Punk Comics 3

Part Three: Crucial Youth



Only in America. Whilst anarchopunks like Crass adopted a huge, all-encompassing vision of the evils of capitalism, spawning a million identikit bands who dressed in black and eschewed meat, puritan punk in the US took an even stranger turn.

The Teen Idles were formed in Washington DC in 1979. The band was composed of teenagers (hence the name) who were unable to attend many local gigs because they were held in ‘over 21s’ venues – a result of the US’ utterly retarded post-prohibition licensing laws.

When the group toured the west-coast in 1980, they encountered a club owner in Los Angeles who was sympathetic to da yoof being admitted to shows, and had begun writing a large “X” on their hands with a permanent marker as a warning to bartenders that such persons should not be served alcohol.

Upon returning home, bassist Ian MacKaye suggested this idea to various DC club owners as a means to allow teenagers into the clubs, while preventing them from being served alcohol. Several began doing so, and the “X” quickly became a badge of pride – even for over 21’s who would have been getting lagered up in a more reasonable society.

MacKaye’s 2nd band, Minor Threat turned this lack of indulgence into a cause celebre with their song “Out of Step”…

I don’t smoke
Don’t drink
Don’t fuck
At least I can fucking think

…and into a mass-movement with their song “Straight Edge”:

I’m a person just like you
But I’ve got better things to do
Than sit around and fuck my head
Hang out with the living dead
Snort white shit up my nose
Pass out at the shows
I don’t even think about speed
That’s something I just don’t need
I’ve got the straight edge
I’m a person just like you
But I’ve got better things to do
Than sit around and smoke dope
‘Cause I know I can cope
Laugh at the thought of eating ludes
Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue
Always gonna keep in touch
Never want to use a crutch
I’ve got the straight edge

Soon a whole heap of kids, on both coasts, were forming bands and not getting off their faces, in a somewhat freakish inversion of punk’s nihilist origins.

Development of the scene – Youth of Today

Me you youth crew!
if the world was flat I’d grind the edge
to the positive youth my heart I pledge
X on my hand now take the oath
to positive youth to positive growth
to positive minds, to pure clean souls
these will be all my goals
walk with me and my crew
there is so much shit we can do
and we won’t stop until we’re through

Youth of Today – Youth Crew

Youth of Today formed in 1985 in New York City and are credited with being both prolific and intolerant of non-straight edge behaviour:

“once, when the Dead Kennedys played, I jumped up on stage and grabbed the cigarette from the bass player’s mouth and stomped it into the ground” – Porcell, Youth of Today

alt text

Their songs like preached (and I use the word correctly here) a personal, rather than a political revolution:

“Yeah, when I first got to New York, I hated the scene. Where was the punk, the alternative? I mean, the clothes were dirtier and people had weirder haircuts, but basically they were doing the same thing that every burnout in my high school was doing – listening to music, getting drunk and getting in fights. They reminded me of my older brother, only he’d get plastered and go to Ozzy shows, and the punks would huff glue and go to CB’s. So what was the difference? I had gotten into punk to get away from all that junk in the first place. I think that’s why the whole Straight Edge thing caught on in the city. People were ready for a real alternative. They wanted something with substance, with a message, something that was going to help them rise above their miserable surroundings, not get them deeper into it. And man, Straight Edge caught on like wildfire. It was such an exciting time in New York.” – Porcell, Youth of Today.

The group are credited with creating a confrontational culture in the scene, where despite all the songs about unity, straight-edgers reportedly attacked people at gigs for smoking or having a beer:

You come drunk to the shows
looking for a fight stumble my way
Maybe we might
why do you act that way
I can’t guess take a look at yourself
you’re a mess you say you Wanna fight
We just might
stoned as a zombie your eyes are red
head for the dance floor you’re as good as dead

Youth of Today – We Just Might

Needless to say, this did not translate very well across the ocean. When I saw Youth of Today at London’s SOAS in 1989, the bar was doing a roaring trade and there were maybe a dozen recognisably ‘straight’ people in the venue. Amazing stage-diving and OK music, is about all I can remember of it.

