Chances are that if you’re into ‘alternative’ or subversive music then you’ve probably heard of director Penelope Spheeris‘ “The Decline of Western Civilization” trilogy of documentaries, or at least one of them. A snapshot of different youth cultures at different times, Spheeris doesn’t offer up that much of a narrative but rather points a camera at a few of the notable names in each scene and lets them do the talking to try and get to the heart of what they do and why they do it.
The first documentary was filmed in 1981 at the height of the US hardcore punk explosion and focuses on some of the best known names from the LA scene, including the Ron Reyes-fronted Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, Fear, Alice Bag Band, Catholic Discipline and Germs. Cutting between raw live footage of each band and interviews with the band members, plus some of the audience, this is 100 minutes of pure punk rock as Penelope Spheeris keeps the questions simple and lets the interviewees reveal what keeps them driven to play the dives that they do. To be honest, there’s not a lot in this movie that you could call revelatory as between the songs it is punks yelling from the stage to other punks about how to rally against injustice and do for yourself, which was/is a fundamental flaw in the politics of punk, but the music and the spirit are what shine brighter than any questions about how the musicians pay for their rent, and if the distant days of the LA punk scene have been something of an enigma until now then this movie will help show why musicians like Dave Grohl, Jeff Hanneman, Robb Flynn and Max Cavalera have always been so vocal in their love of the music from this time.
The second documentary in the set is probably the most appealing and entertaining, but probably for all the wrong reasons. “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” shifts forward to 1988 and focuses mainly on the LA glam metal scene, arguably just past its peak at the time, along with established veterans Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Kiss and Aerosmith plus new(ish) kids on the block Megadeth, who offer up a more street-level attitude than their make-up-smothered brethren, although Dave Mustaine declaring that he doesn’t want Megadeth to be a pretentious band whilst being interviewed in shadow with dark glasses on raises an eyebrow.
Concentrating more on the sex and drugs rather than the rock n’ roll, this is a hilarious look at where mainstream metal was at in the late 1980s, with hungry young pups like Poison (obviously high on life at the time, ahem…), Lizzie Borden and Seduce all declaring that they’re going to make it big and be the best, loudest, heaviest, blah, blah, blah… But this is all cut in with interviews with the old guard talking about ‘the good old days’ and about their places in rock history. Surprisingly, it is a relatively cohesive Ozzy Osbourne who comes out with the best pearls of wisdom for the whippersnappers to adhere to, and Motörhead mainman Lemmy Kilmister also offers his own gruff musings as only he can. Gene Simmons gets interviewed about his motivations whilst standing in a changing room with semi-naked models walking back and forth and W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes plays up the wild rocker angle by being off of his tits in a swimming pool while his mother looks on, probably wondering where she went wrong. Unfortunately there is no live footage of any of the older bands so you’re left with a lot of quite terrible glam metal and Megadeth playing ‘In My Darkest Hour’ – which is always welcome – but hindsight is a great benefit when watching this second part of the trilogy as it is terribly dumb and sexist but with a bit of unexpected levity from the older hellraisers that may surprise many.
“The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” came along in 1998 and is in many ways a direct sequel to the first film as it takes a look at the gutter punk movement. Embracing the hardcore anti-establishment values of the punk movement but taking them to the extreme, gutter punks eschew any sort of conformity and live their lives outside of society and on the streets, and here Penelope Spheeris delves deep into the heart of the lifestyle as opposed to the music. However, as with the first film there is some intensely raw live footage, this time provided by acts such as Final Conflict, Litmus Green, The Resistance and Naked Aggression; not massively known bands but their anti-authority messages are just as potent and vital as those from the previous generation of bands that we saw spitting their vitriol 17 years before.
It’s a more sombre documentary than the first two and Spheeris pulls no punches when it comes to asking those involved why they do what they do – or don’t do, as the case may be – and don’t just go and get a job. And while it’s easy to scoff at their chosen lifestyle and ask the same questions, what comes across from most of the interviewees is their dedication and brutal honesty about why they have chosen the path that they have, although some of them do play up to the camera a little bit. Again, not much of a narrative but an interesting look at a way of life that will probably seem even more bizarre and crazy than rebellious teenagers jumping around a club to Black Flag and then going home to their families and college, jobs, etc.
Overall, this “The Decline of Western Civilization” collection is pretty much required viewing for anybody interested in the social side of music and the role it plays. Of the three films it is the second that provides the most entertainment with a cast of faces that everybody into rock music knows, and it also gives you a snapshot of a time and place that is often looked at through rose-tinted glasses but maybe wasn’t as glorious as many would have you believe. The films that appear either side of it are a different kind of beast and will depend a lot on your like/tolerance for hardcore punk and the obnoxiousness that can come with such devotion. As well as the three documentaries and the extended interviews that appear on each disc, there is also a bonus disc that is packed with more footage and outtakes that didn’t make the final cut, and although sitting through the likes of London bigging themselves up when they’re really only famous for ex members Blackie Lawless (W.A.S.P.) and Nikki Sixx (Mötley Crüe) going on to bigger and better things may be for some, it’s hardly essential. There are also extended interviews with punk icon Henry Rollins and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea that offer up perspectives on the punk scene that spawned their careers. Packaged together on Blu-ray for the first time this is a huge box set for fans to trawl through and will offer up plenty of information for you to digest, but those looking for more music than interviews may not get exactly what they want.