There are competing stories as to how the title of Penelope Spheeris’s legendary 1981 LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization got its name. As one theory goes, it’s a reference to Lester Bangs’s prediction that the rise of Iggy Pop and the Stooges would trigger "the decline of Western civilization.” Another possibility is that it stems from Germs lead singer Darby Crash’s unexpected interest in German social theorist Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West. The third hypothesis is that it was simply pitched to Spheeris by French-born Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, lead singer for Catholic Discipline and contributing editor for Slash Magazine and she ran with it. One of these is undoubtedly the correct story, but all are accurate enough in spirit to dismiss the question.
Part of a trilogy of films, I feel pretty comfortable stating that The Decline of Western Civilization is easily one of the most important rock docs ever made. Filmed across 1979 and 1980, we get interviews and live footage featuring Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Circle Jerks, and Fear, among others. This was the short window of time when punk was going through the fast track adolescent growing pains mutating into hardcore, and Spheeris’s cameras are there to capture the most formative groups in their prime. Aside from the archival value of freezing these groups (Darby Crash particularly) in amber, we also get some shockingly intimate moments from fans and scenesters which reveal the sadness and despair they escape by being absorbed into this world of music and mayhem. “The air in utopia is poisoned... the final joke” muses Crash at one point.
Tragedy flares in at the edges of of every frame here, but what surprised me most in this rewatch of the film was how much of it ends up playing out as comedy which, after all, has been succinctly defined by Steve Allen as “tragedy plus time.” Spheeris got her start working in camp and comedy, producing a grip of Saturday Night Live shorts for Albert Brooks, and would eventually revisit those SNL days to direct the first Wayne’s World movie, so it’s no surprise in retrospect that the rhythms of her editing would naturally play for humor regardless of how consciously that might have been. And at the end of the day, despite living lives on the far flung fringes of polite society, these are truly funny people! After finding a dead house painter in his backyard (who died of a heart attack while on the job), Darby Crash’s friend Michelle describes kicking the dead body before getting the rest of the band together to take pictures with it. When asked by Spheeris if she feels bad about doing that, Michelle casually and without a pause says “No. Not at all. Because I hate painters.” Because I hate painters. It’s a perfect, if certainly perverse, moment nestled in this world of squalor (one of many) that never ceases to make me laugh out loud.
As much time as we end up spending with the other groups, and maybe you’re already picking up on this, the film is totally stolen by Darby Crash who, soon after the filming, would commit suicide by way of an intentional heroin overdose on Dec. 7, 1980 (the same day John Lennon would be assassinated) less than six months before The Decline of Western Civilization was to premiere. He was 22. Seen in footage here he’s a nihilistic goofball caveman, who used drugs, alcohol, and self-inflicted violence as a means of treating his inner turmoil. On stage he would beg for the audience to pass him beers when he wasn’t routinely forgetting to sing into the microphone. When he did manage to sing properly into the mic it slurred out wetly like bar-time karaoke. He was a mess, but he was an inexplicably electrifying mess who took some of Iggy Pop’s most extreme antics too seriously and employed them too liberally.
If Darby Crash came by his self-destructive stage presence a little too sincerely, the other side of that trick coin is FEAR, whose heel-turn audience instigations comprise Decline’s denouement, are straight out of the professional wrestling playbook. All the other bands presented in the film are just trying to do their thing and get their music out there, chalking resultant property damage up to the cost of doing business, but not FEAR. Fronted by Lee Ving, the group was as capable at taunting the audience into taking swings at them as they were tight and efficient musically speaking. After telling one audience member to “Eat my fuck, asshole,” Ving announces that “If there’s any A&R people in the audience... go die.” Again, despite their only somewhat unique penchant for ultraviolence, it’s impossible to not find humor in their constant state of self-immolation. I mean, how serious can you take a band who wrote a song titled “New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones?”
It’s understandable why most people put the second instalment of Spheeris’s Decline trilogy at their top of their list. Subtitled The Metal Years it covers a genre filled with fevered egos that were ripe for her brand of light ribbing, but with this first entry I think she accomplishes a more interesting feat: subtly highlighting the bits of gallows humor to be found in the comparatively respected foundational bands forming the roots of hardcore punk while simultaneously adding more depth to the subculture on the whole.