Nether Regions 11.16.11: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.16.2011
This week's article focuses on the first part of Penelope Spheeris' trilogy about the Los Angeles music scene in the early 1980's. This rare documentary features Black Flag, X, and The Germs....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION
Featuring (As Themselves): Black Flag, The Germs, X, and more Written/Directed By: Penelope Spheeris Running Time: 100 minutes Original Release Date: July 1, 1981 Missing Since: Whenever the VHS Was Released Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
Over the years, numerous music documentaries have sadly gone forgotten due to poor availability. Even those on DVD get swept under the rug more frequently than they should. Director Penelope Spheeris has suffered this fate perhaps more than any other music filmmaker. Nevertheless, The Decline of Western Civilization, her trilogy on the west coast rock scene has remained in the minds music and movie buffs. The first part probably has the strongest cult following of them all, hitting limited theaters for a brief period in 1981. The result was fights and near riots in the Los Angeles area, to the point where the police chief at the time requested the film not be screened again.
The band X performs on stage.
The origin of the title is up for debate. Some cite Lester Bangs' 1970 review of The Stooges Fun House album for Creem magazine where he quoted a friend who said the popularity of The Stooges signaled "the decline of western civilization." It could also refer to Darby Crash's reading of Oswald Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). The documentary focuses on seven punk rock bands from Los Angeles, their fans, managers, and even the venue owners. Some of the bands Spheeris spotlights are on the verge of success, while others are destined for failure. Intercut with interviews of the various band members is footage of multiple performances from acts like Black Flag, The Germs, X, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Alice Bag Band, and Fear.
At the beginning, text informs viewers that the documentary covers these bands from December of 1979 to May of 1980. One random fan named Eugene appears first and is asked what punk is, which he describes as a genre that is reviving rock music. This is followed by a humorous announcement at each of the venues in which Spheeris films where the audience is advised that they might be on camera. Some of them have difficulty reading the message at all. The most insightful interview occurs early on with Masque club owner Brendan Mullen, who goes into detail on comparing how many beats per minute punk has compared to disco, and eventually connects folk music of the 60's and 70's to punk at the time, which is very interesting. It is through Mullen that I hear the term pogo dance, which is moshing basically. Doesn't take a genius to understand why "moshing" caught on, but in the future I plan on being that annoying guy who tells anyone that says "mosh" that it's actually called the pogo dance.
Black Flag is the first band profiled, and it helps that Spheeris displays the name of each member throughout, which helps flesh out each personality. Occasionally Spheeris displays the lyrics of certain songs. One is Black Flag's "Depression," which I swear makes the lyrics of some goth tunes seems optimistic. No doubt it came from the heart as head singer Ron Reyes yells into the crowd, but once you read what he's actually saying and put that in the back of your head as Reyes leads a tour through the band's trash dump of a place, it makes you empathize with how these kids grew up. Reyes explains that the place costs $16 per month, yet they aren't making any money from the gigs. In fact, they paid more than they were given just to obtain equipment, etc. Reyes and his bandmates go on to talk about the meaning of Black Flag (anarchy) and why they play fast and short songs. One of them never lets his Colt 45 out of his hand.
The next segment is on The Germs, led by Darby Crash, who has to be seen to be believed. Crash committed suicide shortly before the release of the documentary, but by then the poster and soundtrack cover already featured Crash laying on his back with his eyes closed in the middle of a performance (if you can call it that). Thankfully Spheeris shows us the lyrics to their numbers, "Manimal" and "Shutdown", because if she hadn't no one would know what Crash was mumbling. One wonders how Spheeris even got the exact lyrics to begin with. Their manager Nicole, who would soon quit, reveals that when the band was formed, they didn't even know how to play their instruments. Not a shock. Crash divulges his routine for "getting loaded" at each gig, doing speed, then downers, and concluding with beer. Most of the time he's on stage he doesn't even speak into the microphone. Another member, Michelle Bauer, tells a story about them finding a dead painter on their property that is truly disturbing.
Out of all the groups presented here, X is the one I admire most, and was already a fan of for that matter. Their albums Los Angeles and Wild Gift are classics, and a few songs from those are performed here, with "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" as a highlight. It is clear that X has the most distinctive sound, and the members even come across as more intelligent than the rest of Spheeris' chosen pack. Apparently they were one of the rare punk bands the Whiskey a Go-Go liked, as indicated by the pink roses the management sent them. Fear is another stand out group, whose frontman Lee Ving does everything in his power to antagonize the crowd until he is threatened and spit on. Fear is noteworthy for an infamous performance on Saturday Night Live as well. Alice Bag Band, Circle Jerks, and Catholic Discipline are allocated the smallest amounts on screen. Formerly known as The Bags, the Alice Bag Band gives an excellent performance of "Prowlers in the Night," but it would not be long after the filming of this documentary that they broke up.
Lee Ving's lyrics might not be Shakespeare, but...
The sporadic sequences that do not feature the bands are just as intriguing and informative, such as the glimpse into the fan magazine Slash. This publication (eventually Slash records) is led by Robert Biggs includes articles by a charmer named Kickboy Face (from Catholic Discipline), whose articles were written specifically to make people angry. Other moments exhibit the differences in policies from one venue to the next. The security guards have the toughest job because they must decipher the pogo dancing from legitimate violence. The fan interviews are conveyed in black& white, which affords a nice, meaningful artsy touch. They answers questions about why punk rock is so aggressive and scary, whether or not they have girlfriends, and how the parents factor into the situation.
The Decline of Western Civilization is weighted down because it relies on music performances for its running time. This means the viewer has to possess some enjoyment of the music. Those who don't could lose drift off quickly. The same issue occurs with Spheeris' We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘N' Roll documentary. Even if you're like me and love all brands of rock music, the groups here are still a mixed bag. Despite that drawback, The Decline of Western Civilization has a undeniable raw power that separates it from even the greatest music documentaries. This is a blunt portrait about why this attitude and style were created and flourished. What makes it fascinating is that Spheeris concentrates on bands that were still finding their path instead of ones who were already on headed to stardom. Spheeris conducts the interviews herself, and in the most impartial, non-judgmental fashion, gets them to spill their guts about this lifestyle and why the music is worth all the sacrifices.
The Decline of Western Civilization is a good documentary with some brilliant segments, hampered solely because it will only appeal to a niche audience. Penelope Spheeris was in her mid 30's when she made this, and she obviously is fond of the music, but manages to captures the nihilism, racism, and overall bleakness of the culture as well as its verve and passion. The sound track is available, and if you click here you can look at all the songs performed in the feature.