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Decline of Western Civilization

Shout Factory // Unrated // March 4, 2016
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted March 16, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Decline Of Western Civilization:
Director Penelope Spheeris tackles Los Angeles' burgeoning early '80s punk rock scene in this seminal documentary from 1981. Consisting of concert footage and interview segments from seven (then) up-and-coming bands, plus a few club owners and hangers-on, the documentary is about as straightforward as they come. Spheeris captures the alternately aimless and laser-focused intensity of the players, at a remove from the desperation of England's more notorious punks, with candor and honesty. Shout Factory delivers this stand-alone Blu-ray in good form, as separate from their previously released 3-movie box set, because screw all them other bands, right?

Having only previously seen the excesses of LA's hair metal bands in Decline Part 2, I was eager to see if the same combination of hubris and stupidity was present in her earlier effort. Of course, these kids are a different form of beast entirely, driven to the furious energy release of punk by lack of money and total disenfranchisement from their parents' values. We do get a scene of confused breakfast-making that mirrors Spheeris' later drunken breakfast session with Ozzy Osbourne, courtesy of Germs front man Darby Crash and partner, but that's really where the similarity ends.

Now the punk ethos has been thoroughly subsumed by cultural hegemony and cynical hopelessness, which monetizes all of youth by corporate interests. King punk is dead. Here's hoping a new king will come along some day.

Up first, Black Flag (pre-Henry Rollins) with singer Ron Reyes nearly vomiting lyrics as he cavorts about the stage. Subtitles are provided, and Flag's monstrous chops come helpfully from Greg Ginn's 'I-really-don't-care-so-I'm-wearing-a-Polo-shirt' cool guitar and drummer Robo's awesome drum pummeling. Later Reyes shows off his shared crash pad, (he rents a closet in the space for 16 dollars a month) while he and the band wax philosophical. Next Darby Crash and Germs tear shit up. Darby seems the most 'punk' of any of these folks, a Sid Vicious protégé if ever there were one. His stage presence leads you to fear for his life as well as your own. Plus, he eats eggs with a tarantula, and considers many of his fans to be "creeps with grudges."

Catholic Discipline comes off as German Art-punk, perhaps even New Wave, (nyuk nyuk) fronted by Slash Magazine editor Claude Bessy, (AKA Kickboy Face) who in his charming way hates everyone and everything. This portion of the movie also features Slash Magazine editors and writers reading letters from readers, sort-of outlining the state of the average punk mind of the day. The legendary band X is next up. Their shtick is alarmingly professional, singer Exene, a sweetheart, John Doe has dreamy eyes, guitarist Billy Zoom takes Gregg Ginn's cool and amplifies it by 20, while drummer DJ Bonebrake keeps it all together. X gets the lion's share of time to represent the state of punk, although, despite their onscreen prison tattoo session, seem less punk and more like a real American rock band, just faster and more weird.

Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, and FEAR finish off the movie. The Jerks, for me, represent the purest form of California Punk. Ex-Black Flag member Keith Morris fronts the band with snide lyrics sung with SoCal twang, while the band captures the perfect combo of insouciance, danger, contempt and speed. Fantastic stuff. Alice Bag Band is weird, highbrow punk that connects slowly, briefly (at least in this here doc). FEAR closes the virtual set with (certainly tongue-in-ass-cheek) homophobic ranting that some might consider offensive, or at least misguided. However, front man Lee Ving's intensity is not to be denied; he's the scariest mother-fucker around, smart and volcanic. The band's set reps the bookend to the Circle Jerk's punk snark, and is not to be missed.

With interesting/disconcerting interviews of scenesters and club-owners interspersed, (the owner of Marquee's assertion that punk bands play at 300 BPM is particularly interesting) The Decline Of Western Civilization is required viewing for all fans of rock music in the 20th Century. Highly Fuckin' Recommended.


This full frame 2k scan of the original film looks better than a punk film should, which isn't saying a ton, but hey, screw you. (No original negative elements exist.) Colors are very natural, though a bit dull, while grain and fuzz rule the day. Details aren't all that sharp either, getting lost in darker areas. This all seems totally appropriate for the subject, and while I'm sure if it were possible things would have been tightened up, I'd call bollocks. This is what you get.

You do get two audio options, either a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track or a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, in keeping with the theatrical release. The music sounds pretty good, though vocals are quite obviously a little hard to pick out at times. (Who hasn't experienced this at a live show?) Damage is beaten down to a bare minimum. The 5.1 track benefits the music significantly, although increased bass response buries vocals a little bit more than they already are buried.

A bunch of standard-fare extras are included. Two Commentary Tracks come your way, one with Spheeris is funny, introspective, lively and informative. The additional track with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame often lags as he watches along with us, and mostly consists of reminiscences of his musical upbringings and appreciative comments about the bands. (You can probably get the same effect if you watch the movie with a few of your mates.)

Other extras include two minutes of home movie footage as X Signs Contract with Slash Records. Good for X, you stinking sell-outs, wink-wink. Seven minutes allows us a Tour Of The Masque club, if you've ever wanted to go backstage. 14 minutes of Never Before Seen Performances go mostly to FEAR, (good, that) but you also get a pair of additional songs from Germs, and The Gears, who didn't make the original cut at all. Henry Rollins Interviews Spheeris (coattail rider!) for five minutes, and a bunch of Extended Interviews (over an hour's worth) will grab your attention away from the Theatrical Trailer and a little more.

Final Thoughts:
There are other punk documentaries out there, but The Decline Of Western Civilization casts a loooong shadow. With seminal performances from FEAR, Circle Jerks, Germs, X and more, you'll feel like you're about to get your collarbone broken in the mosh pit. Great, revealing interviews show what it was like to either give or not give a damn in 1980 (same thing, I guess) and represent precious milk to fans of these bands. (Of course if you're a real fan you've seen this already.) This Blu-ray version looks OK. It's got a bunch of extras. Steal it now, punk. Highly Recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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