Part I: The Complete Oral History of Legendary Rock-Doc Series "The Decline of Western Civilization"

We talked to the living Gods of L.A. punk about the making of this seminal series.

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Jun 10 2015, 5:47pm

All photos courtsey of Shout! Factory.

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 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" as 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.

Noisey will be running this oral history in parts and this first one will concentrate on Penelope’s introduction into the LA punk scene, the choosing of bands to appear in the film and the first rumblings of a new group of kids from the beach towns coming to invade the L.A Punk scene.

Penelope Spheeris ("The Decline of Western Civilization Parts One, Two and Three," Director): In the 70’s, I had a company here in Los Angeles called Rock ’N Reel. I made music videos and I think we could have been the first company out here doing that. I got a lot of work back then from Warner Brothers and CBS Records. I also worked with Albert Brooks and Jim Brooks and Mel Brooks. All the Brooks in the town!

I remember standing in line one day at the equipment house and some guy said something about music to me and I go ‘You know what, dude? I checked out of music awhile back because everything is either Disco or the Doobie Brothers and I’m not into it’. He said, ‘Well, have you checked out the Sex Pistols?’ Then I noticed all around Los Angeles, there was all these punk shows happening. So I started checking out all these punk shows. I started going to The Masque, which was the first Punk Rock club in Hollywood.

Lee Ving (Fear: Vocalist/guitarist): It was 1977 or 1978 when I first went to see a show at The Masque in Hollywood. And that was on Los Palmas or Cherokee or one of those streets over there off Hollywood Boulevard in this burnt-out old basement.

Penelope Spheeris: I was working with a lot of comedians; Billy Crystal and all that. They were telling me ‘Go to Warner Brothers! You get can get this gig directing Private Benjamin. I just blew it off and said ‘I’m going to make a documentary on Punk Rock’.

Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks: Vocalist): I remember Penelope Spheeris waving me over in a parking lot as she was getting into a car. She started talking about this documentary about the L.A. Punk scene that she wanted to do.

Penelope Spheeris: I had a friend from film school named Ron Hugo. I was his teaching assistant at UCLA. He said he had a friend from high school that wanted to make a porno movie, because he had done pretty well with his payroll service and car rental company. I said ‘I ain’t gonna make no porno movie, but we could do punk rock!’ So I took this guy to a Germs show and he was like ‘Woah! This is freaky!’

Nicole Panter (The Germs: manager): I think Penelope or Bob Biggs brought up the making of the film to me. They were married at the time, he had acquired (Seminal L.A. Punk magazine) Slash Magazine and was either forming or expanding Slash into a record label. She and Biggs were older than we were, they were like actual adults and she was a working professional.

John Doe (X: bass player): We had heard about the making of the film pretty early on due to us being on Slash Records. It’s not like someone just showed up at a show with some cameras and we were like ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’

Penelope Spheeris: There’s certain bands that I loved that I wish were in the movie, but we could barely afford to buy a roll of film. I was committed to only film bands when I had equipment checked out on the major record company’s money. If I was making a music video for The Staple Singers, I’d wrap up real quick and run over and go shoot Black Flag because I still had the equipment.

Keith Morris: I had quit Black Flag because there was a lack of humor and sarcasm with the band at that time that I wanted to get away from. She wanted to film Black Flag for the documentary with me as the vocalist. I was scratching my head and telling her it put me in an extremely difficult position to go back to these guys who didn’t like me. This was a period where I left Black Flag and formed the Circle Jerks and the vibes were all going in the wrong direction between the two bands. So, now I’m being asked to go back to these guys and say ‘Hey, Penelope Spheeris is making this film of all the new bands and she wants me to sing for Black Flag for the filming’. It was like jumping into boiling water with all these cannibals hanging around, you know? I walked in and asked Black Flag that and they were like, ‘How fucking dare you! Are you serious?’ Obviously, they ended up being filmed anyways with the vocalist they had at the time, Ron Reyes.

Alice Bag (The Bags: vocalist): One day, I showed up at rehearsal and my guitarist, Craig Lee told me that there was a director who was going to stop by the studio to talk to us about being in a punk documentary. I really didn't know what to expect, but I trusted Craig...to a point.

Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag: bass player): In regards to us, I think she asked Black Flag because she wanted to document this new exciting thing coming from the beaches. That was just at the time when the police started to harass the band incessantly. As Ron says in the intro of ‘Revenge’ in the film, they impounded our gear a few nights before at a club called Blackie’s. I spent the whole night before the filming wondering if my gear was going to be available to do the shoot.

Keith Morris: She wanted Black Flag in the film because the cops were always fucking showing up at their shows and there was always some fucking riot and there was always some commotion going on around them. Black Flag at the time was all about ‘Let’s blow this fucking place up!’ and with the Circle Jerks, it was like ‘Let’s party! Let’s have a good time!’ We didn’t have any agenda to fuck with the cops. We wanted to do drugs and get laid; all the stuff young men are supposed to interested in at that time in their lives.

