The Decline of Western Civilization

That’s the name of a documentary made in 79-80 about the LA punk scene. It is mostly concert footage of various bands like X, The Germs, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, etc. but also includes a fair number of interviews of fans, promoters, and musicians too. I’ll admit to always thinking of the UK first when I thought about punk. A lot of that probably has to do with bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, etc. getting a lot of press and footage. There were also celebrities like John Lydon, Sid Vicious, and Joe Strummer that are well known to me. I had seen the occasional Black Flag or Dead Kennedys album in high school, but I never heard any of that stuff until I went to college. Even then, I was in a school full of New Yorkers, so people looked to east coast bands like Ramones, Talking Heads, Bad Brains, and later bands like the Pixies and Mission of Burma for most of their musical influences.

So most of this music was new to me. A few observations:

1) The west coast seemed to be very much like the British punkers as far as what low lifes they were.

2) There wasn’t much talent involved in the scene. With the possible exceptions of Greg Ginn and Billy “zoom” there wasn’t a lick of talent in the entire film. To be fair, the film was really documenting the emergence of the hardcore scene which put more of a premium on raw emotion, energy, and violence.

3) Speaking of violence, there was plenty of it. Yes, the music was high energy, but there really wasn’t any reason why it had to generate violence. The hardcore music tended to attract the violent element. There were plenty of news stories back then of riots and Nazi gang activity. There are videos on youtube of Henry Rollins (a later singer for Black Flag) getting into fist fights with audience members. In this film, Fear mocked their San Francisco audience until a woman got up on stage and tried to accost the lead singer. She ended up being tossed around, and at one point being kicked back into the audience by the lead singer, only to get up time and again to get at him. A general melee ensued. There was another notable moment when Alice Bag stared down a guy in the audience that was trying to start something with her on stage. A rough scene to be sure…

4) At the end of the day, I wasn’t so sure what it was all about. People seemed to be angry, but it wasn’t clear what they were mad about. Some of the interviews of the fans managed to cement my overall view of the LA area. Violent, white, racist, and with an anger that they seemed to see as a right. This is probably what disturbed me the most in the film. Some of the lyrics show legitimate political or personal grudges, but a lot of it seemed like anger management issues, and the crowd ate it up.

 

Over all, I’d say that the LA hardcore scene was an interesting time in music history, but I don’t really feel any desire to seek out any albums from those groups with the possible exception of X. It seems as though after hearing a few songs I can say, “Yeah, I get it…” I think I might look up some more of the San Francisco groups from that era like the Dead Kennedys, The Avengers, The Mutants, and various “queercore” groups have piqued my interest. They seemed to have a good combination of politics and musicianship. Enough to make the music interesting in its own right, nit just as part of a scene.

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