Inside 10 Iconic 'Decline of Western Civilization' Scenes - Rolling Stone
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Inside 10 Iconic ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ Scenes

Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris looks back as her L.A. rock trilogy readies itself for a box-set reissue

Black Flag

Black Flag

Penelope Spheeris

"It's been a year of pure hell," filmmaker Penelope Spheeris says with a laugh. The director, whose credits include Wayne's World and Black Sheep, has finally emerged from the depths of turning her celebrated three-part hardcore-punk and heavy-metal documentary series, The Decline of Western Civilization, into a comprehensive box set.

The collection, which has been restored using 2K technology and includes commentary from Dave Grohl, extended interviews and more, marks the first time the films have been made available officially on DVD. "Making this was totally psychologically unnerving because I had to watch my whole life flash in front of me," she says. "But it's like, 'That's it, I'm never gonna be doing another box set in my whole life so I've got to get it right.'"

She did her films justice. As stand-alone documents, they respectively capture the nascent aggression of California hardcore, the poofed-hair pomp of Hollywood heavy metal and the squalor of life as a gutter punk. The original Decline contains rare footage of the Germs live and Black Flag at their squat, the second finds Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast and Aerosmith living soberly and the third focuses on smaller bands of homeless punks who somehow manage to meet up for practice. They offer definitive looks at turning points in underground music while showing both the upsides and downsides of fame – often with a sense of humor. For Spheeris, it's also a testament to how she grew up.

"I was always going out the clubs and seeing the punk bands," she says of how the first 1981 doc came about. "When punk started happening, I said, 'OK, this is it for me.' I had a music video company at that point, and I was working for the record companies doing videos for the Staple Singers, Funkadelic, Doobie Brothers and all kinds of old bands, but I learned how to shoot music from doing those music videos, way before MTV. I said, I gotta make a movie about this punk scene. So whenever I would rent the record equipment for the record companies, I'd go moonlighting out the clubs and shoot the bands that I wanted to shoot. Screw the corps, right?"

At a certain point, Spheeris started seeing "these guys with the torn-up jeans, bandanas and long hair with hairspray"; she and her friends would laugh at them, watching punks and metalheads brawl in parking lots. But eventually, as the Sunset Strip's version of metal ascended, she realized she had the makings of a sequel – 1988's The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. "It was pretty organic," she says. "I had to grow my hair out." And then she was similarly inspired for 1998's The Decline of Western Civilization III when she saw packs of kids walking down sidewalks in L.A. "I looked at them and said, 'Jeez, that looks like a whole other punk movement going on,' so I stopped them and said, 'What's up with you? I'm gonna make The Decline Part Three,' she recalls. "They said, 'No, Penelope has to do that.' I said, 'I am Penelope.' 'OK, cool, let's go get some beer.'"

Spheeris says that she's working on a fourth Decline film with her daughter, Anna Fox. "I have to keep the subject matter top secret because otherwise I'm vulnerable to other people trying to do something similar," she says, adding that it will be music-themed. "Let me just say I think it's gonna be kind of jaw-dropping."

But for now, the filmmaker is still reveling in the films she has made and how well they hold up now. With the box set slated to come out on June 30th, the director selected 10 clips from all three Decline of Western Civilization films and explained what they meant to her in the pages that follow. What's clear is how, even with years between them, they all add up to a bigger portrait.

"It turned out beyond my expectations," she says of the box set. "I'm not saying that as a selling point because that's not why we did it. But I like that it's done. It was a terrible burden to have, to have everybody asking for all these years. I'd ask my daughter to come to work with me and she goes, 'OK, but the first thing we have to do is the Decline DVDs.' And I'm like ah fuck, 'I can't do it man.'" She laughs.

Black Flag

‘Decline I’: Black Flag’s Crib

"I thought the place where the group lived was gorgeous. It didn't smell like beer and it didn't look like puke, like the clubs did; it looked like a piece of art and was probably the coolest place that I've ever seen. They didn't use the word 'squat' back then — and they were paying little bit of money to whoever owned it — but it was truly a squat.

