Finally, the Decline Of Western Civilization collection, Penelope Sheeris’ three-part documentary series on LA’s indigenous music scenes as observed in 1980, 1987 and 1996 is available on home video. While VHS copies of the first two have circulated for years, even while wildly out of print, the third installment had a limited theatrical run and no video release to speak of. This new set from Shout! Factory contains the three films in one package, along with previously unseen footage of band performances and interviews that didn’t make their respective final cuts.
The first, set in hardcore Hollywood at the beginning of 1980, has become an iconic document, almost the only time X, the Germs, Black Flag, Alice Bag and the just-spawned Circle Jerks ever made it in front of a professional camera crew during that era. The music scenes in the film are still mostly transcendent, and make up some of the best bonus footage. My favorite extra is a brief segment where Chuck Dukowski reads the lyrics to “Depression” from the center of the legendary Church in Redondo Beach, a spoken word piece that neatly anticipates the beat-poet stylings of Henry Rollins, who is living across the country and won’t join the band for another year and a half. There are also extra songs from the Germs, that answer the question, were those seriously the best two songs they got on tape that night? (The answer being: apparently, yes).
But it’s also revealing to listen to the unedited interviews and get a glimpse into how Spheeris shaped a narrative out of what appears to be genuine, unfiltered conversation. In the film, Germs manager Nicole Panter comes off as absolutely fed-up with the world, hating her band, her life, and all the idiots surrounding her. When you actually hear how she answered those questions, it sounds a lot different. She talks about having fun, and how rewarding it is when the music really happens. The picture that emerges is a lot more complex, and interesting, than the portrait that thousands of punk rockers have seen with their own eyes and thus accepted as the truth.
But if the movie indulges in a bit of sensationalistic doom-saying, so do plenty of the participants. Lee Ving’s gleefully incorrect homo-baiting wouldn’t go down so well today – last I saw Fear, they were annoying the punkers by chanting “USA! USA!” in between songs. What’s missing is any explanation of why that was the particular obnoxious expression to focus on at the time. But maybe it’s asking too much to expect truth out of all this. All you get is a picture of what happened, the people who are on camera explaining it are of little help when their expression is edited for negativity rather than clarity.
The hair metal kids from Decline 2: The Metal Years would seem to have a safe, predictable scene by comparison, where people want nothing more than a good time, via the things all good Americans want – sex, money and all the trappings of success. Paul Stanley is lying on a bed with three models, everyone in their underwear, saying “You too can live like this!”
But Spheeris could find the dark subtext in an Archies single, and there are several poignant moments, almost none of them musical. Sorry, I’m not a fan, and the particular version of “Born To Be Wild” that starts the proceedings is a laundry list of everything that bugs me about hair metal: the over-preciseness, the plinky plastic guitar sound, the singer that sounds like he’s remembering his voice lessons instead of feeling wild. It is the furthest thing from wild, so I guess they may as well never have been born. Given the number of famous people interviewed, it’s amazing that the only band to appear in a musical number that goes on to any acclaim is Megadeth, who come off as a beacon of credibility and excellence in this particular company.
No, the poignance is in watching these people who think they’re going to be sixteen forever, when you have real-life Bill Gazzari to demonstrate what it really looks like when someone tries to hold onto their boyhood dream for too long (it looks creepy as fuck). The montage of airbrushed face after airbrushed face declaring “I AM gonna make it!” makes one wonder, in the sad certainty that not a single one of them ever achieved Paul Stanley-like success, what that was like, when they had to confront the sad reality. No wonder Nirvana was so hated. This is kind of like, the Anvil movie if it stopped in 1982, right as the band thinks they’re about to become hugely famous.
But let’s also admit that it’s likely that one of those people still lives and still plays music, just like Anvil, and has a better life for it. It’s probably a lot more than one. Even though it’s not for me, I can’t say many bad things about a room full of people having a good time, and Decline 2 does give us that.
Spheeris has declared the third film to be her favorite of the bunch. This time the performers are mostly reasonably well-known hardcore acts circa 1995 like Final Conflict and Naked Aggression, but the musicians take a back seat to the audience. Spheeris spends much of the film with a group of punk squatters from Hollywood, chronicling their days and nights together.
A lot of people like to say that punk rock has an end date in the past, depending on what part of the country you come from and how old the person saying it is, it could be as early as 1977, in which case I completely missed out on punk. And that doesn’t feel right to me.
It’s enormously inspiring to see these kids who have bonded together over this music and formed alliances to help each other get along as human beings, listening to 90s-era bands that people my age mostly ignored, and then to realize that the same scene is happening right now as we speak, with a whole new set of kids and a new generation of bands. Just because I’m not there anymore, doesn’t mean the thing died. It’s obvious that in whatever mutated form it takes, there’s something elemental about punk that speaks to people who are outside of society. And it doesn’t look like that can be killed.