Depending on how drunk you were when you watched it for the first time, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is either an uproarious celebration of the 80s Sunset Strip scene in all its hedonistic glory or a fist-gnawingly embarrassing parade of idiots, bozos and no-hopers who didn’t have the brains to tie their own shoelaces in the morning.
Directed by acclaimed documentary maker Penelope Spheeris and originally released in June 1988, it swiftly became a cult classic (and an undeniable influence on a later Spheeris movie, Wayne’s World). But it remained unreleased on DVD until it finally got a long-deserved reissue as part of a box set with its less boneheaded predecessor, The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part I (which dealt with LA’s punk scene) and the belated third part, which addressed America’s homeless youth.
But it’s Part II on which the series’ legend is built – as well as that of the dying days of the Hollywood scene. These days, the mythology of that era now revolves largely around Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper, all of whom feature prominently in the film, but its most memorable moments and unforgettable utterances came from the era’s young hopefuls who never quite scaled the heights they dreamed of. Three decades on, the members of W.A.S.P., Faster Pussycat, London and Odin are still making music, still dreaming the dream and still unrepentant, despite having never reaped the rewards that they were utterly convinced would soon be theirs.
These are their stories, in their own words…
The Director: Penelope Spheeris
Brought up in her father’s travelling carnival, Penelope Spheeris was the ideal person to turn the camera on the three-ring circus that was the 80s/90s Sunset Strip scene. Her experiences on The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II would bear fruit when she went on to direct blockbuster comedy Wayne’s World.
Penelope Spheeris: “My family background was chaotic, so when I saw the punk thing happening in clubs I felt very at home with it. The second Decline movie came about because I saw the punk scene dying, the clubs shutting down and a whole new scene growing. I remember driving down Sunset Strip in my car, seeing all these strangely dressed people spilling out on to the sidewalk. With punk all the girls had looked like boys, but with metal the boys all looked like girls. I just knew I had to make another film, about these people.
“The first Decline had been made for about a hundred thousand dollars with money from a couple of guys who thought I was going to make a porn movie for them, but the second one I was able to get some money from Miles Copeland [manager of The Police, owner of IRS Records]. That one cost five-hundred thousand.
“Attempts were made to get me to include more of the mainstream, successful bands, but that wasn’t really what interested me. I found guys like Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. fascinating. I wasn’t sure, at the end of Chris’s interview, that I even had an interview but, you know, it wasn’t me that gave him the vodka. But I was also determined to get people like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth into the film, because those guys were different, kinda deeper than the others.
“There were certain things we had to manipulate. The sequence with Ozzy, that’s not really his house. And we faked the spilling of the orange juice. But Ozzy’s one of the funniest people alive. You just point a camera at him and off he goes. In a way, you can look at Decline II as the research and then Wayne’s World as the final product. Mike Myers is incredibly talented but he was also unbelievably difficult to work with.
“Four years ago I told my daughter Anna that I wanted her to come and work for me. She said: ‘Only if you do the Decline box set first.’ She hung around the LA music scene, she was very familiar with the clubs and the people, and so she knew there was an audience, a huge appetite, out there for those films. My first reaction was, oh my God, I can’t handle it. But in the end we went ahead with Anna in control. We found all the complete original interviews, additional live performances, re-edited them, cleaned up the film, added commentaries… And that’s what’s coming out.”
The Alcoholic: Chris Holmes
Chris Holmes, the towering guitarist with W.A.S.P., was central to the film’s most memorable scene, in which he mugged, hammed, drank and swore his way through an interview while perched precariously on a lilo in a swimming pool, watched by his evidently bemused mother.
Chris Holmes: “When Penelope asked me to be in the Decline movie, I went: ‘Why don’t you ask Blackie [Lawless, W.A.S.P. mainman]?’ She goes: ‘Well, he wants money. I don’t have the budget.’ So I agreed to do the interview.
“It was supposed to be on the Sunday, but Penelope called me Saturday morning and goes: ‘Can you film it today, Chris?’ I go: ‘I been up for three days, partying since I got home from London.’ And she goes: ‘Well, do you mind?’ And I go: ‘No.’ And right when I was goin’ out the door, my mom pulled up. I said: ‘Mom, I gotta do this interview.’ Well, she didn’t have anything else to do so she just came along.
