(1981) Directed by Penelope Spheeris; Starring: Alice Bag, Claude Bessey, Darby Crash, Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Lee Ving; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“The cool thing about these bands to me is that they were there to break every rule of rock ‘n roll and traditional music.” – Penelope Spheeris
More so than virtually any other music movement that preceded it, punk rock spoke to the oddballs, the disenfranchised, the angry and the aimless. It was a counterculture response to the establishment, corporate rock and social inequity. Although I never looked the part, I was attracted to punk at an early age because of its high level of energy and innate disdain for popular acceptance. It spoke to me on an almost cellular level because it was music for outsiders, by outsiders.
The Decline of Western Civilization encapsulates a moment in time (filmed between December 1979 and May 1980) of the vibrant Los Angeles punk scene. Director Penelope Spheeris showcases several key groups from L.A.’s punk heyday. Instead of overwhelming us with commentary, we hear from the band members in their own words, and listen to a diverse sampling of their music. Spheeris takes a minimalist, fly-on-the-wall approach by letting the scenes play out instead of calling attention to her camera, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Shot in 16 mm, the film possesses a raw, unpolished appearance that suits the material perfectly. The results are sometimes unnerving, occasionally funny, and frequently poignant
One of the more depressing profiles focuses on The Germs, a band on the edge of implosion. Their ex-manager, Nicole Panter, describes them as if they were a bunch of naughty children. Darby Crash, the lead singer appears to be in a perpetual drug and alcohol-infused haze.* What seemed funny to me at an earlier age now seems like a cry for help. His incoherent singing and shambling stage antics paint a portrait of a young man without a center, lost in a sea of self-loathing. Spheeris provided some insight into Crash’s self-destructive behavior in her DVD commentary, inferring that keeping up a certain stage persona became his undoing (“I think the joke went too far.”).
* On a sad, but not unpredictable note, Crash died of an intentional heroin overdose several months after filming was completed.
By far, the most talented of the bunch are the members of X,* who demonstrate a winning combination of articulate lyrics and musicianship. Singer-songwriting duo John Doe and Exene Cervenka share their thoughts on writing music and performing, and discuss how their life influences art. Guitarist Billy Zoom displays his amiable nature, and discusses how he started playing at the age of six (compare to members of The Germs, who started out not knowing how to play their own instruments).
* Full disclosure: I’m a bit biased when it comes to X, perhaps because they’re the only band in the documentary I’ve seen in concert (in 1982 at the now defunct Country Club in Reseda, California). For more about this seminal group, check out the superb documentary X: The Unheard Music (1986).
We also visit with the members of Black Flag, and get a tour of the run-down, graffiti-decorated edifice they call home. Claude Bessey, lead singer for the band Catholic Discipline and editor for an underground magazine, talks at length about the punk movement, and provides further insight into the social aspects. Spheeris saves one of the more divisive groups, Fear, for last, as the lead singer, Lee Ving, goes out of his way to bait the audience.
Spheeris also profiles several punk fans, who discuss what they like about the music and the scene. One of the common denominators is that they find a kinship in the music and the concerts. Most of them don’t seem to fit in anywhere else, and find it as an outlet for their misplaced aggression. Their comments show the darker side of punk. Michael has an “X” shaven into his head, and enjoys getting into fights. Another teenager, Eugene,* has a shaven head and talks about his disgust with society while letting a racist epithet slip. These fan interviews represent an area that could have been explored more thoroughly, hinting at the unsavory aspects that dwell in a subset of the culture.
* As a surprising postscript, Spheeris revealed in her commentary that Eugene is now a folk singer.
The Decline of Western Civilization makes it clear that punk is more than just music, but a social movement. Watching it again after so many years provided a surprising revelation. Spheeris draws some interesting parallels between the then-current punk movement and the hippie generation that preceded it. Both shared many similarities: they represented a counterculture reaction to the norms of society, their music and culture conveyed a strong social message as agents of social change, and dressed to be noticed. They were not a part of the older generation, but a response to it. But punk differed significantly from the hippies as well. The hippies’ underlying credo was that peace and love would ultimately prevail, and we could come to an understanding that would transform the world. In contrast, punk wanted to watch the world burn. It took a much more cynical stance with the conceit that everything’s broken.
The most striking aspect of The Decline of Western Civilization is its timelessness. While other music fads have come and gone, the music still sounds fresh and relevant. Many of the people, their fashions and music look as if they came from a modern documentary, rather than something that was filmed nearly four decades ago. Punk’s aesthetic is alive and well today, albeit in a more watered down form, processed for mass consumption. The counterculture elements have been supplanted by empty posturing, and what was once deemed unmarketable is now the norm (witness a recent phone app commercial featuring a Ramones song). This film remains a testament to an era, not so long ago, when music and people merged to take a stand against blandness and blind acquiescence to pop culture.