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The Decline of Western Civilization, + Part II The Metal Years

by Glenn Erickson Mar 05, 2016


The formidable Penelope Spheeris penetrates L.A.’s punk and glam rock scenes, connecting with surly malcontents that would greet a normal docu with flipped fingers and snarled four-letter words. The result is much more than a collection of rare music performances. Things are as loud, as profane and as twisted as ever.


The Decline of Western Civilization
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II The Metal Years

Shout! Factory
Street Date March 4, 2016
Sold separately 19.98

Written and Directed by Penelope Spheeris

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Unless my memory is completely fried, I remember Penelope Spheeris as a busy TA in the film department at UCLA around 1974-’75. The upstairs editing area had but one pay telephone, and she was on it constantly, making deals. The active and connected Ms. Spheeris was even then something of a celebrity around the department. Years later her connections with various L.A. subcultures led to the challenge of The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary that reportedly rerouted porn film money into what became the main enduring record of the punk music scene in Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s. I don’t recall that the film’s premiere at the Wiltern Theater started riots of its own, as claimed by some sources, but as one of the few filmic expressions of the punk lifestyle, it was an instant youth rebellion classic.


The Decline of Western Civilization
1981 — Starring X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Germs, Alice Bag Band.
Steve Conant
Film Editor Charlie Mullin
Produced by Jeff Prettyman, Penelope Spheeris


Only a person immersed in the wild life could have made this picture, as no straight producer or camera crew could have gotten close enough to the punks we see to get any kind of accurate picture of them. Even for Spheeris the various performers preen and pout, but they also pretty much tell it like it was.

For average audiences this is going to be a pretty ugly and shocking movie. A bunch of disenchanted American kids rejected the system, turning to garage bands with music composed almost completely of unfocused anger and aggression. Like a European art movement trying to throw off all forms of civilized expression, the punks’ music purposely de-evolves rock into screaming vocals and furious atonal guitar blasts. They live the lifestyle of vagrants and fuel their creativity with alcohol. Drugs are around but those cost money. The only thing that doesn’t cost money is a disagreeable attitude, a commodity that this music scene has cornered.

Back in 1979 I was just a couple of miles away from this scene, but in such a different world that it might have been happening on Mars. When I scoured the L.A. Weekly for screwy film screenings, I had to get past the pages of ads for music clubs. I recognize many of the band names even if I’ve pretty much never laid eyes on the performing personnel. Penelope Spheeris nabs excellent film and audio footage of the bands performing, and covers many personalities in interviews, singly and in groups. They talk about the vagrant life in ways that bring back the reality of the 1970s, when various drifters couldn’t get their own place to live because they owed the city utilities too much money. Many of them talk about living off their girlfriends. Some of the bands are putting on an act for Spheeris’s camera, yet what we see still has value. It’s accurate enough because normal waking for these image conscious kids is a performance of some kind or another.

Spheeris focuses on a select group of bands: Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, the Germs, and ‘X.’ As expected, the angry music embraces anarchy and a ‘rejection of all values’ while still trying to find something that will bring in fans. Some of the more interesting discussions reveal that they make next to no money and perform for the rush of being on stage. Since image is all they have, they’re even angry at their audiences. Actually making money would be an affront to their avowed philosophy; one interviewee says that playing in a professional manner would violate the punk ethos as well. Yet he acknowledges that, if one wants to sell a record, being able to play one’s instrument is a plus factor.

The movie was made around 1980, when the punk scene was going strong. Yet several of the bands interviewed have trouble getting bookings, and report that they’ve been banned from this club or that club. The performances turn into barely controlled riots, with the area in front of the stage reserved for mostly male fans that smash into each other mindlessly, directly expressing the anger and hostility in the music. Several of the bands distinguish themselves through ugly profanity, some of it on a world-class scale, filth-wise. The dancing we see is mostly limited to jumping up and down. More than one person says that the Beats Per Minute of the punk songs is so high that it really isn’t danceable anyway. It’s more than obvious that anyone interested in the disaffection of youth needs to see this show, an excellent record of an earlier youth music scene.

Ms. Spheeris shows that she knows who to interview. For the first band up we first hear from a young woman who tried to be their manager. She looks tough, savvy, and levelheaded, determined to help the band succeed even as its members are actively trying to self-destruct. Spheeris must have been well into the scene to record it with this much fidelity.

Another sequence takes us to the barely-organized editorial office of Slash magazine, a pulp circular that reviewed bands and covered punk news. The editors and writers seem to be having a fine time, writing about a genre that the music world in general was treating like a disease. Ms. Spheeris is good about telling us who we’re looking at — at one point we see none other than Chris D., identified on screen as a writer. Chris also had his own music career, and much later was a programmer for the American Cinematheque.


The Decline of Western Civilization Part II The Metal Years
Starring Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison and members of Aerosmith, Kiss, and Motorhead as well as performances by Megadeath, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin and Seduce .
Jeff Zimmerman
Film Editor Earl Ghaffari
Produced by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Penelope Spheeris made two follow-ups to The Decline of Western Civilization, focusing on further developments in the wild extremes of the L.A. music scene. The first one from 1988 is a much bigger production funded by New Line Cinema, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II The Metal Years. The cameras are 35mm and there are some more obviously staged scenes, but Spheeris maintains the same sense of intimacy with her subject. As the groups covered in this show are much better known, this show has to have more appeal to the wider audience. But it’s the same situation — eight years later the unfocused anger has mutated to new depths of crudity and sexism.

