The Decline of Western
Civilization Part II: The Metal Years April 27, 2020
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
ne of the most exciting things about Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 rock-music documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which surveys the Los Angeles punk scene between 1979 and 1980, is that it so vividly and substantially captures the come-ups of soon-to-be seminal acts. (Among them: Germs, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, and others.) The milieu’s problems, namely its misogyny and badly aged attempts at
provocation, are not romanticized, but the warts-and-all documentary ultimately mostly flattered the punk personae and artistry of its subjects. We were entranced. Our skepticism concurrently lingered.
A “sequel” to the movie, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which is also directed by Spheeris, in contrast mostly arouses skepticism, if not outright disdain. Though featuring interviews with metal bigwigs like Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, it's mostly focused on the rising glam-metal figures they’ve influenced. The progeny seen in the L.A.-set film — among them a mixture of semi-established acts (Faster Pussycat, W.A.S.P.) and unsigned groups (London, Seduce) — seem not to have ingested any of the musicality of any of those people. It’s the hedonism they’ve taken after most. Their music and attitudes, from the vantage point of the feature, are almost interchangeable.
The first entry in the Decline series is widely agreed to have helped buttress the rises of most of its stars. The second is noted for being so effectively damning of the subgenre’s acts that many claim it was among the primary forces kickstarting the American consumer’s disillusionment with hair metal. The music style would soon enough (perhaps inevitably, given its overexcited and as such foredoomed fixation on excess) be swallowed. First came the acrobatic thrash metal perfected in the late-1980s by acts like Metallica and Megadeth. (The latter make an appearance in the documentary, and are one of the few acts to come off well.) Then arrived the grunge music that would become unexpectedly ubiquitous in the early 1990s, as embodied by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, among others.
ex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are stripped of their allure in The Metal Years. The tenets lay the foundation for Spheeris’ progressively darker line of questioning; they are the areas given the most focus in the film. Sex in The Metal Years is portrayed as being almost entirely raveled in sexism and objectification — like you can’t have one without the other. Paul Stanley of Kiss does his interview in bed, enveloped in adoring
groupies as if they were one and the same as accent pillows; he seems caught off guard when Spheeris asks questions tacitly seeking to humanize them. An owner of a popular venue proudly reveals that he purposely turns its air conditioning off so that women patrons take off their clothes. (A method that seems to have worked: audiences there sometimes resemble a lingerie fashion show's afterparty.) Before introducing an act one night, said manager encourages female attendees to flash the stage. Almost the whole of the time spent with the band London, which is best known for acting as a launching pad for musicians who would go on to bigger and better things, is overloaded with over-the-top misogyny so casual it astounds. The sense one gets, watching many of the subjects included in The Metal Years, is that in this milieu, the sexism and varying degrees of exploitation long rampant in disparate rock-music scenes were exceptionally noisy and troubling when related to glam metal.
“Established” artists are notionally featured in The Metal Years to show the toll an extravagant rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle can take on the incautious. Perry and Tyler, visibly worn out, chalk up their recent comeback to a need for money — most of which, Tyler says, had gone up his nose. (He analogizes the progression of one’s music career to masturbation: if you try to keep up with what you were doing when you were young and eager when you’re middle-aged, you’re going to find yourself worn out.) Spiky-haired Osbourne, bustling about with his body cloaked in a silky cheetah-print bathrobe, cooks up scrambled eggs and bacon in a kitchen later revealed not to be his. There, he soberly discusses the drug-induced burnout he and his fellow Black Sabbathers experienced after their initial rise, and how they still haven't finished recovering. “Do you have a more stable life now?” Spheeris asks Osbourne. “No,” he replies with a bruised laugh.
In the film’s most notorious scene, Spheeris interviews Chris Holmes, of the more recently popular W.A.S.P., as he floats on an inflatable chair in his pool. He's so sozzled that we keep thinking the next sentence will be interrupted by an eruption of vomit. He clutches a bottle of vodka he’ll eventually uncap and shower himself with. Curiously, his mother is sitting next to him, almost emotionless, on a beach lounger. Though self-described alcoholic Holmes won’t answer Spheeris’ questions directly — like if his drinking is potentially tied to his anxieties over his band’s success, general sustainability — we are invited to deduce.
Still, moon-eyed up-and-comers are expectedly enamored of the hair-metal scene and their perceptions of its accompanying lifestyle. The unsigned and dilettantes alike almost unanimously say they have no backup plan if things don’t work out. But their steadfast beliefs in themselves, it seems, don’t come with any plan either. In lieu of any sort of professional outline or loose set of goals, they have a lot of platitudinous sentences that begin with “I will” under their belts. Randy O, the frontman of the fledgling Odin, is so confident that his band will find success that when he thinks about a future in which it isn’t bigger than Led Zeppelin or the Doors, it makes him suicidal. He says this with no indication of hyperbole.
Especially now, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years feels like a tragicomedy. Much of the behavior characterized as “cool” by the people who populate it is more so to be conflated with general foolishness and self-destruction. The vast majority will not see the prosperity they dream of. Its plentiful unintentional humor has a dark center.
Can we trust The Metal Years? Years after its release, Spheeris and Osbourne both shared that a significant moment in his interview — him being so residually shaky from drugs that he can’t so much as pour a glass of orange juice right — was staged. Lemmy Kilmister, one of few people here we still feel as though we can fawn over, is shot from afar for his interview. He later said it felt to him like Spheeris photographed him that way to make him look stupid. In no doubt are the problems invoked in the documentary based in reality. But some of Spheeris’ editing choices — namely her habit of cutting from one interview to the next as long as stories across several participants are deemed similar enough to her taste — can lend some of the movie’s verity a dubiousness. We can’t know how vital the excised context is. I don’t think perceptions of this milieu would much change if Spheeris’ agenda, which is more prominent here than it was in its predecessor, were less obvious, but one is left to wonder. This is a documentary that compels but also inspires some suspicion. Never, though, do we question how entertaining it is. A