"The other thing about that scene is onstage, these bands are supposed to be aggressive assholes – and [Fear frontman] Lee Ving proved that left and right – but they're not really, though. A lot of that was just about tearing down the rules of traditional rock & roll. They never wrote love songs because everyone did that. They bad-rapped everybody onstage because nobody did that. They changed the guitar riffs to being [quickly] 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 because everyone went [slowly] 1, 2, 3, 4 before that. Everything there was to be torn down, that's what punks wanted to do. With Black Flag, it's about a contrast. Onstage it's like [the song 'Revenge'], 'It's not my imagination, I've got a gun on my back!' Then it's like, OK, dude!"

George Rose/Getty Images

RESEDA, CA - 1982: Lee Ving, of the punk band "Fear," performs in a 1982 Reseda, California, concert staged at the Country Club. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

‘Decline I’: Fear Cause a Fight

"Fear always insulted people to piss them off. But I had never seen [singer Lee Ving] punch out a chick before, and that was kind of brutal. Today, I think, Lee kind of regrets it a bit. I know that he has changed his attitude on a lot of subjects. My daughter, Anna, still goes to these shows and tells me about how some guy will jump up onstage and do a Hitler sieg heil thing — and Lee will stop the show and get him the hell out of there. So with age comes wisdom I supposed.

"At that show, I was shooting one camera, and then [cinematographer] Steve Conant was shooting the other. He was right down in the middle of the mess, and I think that's why it feels so threatening and immediate because of his camera. After we shot that he said, 'I'm gonna need a shark cage if you're gonna ask me to do this anymore.' It was pretty gnarly, but that was the excitement of it."


‘Decline I’: The Germs Cut Loose

"These bands had a certain amount of showmanship, good ol' theatrics. Not to say that they didn't mean it, and not to say that they didn't have their own style going, but they're up in front of an audience and they're entertaining people. Darby in the Kitchen was just Darby, you know? He was gentle, and his friends loved him.

"I also want to add that there's a scene in my movie Suburbia where the girl passes away and then the kids take her body back and give it to her parents. I wrote that scene because Darby's brother died and the punk kids brought him back and put him in the front seat of her car. So Darby's mother, Faith Baker, had two sons die of a drug overdose. I was sitting right next to her at his funeral, and man, you should have heard that woman wail. I think she really lost it after that. But Darby was a very sweet, kind person — funny, charismatic, and a very, very amazing, unique personality."

Steven Tyler, Aerosmith

‘Decline II’: Aerosmith Get Serious (Sort Of)

"When we were gonna shoot that day, we were all charged up, like, 'Oh my god, Aerosmith is coming down!' And then right when they were supposed to be there, some other guys come in, and we're like, 'What's going on?' Well, these guys were there to check all of the areas that we were shooting in. They were, like, putting their fingers down in the cushions of the couch and everything, trying to make sure that there wasn't any dope stashed for them there. They were serious, man. I'm surprised they didn't pat us all down. They were like the narcs or something.

"I hope [Joe Perry and Steven Tyler] are doing OK now [with drugs]. I know they go off and on."

Lightbulb kids

‘Decline II’: Sunset Strip Metalheads Dream Big

"This scene just shows the way people thought back then. They thought that the mind was so powerful that if you believed it, it would happen. And I think that some people still think that way, but it didn't happen with most of those kids. But they're doing fine. I mean, we're all doing fine considering how many people there are in the world and what a mess it is — it's pretty amazing that we're all doing as well as we are."

Michael Uhll /Redferns

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of WASP; Chris Holmes performing live on stage (Photo by Michael Uhll /Redferns)

‘Decline II’: W.A.S.P. Guitarist Chris Holmes Throws a Pool Party

"I don't remember if the pool was my idea or Chris's idea, but it was my idea to have his mom come down, 'cause I knew Sandy [Holmes]. She looks like she knows how far she can go with what she says to him. Like, she can't be too critical or he's just gonna go off on her.

"I didn't know he was going to be as drunk as he was. When we finished the interview, I took [cinematographer Jeff] Zimmerman behind a tree and said, 'I don't got this interview. We're gonna have to film him again.' But the great thing about doing documentaries is you just have to let them lead you. It turned out to be the most memorable thing.

