The Sex Pistols played their final gig at San Francisco’s Winterland in January 1978. About a year later, Sid Vicious died from an overdose, and so did punk rock — according to the music magazines. The Pistols’ chaotic tour of America, however, had dropped like a stone in a still pond, and the ripples were still spreading.
In 1979, Penelope Spheeris’ day job was directing music videos for bands such as The Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac, but her own tastes ran toward the fast and the hard. After work, she’d hold on to her cameras and crew and sneak off into seedy Los Angeles clubs to film the city’s nascent hardcore punk scene.
The documentary that resulted in 1981, “The Decline of Western Civilization,” was a jaw-dropper, especially coming in an era defined by Ronald Reagan, the “moral majority” and vapid MTV pop. Spheeris dove headfirst into a Bukowskian underworld of squalid clubs and squats, random violence and self-mutilation, where every interviewee boasted a taunting “screw you” attitude. “I really want them to hate me!” sneers Catholic Discipline singer Claude Bessy, “It makes me feel good.”
This was the first time anyone had seen a mosh pit on-screen, and Spheeris somehow gets right in the scrum, capturing a blur of flailing bodies. Yet an enticing sense of anarchic freedom and pure sonic energy emerged in all this madness. Bands such as X, Fear and Black Flag burned up the screen, but behind the posturing there was a bleak poetry to Exene’s lyrics, a blacker-than-black sense of humor in Lee Ving’s taunts.
While Spheeris would go on to work in Hollywood — with era-defining hit “Wayne’s World” in 1992 — she also made two more “Decline” documentaries and the trilogy stands as a masterpiece of subcultural sociology. The raw intensity that Spheeris captures at the gigs is rare enough, but her real talent is getting wary interviewees to open up.
What is punk? “Decline” nails it, in the words of those who live it.
In 1988, she completed “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years,” which saw misfit hardcore groups replaced by preening hair-metal bands. This chapter follows up-and-coming pretty-boy bands such as Poison, Faster Pussycat and Odin, but also features interviews with metal icons such as Steven Tyler, Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne.
The irony here is that although Spheeris turned down an offer to direct “Spinal Tap” — she didn’t want to make fun of hard rock — her interviews wound up funnier than any parody. The interviewees’ “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” shtick is so over-the-top —try Kiss singer Paul Stanley interviewed in bed covered head-to-toe by naked groupies — that this film is equally adored by both fans and haters of metal.
History repeats itself, as they say, and if “The Metal Years” was the farce, then “Part III” is the tragedy. Completed in 1998 but unreleased in Japan until now, “The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” ignores punk’s mainstream success (Green Day, etc.), and rather than focusing on the bands — who still sound like they’re stuck in 1981, all shouted vocals and sweaty blurs of guitar — Spheeris films the kids who go to the shows, the “gutter punks.” Many of them are homeless and living rough on the streets, mostly surviving by posing with tourists for money.
In “Part III” the enemies are still religion, cops and skinheads; the pleasures are still moshing and alcohol; the attitude is still “Everything sucks.” At one point the film briefly cuts to 1980 with Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks singing “All the people look the same / don’t they know they’re so damn lame?”
You have to wonder, don’t these little Johnny Rotten clones get it? The longer we watch the film, though, the more we learn about these kids – Squid, Why-me, Spoon, Filth, Troll, etc. Many come from broken and abusive homes, and it’s through this community that they get a sense of belonging and strength in their shared rejection. Punk’s not dead after all.
For more information, visit decline.jp.