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1:51 p.m. - April 14, 2007
Decline Of The Western Civilization II
In the early 1980’s, director Penelope Spheeris made one of the defining movies of my life, The Decline Of The Western Civilization, which was a film about the punk rock scene in Los Angeles in 1980, and features such luminaries as Fear, The Circle Jerks, X, Black Flag (pre-Henry Rollins) and the Germs. It was a great movie and rather much a celebration (although a dark celebration) of the punk rock attitude and ethos.

These kids didn’t want to be stars, really. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do, which was play their music and try to survive on little or no money. By the time the movie was filmed, many of the clubs in LA wouldn’t let these bands play because of the ‘negative element’ or something or other, and there were a lot of instances where the cops hassled them.

But they had hope that somewhere they’d be able to play. Even now, though the bands never really tasted mainstream success (X was the closest, though a lot of people knew about Black Flag) I know they weren’t looking for that kind of popularity. They just wanted enough money for rent, a sandwich and to keep the van running.

Unfortunately, that movie has not been released on DVD, and I haven’t seen it in over 15 years, as showings on cable have become rare or non-existent.

At the end of the decade, Spheeris was at it again, making another documentary regarding a music scene. This time, it was the burgeoning heavy-metal scene centered on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

This was The Decline Of The Western Civilization Part Two and instead of a celebration, at this time one can see it’s more of a testament to the deluded dreams of the performers and just how hard it is to make it in rock-and-roll if you want to be a star.

Spheeris interviews several who have made it in the business, such as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss, the entire band of Poison, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lemmy of Motorhead. You don’t see them play, though Motorhead’s “Cradle To The Grave” is the theme song to the movie.

Those interviews were revealing. Aerosmith had just gotten clean after living for years in a drug-induced haze and had to start from scratch again after their career bottomed out. Ozzy was filmed making breakfast and has a memorable scene in where he spills orange juice (though Spheeris later admitted that was staged), and he makes bacon AFTER the eggs (bass-ackwards to me).

Ever so the genteel tastemakers, Paul Stanley is filmed on a bed with three groupies draped on him, and Gene Simmons is in a lingerie shop (proving that rock-and-roll makes anyone look good to women). Alice Cooper is shown on stage with his makeup and props, after hitting bottom himself and cleaning up.

Lemmy, at this time still more of a cult artist in the US, though probably a star in the UK, utters the best line to me, “If you parents don’t like it – it’s good.”

Poison, I didn’t like then and still don’t like much now (except in an ironic way), are all glammed out and Brett Michaels is as annoying then as he is now. Will he EVER shut up?

Besides the cautionary tales about drugs, each of the rockers said that they really wanted success and worked hard to get there. And the record speaks for that for the most part. All of those bands worked their butts off before finally hitting it big, but even when they were slogging through with poor sales and indifference they had talent to go with their dreams. (I’m not sure about Poison, though. Their success was rather quick, and I think it may be due to hairspray and cheekbones more than anything.)

The stars of the movie, though, are the bands that are shown playing in the clubs, and the fans and people around the scene.

We see interviews with a lot of wanna-be rock stars whose bands aren’t in the movie. They have all kinds of glammy clothes and hair and look pretty darn ridiculous. They would have looked ridiculous then, as bands were moving a bit away from the total hairspray assault (even Cinderella). But here the wanna-be’s were, with androgynous looks, makeup, and clothes.

The groupies and others interviewed also looked like they were part of a costume party, as they told tales. Sometimes you felt a bit sad for the groupies that slept with the musicians in exchange for good and shelter.

All of the bands and people interviewed were SURE they were going to make it, and they didn’t have a backup plan because they KNEW they were going to make it big. They also ‘didn’t like to work’ which is odd because making it in show business is probably harder work than stocking pens at Staples. (No offense to the pen slingers out there.)

Ricki Rachtman is interviewed, and he looks like he’s about 18 or so. He owned the Cathouse with the lead singer of Faster Pussycat and controlled his club like they controlled Studio 54.

An old geezer names Bill Gazzarri, who looks like he should be on Johnny Sack’s crew on The Sopranos owns a club that I take it was popular on the scene. They show a contest for the “Miss Gazzarri Dancer of 1988”. He claims it’s a classy place as he has two vapid bottle-blonde teenagers at his side.

“Miss Gazzarri Dancer of 1987” also speaks and hopes her title will allow her to “hopefully get on with my actressing.” Um, I don’t think it did.

