The Decline of Western Civilisation Review

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A non fiction chronicle of the late 1970s Los Angeles punk scene, highlighting major bands (X, Black Flag, Fear) and no-hopers alike.


‘This is a fucking movie representing fucking LA, so dance,’ shouts a singer at his audience, ‘you want people in Philadelphia to see a bunch of fucking deadbeats!’ Before embarking on the highs (Wayne’s World) and lows (The Beverly Hillbillies) of her career as a director of fiction films, Penelophe Spheeris made this loud, funny, horrific and frighteningly innocent rock documentary.

She films bands doing their stage acts and talks with them in their hovels, but it’s a selection of chilling to-camera interviews with young fans that are scariest (‘Michael X-Head’ explains that he beats people up because ‘I feel like I’m doing something I’m good at’).

Among the performers, Exene Cervenka of X (later Mrs Viggo Mortensen) and Claude Bessy of Catholic Discipline are the most articulate, and their songs are notably more complicated and intelligent than, say, the efforts of The Circle Jerks or Alice Black Bag. But you get the true rebarbative, obnoxious punk spirit from the abusive, macho, (satirically?) homophobic rants of Lee Ving of Fear or the mumbling, blatantly self-destructive and incapable Darby Crash of the Germs (dead before the film came out). Nicole Olivieri, manager of the Germs, could be working with Spinal Tap when she explains ‘it’s like being the mother of four three-year-olds.’

The music ranges from the excellent to the frankly appalling – the song titles probably say it all, ‘Depression’, ‘Revenge’, ‘Nausea’, ‘We’re Desperate’, ‘Back Against the Wall’, ‘Wasted’ and ‘I Don’t Care About You’. Followed by The Decline of Western Civilisation, Part II: The Metal Years and The Decline of Western Civilisation, Part III, both of which are similar mixes of valuable musicological document, social history, eardrum abuse and pre-The Osbournes lives-of-the-rich-and-fucked-up.

In turns irresistible and repellent...Fascinating.