The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
By Brett Ballard-Beach
June 21, 2012
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.