The Decline of Western Civilization came and went and hardly anyone noticed.
I do not mean the slow-motion apocalypse we have all been sleepwalking through for the last couple of decades, I am speaking of the documentary film director Penelope Spheeris unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1981.
Never released on DVD, her film about the late 1970s Los Angeles punk movement nevertheless achieved cult status. Having played a small role in the film’s production continues to bring me satisfaction.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is holding a special screening of Spheeris’ documentary on Friday, April 18, 2014.
Spheeris and her crew filmed live performances of the Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X from 1979 to 1980. The filming took place in venues in and around Hollywood. Punk had literally been banned by most L.A. clubs and music venues for its excesses. L.A. punk was only two years old when Spheeris began filming, but in that time it had become the bête noire of U.S. culture.
I had become an active participant in the original L.A. punk rock movement from its beginning in 1977, attending just about every punk concert held in the city. During that time my sketchbooks were filled with pen and pencil drawings of punk band members, venues, and fans. Portraits of Darby Crash and Lorna Doom of the Germs, Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Tomata du Plenty of The Screamers and many others became my subjects.
From 1979 to 1980 I ended up working at Slash magazine as a designer and paste-up artist. I created two cover drawings for the punk tabloid that have since become iconic. It was during this period that I met Penelope Spheeris, since she was working closely with Slash regarding her upcoming film, The Decline of Western Civilization. I wanted to work on the film because I saw it as a way of promulgating and enlarging the punk movement. I attended some of the riotous concerts she filmed (Catholic Discipline, Fear, Germs, X), and based on my artistic skills and deep enthusiasm for punk, she hired me to assist in some of the film’s post production tasks.
One such undertaking was creating the subtitles and credits used in the film. Spheeris was concerned that audiences would not be able to make sense of the subversive song lyrics that were shouted and screamed by various performers, so she wanted the song lyrics subtitled during select music performances.
Given that Spheeris was working on a shoestring budget, and there was next to no digital technology being employed in print, filmmaking, and the arts at the time, Letraset press type was used to create the subtitles and closing credits. It was a grueling process, each individual letter seen onscreen was aligned and rubbed down by hand onto paper by yours truly. That text was then filmed by another assistant and ultimately matched to the negative of the concert footage.
I also created graphics used to promote The Decline of Western Civilization. Working under the direction of Spheeris, I did the paste-up for the full-color movie poster to her specifications.
Stills of singers and punks that appeared in the film surrounded a large still of Darby Crash, taken from the movie’s unsettling sequence with the Germs (see frame 10:02).
When it came time to premiere the film, I worked with Spheeris on producing a number of street flyers and posters announcing the event - here I had relative free reign as a designer, provided I used stills from the movie. One such effort was the 11×17 enigmatic placard, The Decline of Western Civilization Is Coming, a teaser for the movie that graced telephone poles and walls all across Los Angeles. The power of these graphics is elevated because Crash committed suicide before the film was released.
The film had its debut in 1980 at a midnight showing at a Hollywood Boulevard theater. Hundreds of leather clad, Mohawk wearing punks turned out, enough to terrify local businesses and put the L.A.P.D. on high alert; it seemed that hundreds of riot control police were on the scene. As I stood across the street from the movie house, some punks began to randomly throw bottles, one crashed against a wall a few inches from my head. As I barreled into the street yelling expletives and seeking a settling of scores, the police moved in with their clubs swinging - yeah, opening night was a real riot. In the aftermath, Police Chief Daryl Gates (1926-2010) sent Spheeris a letter “requesting” that she never show the film again in Los Angeles.
Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is screening The Decline of Western Civilization, and that ain’t no April Fools joke.