The Decline of Western Civilization Reaches the Digital Age at Last

If you’ve been lying to your friends for years about seeing the seminal punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, now is your chance to get off the Schneid. The classic film (and its two pretty damn good sequels) have finally been released on Blu-ray and DVD (remember them?). The three films are now available in a handy four-disc box set from Shout! Factory that includes the original Decline; The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years; and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III.

A whole disc's worth of bonus features collects extended interviews, live performances, news reports, museum panels and other treats, including commentary from increasingly insufferable self-appointed rock historian/millionaire Dave Grohl. But it’s the feature films that are the real treasures in this box set. They’ve never before been given a digital release, due to various legal and professional roadblocks stymieing director Penelope Spheeris. Thanks in large part to the efforts of her daughter, Anna Fox, the trilogy has now been conveniently delivered for reappraisal.

Decades on, the first film is unquestionably the best. (Hey, it is a decline we’re documenting here.) Chalk that up to the performances. Even in the age of YouTube, watching Black Flag bounce off the walls and Fear start a riot remains rare and classic stuff. Circle Jerks, the Germs, X…all of these people are now punk legends, in significant part due to their inclusion in this film. The low-budget, black-and-white film stock captures the ethos of the musical movement perfectly. Decline remains required viewing for any punk who wants an authentic, time-machine taste of hardcore’s earliest days.

The names are bigger in Part II, but not better. The Sunset Strip-facing film features an interview with Aerosmith’s Toxic Twins navigating a newfound and plainly confusing sobriety, and a performance by Megadeth, clearly still deeply in the clutches of drugs. KISS never picks up an instrument, but they’re performing all the same, reinforcing the deep faith in the film’s youngest stars that if they truly believe hard enough (and get their hair just right), there’s NO WAY they won’t make it big. It’s a dream the men of hairspray acts Odin and London might just still be chasing somewhere.

Part III has some decent performances from ‘90s L.A. punk bands, but they often feel depressingly like less-innocent, less-fun rehashes from the first film. The homeless “gutter punks” that star in the movie's interview segments are much more memorable. In many ways, these street kids are just as delusional as the poodle-heads who preceded them — laughing off the idea of getting a job and living a “normal” life. It can be hard to work up any sympathy for badly tattooed young people who purport few ambitions higher than getting loaded in an alley. But their tales of dysfunctional parents and desperate circumstances put a human face on the plight of kids with nowhere else to belong and nowhere else to go.

After a lifetime’s worth of cable and VHS viewings, it’s a revelation to finally see these movies in widescreen high-definition. The digital polish only serves to highlight the gunk and the grime baked into the faces, places and squats onscreen. For most of these bands, the Decline films captured to absolute best onscreen performances. If you’d like to actually hear Black Flag play with Ron Reyes in 1980, rather than simply watch them jump around while indecipherable noise blasts out of your computer speakers, this box set is the way to go. These bands truly never sounded better. The fact that you’re invited into Flag’s legendary church squat afterwards is an unbelievable bonus.

It’s good to have The Decline back out in the world. Spheeris was virtually the only person seriously documenting these three different eras of crazed L.A. rock, and all three films hold up — even the relatively depressing third installment. The new box set makes the perfect cornerstone to any punk historian’s burgeoning ironic Blu-ray collection.
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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith