The Decline of Western Civilization
Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, the Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs and X
1981 – Atlantic Television, Inc.
R – 100 Minutes
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris
From the first words out of Eugene the punk’s mouth: “That’s stupid, punk rock,” I knew this was going to be memorable.
I remember when this was first released; I had the movie poster on my wall and the soundtrack in constant rotation on my turntable. I believe it was scheduled to open at the Nuart Theatre; I picked up their newspaper listings that came out every month, at Licorice Pizza. I had the date circled, and I was raring to go. A week before Decline was to open my Uncle Rick offered to take me. Here’s where I get bummed: my Mom tells him “No.” I wasn’t, quite yet, fifteen and she reminded me that I had to be seventeen to see it, and she mentioned a few recent police riots at the local shows. I tried to plead my case, and my Uncle promised to look after me, but still “No.” As it turns out the police were outside the theater when the movie, let out, and a small-scale riot did, indeed, ensue; to Mom was right.
For me, this was the start of punk rock. I know people will debate on, and on about the Ramones or the Stooges starting punk, but for me, this was the start. Let me explain: I was a fan of the Sex Pistols and they, pretty much, started the whole thing, but the bands in this movie were up the street from me, in some cases a few cities over. It became real and tangible. After this film, everybody had a band, including yours truly.
Filmed by Penelope Spheeris, from December 1979 to May 1980; Decline is not just a compilation of concert footage it chronicles the Los Angeles scene when it was beginning before Hardcore really came into being. It, also, compiles viewpoints on the meaning of the movement, from journalists, one of whom calls “punk the folk music of the 1980’s,” to club security guards, to the punks themselves, in black and white interviews. Especially interesting is the performance by The Germs, thanks to Darby Crash, who would later commit suicide around the time this film was released.
Director Spheeris conducts the interviews herself and gets the musicians to open up in a very unselfconscious way. Some of them are quick-witted while others seem totally clueless.
In a wise move, many of the more garbled songs are subtitled, like the songs from Black Flag’s set.
The film begins with Black Flag singing Depression, White Minority, and Revenge. Afterward, they give a tour of their grungy, old Baptist Church crash-pad, and show off the cupboards and closets where they sleep.
Next, the Germs’ manager, Nicole Panter (ex-wife of Slash Magazine artist Gary Panter), discusses the problems managing the Germs, specifically singer Darby Crash, who’s often so wasted that he forgets to sing into the microphone. While clips of Crash falling off the stage play, Nicole explains that “The band originally couldn’t play their instruments, but nowadays, can.”
The film then visits the office of Slash Magazine; followed by the droning of writer/singer Claude Bessy, who fronts the band Catholic Disciple and performs Underground Babylon and Barbie Doll Lust. Bessy wrote for Slash under the name Kickboy Face. It’s during this segment that I always remembered, Bessy is reading a Slash letter aloud, and they show a crowd shot of some show, this one guy, dressed in black, starts shouting at someone, then stands there gritting his teeth for the remainder of the time. His eyes are black, and he looks like he is going to explode; definitely the poster child for punk anger.
Next up is X, who spend much of their segment giving a close-up demonstration of home tattooing, in a house which looks like the insides of a thrift shop. X seems to be one of the few groups the club owners actually like; the management of the Whiskey-a-Go-Go had even sent them flowers. On stage, they perform Beyond & Back, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, and We’re Desperate. There is a funny moment with X ragging on “hippies” while stoned out of their minds.
The Circle Jerks perform a record-breaking five songs (songs that Black Flag had claimed Keith Morris stole from them) in six minutes, with “Red Tape,” “Back Against the Wall,” “I Just Want Some Skank,” “Beverly Hills,” and “Wasted.” No band interview is shown in the film. The Circle Jerks debut album, Group Sex, would come out between the filming of their sequence in Decline, and the release of the film. Bassist Roger Rogerson died in 1996 of a drug overdose.
After that, Alice Bag Band sings Prowlers in the Night and Gluttony.
The film ends with Fear, and singer Lee Ving verbally abusing the crowd until he’s met with a hail of spit; before launching into a set that includes I Don’t Care About You, Beef Bologna, I Love Livin’ In the City, and Let’s Have a War. A definite high point is Fear’s onstage footage, since their songs are fueled by their twisted sense of humor with funny comments like: “This is 1980, can’t you afford a fucking haircut?” No interview is shown for Fear.
If you get the chance to see this, fast-forward through the Catholic Discipline, Slash Magazine, and Alice Bag segments. Claude Bessy seems to drone on about God knows what, and his music isn’t a true representation of what was going on at the time, meaning it sucks. Some of the X moments are a bit long, too.
Rating: *** three out of three stars.