Being a total civilian when it comes to the music of this period, I can’t offer any cause & effect explanations for where punk came from, or how the music evolved to the scene covered in The Metal Years. The years 1986-1988 are definitely Glam Rock, with performers taking on extreme makeup and costumes, and at a minimum outrageous hair. Some of the male performers have enormous puffed hair, as big as a lion’s mane. Spheeris inquires about the subjects on everyone’s minds — the sex, the drugs, the extreme lifestyles — and gets plenty of answers, most of them profane. The constant stream of braggadocio is calculated to assure us, often in as profane a manner as possible, that the male rock star in question is getting all the women, liquor, cars and drugs that we are not.

Some of the staging is a bit much. Gene Simmons of KISS is not in his elaborate makeup and costuming; he’s interviewed in the lingerie section of a clothing store, with various women picking through the racks behind him. His bandmate Paul Stanley comments on his virility in a down-angled setup, draped with ‘groupies’ posed as if for a Penthouse pictorial. The music has changed quite a bit. The players are much more professional, especially the guitar men, and there is obviously big money in the game. Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith has by this time been performing and selling records for at least 18 years. He claims that the millions he earned all went up his nose. Now he’s talking about how his detox program is reviving his career.

The same goes for Ozzy Osbourne, who comes off as genuinely friendly while cooking a (faked) breakfast. He explains that he’s all- clean now, except for when he isn’t. Alice Cooper, interviewed in his Goth makeup and looking tired, tries to put the music scene in context. Although he can’t give much of a reason why so many of the songs romanticize death and morbidity, Cooper seems possessed of a level head about his crazy profession.

Other rock stars talk to the camera as they drive on the L.A. Streets. They all drive brightly colored convertibles, which may very well have been rented. Even with all this staging of context, Spheeris obtains nothing but A+ comments and observations from her subjects, the legit rock stars, the more aggressive New Guys In Town and the occasional montage of over-expressive fans. Most of the performers are ostentatious types bragging about the sex and the excitement in their lives, and are crudely dismissive of the women that flock to the clubs. Ms. Spheeris takes time out to show the rampant sexism in the lifestyle. The party girls and fans haven’t changed, but hanging around the periphery is a class of stripper-showgirls looking to parlay the glamorous setting into a career opportunity. Bill Gazzari of Gazzari’s is presented as a symptom of sexploitation. The longtime L.A. club promoter, known for his dance discotheques of the 1960s, emcees a ‘sexy dance contest’ featuring not the kids that frequent the clubs but more professional-looking strippers. More reality-comment intrudes through interview bites with a police probation officer, who voices in dray clinical terms the problems she sees with the rock-fan kids.

Throughout it all Ms. Spheeris simply shows the reality of these profane guys, some of which can definitely put on a good rock show. She lets them express their feelings and edits them in search of the truth behind their words. It’s obvious that she has little use for the abusive sex attitudes, though. All of the aspiring performers claim that they’ll become huge stars or die. Back in the Punk Years the lifestyles were radical enough to chalk up major casualties, but with the Glam crowd a lot of what we see is show. The most memorable interview is yet another staged situation that nevertheless generates a truth. Chris Holmes is seen floating in his pool, spouting obnoxious & profane comments about his drug abuse, access to girls and great success with the group W.A.S.P.. His mother sits a couple of feet away, under-reacting to his offensive comments, as if son and mother have some kind of agreement that she must put up with him no matter what he does. It’s a clear bid for attention, but I don’t know if it did Holmes’ career any good.

Shout Factory’s Blu-rays of The Decline of Western Civilization and The Decline of Western Civilization Part II The Metal Years were released as a set in 2015, along with Part III a 1998 look at music being performed by a new generation of homeless kids in Hollywood. The first two Blu-ray discs are now available individually. The disc extras are the same, but buyers of the individual discs won’t get the fat booklet about the punk scene included in the first release.

Spheeris appears to own the first film outright. She and Shout! collaborated to produce a Blu-ray that looks better than the extremely ratty 35mm print I saw a few minutes of in the early 1980s. The original mono mix is present along with a 5.1 remix track. The extensive extras include deleted scenes, an interview with Spheeris, several extended interviews with the film’s subjects, and three extra song performances. One commentary gives us the personal response of musician Dave Grohl, while a second offers Penelope Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox talking about the movie but also about what became of some of the performers we see.

Part II was mostly filmed on 35mm, and therefore swaps out grit for a slicker look, that’s also reflected in some of the staged (confected, really) interview setups. Some scenes appear to have been filmed in 16mm because we can see the quality change occurring. This second film was originally in stereo, so its 5.1 remix sounds much more robust.

In her commentary with Mexican-American heavy metal singer Nadir D’Priest, Penelope Spheeris is even more conversational than on the first film. She’s more critical of the glam rock lifestyle than she is the punks — she had a fairly close connection of her own to the punk scene. And she also discusses the different documentary style, especially the staged sequences.

Besides the trailer, the video extras on Part II are limited to seven extended interviews, with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Chris Holmes, Gene Simmons, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne and Paul Stanley. As the original film materials are lost, what we see looks like a videotape shot off the screen of a Kem or Steenbeck editing table. Rapt music fans won’t care.

As for Ms. Spheeris, she’s no pretender. She obtained her license to be a foster parent in 2013 and is doing what she can to help homeless kids, of the kind she documented in Decline III. She blames what’s happened to so many of them not on music, but on the broken social support net in this country in decline.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Decline of Western Civilization +
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II The Metal Years

separate Blu-ray releases

Movies: both Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: substantial, see above
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 4, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.