Watching Penelope Spheeris’ seminal punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and its sequel, The Metal Years, during my own misspent youth–which was, for those of you keeping score at home, not too far removed from the eras presented–was a fun and frivolous affair. Exploring the seedy scenes that inspired the songs I grew up on from a safe distance, not to mention through the lens of history, helped to both inform me as a fan and open me up to the wonders of the music doc.
Re-watching them as a parent, though? Well, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish!
Recorded in Los Angeles through 1979 and ’80, The Decline of Western Civilization focuses firmly on the LA punk scene, on the artists, fans, and peripheral supporters that made local hardcore culture possible. Notable for its lingering cult status, it’s by no means an expertly paced (or even expertly filmed) sojourn into the disaffected youth of the day. If anything, the camera jumps then lingers, before unceremoniously jumping again. And its subjects are, alternately, iconic and disposable, legendary fixtures in early American punk rock or bizarre footnotes remembered more for their film appearances than any actual artistic output.
On the one side, you have the Ron Reyes-fronted iteration of Black Flag, the then newly-formed Circle Jerks (featuring an astoundingly un-dreadlocked Keith Morris), proto-alternative pioneers X, and the patently offensive Fear. On the other there’s the Alice Bag Band, the short-lived and oft-forgotten later iteration of original ’77 punkers The Bags, and Catholic Discipline, a more-or-less throwaway side project ostensibly included due to the presence of vocalist Claude Bessy (AKA: punk journalist Kickboy Face).
The true magic of the film, however, happens in the amorphous in-between, most specifically with regard to the infamous Germs. Already barred from practically any club that would’ve otherwise tolerated them, featured Germs performances are scant. The interview segments with vocalist Darby Crash, however, are the stuff of legend. Whether cooking breakfast in a cramped apartment with his girlfriend, discussing his own obvious tendency toward substance abuse and self-destruction, or simply crumbling into an ink-stained mess onstage, perhaps the only thing more surprising than his untimely demise–he died of a heroin overdose before the film’s release–was that he managed some tentative grasp of lucidity in his included scenes.
The same can likely be said for many of the profiles–scenesters, club owners, and wannabes, most of the names of which have been lost to time. What matters, though, is their anger, their angst, the dogged dedication to an ideal that’s core tenant seemed to be a firm middle finger to everything that came before.
It’s the actions and the attitudes of these kids–and most of them were indeed still kids at the time–that are the most fascinating and repugnant elements of the film. Apathy is certainly served up in heaping helpings, but that’s far less troubling than the solid shades of racism and homophobia that color many of the monologs.
Even several of the full-grown adults profiled display staggering ignorance and outright malice, and for every well-meaning, kids-will-be-kids venue owner there is a brutish bouncer or exploitative hanger-on. And lest we forget that, during their raucous (yet oddly soulful) film-ending performance, Fear frontman Lee Ving–who literally gets into a fistfight with what appears to be a teenage girl–was just this side of 30.
This celebration of the folly of enduring adolescence bleeds into the doc’s 1988 follow-up The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years wherein, again, Spheeris manages to spotlight both the best and the rest of the glam metal scene–as well as a few odd outliers like Lemmy and Dave Mustaine.
Not to be outdone by the preceding punk rock generation’s penchant for homophobia, The Metal Years boasts wall-to-wall misogyny. Kiss’s Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are interviewed in a lingerie store and on a bed surrounded by groupies, respectively, future MTV VJ Riki Rachtman is shown enumerating the vices… err virtues of his charmingly named club the Cathouse, and the less said about ultra-sleazy scene Svengali Bill Gazzarri the better.
Gazzarri’s house band, Odin, is one of several no-go acts prominently featured in the film, followed closely by sadly overlooked transplanted Detroit power trio Seduce. However, Penelope Spheeris definitely made some more informed choices this time around, as Faster Pussycat, Poison, and glam godfather Alice Cooper are highlighted throughout.
When not boasting of their sexual conquests or showcasing their blistering guitar solos, soaring vocals, and androgynous wardrobes, many of the included acts wax poetic about the drug and alcohol abuse that continued to run rampant in the scene. This leads to numerous candid moments from the likes of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and a freshly sober Ozzy Osbourne, who, in a nod to the Darby Crash scenes from its predecessor, is shown making breakfast… in a kitchen that isn’t his.
But, behind all the tales of debauchery and we-know-we’re-gonna-make-it posturing, The Metal Years frames some notable moments of palpable triumph and tragedy. From the notable outsider perspectives of artists like Lemmy Kilmister to the lovable if unlucky lads of London–a band that launched a million careers, just not theirs–Decline II is another fascinating look back at a moment in time.
Still, if Decline has its Darby Crash, then this one has its Chris Holmes. In the most memorable scene from this film–or, hell, possibly from any rock doc–the W.A.S.P. guitarist sullenly guzzles vodka in a swimming pool, his visibly troubled mother looking on.
Both films certainly show their age–not to mention the outright irrelevance of many of their subjects–and this is noticeable in the most literal sense. Even with its fresh 2k scan, the original Decline of Western Civilization still shows a level of grime and artifacting that is, all things considered, perfectly fitting given the subject matter. The Blu-ray release is packed with bonus features like extended interviews and performances, not to mention outtakes and archival footage. These too show the rigors of age, but the music geek in me easily overlooked the presentation in reverence to the unabashed cultural artifacts at the center.
The audio commentary by Spheeris herself is certainly interesting, but the thing that really grabbed my attention was a dedicated commentary track by… Dave Grohl?
Yes, the former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman has a genuine affection for the film; its soundtrack was, after all, his first taste of punk rock. It’s fun to hear Dave’s thoughts on the artists and hijinks showcased, especially with regard to Germs guitarist and longtime collaborator Pat Smear.
While surely not as recognizable as Grohl, Decline II boasts London’s Nadir D’Priest, who helps Spheeris add an interesting layer to the movie commentary, alongside another bevy of as-yet-unseen footage. It’s also notable that this film has cleaned up much nicer than its predecessor.
That said, whether your thing is hardcore or hair metal, these new Blu-rays from Shout! Factory have definitely got what you’re looking for. They are both eye-opening (and occasionally cringe-worthy) examinations of by-gone eras of rock and roll, and seeing them again after all these years–not to mention in these updated scans–really was like seeing them for the first time.
So grab your lipstick, your hairspray, your safety pin earrings, and/or your black leather jacket, and take a musical trip back in time. While not without ample bumps in the proverbial road, the journeys are still ultimately worthwhile.
Review materials provided by: Shout! Factory