Chuck Dukowski: I will say this: Penelope was a very pleasant person to be around. She made it a great atmosphere to be open with expression.

Alice Bag: When I met Penelope, I didn't immediately trust her. I had seen her at a few shows but I didn't know her story or her reasons for making the film. In my eyes, she was an outsider to the scene. My first impression of her was that she was very assertive, no nonsense, almost abrasive. She told us right away that she would have the final say over what would be going into the film. The whole idea of handing over control of what our band would look and sound like to a total stranger made me uncomfortable. I wasn't used to having a director, I was used to making up my own rules.

Nicole Panter: Darby (Crash, vocalist for The Germs) didn’t want to do the movie – he said to me “Everyone will think we want to be rock stars” which was the worst thing anyone could say to you back in those days. “Rock star” was a terrible, terrible insult. I somehow knew the film was going to be an important document of what was happening and I insisted he do the film or I would quit.

Alice Bag: Penelope also shared with us the fact that she had originally approached the Go Gos about being in the film but talks with the Go Gos' management had stalled due to negotiations about points and other financial details.

Penelope Spheeris: The Go-Go’s were supposed to be in the movie, but they crapped out at the last second, which I’m kind of glad about now because they ended up so poppy.

Keith Morris: The Go-Go’s early on were clunky and chaotic. They were better than something like The Shaggs, but they were definitely trying to figure things out. They were at a point where they were learning to play as they went along.

Alice Bag: Penelope said she felt she didn't have enough women in the film and I believe that was the reason she was interested in the Bags. I got the impression that she wasn't necessarily a Bags fan but maybe we just fit the concept she had in mind for her film.

John Doe: The band Catholic Discipline being chosen to be in the film was very strange. They probably played a dozen shows at the most, but Claude Bessy (Editor of Slash magazine and vocalist for Catholic Discipline) was incredibly influential.

Keith Morris: Claude could have been L.A’s Lester Bangs. I fucking worshipped the ground Claude walked on.

Lisa Fancher (Frontier Records: owner): Don’t even get me started on Claude Bessey! Catholic Discipline was not a real band and they totally sucked. He was some guy who wrote for Reggae magazines and started editing Slash to tell everyone what they could like and how to act. I couldn’t stand the guy! He was always telling people what was cool and what was not cool and I had a big problem with that. Everybody got along fine until there was this big schism caused by him where you couldn’t like a band like The Quick because Kickboy considered them ‘out crowd’.

John Doe: Claude was definitely not self-aggrandizing. He could be pretty humble and self-deprecating, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a lot of outrageous opinions. The self-deprecation and the crazy opinions are often in the same package when it comes to people of real talent.

Lisa Fancher: I’ve really tried to make sense of what The Decline is over the years because it can come off just like a giant commercial for Slash Records since X, Fear and The Germs were on the label and then there’s the long section where they are in the Slash magazine offices.

Penelope Spheeris: Fuck Slash! It wasn’t about Slash, bro! That’s a pretty wild guess on your part, but no! I was hanging out with the Slash people and I made a big section in the movie about them because they were a critical part of the scene.

Alice Bag: After the meeting with Penelope, the band met to discuss our impressions. I didn't want to do it. I figured the Go Gos had a good management team looking out for them and they must have a good reason for not being in the film. Patricia and Craig were always much wiser about business than I was and Terry and Rob were usually really easy going. The band felt that being in the film would give us greater exposure. I was the only dissenting voice so we signed up to do the taping.

Keith Morris: In the film, you have The Germs, Black Flag and Fear. Now, don’t forget Fear! The Germs, Black Flag and Fear were extremely aggressive bands, but Fear was from the valley, so they were important in bringing that suburban element into the scene.

Lee Ving: We had been around about a year when we ran into Penelope. We were slamming handbills in Laurel Canyon with a staple gun I had just bought and hoping to get a bunch of people to come to The Starwood to see one of our shows. And she (Penelope) comes tearin’ ass down Laurel Canyon and stomps on the brake and backs up and says, ‘Hey, do you guys wanna be in my movie?’

Keith Morris: There’s plenty of bands that weren’t filmed for The Decline that should have been like The Weridos, The Plugz and The Alleycats. Even The Adolescents could have been included. They would have brought in what was going on behind the orange curtain of Orange County back then.

Penelope Spheeris: I wish I would have been able to shoot The Screamers because I absolutely adored Tomato Du Plenty.

Keith Morris: Yes! That’s another band that should have been included, The Screamers! But the thing with the Screamers is they were almost deliberately mysterious. They never released any music in their time.

