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decline of western civilization III
The Decline Of Western Civilization III

Penelope Spheeris looks back on her cult punk docs the police tried to ban

The director’s biggest hit was Wayne’s World, but The Decline Of Western Civilization was a trilogy about punk that pioneered the art of the music documentary

Penelope Spheeris’ biggest commercial hit, Wayne’s World (1992), gave the world some of the greatest slang and style choices ever committed to celluloid. But long before directing the cult comedy, she pioneered the art of the music documentary with her groundbreaking trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization

The films (released in 1981, 1988, and 1998) take a look at a range of subcultures that, while differing in many ways, share a love of music, a proclivity for substance abuse, and a habit of shocking anyone old or square. While the first two films spotlight punk and heavy metal artists like Black Flag and Ozzy Osbourne, the third film focuses less on the music and more on the listeners — kids who are quite evidently not alright. 

Displaying immense ingenuity, empathy, and directorial skill, these films stand as essential documents of key moments in musical history, as vibrant and intriguing today as they were on their release. The first film was so controversial and popular when it came out that the Los Angeles Chief of Police wrote a letter demanding the film not be shown again in the city.

Dazed spoke with Spheeris about Soundcloud rappers, the importance of home, and the possibility of a fourth Decline

Why did you start making the Decline films? 

Penelope Spheeris: I had the first music video company here in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, doing music videos for record companies. I had all this equipment sitting around, and when I discovered punk rock, I thought, “This is significant. This is a major turn, historically, with popular music.” It wasn’t popular at the time, but I felt an uncontrollable urge to document it. 

What do you think young people can get from the Decline trilogy? Why is it still valuable? 

Penelope Spheeris: I was able to film these movements when nobody else was really doing it, and there isn’t much available to be seen, because the technology back then didn’t allow for it. The first Decline was recently inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry. When I first put it out, everybody was like, “What are you, nuts? Look at these pieces-of-shit people you’re dealing with,” and now it’s in the National Film Registry. So I’m very proud of that. And I hope I’m able to offer young people a way of understanding what music was like during those decades. 

But your daughter had to convince you to release the box set? 

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah. I didn’t want to do it, because it went against the punk- rock ethic to me. I stand by it so solidly that I couldn’t stomach the idea of exploiting the work and trying to make money off of it. It just didn’t ring true for me. But she said, “Mom, that’s so ridiculous. People really wanna see it.” Even to this day, she’s trying to convince me to do merchandising – you know, shirts and hats and toilet paper rolls of The Decline of Western Civilization or whatever, but I can’t do it yet for some reason. I’d feel like a sellout. 

So what is the punk ethos? 

Penelope Spheeris: I think what it means to me is different than what it means to most people. To me, it means having a deep sense of values, and integrity and honesty, and treating people equally... there’s so many different areas it touches. Early on, in song lyrics, you can see the beginnings of these concepts coming out. For me, even though I was older than most of the kids in my movie, it really kind of solidified my identity. What it means to me is: to not compromise, not sell out, and not give a shit what other people think. To do whatever I need to do on my own. It’s the DIY ethic. 

“Even though I was older than most of the kids in my movie, it really kind of solidified my not compromise, not sell out, and not give a shit what other people think” – Penelope Spheeris

The focus on money is a bit stronger in Part II, compared to Part I and III.

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, that one focuses on selling out, definitely. 

Which is really interesting – the sense of ‘DIY’ or anti-capitalist politics seems so absent there compared to the kids in Part III

Penelope Spheeris: I think if I’d been on my own to direct the second film, it would have been a different movie, but it was financed by someone else, so I was getting instructions. The producers of that movie had a different idea about it than I did. If it was up to me, it would’ve been less glam, less hair metal, and more hardcore metal like Megadeth. But I wasn’t getting any jobs back then, and I hadn’t made Wayne’s World yet, so I kind of just had to do whatever they said. But in Decline II, I’m not trying to glorify their quest for fame or fortune at all. I’m trying to show how ridiculous it is. 

I know Part III is your favourite. Why is that? 