“I haven’t been drinkin’ since 1996. I went on an aversion therapy program to quit drinkin’. It’s not the taste that turns me off, it’s what it does to you. If I was still drinkin’ I’d be dead now. I guarantee you that.
“You want to know the truth? I was never happy in W.A.S.P. (Long sigh) I had the thumb on me, controlling me. Blackie was always threatenin’ me to be thrown out or this or that, and on top of it the person was jealous of me bein’ me. I never realised that until the last day I ever saw him, when he told me that right to my face. Now, when I see people in young bands I tell them not to trust each other. When you do a record deal, don’t trust anybody, especially your best friend. If money comes in the situation it changes everything. I go: ‘The closest person to you, there’s a chance he might screw you over.’ They look at me like I’m nuts. But I’ve been doin’ it a long time. I know.
“I’m lucky, my dad and mom are still goin’. I’d never written my mom a letter. And the other day I was sittin’ here, thinkin’, because my parents were separated when I was two. And in the letter I said: ‘Mom, I’m sure you’ve always wondered in the back of your mind if you brought us kids up right.’ Then I just wrote: ‘After getting to fifty-five, I’ve realised I had the best upbringing of anybody I know. I wouldn’t have changed it for nothin’ in the world. I love you, Chris.’”
The Player: Tuff’s Stevie Rachelle
Oshkosh, Wisconsin-born Steven Hanseter was a teenage skater who grew up on punk rock, before Mötley Crüe provided his Road To Hair Metal Damascus moment and he rechristened himself Stevie Rachelle. While his band, Tuff, never made it to the very top of the Sunset Strip food chain, Rachelle’s can-do attitude helped him weather the hard times of the 90s.
Steven Hanseter: “I’m forty-nine years old, never been a smoker, never been drunk. I’ve never rode a motorcycle or done one single line of cocaine. I was more interested in spending time in the gym; more a jock than a rocker.
“Being a skateboarder, I was into punk and new wave, like 999, The Specials, Devo. But then I saw Mötley Crüe on the Shout At The Devil tour and Van Halen on the 1984 tour. That’s when I became enveloped by the idea of becoming a rock singer. My hair started getting longer, I wore leather pants, bracelets, eyeliner and all that, but I liked a good night’s sleep and drinking orange juice at breakfast. My vice was women.
“I played in bands in Wisconsin, but then I saw a flyer for Tuff, with pictures of them all except for one empty square in the middle, where it said: ‘Wanted – Lead Singer/Frontman’. They were looking for a David Lee Roth, Vince Neil type, which I was. So I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket for a hundred and nine dollars from Chicago to LA-X. Within a couple of days I auditioned, and got the job. Six weeks later we opened up for Warrant at The Roxy. That was our first show together. Being on stage in Tuff was a licence to kill, as far as getting girls. By the time Penelope interviewed us for Decline we were one of the hottest bands on the Strip. She put us in the movie and it absolutely put us on the map.
“If you went out on the Strip on a Saturday night in those days to The Rainbow, The Roxy, Gazzari’s, it was like a madhouse. There was as much going on in the street as there was inside the clubs. Penelope was out on the Strip with her camera crew, and she walked up to us and started interviewing us and then got our contact information. She knew we had something, so she interviewed us for the movie.
“People really remember the movie, especially Chris Holmes drinking the vodka in the pool, and the guy from Odin sitting in the hot tub saying that if he didn’t get as big as Robert Plant he was gonna kill himself. Of course, he’s still not as big as Robert Plant, but he hasn’t killed himself yet.
“The pinnacle for Tuff was getting on to the MTV Countdown. We were the number-three video with I Hate Kissing You Goodbye in September 1991, but right around then Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit. Suddenly there were grunge bands, like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, on the MTV Countdown, in the magazines, on the radio. So just as we were beginning to make an impact, they came along and we had no chance. We’d had a ten-year run, but by 1995 we were playing to forty people some nights. I remember a show in Ohio, we played for free and two people came. The promoter said we didn’t have to play, so we just hung out and played basketball. At the end of 1995 the band came to an end.
