Friday, 21 August 2015

the decline of western civilization collection

the best music documentaries ever made are being released in a dvd box set with a bonus disc full of extra features. you really don’t need to know what I think about these films, you just need to see them, but in case you do require further convincing...

the decline of western civilization part 1 was released in 1981 and covers the punk scene in l.a. at that time. i’ll be honest, of the three films this was the one i was least interested in. i hadn’t heard of any of the bands and punk to me was the high energy, mtv-friendly bands of the 90s that my brother used to listen to; bands like green day and less than jake and offspring. i’d heard of the sex pistols and i thought i understood what the punk movement was, but i didn’t really get it. after watching decline part 1, i get it.

penelope spheeris takes us into the homes and lives of bands like the germs, black flag, circle jerks, fear and x. we hear these disillusioned young men and women talk about why they do what they do, and then we watch them do it. the way spheeris films the gigs is really immersive – one minute we’re on stage, right up in the face of the singer, and the next we’re down in the pit, being shoved and elbowed and spat on. it’s visceral and energetic and perfect for the type of music the bands are playing.

the music itself is raw and loud, with indecipherable vocals (spheeris occasionally adds helpful subtitles). there’s a clear synergy between what the band members say in their interviews and what they play – it’s those emotions and those experiences expressed through music. there’s a real danger to it as well, not just in the violent reactions of the crowd but also in the performances. when darby crash of the germs (who died shortly after the film was released) is playing onstage it seems like he is about to do himself serious harm at any moment. i’ve seen todd phillips documentary about g.g. allin and was horrified by the extreme and self destructive behaviour of that guy, but here it feels like all punk bands were that close to the edge, it’s just that unlike g.g. allin some of them played better music and had more interesting things to say.

one thing that really struck me was how many women appear in the documentary, both as fans and also in the bands themselves. the germs bass player, lorna doom, exene cervenka from x, alice bag from the alice bag band; they’re as much a part of the scene as any of the men in the bands. i don’t know why this surprised me, i suppose i’d always thought of punk as a guy thing, which is partly why i’d never been that into it, but seeing all these women on stage shouting angry vocals and playing angry music with as much ferocity as the men was really inspiring.

by contrast, there are no female band members in the decline of western civilization part 2, the metal years. when you watch the two films back-to-back the excesses of the fame-obsessed wannabe rockstars who feature in part 2 seem frivolous and ridiculous in comparison to the ideals of the punks of part 1. in part 1, the punks were expressing raw emotion onstage, and it feels like it meant something to them and to music in general. with metal the music may sound better on a technical and aesthetic level but it’s all about the surface, namely fame, money and sex. spheeris captures this without judgement and i wonder if the film plays differently now than it did in 1988. i also wonder if it would play differently if i were teenage boy.

there’s a frankly ridiculous interview with paul stanley of kiss in which he’s lying in bed surrounded by women in their underwear. this vision of a rockstar at the top of his game is intercut with wannabe rockstars talking about how much they want that lifestyle, over and above anything else. the content of the music never really comes up, except with an anti-metal campaigner who thinks the lyrics are corrupting the country’s youth. there’s a lot of talk about drug additction and alcoholism, with icons like steven tyler and joe perry of aerosmith, alice cooper and ozzy all talking about their troubles with substance abuse. these are people who’ve learnt from their mistakes, but by way of a contrast there’s chris holmes whose alcoholism is quite evident during the interview. all of this just makes the aspirations of the wannabes seem even more misguided. the most interesting point is where the interviewees discuss the androgyny of the typical metal look, but this isn’t covered in depth.

as a document of a period of time in musical history, the metal years is a perfect snapshot and provides some fascinating insight into that world. at the same time, if you’re a metal fan it’s kind of depressing how shallow the music and the performers really are, especially in contrast to the bands in part 1. the only band who really come off well are megadeth, and though they are given a chunk of the end of the documentary to show that metal can be political and interesting as well, i kind of wish they had been intercut through the whole thing to provide some balance.

in the decline of western civilization part 3, spheeris revisits the l.a. punk scene and after the somewhat alienating extremes of part 2 this feels like a homecoming. the interesting thing about part 3 is that it’s ultimately not about music at all. spheeris pulls together a group of misfit l.a. kids referred to as ‘gutterpunks’. they are all that remains of the punk movement that she filmed in part 1, despite most of them not even being alive at the time that film was released. still, the gutterpunks embody the punk aesthetic way more than any of the bands featured in the first film. they live on the streets, getting by one day at a time, not because they have to necessarily but because they want to. inspired by the music of bands like naked aggression and litmus green they’ve rejected the standards of ‘normal’ society and decided that this is how they want to live.

except what spheeris reveals over the course of the film is that maybe these kids aren’t the free-spirited rebels they appear to be. through interviews with the punks she discovers that nearly all of them are alcoholic and most came from broken families, abusive parents or had some kind of traumatic incident that led them to this point. these are people society has rejected, and they have nowhere else to go but the streets. is there a certain nobility and integrity to the way they live? of course there is, but there’s a darkness that comes with that too. it’s this darkness that we’re left with at the end of the film with a rather shocking coda that puts everything that came before it into perspective.

all three of these films are fascinating in their own right, but together they form a complete picture of what happens when youth revolts, the good and the bad. in some ways the title loses it’s irony when the films are watched together. there certainly is a decline, from the power and courage of the punks in part 1 to the sell outs and wannabes of part two who have exchanged whatever power they may have had for a piece of the american dream. then there are the gutter punks of part three, who have all of the idealism but none of the power because the music isn’t theirs anymore. as i fill up a spotify playlist with music from parts 1 and 3, one thing becomes clear - for better or worse, the music belongs to all of us now.

i return to my opening statement – what i think about these films is unimportant. spheeris is a genius, all three documentaries are amazing, you need to own this set.

the decline of western civilization complete box set will be released on dvd and blu-ray on 31st august 2015


  1. It's worth checking out "X: The Unheard Music" They're my favorite LA punk band. I'd never heard of them until a girlfriend of mine at the time introduced me to them. Also worth checking out is "Border Radio." John Doe acts in that one. It was directed by Allison Anders who directed "Mi Vida Loca." another great film about the lives og gangsters in Echo Park, CA.

  2. thanks for the comment! i'll definitely check those out. i've been listening to a lot of x recently. and i love allison anders, gas food lodging is one of my favourite films!