The Decline of Western Civilization, Parts I & II (1980 & 1988)

My first encounter with Penelope Spheeris’ series of music documentaries was an old VHS copy of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II – The Metal Years.  I was probably in high school, because I remember still being really into a number of the bands in the film.  I maybe saw it twice, and that was it.  Somewhere along the way I managed to catch the first installment on the L.A. punk scene as well.  For the longest time these, along with Part III that focused on the lives of gutter punks, were out of print, but in 2015 they finally made it to DVD in a box set format.  It was a trip watching these again after so many years, and I have to say that the whole series was way more of a downer than I remember it being when I first saw it as a teenager, at an age where I failed to grasp the pained look on the face of mother of W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes as she watched him drink himself into oblivion as he floated in a swimming pool at night.  There is an undercurrent of hopelessness that runs throughout the series.

I’ve kept my eyes open for the soundtracks to Parts I & II over the years, but never came across decent condition copies at reasonable prices.  That is until yesterday, when I found both over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records and greedily snatched them up (♠).

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The original The Decline of Western Civilization was recorded and filmed between December 1979 and May 1980 in Los Angeles, and represents a near-perfect confluence of people, time, and place, resulting in the capture of some of the most seminal bands of the early L.A. scene – pre-Rollins Black Flag, Germs, X, Circle Jerks, Fear… some heavy hitters.  And since these performances were being filmed for inclusion in a documentary, we’re treated to some surprisingly good quality sound recordings, a rarity in the world of early punk live material.  I particularly like the three songs by X, a band I haven’t listened to much but definitely need to – their rockabilly-punk style still holds up.  Alice Bag Band’s “Gluttony” is a strong contributor as well, raw as hell and in your face.

The album cover is very similar to the film poster, both featuring a collapsed and dead looking Darby Crash, a shot chosen prior to Crash’s death by suicide-by-heroin overdose in December 1980.  The image was unintentionally prophetic and Darby’s death can be viewed as the ending of both that brand of punk and the film, the inevitable nihilistic last page of the original L.A. punk scene as hardcore moved to the forefront.

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The Decline of Western Civilization Part II – The Metal Years is more familiar musical territory for me with it’s focus on metal bands in the late 1980s.  Much of it is hair and glam, though it also includes some heavier and longer lasting bands like Motörhead and Megadeath.  Some believe that the release of the film in 1989 directly contributed to the demise of glam metal by showing it’s ridiculous excesses and vapidity, but that seems like a big stretch to me – I’m not sure how many glam metal fans saw the film when it first came out, and personally it didn’t have any impact on me whatsoever.  It’s not like you couldn’t see ridiculousness of much of that scene just by watching MTV.

After looking at the jacket reverse, I began to question my memory a bit.  So I pulled out the DVD and watched it.  And it turns out my memory wasn’t wrong.

There are bands on the soundtrack who do not appear in the movie.

Now, I’m no metal historian.  But I’m from the Seattle area, so I know who Metal Church and Queensrÿche are.  And I don’t remember them being in this documentary.  And it turns out that’s because they aren’t.  But they’re on the record.

Um…

So I re-watched the credits – both those tracks are listed.  But the bands themselves are not featured in the film as far as I can tell, and that’s kind of relevant given that, you know, it’s a documentary about a music scene.  That seems a little cheap to me given that some of the bands who are featured in the movie aren’t even included on the soundtrack.  But it’s not only Metal Church and Queensrÿche who are questionable.  The opening track is a version of Alice Cooper’s “Under My Wheels” performed by Alice and members of GNR, and even that’s pushing it a bit because that song never appeared in the film… OK, to be fair, it appears… while the closing credits roll.  In fact the only reference I caught to GNR at all was the guys from London telling the camera that some of their former members are now in GNR.  So that’s a stretch too.

Look, there’s some great stuff on this record.  It just seems weird that some bands prominently featured in the film (i.e. Odin) are absent from the soundtrack, while bands that aren’t even part of the story at all are included.  That being said, it’s a pretty good late 1980s metal comp, so… whatever, man, this thing rocks pretty hard.  I’ll probably forget all about this once I wake up tomorrow morning, so whatever.

If you haven’t seen the Decline films, you need to rectify that situation, and do so immediately.  All three are brilliant documentaries and worthy of your time, so wait for a rainy day off from work, put a sixer in the fridge, and binge watch ’em all.  You can watch all three in less than five hours (and six beers… maybe…), so make it happen.

(♠)  I don’t believe I muttered the phrase “… my precious…”, but it’s distinctly possible that I did.

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