Penelope Spheeris: The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection

Classic metal/punk doc finally comes to disc.

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A DVD/Blu-ray release for Penelope Spheeris’s groundbreaking Decline Of Western Civilization – a series documenting the LA punk scenes of the early 80s and late 90s, sandwiching a film about mid-80s metal – has been a long time coming.

In 2000 the website was launched, promising the three films were “coming soon to dvd & video!”, but the director’s reluctance to revisit her past or to release anything without it being perfect scuppered any possibility of a quick release. Fifteen years later it’s finally here.

The first DOWC film was made on a tiny budget, but captures perfectly the mayhem of early shows by The Germs, Circle Jerks, X and the Ron Reyes-fronted Black Flag. The interviews drag, but an extraordinarily antagonistic performance from Fear is a vivid, terrifying highlight.

For part II, Spheeris was given a real budget, and it shows: the editing is slicker and the stars bigger (Aerosmith, Kiss, Ozzy, Lemmy and Megadeth appear). But it’s the wannabes who leave the biggest impression. They’re filled with well-intended but deluded enthusiasm, tirelessly proclaiming their own talent, whereas the stars suggest that self-belief isn’t enough: they all appear so much smarter than the hopefuls. Even Ozzy.

Spheeris turned down the offer to direct Spinal Tap because she didn’t want to poke fun at the genre, but many of Decline II’s scenes have passed into tour-bus lexicon in the same way, from Ozzy’s (faked) orange juice spills to W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes’s drunken swimming pool cameo. It’s a thin line between being billed beneath a puppet show and club promotor Bill Gazzari attempting (and failing, humiliatingly) to get a crowd to chant the name of Odin, the band he predicts will be bigger than Van Halen.

The rarely seen third volume of the series is the bleakest, and the best. Made with Spheeris’s own money, it’s a film that shifts perspective halfway through, swapping the live performances and band interviews to focus on the “gutter punk” fan base.

All three films are made with great affection, but this is the only one that seems genuinely fearful for its subjects, and with good reason: the crazed euphoria of the first film has been replaced by bleak nihilism. While much of the second film is about hope, the third is entirely without it, and the postscript is tragic./o:p

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.