Penelope Spheeris: I feel that it makes the strongest social statement, and that it serves a greater purpose than the other movies. We have a very, very concerning homeless situation here. In the 20 years since I made that film about homeless gutter punks, the homeless population has exploded here. The reason Decline III is my favourite film is because I think I was able to capture some sympathy and understanding for people in these unfortunate situations.

And you spent two years with them? 

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah. It was the best two years of my life, honestly. In the beginning of punk rock, in the late ‘70s, there were certain traditional concepts that were targeted and being broken down — social issues, political issues, clothing trends, musical trends – it was across the board. The insane genius that Johnny Rotten is, he was just like, “Let’s just tear down everything.” Okay, well, he’s lost his mind today, but back then it was genius. Because we had to get rid of disco on the radio, we had to get rid of hippies, we had to get rid of a lot of things. We needed to change, y’know? And with Decline III, I feel that the kids really embraced that original ethic and continued to live it. My movie Suburbia also has those kinds of themes in it: “Fuck the world, I can live on my own, leave me alone, I don’t care what you think about me.” 

Do you think that kind of punk energy still exists today? 

Penelope Spheeris: I hope it does, but the cool thing about punk rock – the real punk rock, and the people that are involved with it – is they don’t run around promoting themselves. Which is why I don’t have merchandise out there, you know? I mean, the real deal is quiet. They just live it. Every day they live that ethic. I’ve met people across the world that have that ethic, and they don’t care if other people know it or not. They’re not trying to make money on it, they’re just living that life. And it’s a pretty cool life, actually. 

One of the loveliest things about how you approached the Decline trilogy is that the film wasn’t the end. You stayed in touch – you didn’t just go out there, look at these communities, and then leave them. 

Penelope Spheeris: No, no, there’s too much human connection to do that. And the point of making the film is not the film. For me, the point of making Decline III – not the point, but the most important result of it – is that I met my lifetime partner, who was a homeless gutter punk ten years before I met him, and we’re still together. He’s sitting in the other room right now. So for me, that’s what’s really important. I did a movie with Sharon and Ozzy – We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll – that never got released, because Sharon said she had the rights to the music and she didn’t. I worked on it for three years, and it didn’t get released, which is a heartbreak. But can you imagine being on the road, going to 30 cities in the United States, filming 10 or 12 bands every night, and being on a tour bus? Can you imagine what a great experience that was? That was the point of that movie, even though nobody ever saw it, you know? It really is about the trip, not the destination. 

So you don’t have any plans to get that film out? I heard it leaked a few weeks ago and then disappeared again. 

Penelope Spheeris: Oh, really? A-ha. Good to know. Well, I didn’t leak it – although I would like to. And that it disappeared again is... Sharon probably has somebody standing guard 24/7 with an AK, just trying to shoot ‘em all down, y’know? But I would love it if people could see that picture. 

Hopefully, one day. 

Penelope Spheeris: I’ll be dead, but that’ll be OK.

If you were to make another Decline film, what do you think the equivalent subculture would be today? I have an idea of what I think it is, but I want to hear yours. 

Penelope Spheeris: Oh my goodness, this is a great one. Let’s have it. What’s your idea? 

Well, do you have something? 

Penelope Spheeris: I have some footage shot already, and the concept in place — but I’m so curious as to what you think. 

I think it would be Soundcloud rappers. It’s not punk, but they seem influenced by it, and all have similar looks – dyed hair, face tattoos. The community has a big drug culture; there’s a lot of self-destructiveness. It really reminds me of the culture I saw in the Decline films, especially Decline III

Penelope Spheeris: That sounds interesting. I didn’t hear clearly the name of this group of people. What are they called? 

Soundcloud rappers. Have you heard of Lil Peep? 

Penelope Spheeris: No. Is he one of them? 

Sort of. He made music, and was kind of at the forefront of that culture, but he passed away a few years ago from a drug overdose. 

Penelope Spheeris: Oh. Go figure. 

Yeah, which is awful. I think your films would resonate with that community…

Penelope Spheeris: Hold on a minute. I gotta see this guy. [Typing sounds] Oh... “Peep dies at 21”. Oh, poor thing. Oh, boy. 21. He’s got a Simpsons drawing on his neck... my neighbour draws the Simpsons. That’s funny. Well, it looks like the right kind of thing, yeah. But my Decline IV that I’m working on has to do with both metal and punk, and it’ll probably be my last one. So, I’m gonna work on it real hard, and get it done. 

