Throwdown and Enforcers, one of Montreal’s current hardcore bright spots.
• Miles Between Us (Ottawa): While Ottawa has produced some of Canada’s most underrated punk — from the philosophical Buried Alive to the black metal-pop punk mashup Crusades — its most prominent edge band was MBU, which, in its clean-cut early ’00s LP, When it Counts, foreshadowed the thinkin’-man’s youth crew later championed by Verse, Champion and Have Heart. Pensive singer Matt Laforge now writes about hockey for Vice, with his best story titled “Canadians Don’t Get Hardcore, Americans Don’t Get Hockey.”
• Risky Business (Halifax): With a nod to The Hold and Envision, the Maritimes’ top hardcore band was Risky Business. Playing a sprightly, off-kilter style owing heavily to Lockin’ Out records — see: Mental, Righteous Jams and Cougarz — their signature song declared, over and over, “Risky Business / That’s us.” As hardcore goes, they were the second funnest band of their era, after Quebec’s Say No More (which, incidentally, had a track included on Lockin’ Out’s excellent 7-inch comp, Sweet Vision, and whose singer, Louis Parenteau, now performs in Slobs).
• Figure Four (Winnipeg): Equally remembered for pre-show prayer circles and blistering metalcore, Figure Four was, and still is, one of the few Christian bands adored by the hardcore world at large. Over three LPs, they pummelled as hard as anything from Buffalo’s hardcore scene — and performed alongside macho bangers like Death Threat. Singer Andrew Neufeld eventually formed the anthemic Comeback Kid and whispery indie act Sights and Sounds, and, while moshing, once kicked me in the nuts so hard I had to leave a show.
• Burden (Vancouver): Often cited as Vancouver’s first straight-edge band, their only LP, 2001’s If You Don’t Stand for Something, You’ll Fall for Anything, stands as one of the finest records released in the Pacific Northwest. All spindly octave chords and hammering breakdowns, Burden set the standard for its amazingcore contemporaries, with its members eventually joining Bridge 9 hardcore act Blue Monday as well as Go It Alone and Circles.