The Decline of Western Civilization Collection 1981/1988/1988
Starring: Germs, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, The Alice Bag Band, Fear, Alice Cooper; Lemmy, Poison, Aerosmith, KISS, the Mau Maus, and many, many others…
Movie: A | Picture: B | Sound: B | Extras: A
Asociological examination of a subculture? A celebration of a return to authentic rock after the excesses of the 70s? An attempt to create a moral panic? What, precisely, was ‘ The Decline of Western Civilization’?
This 100 minute movie is now considered a classic of music documentary film-making. If its format—bands playing, interspersed with informal, free-flowing interviews—seems familiar, that’s because it’s a standard that this movie helped to establish.
And the subject? Punk rock bands in the Los Angeles area at the turn of the decade from the 1970s to the 1980s.
I doubt we’ll ever be seeing audiophile releases of the music from most of these bands: Germs, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, The Alice Bag Band, Fear and the like. All the performances are live. All the performances are angry. The singers fling out words tunelessly, sometimes randomly. The riffs are basic, rarely inventive. As the movie progresses, the acts gradually become more professional. The opening section is in part concerned with why Darby Crash of Germs—who (apart from his pet tarantula) seems normal enough having breakfast in his kitchen—has to be so loaded when he sings. And why he seems incapable of singing into the microphone. Not discussed is why there is no tune.
It turns out that the Germs’ performance in this movie was even more chaotic and out of control than usual. The Germs album seems only vaguely related to what you see here.
And then there’s the violence. Bouncers and club managers discuss the fine distinctions between pogoing and actual violence. Some disaffected youths are given interview time in black and white, and they express their youthful disaffection, their apparent ennui and alienation, and their desire for and practice of violence. They are pathetic in the real meaning of the word. Near the end the group Fear goes on stage and taunts the audience cruelly and foully until a near-riot breaks out, after explaining that it was the first time they’d been allowed back in that venue due to a previous riot.
To answer the opening questions, Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ seems to be all three. The theatrical trailer calls it ‘the most shocking American youth movement in history’. A bit of moral panic there. But there were those lost youngsters. There was the fact that Crash was intentionally dead from heroin a couple of years later. Part-way through the show when asked why people love punk, Robert Biggs, editor of Slash Magazine, says, ‘Nothing else is going on. It’s the only form of revolution left, I think’.
So what is it with this revolution stuff? For me, music is about the music. In movies, in popular culture, in (dare I say it) many music critics’ writings, it is often about youth expression and rebellion and ‘sticking it to the man’. The progressive rock of the decade leading up to the time of this movie was soon to be—and remains—scorned as ‘pretentious’ and unauthentic. The technical proficiency of even pop acts was rejected. Punk is seen as a natural corrective—repeatedly over the decades—a rejection of prog rock’s ‘excesses’. It rejected not just the experimentation and complexity, but often also its musicality and competence. The documentary adds information that ought to help one understand the phenomenon of late 70s, early 80s punk, but it remains to me largely incomprehensible.
That’s only the first of three movies. Spheeris returned to these themes at least three more times, first with a follow-up drama called ‘Suburbia’ (1983), for which there’s a trailer (exercise caution for at least one gross-out scene therein), then ‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years’ (1988) and finally with ‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part III’ (1998).
The latter two are the main content on Discs 2 and 3 of this fourdisc collection. The fourth contains additional special extras. There are nearly eight hours of extra material, some of it duplicated.
Part III is closer in style to Part I than Part II, but seems more optimistic. The youths—the Punk fashion by this point seems to be a uniform of spiky, coloured hair—seem more self-aware, even self-mocking, than their equivalents of eighteen years earlier. And, of course, not everyone dies. Indeed, one panel discussion includes Lee Ving, the abusive singer from Fear, who seemed like a normal mid-forties regular guy. These days he’s 67 and his Wikipedia page lists his genres as Hardcore Punk… and Blues and Country!
The picture quality in the first movie is so-so, but clear enough. It improves in later ones (Spheeris wasn’t just some underground film maker—she also directed movies such as ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’). Time and again I see Blu-ray discs with enormous capacities carrying excessively compressed content, while much of the disc is left empty. It would seem a no-brainer to increase the average bit-rate and use as much space as is available. It might not necessarily improve quality, but it might, and there’s no cost involved.
With this release, that complaint simply cannot be made. Even the extra content, most of which is delivered with a mere 480i60 resolution, has a video bit-rate of 20Mbps, or some four or five times the rate normally used—except on the third disc where there is less content, so even more space. The extras there mostly get 30Mbps.
The movies themselves get 31Mbps (the first two) or 35Mbps. The picture quality is as good as the source permits.
The sound on the first movie is oddly scratchy. It’s not odd that it’s scratchy, but odd because the scratchiness sounds like that from a vinyl record, not from magnetic tape or an optical sound track. Weird.The first movie was shot in mono, the second in stereo and third in Dolby Stereo (i.e. surround). So the surround mix provided on the disc improves with time. The first involves nothing more than a bit of bleed. I preferred the two-channel mono mix for that one. Stephen Dawson