The straight edge lifestyle, sometimes signified with the letter X or with the number 24, describes a small segment of people within the larger punk rock culture, that had some antithetical ideas to most punk rock music. Depending upon the degree to which people practice the lifestyle, they may be vegans or vegetarians, tend to eschew alcohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex, and may also not drink caffeinated products. There is some considerable dispute about what should and shouldn’t be part of a straight edge lifestyle, and a number of people debate this subject intensely.
Some view the straight edge lifestyle as derivative of musician Todd Rundgren’s thoughts on not drinking or smoking marijuana, but because Rundgren’s music belongs more properly in the hard rock genre. Others say that songs from the 1970s band The Modern Lovers, who are thought to have influenced punk rock music and whose lyrics express some of the lifestyle ideas, were influential. Most though, account for the beginnings of straight edge with a 1980 tour by the punk rock band the Teen Idles, who weren’t old enough to drink and were playing in certain venues that had bars.
To allow the Teen Idles to play in bars, particularly the San Francisco Mabuhey Gardens, each band member was marked with an X on the back of one hand, so that they would not be served alcohol. This same marking system offered an inroad for many people to see local punk bands in small bars and venues that served alcohol. Later bars and clubs used rubber stamps to signify whether a person attending a concert was a minor or legally of drinking age.
The X mark caught on as a symbol of the early straight edge lifestyle, which is sometimes called Old School. Interest in vegetarianism, and interest in some religious concepts like those in the Hare Krishna faith caught others, while some people were mostly attracted to the ideas of straight edge because of the less drug-filled environment it offered. What constituted the lifestyle really varied, and since many punk bands expressed completely opposite ideas as to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” the straight edge lifestyle can be called a counterculture element within the larger punk environment. There was great tension between groups opposed to “straight” living, and those who took a more traditional rock and roll approach.
As the movement took off, there were some people who were especially criticized by others in the punk culture and were labeled “militant.” This could mean outspoken or it could mean narrow and limited in view, and unwilling to permit others to pursue life as they saw fit. It also meant that violence occasionally entered arguments between people of straight life persuasion and others.
Groups in the early days that attracted the straight edge crowd include the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Government Issue, and Cause for Alarm. The militant element peaked in the 1990s with groups like Judge, Bold, and Youth of Today. Some bands also began to lean toward metal as opposed to punk rock, with groups like Strife and Earth Crisis as examples.
By the 2000s much of the tension that marked the straight edge lifestyle and punk lifestyle relationship had evaporated. Perhaps this is due in part to a growing acceptance of ideas like vegetarianism. It’s therefore common to see straight edge and non-straight edge bands perform together, without much in the way of animosity.
A little confusion may exist for those who are fans of the punk, rockabilly band X that began playing in the 1970s. They were not associated with this lifestyle, and some members of the band openly admit having used drugs and/or alcohol. X was not considered as much hardcore punk as some of the bands which followed, and they were better known for a few years than many of the straight edge bands, playing in larger venues, often with a single opening act of their choosing.