This flick was the stuff of legend in darkest Wales in the 1980s. So much so, I got hold of the soundtrack LP before I saw the film. Soon enough though, I was watching a dodgy VHS dub, so degenerated the whole thing looked like it was in black and white. And after acquiring my own VHS copy, I ended up watching it countless times over the years, and memorised all the lines like many others.
The Decline of Western Civilization, along with other 80’s U.S. punk films (some of which were also directed by Penelope Spheeris) such as Suburbia, Repo Man and Another State of Mind, helped visually connect a global punk scene long before the internet. And in an analogue world where xeroxed fanzine and record sleeve stills were pretty much the only visual currency, the moving image was pure gold.
If you don’t know this film, and have an interest in the history of punk, then it’s mandatory stuff. It’s a time capsule of the cross-fade between first wave Los Angeles punk and the burgeoning hardcore scene, filmed between December 1979 and February 1980 featuring live and interview footage with BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS, FEAR, X, THE ALICE BAG BAND, CATHOLIC DISCIPLINE, THE GERMS and other characters from the scene.
And if you have seen the film, even countless times, what’s fascinating here is the extras. You get the usual audio commentaries; one with director Penelope and daughter Anna Fox (who was also in Suburbia), and one with Dave Grohl, who has nothing to do with anything here, so I guess he got the gig because Mr. Rollins was busy on talking head duty elsewhere.
There’s extra live footage from THE GERMS, additional unused footage of THE GEARS, X signing a contract at a pool party, and a handful of extra incendiary live FEAR songs with some hilarious mugshot posing and the like. Add to this, all the interviews with the ‘Light Bulb Kids’ expanded, as well Brendan Mullen’s segment, who as well as his hillside chat, takes you on a guided tour of the Masque just after it closed. On top of this, all the original interviews of the bands have been pieced back together with the clips from the film and the unused material, so it jumps in and out of high/low quality, but the result is fascinating stuff.
For example, the interview with BLACK FLAG from February 15th 1980, sees Greg Ginn refer to ‘hardcore’. Surely one of the earliest uses of the term, outside of DOA’s Hardcore ‘81 LP, and around the same time as Joey Shithead’s apparent coining in S.F.’s Creep Fanzine in late 1979. In fact, Ginn refers to it talking about the Vancouver punk scene. Sad old punk bastards love this kind of shit, goddamnit!
The Decline of Western Civilization in 1980 was created amid a society that thought this music was literally going to bring about just that. This is not only a document, but plays up to the mainstream’s misconception and moral panic sensationalism over the then new rock and roll movement of the day. It stands the test of time as one of the finest rock documentaries ever made.
By 1988, things were going South, and hair metal had taken over the Los Angeles music scene apparently enough to warrant this documentation. Gone is any form of intelligent social rebellion though, all apparently replaced with hedonism, mindlessness, make-up and bad glam rock.
Band members of the likes of POISON, FASTER PUSSYCAT, AEROSMITH and other also-rans, talk openly about their sex(ism) drugs and rock and roll, as well as how they were in it for the money, their plans for world domination, their interests in business and stocks and shares. Amongst other empty-headed guff.
Lemmy stands on the hills overlooking L.A. apparently assuming the role of Brendan Mullen, as a U.K. import influential to the scene. Ozzy assumes the role of Darby Crash in the kitchen interview-as-drug-addled poet. And Gene Simmons and some other clown from KISS do their finest rampant sexism and base objectification of women. To top it off there’s a drunk rocker in a pool guzzling pool water from a vodka bottle. Just in case you thought this had any redeeming social value.
Apparently, this showcase of morons has matured with age and is now seen as some sort of amusing document of a wacky scene, but in reality it remains a missed opportunity. If it is comedy, Spinal Tap it ain’t, but that said, the only reason it probably got made was due to the ‘industry’ only being prepared to fund this level of subject matter.
I’d somehow sat through most of it in disbelief years ago, as ironically, it was the only one of the three films to ever get aired in the U.K. But this time I simply turned it off. There’s nothing wrong with the film making, I just have zero interest in this music and attitude. See if you can sit through it and feel your IQ drop.
The Decline of Western Civilization in 1988 seemed to be more inspired by the The Decline of the Roman Empire, and highlights what happens to rock’n’roll when hedonism and vanity are its main inspiration. It’s like watching rock music mirror the yuppie-dom of the age, and serves only as a reminder of what not to do, in the pursuit of fame and fortune, with music as nothing more than a vehicle.
Fast forward to July 1996 through August 1997, and things get back on the wrong side of the tracks with the third installment, all about L.A.’s gutter punks. The bands featured are FINAL CONFLICT, LITMUS GREEN, NAKED AGGRESSION and THE RESISTANCE all at the Showcase Theater in Corona, but more of the film this time is based more this time around the activities of the squatter punks, their scene and personalities.
As well as highlighting the sometimes charming, sometimes obnoxious characters of these crust punk kids, it also highlights a sad story for pretty much every character, culminating in more than enough RIP dedications at the start and end of the film. The dangers of squat fires and deaths-while-filming of some of the kids is in stark contrast to them goofing off in Hollywood while panhandling.
An amusing highlight for me, seeing this film for the first time outside the realm of tenth generation black and white blur fest, was seeing one of the characters sporting a CHAOS U.K. t-shirt I designed that I sold out of a box on the band’s U.S. tour in 1994. I may well have sold it to this kid at one of the handful of Southern California gigs before the cops showed up to club and gas everyone. In fact, I remember one of the other mohawk kids featured here from pretty much all those gigs, who had a habit of riding shoulders in the pit. Maybe they traded.
The extras for this are also fascinating for punk nerds. There’s an extended insightful interview with Leonard of THE DICKIES, Keith of BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS, OFF! (and of course, Decline I), and with Rick Wilder of the MAU MAUS. All the interviews concentrate on changes in the scene, personal stories and drug use. There are also extended interviews with the ‘Light Bulb Kids’.
In April 2014, I was lucky enough to be in Los Angeles when there was a screening of this new scan of the flick at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). After an interview with the director, they showed Decline I to much hoots and applause, and afterwards, a few people of note got on stage for a chat before they showed Decline III. Of course, we had to leave right after the film and missed the discussion, so it was great to finally see it here.
There’s a fourth bonus geek-out disc containing further extras including more panel discussions, trailers, news reports and interviews, containing more fascinating obscurities, and there’s even a small book with stills and other ephemera, as is the norm with box sets.
The Decline of Roman Civilization in 1997 shows the end result, of ever desperate times, destruction and chaos. Like a logical end to the trilogy, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of punk rock nihilism, it offers little more than despair and stands as an example of the final collapse of Western civilization set to a rock’n’roll soundtrack.