Mid to late 80s Straight Edge was criticised for being ‘jock-punk’ (i.e. the clean cut, hooded top sXe’ers would tend to be more fixated on sports and school than subversion).

There are obvious limits to this type of subculture, which we will now (somewhat haphazardly, and indeed, drunkenly) explore. Firstly, the arrival of one band sparked all sorts of controversy, and hilarity.

Crucial Youth

“I used to be nasty and mean
Until I realised the world is one big scene”

Crucial Youth – Youth of the World

“Just one beer is all it takes
before your straight edge bends and breaks
Just one beer, there’s no excuse
You should have stuck to drinking juice”

Crucial Youth – Just One Beer

Crucial Youth arrived in New Jersey in 1987 “to clean up the scene”. Their first album, The Posi-Machine, and the accompanying interview in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll resulted in utter bewilderment, anger and hilarity:

Dear Maximum Rock & Roll and readers,
….My second complaint is lodged at Crucial Youth and the people at MRR who consented to publish such fascistic trash! It is one thing to be and live and practice straightedge philosophy, it is another thing to turn it into facistic dogmatism and shove it down peoples throats! WHO F**+#*CKING DIED AND MADE YOU GODS OF STRAIGHTEDGE?

The songs on the LP dealt with the usual issues of not drinking, or taking drugs:

“When you smoke pot
What have you got?
I’ll tell you what
Not a lot”

Crucial Youth – Keep Off The Grass

“Be just like me, and Mr T
Be just like me – DRUG FREE
[blistering version of A-Team theme tune, with voiceover]
“You wanna know why nobody ever dies on the A-Team?
They don’t take drugs
You shouldn’t take drugs either
Make it a good scene… positively!”

Crucial Youth – Me & Mr T

…But also featured songs on not drinking caffeine, following the highway code (“Cross on the green – not in between”) and dietary information:

“Everybody listen to Crucial Youth
We’re going to tell you about the four food groups”

Crucial Youth – 4 Food Groups

The album was pressed on “milk-white vinyl”. On similar note, straight edge’s “Positive Mental Outlook” was given a re-rub:

“brush away, brush away, brush three times a day,
brush!…I’ve got a positive dental outlook.”

Crucial Youth – Positive Dental Outlook

CY's youth brush

The band’s live shows included a huge “Youth Brush” which they would use on stage to clean up the scene.

The album came with a series of cartoons which combined straight edge philosophy with Jack Chick-style tracts. Crucial Youth satirised straight edge by pushing its moralism to the limit. This is probably best summed up by their “four rules”:

“Be Straight
Don’t Be Late
Bench Your Weight
Don’t Masturbate”

Crucial Youth – 4 Rules

“Scarlet M” developed the last “rule” further by incorporating some freaky (anti) sex education voiceover about suppressing primitive urges, and featuring frenzied vocals about getting hair on your palms. “You said it was ok, but now you do it every single day.”

The 2nd LP was a European release incorporating most of the tracks off the first album, but also featuring some new songs which took the Crucial Crew’s philosophy even further. “Be kind – rewind” urged people to return their video cassettes to the rental shop in the correct state.

“Mosh Mosh” was preceded by a band discussion on the creative process behind writing the lyrics, which is slightly less interesting when you realise that they are “Mosh! Mosh!” and nothing more. Crucial Youth, ever health and safety conscious provided some moshin’ “best practice” information as well.

“Those Who Curse” took straight edge bands to task for their potty mouths. “Santa Claus is Coming” from the Crucial Yule EP is one of the album’s final tracks, but unfortunately “Christmas Time for the Skinheads” is absent, so I haven’t heard the band singing:

Everyone’s having the time of their lives
Fighting with snowballs, not bottles and knives
Just like a snowman on a sunny day
White power hatred is melting away…

Satirical bands have necessarily short life-spans, but Crucial Youth certainly achieved their objective of cleaning up the scene in the late 80s.

Curiouser and curiouser

“The whole straight-edge thing for me was never about this kind of puritan lifestyle, where I was supposed to be leading the masses towards a better tomorrow” – Ian MacKaye, 1995

In some ways, Crucial Youth’s ridiculous positions had already been eclipsed by true believers. Youth of Today’s frontman Ray Cappo went on to form Shelter – a “krishnacore” band. Even in YoT he had talked extensively in interviews about meditation, vegetarianism, and his spiritual beliefs.