That’s so exciting. I didn’t know you were working on another one.

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, I have to. I just can’t stop myself. 

Do you have an idea of when it’s going to come out? 

Penelope Spheeris: No. You know, people say, “I’m gonna write a documentary.” I’m like, how can you write a documentary? It’s got a life of its own. It’s like a baby. It’ll be born when it’s supposed to. I don’t know. I’ve been building a house, so I’ve been a little preoccupied. 

Oh, wow. Is that something you do often? 

Penelope Spheeris: Yeah, I do it quite a bit. It’s another one of my habits. I have six houses – I’ve built two from the ground up and totally remodeled the other four. So I often have to fix toilets or broken window-shades. I’m good at it, I’ll tell you that. 

You obviously have this deep concern about homelessness. It’s kind of poetic that you build homes now. 

Penelope Spheeris: Isn’t that weird? Somebody else asked me, “Do you think you’re building homes because you used to live in a trailer?” and I thought, “Maybe!” I get a lot of good income out of renting my houses, which means I don’t have to go do shitty TV shows. 

What do you think people should be doing to help homeless people today?

Penelope Spheeris: If I could make a broad, general statement: show them compassion, not hostility. ‘Cause unfortunately there’s, like, neighbourhood gangs that fire up with their guns and go down to the riverbed and try to scare homeless people away. That’s so horrible, you know? If we can just think with compassion instead of hostility and anger, I think it would help a lot. 

You became a foster parent soon after Decline III, right? 

Penelope Spheeris: Yes, a certified California foster parent. I did it for the same reason that Kirsten, the singer from Naked Aggression, went to work in South Central L.A. as a middle school teacher – because you can notice it, document it, and talk about it, but at some point you have to do something about it. I learned how to take care of children that had been removed from their home because of their parents’ behavior, or because a parent didn’t want them anymore, if you can imagine that. I decided to start taking care of as many of these children as I could. I’ve had six different ones – not all at the same time – but I think I got ones that were extremely damaged every time, and it was really, really hard for me to handle them. 

“I was abused physically – not sexually, but physically – quite horribly. I’ve got scars on my body from physical abuse from drunk parents. So I know what those households are like” – Penelope Spheeris

Do you think you’re aware of the importance of upbringing because your own was unconventional, or difficult? 

Penelope Spheeris: Oh, I had a horrendous upbringing. That’s exactly why I wanted to try and help, or one reason, anyway. My father was murdered when I was seven, and my mother got married seven more times, so I had seven stepfathers. I was the oldest of four children. We lived in trailer parks, and the parents were terrible drunks. Literally every week, somebody in our house was bloody. And I was abused physically – not sexually, but physically – quite horribly. I’ve got scars on my body from physical abuse from drunk parents. So I know what those households are like. And I thought because I knew firsthand what these kids were going through that I’d be able to handle them, but a lot of kids are so maladjusted that they’ve got a lot of mental issues. 

Drugs and alcohol are really present throughout the Decline trilogy. Do you think there’s any solution? It seems like every generation has those same issues – new drugs, same alienated kids. 

Penelope Spheeris: Well, they’re looking for some sort of comfort, even though it may be temporary and damaging to their bodies, because they’re in a lot of pain. I also think people neglect to acknowledge the impact of genetics. If you have an alcoholic parent or parents, you’re gonna have a kid that’s got alcohol problems, if they don’t control it. I drink a small amount of alcohol, but I was lucky enough to get my real father’s genes and I don’t have that problem. But it is very, very genetically connected. I don’t think people acknowledge that as much as they should. It truly is a disease and shouldn’t be dealt with just as reacting emotionally because someone’s having a hard time. But also, right now, every day – you probably don’t hear it over there, but every day, seriously, every day in the United States, a young person takes out a gun and starts shooting in a crowd of people. It doesn’t happen as much over there, I don’t think. 

Well, we don’t have guns. 

Penelope Spheeris: Well, there you go. That would solve it. That would definitely solve it.