“I don’t think of myself as a happy person, but I had fun tonight”
You don’t get much more punk rock than Penelope Spheeris‘ concert documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. At least not American punk since the film details the club life in Los Angeles during the 80s rather than mid-70s Britain. We’re talking Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, X, The Bags, and Fear. Spheeris had both audience members and band members sign waivers to have their likenesses used in a movie and preceded to film multiple live performances as well as interviews to discuss the scene, music, and anecdotes of the lifestyle. Cut to the music’s 300-beats per minute speed, we pogo from band to band in order to gauge the climate’s political and social rebellion. This is American youth culture giving the system the middle finger.
The film’s aesthetic is similar to the music—gritty, raw, and electric. The action moves between spectators trying to explain their affinity to the sound (as well as unwittingly laying out some philosophical gems) to raucous gigs to “home lives” holed up in derelict buildings the absence of a paycheck can afford. We learn how some bands (Germs) didn’t know how to play their instruments when they started (interesting considering guitarist Pat Smear‘s longevity playing with Nirvana and Foo Fighters afterwards) while others knew them all too well (X guitarist Billy Zoom had learned at age 6 after already knowing piano and violin). Clichéd aspects such as drug use, sex, and violence are introduced and we quickly realize the film is less time capsule and more time machine.
Not only does it document moments that were soon destroyed (Germs frontman Darby Crash would take his life months before the film debuted, Catholic Discipline would break-up shortly after, and Henry Rollins had yet to join Black Flag), The Decline of Western Civilization also delivers an atmosphere unafraid of its lack of polish to truly capture the experience. The mosh pit is in full force and the cameras zoom into each musician’s face as they scream, pound, or smile at the crowd. Many of Spheeris’ questions aren’t sufficiently answered, but when you look at these kids’ expressions you can see they aren’t necessarily in the right mind frame to provide more than laughter and jokes. There was probably a trust issue too: maybe being completely honest would harm more than help.
A majority of the footage is full tracks played on-stage with all the authenticity that goes into such a high-energy performance. We hear firsthand how Crash could never quite speak into the microphone and how others struggle to sing every word courtesy of sing-a-long subtitles for a select few songs. They get us in the moment, preserving a genre that has been so bastardized in the decades that followed with pop punk and the like. Juxtaposed against Slash magazine’s letters to the editor, stories of dead body photo shoots, and the comically despicable religious pamphlets floating down Hollywood Boulevard, the assault of sound makes sense. Spheeris has embodied the “learn by experience” adage because watching this documentary probably taught me more about the scene than any formal class ever could.
My favorite parts, however, are the interviews with club owners and industry people wrapping their heads around what’s happening. The older purveyors of one venue cutely laugh and explain pogo as just another form of dance—an evolution. Another younger owner gives a point-by-point description of why it did. Promoters and managers scratch their heads as to how the music has changed the face of safety and sanity while bouncers hold meetings to figure out when the violence seen is “fun” and when it’s not. A changing of the guard is definitely on display as kids rise from the aggression of damaged childhoods and external chaos. Those interviewed may not explain their rage fully, but a cursory glimpse at 80s politics and social strife puts everything into context.