Part II: The Complete Oral History of Legendary Rock Doc Series 'The Decline of Western Civilization'
The second part of our oral history deals with the filming of the documentary, the chaos that ensued at those shows, and the sad demise of Germs vocalist, Darby Crash.
No one worth their weight in spikes and chains can deny the importance of The Decline of Western Civilization, the 1981 documentary directed by Penelope Spheeris that detailed the Los Angeles punk scene as it transformed from a dangerous dayglow playground of drunken mischief into Ground Zero for the grim, tough-as-nails, testosterone-driven genesis of American hardcore punk.
Up until now, the film was only available on old VHS tapes, bootleg DVDs, or in snippets on YouTube. On June 30, Shout! Factory will be releasing The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, a boxset which will include the elusive punk doc as well as the other two films in Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization series: 1988’s confusing though highly entertaining The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years and The Decline of Western Civilization III from 1998 which covers the LA gutter punk scene and includes live footage of Naked Aggression and Final Conflict.
Tacked on to all that are extras like an uncut interview segment with Black Flag, extra live footage of The Germs and Fear, plus an until-now lost clip of the amazing though unheralded LA punk unit, The Gears. The excess of footage and info in this set is so intoxicating, it’s almost too much for the nerd brain to register. I set upon a sleuthing mission to track down some of the movers and shakers behind the film as well as the early LA punk scene to put together an oral history of the making of the seminal first film in the Decline series.
This second part of the oral history deals with the filming of the documentary, the chaos that ensued at those shows, and the sad demise of Germs vocalist, Darby Crash.
Lisa Fancher (Frontier Records: owner): I went to a show at the Fleetwood and was like, "What are all these cameras doing here?" It turned out they were filming the show for The Decline. Fear were the headliner.
Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks: vocalist): I had a role in booking the bands for the show we played. It was Fear, The Alice Bag Band, The Circle Jerks, The Gun Club, The Urinals and The Gears. It was filmed at a place called The Fleetwood down in Kings Harbor in Redondo Beach.
Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization: director): Fear, Alice Bag, the Circle Jerks and maybe even the Gears were all shot at the Fleetwood in the same night. We couldn’t afford to shoot these shows at so many different places. So, to make it look like the footage was from different shows, we changed the background for every band. I bought some paper at the photography store; that seamless paper that they sell.
Lisa Fancher: It was one of the most terrifying shows I ever went to. The kids had blown up the boys’ toilets before the show even started. The show almost didn’t happen.
Keith Morris: The shows we played for the movie was pretty chaotic. You can tell from the footage that there was a lot of bodies flying around for The Circle Jerks set. You can see it in the Fear footage, too. There was a gal who was part of a group from San Diego who called themselves F.O.N.O which stood for Friends of No One. She got up on stage and got into a fist fight with Lee Ving.
Lisa Fancher: I remember watching that whole thing going on between that girl and Lee Ving and thinking, "Well, where is this going to go?" He just kept bashing her head in and we were wondering if he was ever going to stop. It was ridiculous. That show totally spiraled out of control.
Lee Ving (Fear: vocalist/guitarist): We had a good following and a really energetic audience response to what we were doing. Penelope liked that and she used the audience footage from our shows—one in Redondo Beach and one in the Culver City arena—she used our audience for some of the other bands who didn’t have the good fortune to have a large, active crowd in front of them while they were doing their filming for Decline.
Lisa Fancher: One of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen was at that show. Penelope was in the middle of the mosh pit on a ladder. There were kids purposely trying to knock her off, but she stood her ground.
Penelope Spheeris: Yes, I was on a platform. Ever since I had the Rockin’ Reel Company, I would always only shoot with one camera. I remember running down the aisle at a Foghat show once time with a sixteen millimeter camera up to my right eye and somebody stuck their foot out and tripped me. I went down and had a big black shiner. I was doused with a Bug Gulp cup full of pee at an Ozzy show once, too. I learned about shooting from doing those music videos, so I knew I had to protect myself. So, we built this platform for The Decline where I would be on the tri-pod shooting my angle and I got really good close-ups with a long lenses.
Steve Conant, who shot The Decline with me said to me after one of the shows, "You’re going to have get me a shark cage if you want me to keep doing this." He’d get worried and say "I can’t hold the camera still! This looks like shit!" and I’d say, "Dude, don’t worry about it. It looks cool!"
Alice Bag (The Bags: vocalist): I remember the night we were filmed. It was crazy because we had to get there early and there was all kinds of technical stuff that had to happen. People were checking cameras, lighting and sound. In all the preoccupation with the filming, Penelope neglected to tell the bands when they were expected to play. I believe there were at least five bands on the bill that night; two or three was the norm in those days except for all day events. Tensions started to build backstage as band members grew restless. At one point, an argument started because two bands wanted to go on at the same time. Basically, nobody wanted to go on first because they wanted to wait for a full house and nobody wanted to go on last when the audience might be tired or spent. Being the only woman backstage, I took control of the situation and proposed that we draw straws. I was rewarded for my diplomacy with the shortest straw. My band went on last.