Nicole Panter: The Screamers—who might not have been asked – probably would have refused to be in it because they weren’t even putting out records like the rest of us were and they had this idea of completely controlling how they were seen in terms of what they put out into the world. Which deprives the youngsters of seeing a really great band, except on the occasional crappy video.

The Weirdos most definitely should have been in that film and there are all sorts of rumors as to why they were not. Hands down, the Weirdos were the best band in Los Angeles and nobody knows who they are now because they weren’t in that movie, which is a cultural tragedy.

Penelope Spheeris: I also wish we could have had The Mau Mau’s too because I absolutely adore Rick Wilder, and I still do.

Keith Morris: I had a role in booking the bands for the show The Circle Jerks played that ended up in the film. It was Fear, The Alice Bag Band, The Circle Jerks, The Gun Club, The Urinals and The Gears. I understand footage of The Gears from that night is in the extra footage of the DVD. I love The Gears, but The Gun Club really should have been on there. In regards to their recorded output and the influence, The Gun Club had influence on anyone from The Cramps to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds to The Scientists; it’s overwhelming. They could have put in The Middle Class in there too…we could go on and on! I can still think of twenty or thirty other bands that could have been in there.

John Doe: When the movie was made, L.A Punk Rock was transitioning from something very diverse, artistic, open and free to a more testosterone fueled thing with way more violence. In the beginning, it was way more diverse and free and artistic. That’s the one word I’d like to emphasis: artistic.

Chuck Dukowski: I think Penelope did a pretty good job of capturing what was going on right then with Black Flag and the kids coming in from the beach towns and the more mature bands that were still around who played The Masque.

Keith Morris: I like the juxtaposition of bands in the film. I think Penelope did a real great job with that. That’s what’s outstanding about ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’: it’s a smorgasbord. It’s not a McDonalds where you’re limited to what you can order. There’s all different stuff on the menu and it’s all happenin’. It was before the punk rock rule book had been written. I think she was consciously trying to present a bunch of bands from varying backgrounds.

Lisa Francher: They definitely caught this perfect moment in time of these two cultures rubbing up against each other.

Alice Bag: No, I don't agree. Although The Decline includes bands from the early scene as well as the developing hardcore scene, I don't think the essence of the early scene is captured in the film. Hardcore dominates the movie.

Chuck Dukowski: Bands like The Plugz and The Alleycats were very important bands early on, but by the time we got to that place in time where the film was being made, they weren’t as significant.

Alice Bag: It's true that the director was shooting during a transitional time when the Masque bands were fading and the beach bands were on the rise but there were still plenty of shows that could have been filmed where the original L.A. punk bands would kick sonic ass and whip a crowd into a frenzy.

Keith Morris: In the beginning of the L.A. Punk scene, it was pretty much a bunch of art students, film students and fashion students. They were creative minds that were looking at Sid Vicious and reading Melody Maker. They were anglophiles who were hanging onto whatever the British critics were saying about the bands over there. It was their party and guys like us coming from the South Bay weren’t welcomed to their party. For years and years, Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski and I would hang out at the Masque and we never felt like we belonged. Maybe because we looked like we just walked out of a van full of pot smoke in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert.

Chuck Dukowski: Personally, I felt good at The Masque. I enjoyed the shows and I never felt that crowd resented me. But a little later on, there was a reaction to the people coming from the beach to Punk shows. I remember going to see The Germs at Club 88 after work. On my car, I had a license plate frame around my license that said Hermosa Beach on it. I was sleeping in the car before the show because I was tired from work and was awoken by people outside of my car looking at my license plate and saying very loudly how horrible it was people from the beach were infiltrating their scene. They didn’t know I was inside and they vandalized my car and ripped that license plate frame clean off. That was my first dose of reaction for coming from the outside.

Lisa Fancher: I had been going to see music since the era of the Screamers and the Weirdos and, to be quite honest, the earlier LA Punk scene was aping a lot of what was going on in London. When the kids from the beach came in, there was definitely a feeling from the older people that was like ‘Those horrible teenagers!’ I wrote about the whole thing as a L.A. correspondent for New York Rocker as it was happening. I found the whole thing fascinating. I embraced those younger kids because they were really annoying to the older people and they loved to tweak the cops and cause problems. I was into it!

The kids from Orange County were trying to do their own thing which was huge compared to the older people who were following some other scene thousands of miles away. This wasn’t people putting electric tape on their clothes because they saw The Clash do it.

John Doe: Personally, I feel that the movie focuses a lot on the fury and power and teenage male dominated style of music that was coming into the scene. I don’t know; maybe the movie wouldn’t have been made if Penelope didn’t concentrate on that sensationalist side of things.

Alice Bag: There were many great bands in the early L.A. Punk scene who deserve recognition and I still hope that someday, someone will make a documentary and include all those very early, quirky, eclectic bands that got the scene started.

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 – "Destroy All Movies!: The Complete Guide To Punks On Film."