Perhaps the only true cinematic representation of the early (U.S.) Punk scene, Penelope 'Waynes World' Spheeris' 'The Decline Of Western Civilization' may not be anything like a definitive word on the subject but it remains a fascinating, funny, and sometimes horrifying, look at the earliest days of Punk music in America.
Shot in and around Los Angeles in 1979, and mostly on handheld cameras, the movie has a certain Cinema Verité quality that really takes you in amongst the audience, and the bands when at home or rehearsing. The film was heavily criticised when first released for appearing to be shooting at sitting ducks; many fans are interviewed as talking heads under a single lightbulb, often spouting nonsense or incomprehensible drivel. As we often don't hear the questions asked, this shows the interviewees in a bad light and could be deemed subjective editing. However, as we now know that Spheeris was a fan of the music and the scene, this seems unlikely and we should just accept that this is what those interviewed were generally like.
And what of the music?
Well some of the music featured isn't very good at all to be honest, although it's energy and anticonformism makes it really refreshing. The bands featured include The Germs, Fear, X, Circle Jerks and a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag.
Black Flag are shown living in a grimy squat where they rehearse, as well as live and sleep. The music hasn't quite reached the levels of quickfire intensity that would burst out when Henry joined them, but there's still a scratchy, nervous energy about them that must have really stood out in the blissed-out, coke-heavy, LA music scene.
The Germs provide the most interesting section of the film, all for the wrong reasons. The band onstage are AWFUL, mostly due to vocalist Darby Crash being completely out of it. Virtually unable to stand upright, Crash continually falls on his backside, slurring gibberish into the mic and allowing people in the crowd to scrawl all over him in black marker.
We later cut to him at home as he prepares breakfast, and he comes across as a nice-but-dim goofball, all softly spoken and wide-eyed innocent but with occasional flickers that lead you to suppose he may be a little damaged.
Tragically, Darby died before the movie was even released. What is known is that, shortly after the live footage of him was shot, he went to London, following in the footsteps of his idol Sid Vicious. While in London, Darby allegedly saw the pre-fame Adam & The Ants with whom he became quite smitten. Back in LA, Darby changed his look and image and came out as gay, something he had always tried to hide, always leaving clubs with girls etc. It's believed by those who knew him that he was never able to accept fully that he was gay and that this led to his suicide. When the movie was released, the poster featured Crash lying on his back, eyes shut, and with the mic cable in his mouth. This was seen as absolute bad taste by some, but it was pointed out that the poster had been designed before Darby had died, and that his family and friends had okayed the decision.
Next, we drop in on the creators of Slash fanzine, one of the first Punkzines in the U.S. Edited by Frenchman Claude Bessy, we see how a fanzine was put together in the days before mobile phones, the internet or even word processors. There seems to be a real vibrant energy about the staff collating the info, but you get the impression that Claude may well be just a little long in the tooth and is merely a 60s burnout trying for a second youth.
Claude also sings in the band Catholic Discipline who are actually very good (if already drifting into what we would call New Wave), and feature on guitar Phranc, who would later become a major voice in Lesbian music and who was much beloved of Morrissey, even opening for The Smiths on one of their American tours.
Aside from Black Flag, X are probably the most well known of all the bands who appear in the movie. Led by Exene Cervenka and John Doe, who have both had long careers in music as well as films, they are almost without doubt the best of the bands featured in the movie. And while being interviewed they also come across as more sussed and savvy than any of the others featured, although you do get the feeling that maybe they are underplaying their music slightly for the Punk audiences and that they can't wait for Post-Punk to happen so that they can make the music they truly want to make.
And then Fear come to town!
I don't really know much about Fear, and I don't think they really caught on much beyond the Californian Punk scene, but it's obvious that the audience have been waiting for them; not to cheer and support them, but to indulge in bad tempered badinage. I have never seen audience/band interaction so nihilistically aggressive as when Fear take to the stage. Spitting, insults, fistfights (including girls being punched and kicked) all breakout before the band have even played a note. But it appears the band's reputation goes before them, or certainly before their music, for once they eventually start playing, the end result is quite disappointing. Straight (almost Pub-)Rock played by ill tempered men who are clearly older than they are pretending to be, you can't help feeling that Fear are mere fakes.
And this is the overall problem with the whole movie. Obviously, nobody at the time knew that Punk would have such a lasting influence over music or culture, that there is a dismissive attitude by almost evetyone involved, on either side of the camera, or even on or off stage. Punk is seen as a cipher for bored teens to let out all their rage and bitterness, but not against society or authority, but upon each other. It's obvious, to me at least, that Americans saw Punk in an entirely different light to that which we in Britain did. That's why the energy of the early (American) Punks led not to such things as Post-Punk, Two-Tone, Industrial Music, the New Romantics or BIG Pop, but instead became bogged down in self indulgent Art-rock, or humourless one-dimensional hardcore. Instead of using Punk's energy to propel itself forward, it imploded into self-loathing and vitriol.
Sadly, the movie doesn't exist on DVD at the moment, but bootleg copies are fairly easy to track down, the home-made quality often adding to it's scuzzy appeal.
Not exactly a movie for music lovers then, but a fascinating document of a movement in it's genesis.