My band was filmed once, we were the last band playing the end of a long night. We were on the verge of breaking up. Our former bassist was threatening to sue us if we used the name The Bags. I had tried to perm my hair the night before and it had burned and started to fall off just in time to be captured for posterity. I could see all of it on screen when I went to the premiere and I couldn't stand to watch but I can't blame Penelope for any of those things. You can't blame the mirror for your pimples.
John Doe (Vocalist/bass player: X): They filmed just one set of X’s at Club 88. It was small and hot. It’s hard to say if I remember anything else about it. It’s like seeing pictures of your childhood; you think you remember that lake in the image, but you just might be remembering the picture, you know?
But I do remember when they filmed our interview segment where we did the home tattoos at the house Exene (Cervenka, vocalist for X) and I had at the time. We had done that home tattooing maybe once or twice before and we thought it would be cool to film. I know we played two sets at the Whiskey that night. We got back to the house at maybe one thirty or two in the morning, snorted a little bit of speed and had a lot of beer and started tattooing. They shot rolls and rolls of film and filmed until they couldn’t anymore because it was seven in the morning and the light was coming in through the windows.
Penelope Spheeris: The Germs and Black Flag sets were shot in the same place basically because both bands couldn’t play anywhere at that time. They were banned from every club more or less.
Chuck Dukowski: All the bands were being filmed were trying to put forth the best representation of themselves at the moment. They all had their camera face on. I know I did! The interview segment for Black Flag went on in the basement of The Church. I think it really captures the mood of the time.
Keith Morris: The Germs were so klutzy and loveable; they were the cartoon band on the scene. The Germs could never complete a song in a live setting, but they recorded one of the greatest albums to ever come out of California. So that’s another interesting part of their puzzle.
Alice Bag: I think Darby was the centerpiece of the film. He was an interesting subject. The Darby I knew was also very warm and friendly and easily confided in people. I imagine Penelope was drawn by his warmth and charm.
Nicole Panter: I am sure that film was a large part in helping give the Germs the longevity they have enjoyed. That and Darby’s senseless death.
John Doe: There’s a lot of rumors that certain substances were fed to Darby by the film makers before The Germs played. That might be common knowledge, I don’t know. That’s what I heard, but I wasn’t there.
Nicole Panter: I was so angry at Darby for getting so fucked up that I almost quit as The Germs manager anyway. It was well-known that he would take whatever was handed to him—there was no self-editing involved in his drug consumption—and people were handing him things right and left.
Penelope Spheeris: Sure, there was a long interview with him and he had the largest photo on the movie poster, but I don’t think Darby or The Germs were given any more attention than any other bands in the film. I had picked the visual for that poster before he passed away. When I got that call in the middle of the night that he passed away, I felt so bad because I just had a thousand posters printed up with this photo of him lying there on his back.
Alice Bag: Yes, I do think some bands got more screen time. Some bands were filmed more than once and as a result they may have better clips in the film, simply because there was more to choose from. I don't know why certain bands got more time but speaking as someone who really didn't want to be in the film in the first place, I was not all that concerned by it.
Nicole Panter: I think that happened by accident, because Darby died. In regard to the film, I was not happy that Darby had gotten so fucked up and there it was, recorded for posterity, but there were a number of other things that made me want to move on from managing The Germs. They were fighting with each other and I’d just had enough, so I quit on April 1, 1980. Yes, I picked that date intentionally. Also, at that point I’d realized that I wanted to write and I had gained the confidence to be an actual participant as an artist rather than a behind-the-scenes participant as a manager.
Penelope Spheeris: You know, the reason I picked that picture of Darby for the poster was because punk rock to me was about breaking down all rules of music. No more love songs. No more guitar solos. Up until then, you had some picture of Led Zeppelin that was all posed and the singer had the mic right near his mouth. So, I wanted to do the opposite of that. I just wanted to respect the premise of the music. But yeah, I guess it turned out that Darby became the centerpiece by default. He was the epitome of tearing down the rules. He tore them down so much, it destroyed him.
A restored print of ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ is being screened Friday June 19th at BAM Cinema in Brooklyn at 9:30 PM. Penelope Spheeris will conduct a Q&A session afterwards.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection will be released June 30th. It is available for pre-order directly from Shout! Factory.
All Lee Ving quotes contained in this article were used with permission and appear in the highly essential—though sadly out of print—film 'Destroy All Movies!: The Complete Guide To Punks On Film.'
Rettman’s book ‘NYHC 1980 – 1990’ can be purchased here.