“I did a solo album, but I couldn’t even get it reviewed. I was starting to hear about this stuff called the internet. ‘A website? What’s that?’ Nobody knew. But I noticed that Metal Edge was listing contact details for artists by email. Nikki Sixx’s email address was in there. So I came up with this idea for a website called Metal Sludge, where we would make fun of the eighties, a very affectionate piss-take. In the first week we had twenty people look at it, and a year or two later were were getting twenty-five thousand a day. It’s still active today.
“I now have two children, I still do twenty to thirty shows a year with Tuff, and I play with a band out of Germany called Shameless. I keep myself active.”
The Nearly Men: London
Of all the bands to emerge from the Sunset Strip of the 80s, few had as many future superstars as London – members of Guns N’ Roses and Cinderella passed through. Guitarist Lizzie Grey (born Stephen Perry) was the band’s linchpin, while Nadir D’Priest, aka Nadir Munoz, was their frontman during the Decline period.
Lizzie Grey: “London became like a launching pad for rock stars. In the Decline movie, that was what I call London 2, with Nadir D’Priest as our vocalist. That was difficult, because Nadir was hungry to have one of those heavy metal record deals, but chasing deals by trying to prove how metal you are wasn’t where I wanted to be at.
“In retrospect, everybody talks about it real fondly, but at the time bands were fightin’ like cats and dogs, steppin’ on one another. That went on into the nineties, when suddenly along came the guys from Seattle. Grunge absolutely ended it for London. We were already oddballs, even within the scene, because I was so seventies-influenced.
“I left London to do my own band, Ultra Pop, which was more Marc Bolan-influenced. And that has kind of evolved into my current band, Spiders And Snakes, where we’ve really embraced our seventies roots. I still play a lot with Spiders And Snakes, but I have a medical condition, Parkinson’s, which makes it hard to control your muscles. I can’t play guitar any more, so now I’m the singer. Some days I can’t get to rehearsals. I want to go but my brain can’t tell my body to move. I’ll get stuck in the hallway because I can’t get my legs to move. You end up wanting to scream. I get dizziness, I get the shakes in my hands. Now I can’t wash a dish, can’t button my shirt. I’m not cryin’ about it, though, because the bottom line is I can still get on the stage, and when that first chord hits, man, I’m alive again.”
Nadir D’Priest: “In the mid-eighties a lot of other bands saw us as a threat because we had such great ideas. Like, we had a seven-foot-high drum riser with a girl dancing underneath it. But it caused all kinds of problems. When we supported Poison in 1986 in San Diego they did not want the riser, they wanted it down. One of the security guards started trying to get his hands on me, but our manager happened to have a nice, compact nine-millimetre pistol, pulled it out and told this guy to back the the fuck off. That was just one situation. We had several.
“We were pretty massive when we appeared in the Decline movie. It showed exactly what was going on in our lives. Under that chair in the movie, there was blow and weed and all that shit, and we’d been partyin’ it up and havin’ a great time. Sure, the film gave London a huge push.
“I remember hanging out with Penelope at the Cat Club in New York for the release party. I believe I was smokin’ hash with Dave Mustaine. And there were all these bodyguards around and I didn’t know who they were with, and it turned out to be Malcolm Forbes [multimillionaire publisher of Forbes magazine]. The movie got so much publicity that it couldn’t have hurt anybody’s careers. It got your face out there and you got to be seen.
“I carried London on even after Lizzie left. I don’t know what I was thinkin’. Then, in the early nineties, I got this job, via my friend Bruce Kirkland who had a multimedia company called Second Vision. IBM had approached the Rolling Stones and said: ‘We’ll give you guys two million dollars if you let us do the title [Voodoo Lounge CD-ROM]. You get two million and we’ll handle everything else.’ But The Stones go: no, we want this long-haired guy and his team to handle our shit. So then I had an amazing time hangin’ out with Ronnie and the boys.
“We stopped London/D’Priest in 1992 after our manager deserted us. Our bus was confiscated, all our gear, all our shit, we were left in a hotel with our rooms already due. All we had was a bag of weed, two bottles of booze and our guitar player’s credit card. But now we’re back again. We’re doing gigs, we recorded a live album last year, and played some shows in Germany and Switzerland. We’ll shortly be recording tracks for the next London album.”
