The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Dir. Penelope Spheeris
Punk rock changed my life when I was about 13 years old. I was in junior high school, and because I was in the band at my school, I was able to opt out of taking a traditional music elective. I was able to spend that period of the day practicing the saxophone, but I also had to write a research paper on a topic of my choice by the end of the semester. Being a rock and roll obsessed preteen, I decided that I would write my research paper on “Punk Rock,” a style of music that I was only aware of as a concept. I didn’t really know what punk music was supposed to be, but something about the phrase was alluring to me, and I decided I would seek out its origin. Like any good academic, my research began at the library, where I found Legs McNeil’s oral history of the birth of punk, Please Kill Me, and devoured it. The book turned me on what it meant to be a punk, and to the forefathers of the punk scene in New York City: Richard Hell, The Dead Boys, Blondie, but most importantly, it introduced me to the Ramones. I’d been playing guitar for a couple of years at this point, having formed a band with some friends the year before. I was into classic rock at the time, mostly listening to bands like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, or Kiss, but when I first encountered the Ramones, my musical life was altered forever. Their buzzsaw guitars, breakneck pace, and Joey Ramone’s garbled vocal delivery were the only thing that mattered to me after that. It was perfect music, perfect in its simplicity and its relatability, perfect in its attitude and its outsiderness. The Ramones kicked down the door to so many other bands and ideas, and punk rock became my life. It changed the way I wanted to play music and it helped introduce me to ideas that would create the core of my identity during those formative teen years.
As I’ve gotten older, my musical tastes have expanded again. I sometimes even go entire days without listening to Minor Threat, although almost never more than a couple in a row. While it might not be as outwardly obvious from my dress or demeanor, I’ve never lost my affinity for punk rock and its core ideals and values. The devotion of the music to authenticity, fierce independence, and anti-authoritarianism still endears it to my inner punk, and still keeps me striving to maintain those ideals in my everyday life. For me living your life punk has less to do with fashion, or even music, and more to do with action. It means living your life with integrity, maintaining your independence and dignity, and not bowing to forces of larger oppression. But of course, the history of the music and the culture is important, too, and it was with that in mind that I purchased Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, when it was rereleased on Blu-Ray, along with its sequels, a few years back.
Spheeris’s three Decline films explore the punk and metal scenes in Los Angeles during the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The first film in the trilogy, released in 1980, combines concert footage with candid interviews from members of the bands and the scene, providing a window into the burgeoning Los Angeles hardcore punk scene of the late 1970s. Many of the bands featured here, including Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and X, are considered the architects of a particular brand of hardcore music. West coast punk and hardcore had emerged as a snarling, visceral answer to the artier, more bohemian punk scene of New York City that had been influenced by the Warhol Factory scene. The music was faster, darker, more aggressive. The attitude was even more nihilistic and violent, with the punk scene providing a layer of crust and grime hidden away beneath the glamor of Hollywood. Long out of print, the film is now available for the first time on home video, and it’s a good thing because The Decline of Western Civilization is a fantastic document of early punk history. The film is alive with the energy of punk and Spheeris is able to perfectly capture the essence of the music and the scene in her film.
The concert footage in the film is a maelstrom, with Spheeris and her cameramen inserting themselves into the midst of surging crowds of punks. The handheld camera is jostled and tilted, capturing close ups of sneering faces and flailing arms and legs, clad in leather and spikes. The camera also shares the stage with the bands, who are equally as expressive and unpredictable. Like the music scene it’s documenting, the film feels dangerous; violence can, and does, break out at any time. Punks fight with other punks, bouncers fight with punks, punks fight with the bands, and the whole time the cameras continue to roll, picking up ambient sound amid the chaos. The film manages to perfectly simulate the experience of being at a punk rock show, and it’s the perfect introduction to many of these classic bands. The concert footage is rare in its intimacy and its quality. Despite being shot in such an inhospitable environment, the film looks fantastic. Before seeing The Decline of Western Civilization, I hadn’t seen such early live footage of some of my favorite bands in such high definition. You can get a feel for west coast hardcore by listening to Circle Jerks’ debut album Group Sex, but there’s something magical about watching a young Keith Morris running off the stage to fight a punk who had charged the stage, making a circle around the club, and then jump back on stage and grab the microphone in time to deliver a final chorus of “Back Against the Wall.” It’s a perfect experience of the chaotic, violent energy that existed in the early Los Angeles punk scene.
