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Part III: The Complete Oral History of Legendary Rock Doc Series 'The Decline of Western Civilization'

In which Huntington Beach hardcore crews clash with the fun-loving, matriarchal Hollywood punk scene.

by Tony Rettman
Jun 24 2015, 6:00pm

All photos courtesy 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 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 entertainingThe 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.

Noisey will be running this oral history in parts, and this third installment will delves into what happened when an influx of kids from Huntington Beach came in to cause havoc on the Hollywood punk scene.

Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization: director): There was a clash between generations in the first Decline film.

Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks: vocalist): Black Flag and The Circle Jerks were from the South Bay about twenty-five mile south of Los Angeles. We were surrounded by surfers, skaters and hang gliders; the guys who would be the BMX riders, skateboarders and snowboarders of the future. Tony Alva and the people from Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach can be held responsible for the creation of stagediving and slam dancing. That’s what we brought to the table and the people of Hollywood were taken aback by this.

Penelope Spheeris: The reason I wanted to make the movie in the first place was because I had never seen anything like the slam dance pit before, and I was like ‘Oh man, we have to get this on film!’ The slam pit was what made me want to actually make the movie.

Nicole Panter (The Germs: manager): For me, the hardcore scene leeched all the fun out of our punk rock – it killed the Addams Family sense of humor that made it bearable and distinguished us from New York, London, or San Francisco. It muscled out so many of the girls who were involved out of things. The first generation of LA punk was a matriarchy that had a whiff of prankster that was completely lost when hardcore took over. Those boys had no sense of humor whatsoever.

Eugene Tatu (The Decline of Western Civilization: ‘Light Bulb Kids’ segment interviewee): Let me start off by stating that I was born in Hollywood. A lot, if not most people from the LA punk club, Masque, were from other towns or states. I knew many of the main Masque people quite well, going back to when I was thirteen and fourteen years old. However, my real crew was Huntington Beach. There were some Masque people that were probably jealous because we were fresh and energetic; not jaded New York-style heroin addicts like some of them. There was one sissy writing for the LA Weekly that detested us and made up some of the false talking points against Huntington Beach and Orange County that are still used by journalists today.

John Doe (X: bass player/vocalist): By the time the film was being made between 1979 and ’80, the scene had grown. Just by the law of averages, it was going to attract certain types of people. And some of those people were looking for trouble. But it’s not like The Circle Jerks or Black Flag could control who was coming to see them.

Eugene Tatu: If you mean trouble as in long-haired, middle-aged men with baseball bats, they came looking for us. It was not the other way around. But when they found us, they lost every time.

John Doe: Eugene was actually a sweet kid, but he had a very dark side.

Lisa Fancher (Frontier Records: owner): When those new kids from Huntington Beach came in is the first time I’ve ever seen one guy run away from an entire audience. There would be a hundred skinheads running down the street at one guy with long hair.

Penelope Spheeris: I think it just has to do with the overabundance of hormones when you’re eighteen years old. You either got to fight or fuck to get it out of your system. With the light bulb interviews, I just thought there should be a voice in there of the fans of punk. We would go to the shows and stand in the back of the room and just see how people were behaving. We would go up to the people that looked the freakiest and talk to them. Eugene was very hesitant to be interviewed. I just kept asking him and I’m glad he did because he’s a memorable character.

Eugene Tatu: I was at the interview filming and fully did not want to participate but people like Darby, Pat Smear and Darby Crash’s girlfriend Malissa insisted I do an Interview. After the film was released, people would stop me on the street for autographs and hot teenage girls would be waiting in my bed when I got home.

Lisa Fancher: Michael X-Head (another light bulb segment interviewee) was definitely one of the more violent people out of that new crowd.

John Doe: Now, that Mike X-Head guy was a fucking psychopath who was kicked out of the military. I remember him swinging a ten-foot dog chain over his head in the middle of a dance floor. He was a bona fide sociopath; a very fucked-up kid. Yes, things like someone swinging a dog chain in a crowded dance floor happened, but that was just one guy and one incident. People like him I guess were thrown into the film for shock value. Maybe that was the main goal of the film? Shock value and controversy.

Keith Morris: If you go to the county fair and see Garth Brooks play, you’ll be sure to have one or two drunk cowboys and some stupidity going on. There’s always someone with something to prove wherever you go. There was only a few guys on the LA punk scene at the time like Mike X-Head. But then there’s that guy in the interview segment wearing the swastika shirt saying "I Hate Cops To The Max!’" so there could have been some posturing there. I don’t think Penelope was trying to sensationalize or exploit anything. Maybe she was just going for the darker part of it.

John Doe: I understand why Penelope made the movie that she did, but it’s difficult for me to make a positive out of something that was presented so negative. The scene was totally fuckin’ happening and there was all kinds of shit going on and there was huge amount of creative energy blowing through it. To have all that freedom and creativity in one time and one place is rare and I just think the film presented it in this much darker and nihilist way. Maybe there’s enough little glimmers of the freedom and creativity in the film that it inspired some people to do cool things. I don’t know.

Alice Bag: Over the years, I've come to accept the film for what it is. It is called The Decline of Western Civilization, not The Golden Age of the Hollywood Punk Scene. The film was shaped by the director's vision, that's usually how it works. I didn't really like the film when I first saw it, in fact I walked out of the premiere screening because I couldn't bear to watch it. Now, I recognize the film's value, it has introduced a lot of people to punk and for many, it led to further exploration and research about the music and the ideology behind punk. My impression of Penelope has changed too. I applaud her for being strong, taking control and making the film she wanted to make.

'The Decline of Western Civilization Collection 'was released June 30th. It is available for order directly from Shout! Factory.