But even that seemed almost sensible compared to the trajectory of the “Hardline” movement:

“The time has come for an ideology and for a movement that is both physically and morally strong enough to do battle against the forces of evil that are destroying the earth (and all life upon it). One that cannot be bought, nor led astray by temptation. A movement free of the vices that sedate the mind and weaken the body. An ideology that is pure and righteous, without contradictions or inconsistencies. […]

A belief system, and a way of life that lives by one ethic – that all innocent life is sacred, and must have the right to live out its natural state of existence in peace, without interference. This single ethic ensures that all life, from a foetus, or a grown human (black, white, male or female), to an animal, or its habitat, is guaranteed equal rights, with liberty for all, regardless of someone’s personal bias against them. Under the principals of the Hardline ideology, all shall be permitted to do as they please as long as their actions do not harm, in any way, the rights of others.

Any action that does interfere with such rights shall not be considered a “right” in itself, and therefore shall not be tolerated. Those who hurt or destroy life around them, or create a situation in which that life or the quality of it is threatened shall from then on no longer be considered innocent, and in turn will no long have rights.

Adherents to the hardline will abide by these principals in daily life. They shall live at one with the laws of nature, and not forsake them for the desire of pleasure – from deviant sexual acts and/or abortion, to drug use of any kind (and all other cases where ones harms all life around them under the pretext that they are just harming themselves). And, in following with the belief that one shall not infringe on an innocent’s life – no animal product shall be consumed (be it flesh, milk or egg). Along with this purity of everyday life, the true hardliner must strive to liberate the rest of the world from its chains – saving life in some cases, and in others, dealing out justice to those guilty of destroying it.

Only with this dedication, and conviction – living a life that is in harmony with our stated goals and beliefs, gaining strength from out purity of body and mind, while actively opposing those who are guilty destroying the world with their poisonous thoughts, deeds and pollution, can we be victorious in the struggle.”

– Excerpt from the Hardline Manifesto

Hardline, as a philosophy, was mainly promulgated by a Tennessee-based band named, with little irony, Vegan Reich. The group were a clear as demonstration as any that the philosophy of straight edge could lead to utter reactionary positions which were more in keeping with evangelical Christian anti-abortionists than punk.

Vegan Reich’s trajectory became even stranger than that when their leading “light” Sean Penn (er, no, not that one) changed his name to Shahid ‘Ali Muttaqi on conversion to Islam. Vegan Reich became Vegan Jihad and Muttaqi put his weight behind the Islamist “Taliyah” movement:

“…the true Mu’min must strive to liberate the rest of the world from its chains – saving life in some cases, and in others, dealing out justice to those guilty of destroying it

Who are the guilty?

Those who hurt or destroy life around them, or create a situation in which that life or the quality of it is threatened shall from then on no longer be considered innocent, and in turn will no long have rights.

They are those who are guilty destroying the world with their poisonous thoughts…

Only through Jihad can true spiritual purity be achieved

Knowing this cannot come to pass while still locked in the chains of Babylon, we strive for justice and liberation by any means necessary. First, through an inward Jihad of self improvement, and spiritual refinement (manifesting in the moral and economic uplifting of our families, community and nation) and secondly, by waging an outward Jihad against the forces of evil that enslave this earth and make universal spiritual awakening impossible.”

As one commetator remarked: “They hope to achieve universal spiritual awakening by shrinking the universe down to one that includes only them.” Those of us who don’t want to inhabit any kind of universe which is run along such lines can take some comfort from Crucial Youth’s humour in the face of fanaticism.

Part Four will follow when I’ve tracked down some decent quality images.


