You can’t listen to hardcore punk rock. Ok you can, but you’d be missing out. You need to watch hardcore punk, in the flesh, in a poorly lit LA club and be right in the middle of the sweaty mosh pit close enough to spit on the lead singer and for him or her to spit right back. You need Keith Morris to scream “I Just Want Some Skank” in one ear and Greg Hetson’s screaming electric guitar in the other and you need to pogo dance like there’s no tomorrow. It needs to be the 80s and you need to be pissed off. Reagan, your parents, new wave, they all suck. This is the only thing that’s happening, man.
But it’s not the 80s anymore, so you’re shit out of luck.
However, all is not lost: Penelope Spheeris directed a trilogy of films capturing the changing LA music scene throughout the 80s and 90s, just for you.
The first film is called “The Decline Of Western Civilization” (1981) and it covers the LA hardcore punk rock scene in 1979-80. The second film is “The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years” (1988) and it covers LA hair metal and includes one of the most cringeworthy interviews ever. “The Decline Of Western Civilization III” (1998) covers LA’s homeless gutter punks.
The first “Decline” is the best one of the three that I’ve seen. I know because it’s the only one I’ve seen (I’m working on it). I also know because the first “Decline” nearly moved me to tears. This film is at times exhilarating and often moving. It’s a film that reminds you of the transcending power of music, both for the audience and for the artists themselves, but it’s also a reminder of its limitations. If nothing else, it’s a worthy tribute to an influential once in a lifetime music scene.
If you’ve read Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” (and if you haven’t then why not?) this movie is about the very beginnings of Azerrad’s indie underground. This is pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag when Ron Reyes was screaming and kicking through “Depression” and “Revenge”. X had just released their seminal Los Angeles album, proving to all the kids that you could actually play your instruments and get just as rowdy and vicious as hardcore could get. Or you could wait around for Circle Jerks to throw their guitars into their amps and create wonderful loud noises. Darby Crash was still alive, though at this point he could only grunt or aimlessly yell his way through “Manimal” (Crash killed himself right before this film’s release by an intentional heroin overdose, which turned the 22-year-old into a sort of martyr of the hardcore scene).
The bands featured in the film are Black Flag, Germs, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Alice Bag Band, X, and Fear. Of those bands, Spheeris interviews Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, and X. Everyone plays 2-4 songs at various LA hardcore clubs. No band sounds the same, yet they all share the same stage and play to the same crowd.
Much of “Decline”‘s success as a movie comes from the the way that it’s shot. During the shows there are a few cameras placed literally in the middle of the crowd and some at the side of the stage. During interviews you never see Spheeris – you only see the bands. Both the live performances an the interviews are so intimate that you feel like you’re intruding on a scene that you’re not allowed in.
Penelope Spheeris has had quite the career: her “Decline” films are underground classics, yet you probably know her as the director of Wayne’s World. A most excellent movie indeed, but it’s strange that while she poked fun at the rock n roll world via Wayne and Garth, she actually documented the real thing for over a decade. This is not to discredit her other films (she also directed “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “The Little Rascals”, and “Black Sheep”), but “Decline” is her most essential. It was also the most controversial; according to Slate, the film only made it to two theater screenings before the LA Police Chief banned the film form being shown in the city.
If “Decline” means anything new in 2015, it’s now a document of a pre-Internet music scene. With no social media to promote your album, you had to actually go to the shows and partake instead of swaying while texting on your phone. Nostalgia is a killer, but there’s something to be said about a music scene in which you actually had to be there.
But “Decline” doesn’t have to be anything more than what it already is, which is a well-edited documentation of two years of some of the most influential and polarizing music of rock & roll.
This summer the “Decline” films were rereleased in Blu-ray and DVD boxed sets. Do yourself a favor and watch these films.