The No-Hopers: Odin
Like many of the bands featured in The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II, Odin were already legends in their own minds by the time the film crew arrived. But between their notorious on-screen appearance in a hot tub and the film’s release, the band had broken up, with guitarist Jeff Duncan going on to join LA metal linchpins Armored Saint, of which he’s still a member.
Jeff Duncan: “From what I remember, Penelope Spheeris contacted our manager at the time. She was lookin’ for bands that were staples on the LA music scene, and Odin certainly was that. We were filmed in a hot tub. As far as how we were and what we did, how we lived, it was pretty accurate – party all the time. We participated in all of that stuff that was going on. We were young and stupid but, no, we didn’t always hang out in a hot tub.
“I said I’d end up on Skid Row if we didn’t make it. But what people remember is that our singer [Randy O] said he’d kill himself if he didn’t get as big as Led Zeppelin, but that was the mind-set of the time: ‘I’m gonna do this no matter what.’ And we were very young. I was only twenty-two when the band broke up. We were just doing the same things and having the same attitude as everybody else did, but we just happened to get put in a movie.
“A couple of years ago I moved out to Las Vegas. It’s cheaper to live in Vegas, and there’s lots of work out here and a great club scene. As well as Armored Saint I also have my own band, DC4. We’ve done three albums and we’re doing another one at the end of the year.
“We did do an Odin reunion in 2003, played a Monsters Of Rock Cruise ship, and a bunch of other gigs, but I don’t think we’d do that again. I certainly don’t wanna do it unless it’s the full original band, and Randy O doesn’t seem interested. But never say never.”
The Movers & Shakers: Faster Pussycat
As the singer in Faster Pussycat and co-founder of the notorious, heroically debauched Cathouse club, Seattle-born Taime Downe – or Gustave Molvik to his parents – was perfectly placed to witness the rise and fall of the Sunset Strip scene. For a while his band even challenged Guns N’ Roses for the crown of Kings Of Hollywood.
Taime Downe: “When Faster Pussycat started, Mötley and Ratt had already taken off, and newer bands like Poison were playing the Strip. There was us, Guns N’ Roses, Seahags, Jetboy, and we were all good friends. Axl and Izzy were at our very first show. I remember lookin’ out and thinking: ‘Who the fuck is this dude dancin’ in the middle of the floor?’ Of course, it was fuckin’ Axl.
“So, about this time, I was roommates with a DJ, Riki Rachtman, and we started up our own little rock club, The Cathouse, mainly because we wanted to have a party every night but we didn’t want to clean up afterwards. We got all our friends to come, and they’d bring their friends and it started to snowball. A couple of the Brat Pack actor kids were also friends, and that brought in other elements. After a few weeks the club was packed.
“Penelope Spheeris was a friend of friends, and we ended up shooting our section at The Cathouse. We already had our deal with Elektra Records, and we’d just finished doing the first album, but it hadn’t been released yet when we did the interview. I’m sure that movie did enhance our career. It was accurate. That was our shit.
“By the time The Cathouse was up and running we were off, constantly touring. Elektra kept us on the road. They treated us really good, but I’d been shoved into the industry for the first eight years of my adult life. And then the grunge thing happened. A lot of these guys were my buddies from growing up in Seattle, so I was pleased to see them getting success. I went to school with the guys from Alice In Chains.
“I didn’t think grunge would kill our shit, but it did pretty much. The record companies dropped all of our shit; crazy hair and make-up kind of went away. Faster Pussycat broke up in 1993, because the whole scene had changed. I couldn’t see any point in sitting round writing the same thing again. That’s why I went to Chicago and played with the guys in [industrial band] Pigface. It was good to make a change. And because it was not my band, I really enjoyed being able to kick back a bit and be more carefree.
“I came back from Chicago after the Pigface thing and started doing The Newlydeads with some friends here in LA. Then, just as Newlydeads was starting to take off, we got offered a new record deal for Faster. We toured with L.A. Guns in 2001. Now we tour at least three months out of every year. We’re constantly working. We’ll be doing that big Cathouse Live show at Irvine Meadows that Riki is puttin’ together. I still talk to him a lot. This summer we’re going to ride our motorbikes down to Florida together.”