On August 27th, The Charles Theater in Baltimore, MD, held a one-night-only showing of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization. The showing corresponded with two significant events this year: the long-demanded release of the Decline Trilogy as a deluxe box set, and the theatrical release of Straight Outta Compton, which tells a similar story1 of hopeless youth utilizing their hardships as inspiration to change the course of music forever. Truth be told, despite my holding an honorary PhD in Punk History from the University of Rock ‘n Roll, I’d never seen Spheeris’ cult classic rock doc. Upon finally experiencing the film, I began to note the changes that have occurred within punk music and subculture between its first and current waves.
“Punk is dead” has been a slogan oft repeated by those who experienced the scene’s less than humble beginnings as a pessimistic reaction to over-industrialization and the complacency left in the wake of the ‘60s hippies-turned-yuppies; then watched its fragmentation into power pop, industrial, thrash metal, and “new wave” in the mid-to-late ‘80s; only to revive in the early ‘90s as a radio-friendly consumable easily capitalized by corporate music labels and fashion brands seeking to make a quick buck off of youth angst. After seeing Spheeris’ film, it’s easy to understand why. What we call “punk” now is not the same animal as what they called “punk” then. Whether audiophiles and subculturists consider this for the better or worse is, frankly, irrelevant. What is necessary is that we acknowledge how the label “punk” has changed into something which, though aesthetically similar, represents vastly different ideas than many of its founders held and how these ideological shifts correlate with the different cultural and socio-political happenings of then and now.
The film portrays punk rock from 1981, not long after its conception, particularly that of the early hardcore scene. Thus nowhere to be found in the film are nasally mock-prepubescent vocals spouting lyrics rife with metaphor and simile, accomplished drumming, or catchy guitar riffs often associated with punk rock today. As stated by one interviewee in the film, “It’s like reviving old rock and roll … There’s no rock stars.” Instead, audiences are presented with unpoetic lyrics reflecting negative sentiments felt by the city youth of that day set to classic rock at its rawest form, stripped of all its pretenses at higher musicality.
Like Woody Guthrie said decades prior during the politically unstable dust bowl era of US history, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
Evidently, and in contrast to The Who’s uplifting lyrics just a decade prior, the kids of this era were definitely not alright. But why? The answer is surprisingly complex, as it was very much an expression of a zeitgeist resulting from the era’s tumultuous economics and the increasingly industrialized post-World War II landscape many youths had been born into. Even if many punks at the time didn’t fully consciously realize it, the lyrics to Fear’s “I Love Living in the City” perfectly sum up the rationale behind the movement’s seemingly aimless hunger for chaos:
Spent my whole life in the city, / Where junk is king and the air smells shitty. / People pukin’ everywhere. / Piles of blood, scabs and hair. / Bodies wasted in defeat, / People dyin’ on the street, / But the suburban scumbags, they don’t care, / Just get fat and dye their hair!
Punk rock was an outcry against a socio-economic machine they knew was working against them but could not fully define. The invisible machine that resulted in the birth of this aggressive and simplified art form is described by Sara Burke and Claudio Puty in their article In the Belly of the Beast, in which the authors state:
The war effort [of WWII] quickly lifted the US labor force into full employment through high rates of output growth and investment—in other words, the economy was busy, with factories employing many workers, producing many products (which means more income, which then re-enters the system) and having an edge in productivity within the world system. This dynamic growth was driven initially by industrial production for the war, then by the expansion of production for export. The American economy, thus hyper-charged with industrialization, ushered in the Golden Age of post-WWII capitalism … [but by] the late 1960s, the Golden Age had exhausted itself. There are many explanations for its decline and fall, but most of the Left traditions in economics agree that the end of the Golden Age was caused by a precipitous fall in the rate of profit toward the end of the 1960s …
The economy of the time was sinking, and young people saw the results even if they didn’t comprehend the underlying cause. Spheeris’ film makes this clear early on with a shot of an interviewee standing against a vast Los Angeles backdrop and describing the poison in the air. The kids who would become early punks saw the decay caused by post-WWII industrialization that only a few generations before had promised to make life into a promised land, yet now left its descendants the gifts of gray skies, concrete landscapes, and nightmarish weapons of nuclear destruction being developed around the world.
On top of all that, young people were becoming disenchanted by the perceived facetiousness of the prior hippie generation, a group who had already begun the transition into yuppies. By this time, it was becoming apparent that the Flower Power children had grown into either useless burnouts, middle class family men and women, or well-off business people, thus selling out to the very system they once claimed to oppose. Add to this the back to back presidencies of Nixon and Reagan, whose outspoken conservatism had divided and alienated many citizens who did not fit the rich, white, straight, and clean-cut image for United States citizens, and it becomes apparent why these kids turned to a musical artform centered on anti-establishment and individualism.
Yet the early years of punk rock were not all praiseworthy, even by its own crust-covered standards. After all, aside from a few groups such as Crass, Sex Pistols, and The Clash, none of which were featured in the film, few bands featured overtly political lyrics. The only occasional exceptions seen in Decline are Black Flag and Circle Jerks, though even their socially-minded songs were more reactionary and only vaguely descriptive of any specific injustice aside from police brutality. In fact, many of the punks seen in the film seem to have no idea why they are rebelling at all.