"What I liked about the scene is you had all these younger kids talking about how they were gonna make it, but Chris was sort of an example of, 'OK, I made it. Are you sure you want this?' That's why I liked it just from a filmmaker's standpoint. It counterbalanced all those crazy dreams that those kids had that were not gonna happen. It was a reality check.

"By the way, the first half of the bottle of vodka was real, and after that he was filling it up with pool water."

Ozzy Osbourne

UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 02: Photo of Ozzy OSBOURNE and BLACK SABBATH; with Black Sabbath, performing live onstage, (Photo by Colin Fuller/Redferns)

Colin Fuller/Redferns

‘Decline II’: Ozzy Osbourne Spills the Juice

"We didn't shoot that at Ozzy's place – it was in the house of one of the producers – [though] Sharon did say 'This actually looks like our kitchen.' But he felt at home there and his robe was a prop, and I know you're gonna ask me about the orange juice, and yes I faked it. [Laughs] I'll cop to it right now. He had walked out of the room, and I had a grip or a dolly pusher or whatever pour the orange juice. 'Cause I remembered in the interview when he said 'We took a lot of valium and marijuana' that he was pouring orange juice, so I said, 'We'll just fake it here.' It gets a huge laugh. It's foreshadowing Wayne's World humor."


‘Decline III’: Eyeball Explains Life on the Streets

"He's talking about squatting. I'm always fascinated by the fact that I wrote Suburbia in 1982, and in 1997, people were doing exactly the same thing as those people in '82. And they look the same. I'm just fascinated by those squatter punks: They make their own families, and they really know how to survive on a can of beans and a Swiss army knife.

"This is my favorite movie of all the movies I've done in my life, and I think it's because it has some substance to it. It's very depressing; the movie really illustrates that there are so many parents that never should have had children. But if you look closely, it can teach a lesson about how we can try to help the kids that are out there. There are so many that are totally just out on the street and they're just teenagers still."


NEW YORK - AUGUST 1992: Musician Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers poses shirtless in his hotel room for a portrait, while holding his guitar and wearing a baseball cap which says "Cube" in August 1992 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

‘Decline III’: Flea Revisits His Punk Past

"The first time I ever saw Flea, he was 19 years old, and I was over at Lee Ving's house. Lee's a very good cook. You'd never think it when you look at him. But he's Italian, he made some lasagna, and Flea was floating around from house to house, doing the couch tour; he was gobbling the lasagna like he was so hungry. I looked at him and he smiled at me [with] that big crack in his front teeth, and I thought, 'You know, this kid's a star.' I put him in Suburbia and the Dudes movie. And then, God bless him, he went on to be what he is today. But he's a very, very generous and giving person. He's not an asshole like some of these guys are that do well. I have huge amount of respect for Flea.

"I credited him in the scene as 'Ex–Bass Player of Fear' because to me, that's what he is. He's a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Yeah? So what. He's a multi-millionaire? So what. He's the ex–bass player in Fear. That's where he came from. The first time I saw those guys, they were wearing socks at a strip club – that's all they had on, socks, and they weren't on their feet."

Keith Morris

INDIO, CA - APRIL 19: Singer Keith Morris of OFF! performs onstage during day 2 of the Coachella Music Festival at The Empire Polo Club on April 19, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic)

Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

‘Decline III’: Keith Morris Proves He’s No Longer a ‘Little Prick’

"The thing about this scene that I like is that if you if you think about the kids in Decline II who really had to make it or they were never gonna be happy, and then you see what Keith has done. . . You know, Keith is not at the level of, say, Dave Grohl or something but he's well known. He's done what he loves to do for his entire life, and that, to me, is what's important. It's not about making the money and having crowds chase you so you can't go out in public. It's about feeling good that you did the work and I think the great thing about Keith is that he's at peace with that. He's a really good example for kids to look at and say, 'You know, he's a real musician.' And he's still doing it with that band Off! I knew Keith when he was a little prick. [Laughs] He used to be a real jerk, to use a pun — but he has evolved. Of all the people, Keith Morris and Flea have evolved more than anybody I know in these movies."

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