In the early 80s, Black Flag and their "get in the van" approach to DIY touring had a major impact on the spread of US hardcore across the country. In the summer of 1989 Gorilla Biscuits, INSTED and other American straight edge bands were continuing this tradition by zig zagging around the country in vans, crashing on floors and couches, and helping spread the straight edge message that championed a cleaner and more positive punk lifestyle that included drug and alcohol abstinence.
At the time, a young Tony Rettman and his friend Tim McMahon of New Jersey band Mouthpiece, were publishing Common Sense, a zine that covered and interviewed many of the straight edge bands of the time including Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, Chain of Strength, Insted, and No for an Answer.
In a new book Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History, Rettman traces the straight edge story via first-hand accounts from these bands as well as members of Minor Threat, SS Decontrol, DYS, Slapshot, Uniform Choice, 7 Seconds, and many others.
The book's 'Youth Crew Across America' chapter focuses on the vans and the tours, including influential New York City band Youth of Today's 1987 Break Down the Walls tour that became a defining moment for American hardcore.
Noisey: How important was the van in the spread and growth of straight edge?
Tony Rettman: A van was equally important to most American Hardcore bands - sober or not - in the 80s. Not only was it a vehicle to get to gigs, but it was sort of your universe. And there was a certain aesthetic with the decor of your van, too. The Youth of Today summer 88 tour van was covered in graffiti and apparently they had to stick their hands inside the motor for it to start. My high school friends in Mouthpiece had legendary Cali Edge band Insted tag the inside of their van in 91. It really brought the van together.
What was your involvement at this time ?
My friend Tim McMahon and I did Common Sense that covered the straight edge scene pretty heavily. We corresponded with zine editors and bands from around the country and would occasionally hook up bands or fellow zine editors with a place to stay.
Gorilla Biscuits and Bold stayed with my friend Ethan and they were quite impressed by the used cop car he drove complete with a built-in PA system in the motor.
Up Front from upstate New York came down and played my friend Scott's half-pipe in Ewing, New Jersey on a Saturday afternoon for nothing. They were just psyched to hang out and share their thoughts. Witnessing stuff like that at a young age was really unique for a random doink like myself and it really set my standards high for humankind. Sadly, later in time, I think I became more of a Nihilistics-meets-Big Joey kinda dude rather than a 7 Seconds-meets-early Quarterflash- kinda guy. I'm working on it, though.
What were your highlights of that summer?
Chain of Strength from Southern California and Insight from Utah toured together and were supposed to play Scott's half-pipe. We were ecstatic at the thought of these two great bands literally playing in our backyards. Well, the van they were sharing broke down in Philly, so we ending up driving out there to pick them up. They crashed at Scott's house for a night until his father kicked them out because they were, in his words, 'gypsies'. Eventually, a U-Haul was rented to complete the tour and they left their van in front of the house of another neighborhood kid, Jason Jammer for a week or so.
Then, on my 17th birthday, both bands came back to play our hometown club City Gardens with Up Front and Social Distortion. Before the show, both bands struggled in front of Jason's house trying to attach the van to the hitch of the U-Haul while a member of Chain of Strength played with his hair in the passenger side mirror.
Straight edge is often wrongfully used as a metaphor of a religion but that summer of 1986 do you think these tours were seen as a kind of proselytising?
I wasn't in any of these bands, so I don't want to assume their intentions, but as a participant, it definitely felt there was a 'cause'; as vague as the concept of what it was might be. As for Youth of Today, I feel they were putting this idea out there of attaining more out of life through sobriety with the 'more' maybe being a higher spiritual plane. I guess that explains Ray and Porcell's' [Youth of Today's vocalist and guitarist] later becoming Hare Krishna devotees.
Porcell from says that he and Ray Cappo wanted to start a hardcore recruitment tour? He was probably joking but I'm not entirely sure.
Porcell may have been half joking with that statement, but I do get what he means. I don't want to sound like an old man, but in that time, hardcore was such a tiny thing and you wanted anyone you thought was cool to be a part of it. Whenever I went out skating and met kids that weren't into hardcore, I felt the need to hip them to it; be it through mix-tapes or whatever. The numbers were small and you wanted more allies, I guess.
The 'Youth Crew Across America' chapter tells of people from different parts of the country speaking of the effect that Youth of Today had playing their town. What impact did that Break Down the Walls tour have on the spread of straight edge?
It was hard not to get swept up in the energy Youth of Today exuded. Seeing Ray Cappo at that time is the closest I'll ever get to witnessing a Shaman. So, in the same way Black Flag went across the country and spread this independent thought that would nurture the American hardcore scene in the spring of 1981, Youth of Today went out there in the summer of 87 and spread this philosophy tied in with a look and sound that kids just latched onto. By the next year, you had these representative bands in cities all over the country down for the Edge.
Of the people you spoke to do you have a favourite tour story?
Mike Judge went out playing drums with Youth of Today. It was either the Break Down The Walls tour or a small one with 7 Seconds prior to that. Mike was infamous for having a short fuse. When things got heated between someone wanting a shirt or record cheaper or when some drunk would want to start shit, Mike's immediate response was to physically assault the person. I think his exact words to me were, "When in doubt, lay 'em out!" Since Ray was trying to extol a positive vibe with the band, he'd often scold Mike about his temper. One time Mike jokingly asked Ray to make him a chart for when someone deserves to have their ass beat or not. The thought of a Ray Cappo created chart on poster board written in different colored markers, like a school project, makes me giggle. Imagine if he actually made it? Talk about eBay fodder!
'Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History' is available Nov 14 through Bazillion Points.