“A guy loses his temper on the set and he’s a genius. A woman loses her temper on the set and it’s the wrong time of the month.” — Penelope Spheeris
The 1980s occupies a weird spot on our cultural landscape. Things that seemed important are almost completely forgotten; what seemed irrelevant, now sacrosanct. We have nostalgic longings for those micro-expressions of identity conveyed so meticulously through analog “mixed tape” culture, where hours were spent picking strong lead-ins and balanced transitions that said something profound(ish) about your sonic relationship to friends. Around the late 80s, terms like “alternative” and “postmodern” gained ground and became shorthand for lazy journalists who knew nothing about the music scene but needed a quick, generalized descriptor. As for film, it was way worse. The 70s staple of “art house” was typically used but made little sense. If using “underground,” your work often got lumped in with exploitation films and softcore porn. Such was the cultural landscape when young filmmaker Penelope Spheeris shot her gritty landmark documentary on the Los Angeles hardcore/punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization.
It’s safe to say that Spheeris would agree with the old maxim about getting the highest financial return on your least fulfilling work. Many screenwriters, actors, and directors have talked of being rewarded well for their mediocrity (if that mediocrity sells), then using that money to finance risky projects that speak to them in some deeper, more profound sense, a sense divorced from the realities of the entertainment marketplace. By her own admission, today Spheeris would fall into this category, relying on the profits from her huge formulaic Hollywood films to pay for the work she loves doing. But Decline was her fist-feature film, and she did not yet have that luxury. Instead of the porn venture they were hoping for, she convinced a couple of San Fernando Valley producers to take a chance on investing in a documentary about the booming underground hardcore music scene then happening in and around Los Angeles. Although getting them literally no return, it was a fortuitous investment, artistically speaking, as many of these bands would, despite their brief existence and zero mainstream notoriety, later be regarded as the vanguard of the American independent music scene. Although there have been several contemporary documentaries that, to varying degrees, canonize the 80s hardcore movement, Decline stands as a primary cultural document of L.A.’s punk subculture. Some criticism has been leveled at it over the years, not without reason. But Spheeris walks an impressive line between identifying with the scene, respecting its collectivism and revolutionary spirit, while also displaying its dirty laundry, its ignorance, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since its earliest origins in Britain, as part of its fuck-you arsenal, early punks had used Nazi iconography like the Swastika or Iron Cross (first sported by Detroit’s Ron Asheton of the Stooges as a choker) to incense the older generation, and to some extent this trend continued in the U.S., despite some bands’ efforts at mocking or undermining Fascist ideals in their songs. But while the band Black Flag fully got the irony of their Puerto Rican lead singer performing “White Minority,” I’m not so sure some of their fanbase understood the finer points of such satirical moves. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, artist Raymond Pettibon, whose album and flyer art epitomized L.A. hardcore, remarked on the negative aspects of the scene:
“It was more about what you can’t do than what you can do. There were restrictions. Any intellectual curiosity was discouraged. Any humor was discouraged. ‘Don’t learn another chord’… You had to pretend to be a moron, basically. I mean, Sid Vicious was the most important intellectual figure…”
Pettibon’s comments highlight a problem exemplified several times throughout the film. World views of some bands (when loosely expressed) did not correlate with those of the fans, many of whom were coming in from L.A.’s suburbs and carried with them a different set of life experiences. Bands like X and Circle Jerks held more liberal viewpoints, while others that did not make it into the film, like The Minutemen, were pretty much straight Marxists. Other key political bands from California, like San Francisco-based Dead Kennedys, are entirely absent as well. Perhaps part of this is due to Spheeris’s timing. After Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, the scene grew more outspoken and political as it galvanized around a common foe, especially the D.C. hardcore scene, with bands like Minor Threat. But the D.C. scene was vastly different, just as those of Portland, Boston, and Austin assumed the cultural proclivities of their surrounding parent cultures. As for L.A.’s parent culture, its mythos is a binary narrative, of success or failure, of making it big or not, and its punk scene embraced the pessimistic dystopian flip-side of Hollywood’s fantasy utopia, while avoiding the articulation of any viable alternative.
The scene would not last long, imploding by the mid 80s as hardcore morphed into various sub-movements and the emergence of college radio and the proliferation of zine distribution offered those bored with the mainstream a broad range of diverse sounds from every region of the country. Due to several high-profile cases–particularly, it should be noted, the 1988 “East Side White Pride” beating death of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw in southeast Portland–hardcore gradually became synonymous with the White Aryan Resistance skinhead movement. Americans didn’t care about the philosophical nuances between the historic leftist working-class “Oi!” skins and the Nazi-fetishizing psychopaths. If you had a shaved head and liked music with so many beats-per-minute, you were a skinhead and dangerous; and that probably killed the scene faster than anything. It would take another ten years and the popular acceptance of “grunge”, when bands like Nirvana cited Black Flag, X, and Portland-based Wipers as key influences on their craft, for hardcore/punk to shed the Aryan white-power associations that it had, in many ways, created by its own carelessness and ignorance.