Though she doesn’t include interviews with all of the bands featured in the documentary, Spheeris’s interview segments with Black Flag, X, and Darby Crash of Germs are all well done and help to illustrate the diversity of the bands within the scene. Her interview style is guided but not invasive. She lets each band or individual tell their own story in their own words, while maintaining enough of a focus to draw out a coherent narrative of punk rock in Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s. The bands’ communal lifestyles are highlighted in the interviews, as Spheeris asks Ron Reyes and Robo from Black Flag to give her a tour of the small two room squat that they share inside an old church, which also doubles as the band’s rehearsal space. While it seems that Black Flag and Germs are living hand to mouth, not getting paid for gigs, and largely shacking up wherever they can manage to find a place to rest their heads, other bands featured on the documentary are obviously having more success. X is shown to be a band that is in high demand and is actually courted by the local clubs for shows, while bands such as Germs or Fear are banned from clubs regularly due to the violence and chaos that regularly breaks out at their shows. Seeing a cross section of the lifestyles of many different groups helps to illustrate the striation and variation among these bands. Although they all seem to be somewhat friendly with one another, often name dropping members of various other bands in their interviews, there is an obvious hierarchy and a fairly wide variation among their lifestyles and musical styles. Crash is shown as a tortured genius, unable to extricate himself from his patterns of substance abuse and speeding towards his own demise, while Exene and John Doe of X both seem more mature and more able to handle the pressures of being a top band in a scene that is starting to emerge. For the most part, these bands and their members would go on to international fame, but this glimpse into their everyday lives is an insightful look into the day-to-day struggles that would shape their version of punk rock.
In her follow up films, Spheeris would delve deeper into the heavy music scene of Los Angeles. Decline II focuses on the glam and heavy metal scene popping up in the 1980s around the clubs of the Sunset Strip, while Decline III, which was never released until the Blu-Ray reissue of the trilogy, depicts the lives of the scores of runaway and homeless punk youths who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Both films are worth checking out, with each having its own merits and standing apart from the original documentary by shifting the focus slightly. The final film in the trilogy is perhaps the most moving and heartbreaking of the three, as it depicts the fun energy of punk that was present in the first film being twisted up into an empty nihilism. While the punks of The Decline of Western Civilization may not have had much hope or much optimism, they seemed to genuinely be enjoying their lifestyle, while Spheeris’s final look in on the scene finds it devoid of any shred of positivity. Although I have roughly defined what being a punk means to me, the spirit of punk rock is a nebulous thing. Depending on when and why a person found themselves drawn to the music, they’ll form their own opinions of what punk is and how it can best serve their life. For me, discovering punk rock as a small town kid in the late 1990s was a new path to channel my aggression and frustration with the institutions in my life. I was a young malcontent, staunchly anti-authoritarian, and punk rock gave me a framework within which to lash out. I’ve really only gone into any detail on the first film in her Decline trilogy, but the fact that Spheeris could make three films that all look at the punk rock ethos in a different decade speaks to the amorphous, constantly evolving nature of the scene. Born of a certain set of circumstances and frustrations, punk rock has changed through the years to reflect the anxieties of each passing generation. In its most pure form, punk should be opposed to strict rigidity and therefore will always be accessible, ready to be discovered and recontextualized, shaped into the vessel that it’s needed to be. Punk rock arrived in my life at the perfect time, and I hope that through the preservation of documents of its early history, like The Decline of Western Civilization, it will do that for generations of angry kids to come.