Recommended additional reading: Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad; Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
By Brett Ballard-Beach
June 21, 2012
Recommended additional viewing: Urgh! A Music War (1981) directed by Derek Burbidge; Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982) directed by Lou Adler
Although I didn’t intend it, my timing in discussing this week’s film has proved to be fortuitous. Adam Shankman, director of Rock of Ages, revealed in a recent interview that part of his prep work in doing historical research for the era of the film (late ‘80s Sunset Strip in Los Angeles), consisted of watching Penelope Spheeris’ 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. He even borrowed from Spheeris’ interview with Kiss’ Paul Stanley for visual inspiration in the film’s introduction to rocker Stacee Jaxx, meant to be a fictional embodiment of the archetypal glam/hair/highly theatrical metal outfits that ruled the Billboard charts from approximately 1983 (success of Def Leppard’s “Pyromania”) to 1990-91(commercial arrival of grunge via Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Nirvana, et al)
The latter half of that time span - roughly my junior high through my early high school years - is about when I started listening to top 40 radio on a daily/nightly basis, tracking two separate top 40 countdowns weekly and transcribing them by hand. Poison, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, Guns N’ Roses and the commercial revival of Aerosmith (led by the freshly detoxed Toxic Twins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry) were staples of the airwaves. If you were to have been listening in on my daily 45-minute bus ride from Sisters to Redmond during the fall of ’89, you probably would have heard me belting out “Love in an Elevator,” in part because I often sang aloud to the radio, and also because there was a senior I had a crush on, and that was one of her favorite songs at the time.
I mention that personal aside for two reasons. Firstly, by way of explaining that there is very little nostalgic appeal for me of the songs of that ilk. Not because I no longer like them, or because they remind me of a “once upon a time about a girl” but because I have been listening to them for 25 years: on the radio, on CDs, on greatest hit compilations, at ‘80s dance nights or parties, at karaoke, or simply singing them out loud to myself. They are in my bloodstream and omnipresent. There is no ”then” they still come from to return to.
Secondly, I find the idea of Rock of Ages to be almost as weird as the reality of Spheeris’ documentary. Continuing with my “out of time” experience described above, viewing the film for the first time today (on a DVD-R that is simply a copy transfer of the out-of-print video) is like catching up with a time capsule that the city fathers decided didn’t need to be buried. (Perhaps the strangest thought to pop in my head is that a good chunk of the artists profiled as current successes in the film have starred on some type of reality show in the last decade.) After seeing her work, I imagined that someone involved with Rock of Ages would almost out of necessity need to view The Metal Years, if they were intent on capturing a particular level of tamed PG-13 appropriate debauchery - somewhere, say, to the right of Glee but far, far to the left of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (An amusing aside: Spheeris supposedly turned down the chance to follow up The Decline of Western Civilization with directing This is Spinal Tap, because she didn’t see how anyone could parody or satirize heavy metal music.)
I should mention here that it was my initial intention to simply watch The Metal Years (which I did end up doing twice), but having never seen 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization and, in fact, being guilty of actively putting it off for decades, I went back to the video store the next day to get it. This is how I discovered that there is actually a Decline of Western Civilization Part III, of which I had been blissfully unaware for nearly a decade-and-a-half. I thus watched the trilogy in order over two days, which gave me some initial context in which to categorize The Metal Years. My first thought, in viewing Part II in close proximity to Part I, was of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted adage of how history seems to recur, with the “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Seeing it as the bratty materialistic middle child between its alternately spirited and heartbreaking DIY punk siblings, lends it additional airs of irreverence and irrelevance. There is also a breathtaking amount of cringe-worthy misogynistic behavior on display.
Each of the three films was shot over several months in Los Angeles. The first film covers the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s. The Metal Years stretches from the fall of ’87 to the spring of ’88. Part III covers a similar span about a decade later and winds up focusing on a small band of homeless teens as much as it does the music scene. It seems framed to be as much a response to the party vibes of The Metal Years as it was a project borne out of an insatiable curiosity with how the punk scene from 1980 contrasted with the one in 1998. Many of Spheeris’ interviewees hadn’t been (or were but barely) born when the first film was released. It is telling that she winds up more concerned with them, than the music.
The Decline of Western Civilization is often mentioned in the same breath as Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz when discussing the most accomplished and influential musical documentaries/performance films. Many of the upstart/rising bands in the film went on to become defining examples of that punk era: Fear, X, Circle Jerks, The Germs, Black Flag. Spheeris balances grainy footage of their kinetic performances with interviews with fans from these concerts (shot specially for the film), the musicians themselves, club owners, and the staff of a music fanzine – Slash - that at that point had given rise to Slash Records, a label that already was or was about to be home to some of these bands and others such as Violent Femmes, Los Lobos, and The Blasters.
That air of synergy is in no way accidental. Although it in no way negates the film as a musical document of a time and place, it is helpful to know that Spheeris was married to Bob Biggs, the editor of Slash, and founder of Slash Records, from 1977-1984. This fact isn’t disclosed by anyone within the context of the film. Does it make me wonder about the whys and wherefores of the bands that were chosen as the focus of the film? Yes. But being able to hear John Doe’s and Exene Cervenka’s voices come together on the lines “our whole fucking life is a wreck/ we’re desperate, get used to it/it’s kiss or kill” is sublime enough to melt away a lot of those concerns.
