The drive to belong is a uniquely human trait. Yet where do you go when you feel like you were born outside the world that surrounds you? How do you find your place? Decline is sociology masquerading as rockumentary; it’s about finding your tribe, about movements of outcasts searching for acceptance amongst others who similarly don’t fit. This world is a nihilistic expression of aggression, the music is fast and loud, the look extreme, all facial safety pins and pointy hair and the life is hand to mouth poverty – but anyone can belong.
There’s a certain freedom in stepping outside of society, yet it comes with a price. The price is evident in Decline I, which focuses on the LA punk scene, in 1979-80. It’s why the Black Flag vocalist Ron Reyes is living in a $16 a month cupboard. There’s no upward trajectory here, just a bleak kind of knowledge that something important is happening. At the time the entire band lived in a church. The band makes no money and live hand to mouth.
“Why don’t club owners hire the Germs anymore?” Asks Penelope Spheeris camera in hand, stumbling from band to band, and we see why as singer Darby Crash details what he imbibes before a gig – before listing his injuries. Crash who wasn’t long for this world would regularly forget to sing into the microphone and his antics would have them banned from every LA club.
Spheeris, who would go on to direct Wayne’s World, appears to have a natural affinity with these people, filming performances from some now legendary LA punk bands like the Circle Jerks, Fear, Alice Bag Band, X, Catholic Discipline, and Black Flag, yet also interviewing many of the band members, audience members and club owners. And it’s this access to a moment in time, peering into their unique world and struggles that’s so fascinating. Spheeris has no money. Decline is cheap, simple, and pure, with the energy of the music and the openness of the participants the reasons why it has deservedly taken on near mythical status.
What wasn’t as well known however is that Spheeris kept going with her series. In the extra features she relates driving past an LA club and seeing all the kids in line glammed up and realised that something had changed. Decline II: The Metal Years, filmed between 1987 and 1988 sees her interviewing the likes of an Ozzy Osbourne struggling to pour himself orange juice, the always witty Alice Cooper, Poison who are vanity personified, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler (“the toxic twins”) proudly discussing the perils of their own drug abuse, and Kiss legends Gene Simmons interviewed in a lingerie store (“he didn’t want anything tacky” reveals Spheeris) and Paul Stanley who is similarly unironically interviewed on a bed filled with near naked women. “Who wouldn’t want this?” He leers at the camera.
There’s not a lot of love here, as Spheeris entices her participants to detail the sex, drugs, macho debauchery, and make up tips that are integral to their existence. She speaks with bands and their fans – particularly female fans, visits the Cathouse, a place where anyone could get laid, and finds herself at an erotic dancing competition at a nightclub. Luckily the music is kept to a minimum, and though Spheeris plays it for laughs, gone is the compassion for her subjects, and it’s replaced with a certain delight in making everyone look clichéd and ridiculous. Then again they seem to do a good job of doing this on their own, so perhaps all she did was turn on the camera. “I fought really hard to get Megadeth, so it wasn’t all fluff and hair,” she offers in an interview in the abundant extra features.
Perhaps most interesting is Decline III, where she returns to the punk scene in 1997, this time focussing on gutter punks. Ostensibly homeless, music takes a back seat as our participants detail appalling histories of abuse. There’s an all-pervading bleakness here. These kids aren’t denying society, they’ve been cast out, or they were never invited in and now they’re just trying to survive. They cop beatings from skinheads, beg for food, drink excessively and are harassed by Police. Every day is struggle. None of them see a future. Spheeris tries hard. She asks them where they see themselves in five years time. Almost every one says ‘dead.’ Then they attempt to reassure her. “Don’t worry I hate life anyway…I’ll probably be dead in a year.” Even when they smile its through tormented eyes. This is not posturing – playing at being punk. This is the grim reality of their everyday existence and it’s an indictment on society as a whole.
Curiously it’s Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who adds perspective, suggesting that when he became involved in the LA punk scene, he was looked after by others, there was real a sense of community that is absent today. Keith Morris (Black Flag/ Circle Jerks) suggests society traps people, and they have to fight their way out – and the world has gotten even uglier. With performances from Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance, it’s the interviews with the punks themselves, staring down the barrel of the camera, the emotional trauma etched on their impossibly young faces that is so confronting.
It’s curious to watch this and the other films eighteen plus years later, where punk has been co opted and dilluted by the fashion industry and mainstream media. Back in 1997 the piercings, the coloured hair, the posturing, the attitudes, they too were just part of a façade, yet the stakes were higher, they were an armory against the world, simultaneously a way to connect to their tribe, yet also a visual representation of their lack of connection to the world at large.
Decline of Western Civilization Collection is a 4 disc set featuring all three films and a ridiculous amount of extra features including audio commentaries from Spheeris and Dave Grohl, film festival panels and additional footage.