  1. lex
    Excellent stuff John. I’m a big fan of Minor Threat and Fugazi, but at the same time have had lingering doubts about the way that whole ethos could go. Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” seems particularly ill-thought out. When Fugazi played the UK in the early nineties a promoter I used to know said everyone looked shifty at after-show parties where MacKaye turned up and they were all busy with the spliffs and beer. Not that he minded apparently. It just felt like your parents had turned up.
    2005/02/03 @ 09:53 am

    martin ( / )
    ‘Positive Dental Outlook’, LMAO
    2005/02/03 @ 10:18 am

    matt b
    ah, those were the days! i was particularly fond of bold (anthem: ‘nailed to the X’)- who turned into glam metallers into another, chain of strength, gorilla biscuits, slapshot (‘punk’s dead, you’re next’) etc.

    crucial youth is much more likely to get on the stereo nowadays though
    2005/02/03 @ 10:57 am

    A mate of mine reckoned all the UK sXe crew he knew ended up as smackhead crusties. That’s not you, is it, Lex and Matt 😉

    MacKaye is a classic example of “life of brian” really – apparently “I don’t fuck” was more about one night stands than, y’know, the act itself. But people obviously took it all a bit literally, like – more fool them!
    2005/02/03 @ 11:34 am

    matt b ( / )
    well, some of the SxEx crew are/were in this band:http://www.rockphotography.co.uk/LIVE/DukesONowt/DukesONowt_BB_03.htm which isn’t too far off the mark 😉

    mackaye does get a bad press- i think because of his (upper) middle class background which wound up NYHC types.
    seems like a very sensible bloke to me.
    2005/02/03 @ 11:58 am

    Gyrus ( / http://dreamflesh.com/ )
    Excellent! I’d forgotten about Crucial Youth. The crowd I was with when I was 15/16 were very into hardcore with some straight edge leanings, but we always took the extreme straight edge stuff with tongue in cheek (and it all probably made us feel better about not getting laid, let’s face it).

    Some great bands around/coming out of that scene though – Fugazi and Bad Brains have rarely been matched. And Dagnasty had some good tunes.

    Remember The Stupids as being a good indication of what happened over here post-Minor Threat. No one here took it quite as seriously as in the US.
    2005/02/03 @ 12:28 pm

    Merrick ( / http://bristlingbadger.blogspot.com/ )
    This series of posts is fuckin superb, John.

    I’ve always been more of a pop kid myself, but in the 80s anyone into anything ‘alternative’ tended to band together, so there was a lot of cross-pollination of tastes.

    The DIY ethic of 80s punk appealed to me as much as the music itself. To this day I still have The Stupids ‘Violent Nun’ EP and Generic’s ‘For A Free And Liberted South Africa’ EP.

    The latter opens with a voice saying ‘when you think of the countless number of more useful things you can do with a piece of plastic other than make a record out of it, we felt the least we could do was say something worthwhile on it’. It also comes with a detailed breakdown of where and how they had the record made and how much it cost.

    Thanks again for these posts; fascinating, well-written, excellent.
    2005/02/08 @ 12:53 pm

    This has got to be the best series of “set piece” blogs since 2003.

    I always thought straight-edgers were a bunch if narrow minded cunts but I always did have a somewhat dionysian attitude.

    The Stupids! Ipswich’s finest skatecore. Nothing to do with straight edge though? Far too much humour. I remember Dagnasty too.
    2005/02/16 @ 02:40 pm


  3. I think you’ll find that most people sxe and non-sxe took crucial youth for the joke that they were. Most, if not all of CY were sxe themselves.

    I think you’ll find that there were many sxe people at that YOT gig in London – and not just from the uk. There were a heck of alot over from Belgium. To be honest, there were most probably more people there to see snuff than yot, hence the high bar takings.

    FACT – The hardline movement came more out of anarcho punk than sxe. The originators of hardline were anarcho punks and not sxe hardcore people. They adopted sxe later and were anarchists and punks foremost.

    The debut release, a compilation LP benefit for the ALF featuring chumbawumba, man’s hate, naturecore, toxic waste, body count, paranoid visions, beefeater, powerage, anti-heroes, oi polloi, statement and vegan reich : on no master’s voice records show the anarcho punk ties of the originator before changing the name of the label to hardline records and adopting a drug free stance.

    I’ve always assumed Ian McKaye was against serial shagging so to speak and not against sex in itself.

    I do recall the majority of the stupids pushing the straight edge.

    Alot of the uk sxe crew did descend. So what its not a competition.

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