Pissing Up A Rope: The “Decline of Western Civilization”

By on October 15, 2015

Later on tonight (or early tomorrow morning), TCM, the Turner Classic Movies channel, will be airing the first Decline Of Western Civilization (11:45pm PST on Thursday, Oct. 15th/2:45am EST on Friday, Oct. 16th), a rarely-seen documentary by director Penelope Spheeris that captured the thriving Los Angeles punk scene of the early 1980s.

Then, just a few days from now, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (TCM sez: “The L.A. punk scene is taken over by glam metal”) will be airing on Saturday, October 17th (11:30pm PST/2:30am EST on 10/18), and Part III, which TCM says is about “the rebellious lives of L.A.’s gutter punks,” airs one week later, on Saturday, October 24th (11:45pm PST/2:45am EST on 10/25; again, check your local listings). These three films were recently released on DVD/Blu-ray for the first time ever.

Here’s a post about these three films from earlier this year:

On June 30th, Shout Factory released a Decline Of Western Civilization Collection, a deluxe four-disc anthology, in both DVD and Blu-ray formats, chronicling L.A.’s hardcore punk, hair-metal and gutter-punk phenomena. It’s the first time all three documentary films have been released, and they’ll be restored in 2K hi-definition, so you’ll be able to see every drop of blood and spit, and whatever other bodily fluids that director Penelope Spheeris’s cameras happened to catch.

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Part 1 was shot independently for $100,000, on 16mm film, which was then blown up to fit the 35mm print specifications. The film itself is fairly short as documentaries go — 1 hr., 40 minutes, both black and white, and color — but there’s really no need for it to go on any longer than it does. What Spheeris was able to capture with her Cinéma vérité-style lensing is engrossing, and often it’s pretty gross, but ultimately Decline is an unflinching and superb close-up look at the bands in the early 80s L.A. punk scene.

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It’s a document of what the L.A. punker life was like at the time. Some of the interview subjects come off as poseurs, but saying that their face at the time might have bought you a beat-down, or at least a bloody lip. Most of these punkers wanted Spheeris to know that their lives sucked, and they don’t hold back describing the major suckage. Some of them, however, are amazingly articulate, and look good on camera too. Some of them, not so much. What comes through most strongly is their undying dedication to their music.

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Released in 1981, Part I follows some of the early L.A. punk bands X, Black Flag, The Germs, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear and Alice Bag Band. A highlight (lowlight might be a better word, actually) includes any time Darby Crash of the Germs is on screen, or perhaps seeing Fear’s Lee Ving berating the crowd (“Go piss up a rope!”), and getting spat on (later in the documentary, Lee Ving is filmed beating down a young woman from the audience after she spits on him).

In fact, many of the punks seem to have no problem with the violence that was a part of the L.A. punk scene, recounting their gleeful participation in fist-fights at pretty much every gig. When they’re not talking about fighting, they’re expressing their hateful disdain for hippies, cops, and… girls. One punker, named Michael X-Head, describes how much he enjoys beating people up because he’s doing “something he’s good at,” and says he doesn’t have any girlfriends because “girls are terrible.” Another talks about how he’s hit lots of girls in the face, adding that he doesn’t like girls very much. Spheeris also gives ample screen time to the fans, who are equally unflinching in their provocative directness.

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Another eight years pass between the release of The Decline…Part II: The Metal Years and its punk predecessor, but it seems that the scene has changed in that relatively short time. It’s still unbelievable how it all happened, but here’s the visual proof that it did happen. The Metal Years captures the manic sleaze of the 1980s Sunset Strip metal scene, focusing mainly on the upcoming glam-rock bands like Faster Pussycat, Odin, and London, as well as Megadeth, who don’t quite fit in here, but there are also segments featured some of the members of Motörhead, Alice Cooper, Kiss and Aerosmith.

It’s a curiosity to see Odin again, frankly — they released several EPs and one full-length album, Fight For Your Life, during their existence — being featured alongside some of the other bands on the hair scene at the time, Faster Pussycat, for instance, but their appearance certainly makes for entertaining viewing all these years later. It’s also curious, frankly, to see an 80s Ozzy Osbourne cooking bacon in a leopard-print robe, looking like he’s spent quite a lot of his Sabbath money on Aquanet hairspray.

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Hands down, the most memorable scene in The Metal Years is Chris Holmes’ poolside interview. Holmes, the guitarist for W.A.S.P., was filmed lounging in the pool at a home up on Hillside Drive, up in the Hollywood Hills — at the time it belonged to record executive Miles Copeland — and during the course of the interview he admits that he’s an alcoholic, all while guzzling from three different bottles of vodka while his sad-eyed concerned mother looks on. It’s a memorable performance, only, Holmes doesn’t appear to be performing for the camera — this was the life he was leading at the time, and Spheeris’s captured it for posterity.

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Another seven years passes and now we’re presented with Part III, which focused on the tragic lives of homeless gutter punks in the city and contained performances by Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance. Again, here we have an unflinching presentation of the squatter punks in L.A. who live and lie on the streets (two of Spheeris’ subjects died before the movie’s 1998 release — the experience of making the film prompted Spheeris to become a foster parent). The movie has never been available on home video.

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The collection will also include a 40-page book, extended interviews and a new commentary track by Dave Grohl, who seems strangely out of place here, given the fact that the L.A. episode of Sonic Highways — the HBO series in which Grohl and the Foo Fighters visited different cities around America, seeking inspiration from their respective music scenes — was rightly criticized for not really understanding anything about L.A.’s musical influences. Grohl’s missteps were even singled out, in the LA Weekly, for instance, for focusing too much on the Germs, while ignoring so many of the other bands (many of them included in Part 1) who were just as important, and probably even more influential.

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The bonus materials for the Decline films will also include interviews with Spheeris by KNAC’s Tawn Mastery and the Academy Film Archive’s Mark Toscano, never-before-seen footage, performances and interviews, the original trailers and an essay by Domenic Priore, who wrote the 2007 book Riot on Sunset Strip.

Again, Priore seems out of place here too, given the fact that he’s been pretty vocal over the years, in various interviews, at least about his hate — if that’s a strong enough word — for the Strip’s “hessian” hair-metal days, which he claimed in at least one interview was part of the reason he left L.A.:

Basically, one has to understand that Heavy Metal people from the San Fernando Valley used to come over the hill to Holllywood in their trucks, full of people in the back (when that was legal) and would jump Punk Rockers. It was out and out violence against Punks, and so Punk shows left Hollywood andwent out to places like the Pomona Valley Auditorium or other joints in Orange County, or Fenders in Long Beach. The hessians hated Punk Rock, could not stand how it had replaced “Rock” and did everything they could to eliminate it from the Hollywood music scene. They took over Whisky a Go Go (a graffito near there said WHISKY NEEDS PUNKS in protest when the club banned Punk and started to bring in Metal in its place… along with Pay-to-Play for those suckers). Any diversity in the L.A. music scene died with that during the ’80s.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.