By contrast, most of the new(er) bands profiled in The Metal Years may still be around 25 years later, in some form, but the musical performances Spheeris captures - by the likes of Odin, Seduced, and London - seem more likely to inspire resigned headshaking than headbanging, in 2012. Even more so than its musical differences, what distinguishes The Metal Years from parts I and III, is its backward-looking tone. The punk installments live in a fevered “now” driven by adrenaline and the saving grace of a two-minute song, contrasted with the lives of teens that seem so devoid of hope and opportunity, it becomes hard to imagine a tomorrow that could redeem them or a yesterday that they were able to live through. The Metal Years contrasts the up-and-comers, who display remarkable tenacity and blinkered positive thinking while making mostly generic music, with the “grizzled” icons of the business - KISS, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper - as well as Poison, who was the commercial It band of the moment, and was still a few months away from the release of their biggest selling album “Open Up and Say . . . Ahh!”
The guys from Poison come across as likable, sex-obsessed jackasses (hey, they had just put an album in the top three on Billboard, had a top 20 hit and gone double platinum). KISS is represented by Paul Stanley (surrounded by four women in bed) and Gene Simmons (at a lingerie shop at the mall) and they inhabit the persona of gloating, seen-it-all-and-lived-to-tell-about-it pervs quite nicely. Tyler and Perry, who hadn’t even been clean a year yet at the time of their interview, are self-serious and perhaps a little self-satisfied, but when you’re working through the fact that you’re no longer inhaling mountains of cocaine, that you survived inhaling mountains of cocaine for a decade or so, and that it would be all too easy to fall back into the pattern of… the aura of faintly smug Zen becomes a little more understandable to this layperson. (They had also just released Permanent Vacation, marking the beginning of a commercial renaissance for them.)
By default, Osbourne, who is seen making breakfast for himself in his kitchen, comes across as the voice of reason, maturity, honesty, and self-deprecation. With more than a trace still left of a schoolboy’s face on his 40-year-old visage, and a twinkle/gleam in his eye and his voice, he’s immeasurably charming. Even if the kitchen setting seems directly staged to call to mind the sequence of The Germs’ Darby Crash - who would shortly be dead from a heroin overdose - cooking with his girlfriend in the first film, Ozzy seems at ease handling the bacon and eggs, and it balances the less savory facets of the film as an almost idyllic interlude.
As an interviewer, Spheeris keeps her face off-camera, but she is very much a character in all three films. She can be heard asking questions of her subjects, pushing for clarification, or posing what seem to be the most simple-minded queries, in an attempt to get the interviewees to address the most basic parts of themselves, the parts, perhaps that would be taken for granted. This doesn’t result in the most informative back-and-forth if her subjects (musicians or otherwise) have no capacity or desire for introspection, but she occasionally turns this to her advantage.
Chris Holmes, guitarist for W.A.S.P, is interviewed while he floats on an inflatable lounge chair in a swimming pool. He is only heard from in brief sound bites during the first two-thirds of the 93 minute running time, but he becomes the key focus of the final half hour, the anti-antidote to the sobered-up veterans and chart-climbing newbies Spheeris focuses on elsewhere. Blitzed out of his mind and sucking down a nearly full bottle of vodka while on camera (he eventually just gives up and takes a bath in it) Holmes is beyond rock n roll stereotype or pathetic caricature. He is a Shakespearean tragedy writ small, filled with bottomless self-pity and myriad contradictions, unable to enjoy success because it has merely amplified all of his flaws. (This calls to mind a great quote from an Ebert review where he observes, “when you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat.”)
Spheeris saves the big reveal for one of the later clips, when she pulls back to show Holmes’ mother, sitting in a chair by the edge of the pool. (This of course begs the question of whether the musician is actually at his home or his parents’ and if he is still living with them). She seems equally mortified and cowed by her drunken offspring, although to be fair those are about two of the only logical responses. In Holmes’ defense, perhaps he started out the interview sober and Spheeris only chose to air the parts that came much much later, but in her questioning and in her presentation of material during the Q and A with him, and throughout the trilogy, she gives the impression of going out of her way to remain impartial, to get her subjects (particularly the teens) to open up.
The overriding debit that this results in, primarily in The Metal Years, is the unchecked misogyny to which Spheeris seems to be giving a pass. Half of the bands in the first film, and one in the third have a strong female presence, but the half-dozen bands profiled in Part II are exclusively male. And they are very very proud of their penises and their ability to use them. (How much of this is simply on- camera machismo and bluster remains questionable. For her part, Spheeris vouches that Stanley’s babe-covered bed was not a one-time incident or staged for the film).
Spheeris does take measures to address the (apparently) common practice of a struggling band finding a “sugar mama” to take them out to dinner, or to buy groceries. The dudes are balanced with a pair of groupies who unabashedly live for partying and sex, some unsigned female rockers who retort that they use guys just as easily as guys use them, and a female corrections officer who seems determined to embody all the clichés of authority figures cracking down on that “Satanic” metal music. But the boys’ club atmosphere - which is probably an accurate assessment of the Sunset Strip in ’87-88 - pervades, nowhere more so than in the sleazy strip show competition held by nightclub owner Bill Gazzari. Even if it can be held up as further evidence of the decadence of the era, The Metal Years wallows in this subplot to quickly diminishing returns (and clothing).
The video box cover for The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, shows a metal guitarist, head apparently caught in mid-bang, face obscured in shadow, with an epic mane of gorgeous curly hair cascading down past his shoulders. Thankfully, Spheeris includes the footage of Dave Mustaine playing from which this still was selected. And although they only appear in the final minutes of the film, and their song “In the Darkest Hour” is represented with more of a video performance piece than a raw live performance, Megadeth’s chops show up just about every other minute of concert footage in the film. Mustaine’s humorlessness is counterbalanced with the ferocity of his playing and the power of his band. More than any other of the acts profiled, Megadeth is able to let their music do the talking, instead of their cocks.
Next Chapter Two: This 1988 PG-release features one of the longest screen kisses in film history, clocking in at three minutes, delivered by the most unlikeliest of leading men.