Of all of the people interviewed that weren’t in the bands proper, the only names I recognized in the credits were people from Vixen, who did make it somewhat, and Teri Weigel, who I didn’t recognize and is famous for something other than rock-and-roll.

They also film a battle-axe of a probation officer who talks about a program to ‘de-metal’ kids. Right – that’s going to work. She sounds as delusional as the others when she is explaining the “rock and roll” devil sign. Yeesh. Shut up!

Then we come to the bands. I don’t know how they were chosen, but here they were.

Lizzy Borden was first, and they were just OK. Nothing special, except the lead singer had a silver jacket that looked ridiculous. The song picked for the movie was “Born To Be Wild”, and if your best song is a cover you may want to reconsider those career plans. But they are careerist, because they want to be the “best and the biggest”. It didn’t work out.

Faster Pussycat was next, and they had some success and some hype, but really, there was nothing that remarkable about them. I’m trying to find their version of “You’re So Vain”, but their originals sound pretty generic. The singer definitely copped a few Steven Tyler moves with all of the scarves hanging from his mike stand.

Faster Pussycat also demonstrated the hard knock life that even bands that were signed to a contract face. They made $1000 a show, playing 3 to 4 nights a week, and it cost them $2500 a week to be on the road. So they net between $500 and $1500 per week, and that’s split between five people. Mmmm…ramen noodle surprise!

Seduce was the next act, and they came to LA from Detroit. They’re in it ‘for rock and roll’ but the guitarist also says he wanted to ‘retire in 10 years’ and is a ‘businessman’. They were a thrashy trio that sounded decent enough, better than a lot of the other bands shown, but really didn’t have the songs or the vibe to take them over the top.

Yes, even in that genre of pre-fab glam metal you have to have the songs.

London was next, and they’ve been on the scene since 1979. Their claim to fame was that members of many famous bands once played in London. To me, that’s like a minor league baseball team trumpeting the various big league stars that spent a half season there on the way to the top.

They seem to be having a good time, and are the least desperately careerist of these bands. It also shows them loading up in a camper, and the allusion is that that’s where they live.

A moment of hilarity ensues when they try to burn a Soviet flag onstage during the song “Russian Winter” and the singer just can’t get it to ignite. It’s tough in rock-and-roll when the props don’t work, right Nigel?

Odin, the favorite band of Mr. Gazzarri, is next and shows the nadir of the careerist tendencies of bands like this. The singer, in a feeble attempt to show he’s a rock-and-roll front man just like the others, wears pants with the butt cut out of them and tries to sing way too high. The guitarist is decent, but looks uncomfortable onstage and kind of ridiculous in his poofy hair. He probably would be more comfortable in regular clothes and a nice haircut slinging his axe all over the place.

They’re also filmed in a hot tub with groupies all around, and it’s kind of sad because they are convinced that they will be big, when just a cursory listen to them told me that they just don’t have it – but they could have it if they jettisoned the singer and focused on rock-and-roll instead of the metal façade.

The last band to perform was Megadeth. They were the total antithesis of the rest of the acts, letting the music speak for itself. Sure, Dave Mustaine is a bit of a self-righteous prig, but he’s intelligent and thoughtful and the music is well thought out and not following trends. But Megadeth’s members were saying they “don’t get high and cheat the audience” when in fact Mustaine had serious drug problems early in his career and had a relapse as well. At this time, though, I think they were all clean. The demon of smack can affect anyone if you let your guard down.

The saddest, and most famous, part of the movie is the interview with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. He’s shown in a swimming pool totally drunk, and his mother is there at poolside looking totally embarrassed. Holmes basically is drowning himself in vodka, and talking about his drinking problem and how his life is terrible and sad (even though he’s reached a measure of success). Watching this, you wouldn’t think he’d be alive another five years, but he’s still around.

Instead of a celebration, this movie is a cautionary tale in my eyes. By the time the movie was filmed, the scene was already passing by the glammy metal, and was moving toward a more ‘real’ rock and roll presentation, as bands like Megadeth and Metallica were getting quite popular and did it without hairspray and makeup.

I don’t think Spheeris was trying to show these musicians and bands in a bad light. She was just documenting the scene.

If you can catch it, I’d definitely see this movie. I wonder how some of the bands see themselves now. Maybe they’re out there, still playing music, but doing it now for the fun of it. Because the music was supposed to be what it was all about.

 

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