Part IV: The Complete and Oral History of Legendary Rock Doc Series 'The Decline of Western Civilization'
Here is the fourth and final installment of the complete oral history of "The Decline of Western Civilization."
All photos courtesy of Shout! Factory
Up until now, the film was only available via the old rusty VHS format, bootleg DVD’s or snippets via YouTube. But on June 30th, Shout! Factory will be releasing The Decline of Western Civilization Collection; a boxset which not only holds the elusive punk doc, but 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 gutter punk scene of L.A at the time with live footage of Naked Aggression and Final Conflict.
Tacked on to all that are extras out the wazoo like an uncut interview segment with Black Flag, extra live footage of The Germs and Fear plus a lost-until-now clip of the amazing though unheralded L.A. punk unit, The Gears. Truthfully, the excess of footage and info in this set is so intoxicating, it’s almost too much for the nerd boy or girl brain to register. And that’s not a complaint by the way.
So ecstatic about the release of this boxset, I set upon a sleuthing mission to track down some of the movers and shakers behind the film as well as the early L.A. Punk scene and put together an oral history on the making of the seminal first film in the Decline series.
In this, the fourth and final part of the oral history, we talk about the eventual release of the first Decline, the sequels that followed and the films legacy in the present.
John Doe (X: bass player/vocalist): When The Decline was released, it was difficult to watch since Darby had just killed himself. When Darby’s death happened, it created a whole ‘growing up’ moment for a lot of people in the L.A. Punk scene. At that time it was screened in L.A, X was really trying to have our own career and might have been on the road. But I know there were some showings that were really popular.
Lisa Fancher (Frontier Records: owner): When the film premiered, hundreds of cops showed up in riot gear and shut down Hollywood Boulevard. I just remember standing in line thinking, ‘This is going to get real ugly’. I was the last one in line and I remember feeling someone pushing me to get in the door and I turned around to say something and it was a cop with a billy club in my back.
Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks: vocalist): The film allowed some of us to get out of town. There were bands here that had worn out their welcome with the LAPD and the concert promoters. It was time to take it on the road. The Circle Jerks got a call from a promoter in New York and said he wanted us come out and play a handful of shows. And if I’ve learned anything from playing music is that when you’re presented an opportunity, you got to jump on it because if you don’t, someone else will.
Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, bass player): I’m confident the film had an impact, but Black Flag was already going out of the area before the film was released. The first time I saw the film, it was in New York while we were on tour, and it wasn’t our first time out there. I’d say it was the third time we were out there.
People want an artifact from that era, and there it is with The Decline. There aren’t a lot of movies from that era of Punk Rock. Just like if you want to check on the 60’s, you’re going to watch Woodstock. Woodstock spends a lot of time on the audience, and so does The Decline. They spend more time on the audience then something else from that time frame that deals about Punk, like Urgh! A Music War for example. If you’re interested in looking back at the culture milieu as well as the music, there’s not much in the 80’s, but The Decline captured the moment well. Just like Woodstock popularized the hippie movement into the 70’s, The Decline of Western Civilization popularized punk rock through the 80’s.
Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I, II and III: director): Making the second one, The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years was a big jump in logic, wasn’t it? But the thing is, all of a sudden, there was this big shift in music again. There were times when it was so crowded on the Sunset Strip you couldn’t move and all I could think was ‘Shit man, I might as well do another film about this scene’.
I was inspired to do the third Decline movie when I saw this pack of kids walking down Melrose and they looked like the poster for my film, Suburbia and I thought, ‘Let me talk to these guys’. So I said something to them like ‘Maybe I’ll do The Decline of Western Civilization Part III with you guys and they said ‘You can’t do that! Penelope Spheris has to do it!’ and I was like ‘Well, that’s me, so we’re going to do the movie’.
The stories of those kids was so sad to me. I actually went out and got my foster parent license after filming that one so I could try to help these kids. It’s my favorite movie I ever did, in case you care. It was a life changing film. Everyone thinks homeless children is some third world problem, but it’s a problem here too. I’ve had five foster kids since the film.
Around that time, I went to one of the first Burning Man festivals and got dosed. I went there once in my life and got spiked with what I believe to be an extraordinary amount of ecstasy, but when I explain to people what I saw, they say I was dosed with acid. I was pitching a tent and had my beer on my car bumper and these tripping girls passed by and obviously spiked it. I had this epiphany while I was tripping that wouldn’t do anymore studio movies for Hollywood. I had just worked with the Weinsteins on that movie with Marlon Wayans called Senseless. I was so over Hollywood, so I checked out.
The backstory on The Decline boxset coming together is about three or four years ago, I asked my daughter Anna to come and work for me. She said she’d only come work for me on one condition: If we put all The Decline movies out on DVD. She told me I had no idea how much people want these films. My daughter actually said to me, ‘Do you have any idea who you are, Mom?’
Anna Spheeris Fox (The Decline of Western Civilization Collection: producer): I was the person who searched for it all in the vaults.
Penelope Spheeris: We found all this footage of the first Decline film. It was boxes and boxes of what we call ‘trim’. They were the ‘outs’ of the interview that ended up in the movie. I sat down with a guillotine splicer and personally spliced the 16 millimeter pieces together. I did that and that’s what we used for the extras. But without Anna, it would have never, never been done.
Anna Spheeris Fox: We found footage of The Gears, but we had no audio. I believe that’s the reason why it didn’t end up in the film the first time around. We did a little video music magic editing and had them give us the audio. They came in and watched the footage, so they could identify what the song was and then, they gave us the audio and we edited it to the film. I would keep coming up with stuff and having to show my mom and her not wanting to watch it.
Penelope Spheeris: Honestly, I hated this whole process. It’s been really, really difficult to do this. How would you like to go back and look at yourself with all these stupid ass hair-dos? I couldn’t face it. I’m a chicken shit.
But I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place because I don’t want to be remembered for directing Wayne’s World or Black Sheep or any of that shit. I want to be remembered for The Decline movies, so the process had to be done.
I knew what kind of work was ahead of me and I knew it was going to be a bitch. Every day I would piss and moan about it and Anna would say ‘Mom, it’s going to be over with soon’. Now, I’m just glad it’s done. I don’t mean to sound inglorious about it, but that’s how I feel right now.
Alice Bag: As for me, after bitching and complaining about how we looked and sounded in the film, I finally decided to get over it. The Decline has given me just enough name recognition to help me launch other projects more easily. It is an important film to so many people and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.
The specialness of The Decline is that it introduced a lot of people to punk. If you lived in a big city you might have already had a punk scene, but for many The Decline was the first taste of a radical new music that would either terrify or piss off your parents - what more could a teenager ask for?
Anna Spheeris Fox: The appeal of The Decline is so multi-layered. It holds up for the older generation because they were there and it holds up for younger people who want to know more. I hear so many people say that either The Decline changed my life. It made them realize they weren’t the only one feeling like that. It made them realize they weren’t the only one in a situation like that. Those are timeless things for people, so I think that’s why the film held up.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection was released June 30th. It is available for order directly from Shout! Factory.