Instead, when interviewed by Spheeris, many of these early punks are shown spouting negative opinions against women, gays, and people of color. This is incredibly strange considering how diverse the film proves the early punk era was. Despite today’s common perception that punk is a strictly suburban, caucasian, straight, cis male genre, the film showcases how, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, female punks were almost, if not just as prevalent as males both in bands and listeners; young black punks can be seen intermingling at shows with whites; and, though he may not have been open about it at the time, later evidence has shown that even the late Darby Crash of featured band The Germs was actually gay and accepted as such by his bandmates.
Contemporary punk rock and its social scene is quite different. In the early ‘90s and mid 2000s punk became a mainstream staple, with bands like Green Day, Blink 182, New Found Glory, AFI, and Sum 41 becoming overnight pop stars and playing to arenas packed with millions of screaming fans. But punk rock now has begun receding from the popular spotlight. Corresponding with the difficult times young people survive in, living in the wake of the Great Recession and watching the increasing chasm between the lower and upper economic classes, the burst of the mainstream punk bubble has brought an inflation in new independent acts playing in dirty clubs for five to 10 dollars per show.
This recession back to the underground has brought with it an appreciation of community and political correctness virtually unseen in Spheeris’ film. Gone are the satirically misogynistic and homophobic banterings of Fear, or the notion of being a “White Minority” held by Black Flag. Instead, many contemporary punks have adopted political correctness as the new standard, incorporating left-wing ideologies such as Marxism, feminism, and a general push for social equality—both in lyrical content and social activism—as opposed to the shock and awe tactics utilized by their forefathers.
Yet some feel that the newest incarnation of punk rock has drifted too far from what it initially represented. As Christopher Johnson, founder of DIY record label Plan-It-X Records, stated in 2010 in the liner notes to Imperial Can’s album Hey Fuckers:
In the 80’s [sic] punk was dumb, offensive and dumb. In the 90’s [sic] it grew up a lot and got a lot better. Most punks stopped calling people “fags” and “bitches.” Things were good. But, I think it went too far. Today it seems like no one wants to offend anyone. I think some people deserve to be offended.
This is not to say that social equality is wrong by any means, only that punk rock’s new found push for inoffensiveness can leave the genre feeling neutered of what separated it from the failed hippie movement before. The key is finding a happy medium.
Punk gave some great and sometimes frightening things to the world that should be applied to today. We need to eschew the corporate. We should embrace the underground, the independent, the little guys and gals outside the limelight trying to do it themselves. And goddammit, we need to allow ourselves a little nihilism in our perceptive diets, if only to combat the mass complacency and even smiling fascism that, if the hippies taught us anything, can result from mass rampant hope and an overindulgence on commercialized peace and love. In this sense, punk will always be significant. Yet these only form a foundation on which to build something more. This is why, when oldheads argue that punk died at some unspecified point between the late ‘70s and mid ‘80s, I’m reminded of the significance of the late ‘80s and early ’90s, which saw the rise of influential bands such as Fifteen, Operation Ivy, and Jawbreaker, along with a realization of the anarcho-communist ideology initially suggested by first wave acts, such as Crass and Dead Kennedys, via the era’s extreme focus on community-building, grassroots recording and marketing, and DIY ethics.
Even as I write this, I’m reflecting on my own traits as a punk rocker: poor, dirty, socially-minded, pessimistic, angry, distrustful of anything socially accepted, and enamored with music that is fast, simple, and unrefined enough to make me want to start a pit wherein to vent the animal instincts contemporary society commands that we publicly suppress. Yet if Spheeris’ Decline teaches current punks anything, it is that anger and rebellion alone only gets you so far. They need to be focused to remain impactful.
One of my favorite movies is SLC Punk because of it’s portrayal of the movement not as a state of perpetual being but a stage in development, whether on a personal or cultural level. As its protagonist, Steve-O, states, “If the person I was then met the person I am now [a lawyer like his father], he’d kick his ass. We change,” all the while making it very clear throughout the film’s narrative that who he is and the values he holds are a direct result of his time as a punk. Even director James Merendino claims in the DVD commentary that one can be both a “punk” and a lawyer and that there is nothing preventing both worlds from existing harmoniously. Punks should become a part of the world in order to affect it instead of try to separate from it entirely. This is something that the early punks in Decline seem to have missed and which those claiming punk is dead perhaps still oppose.
The key is not to lose oneself in the process, not to become just another trend, another cash cow, to keep the destructive/creative fire inside burning brighter and brighter with each new wrinkle, with each passing year, each coming generation.
Yet we should change.
We should look back and laugh.
We should look ahead and run fistfirst into the unknown.
So is punk dead? Maybe, in a sense. Though there are still pockets of kids who hold fast to the old school ways, the punk movement of Spheeris’ day, both in its sound and ideals, has certainly come and gone. But I leave you with this question: does it still do things which shock and piss off the older generations, if not most of society at large? If the answer is a resounding yes, despite how many gold records Green Day puts out, then punk rock is doing just fine. It’s just gotten a little world-wiser since the Decline years.
1 In the ’70s and ’80s, poor, mainly Caucasian punk kids were making expressive, angry music outside of anything acceptable on mainstream radio. However, poor and disenchanted Black kids were also beginning to do the same thing through the birth and cultivation of hip hop. This is a comparison which Decline never touches on. And that is unfortunate, since it shows that no significant musical movement ever exists in a bubble, but instead results from the correct ingredients falling together at the right time. (As an aside to this aside, what is now considered the very first proto-punk group was actually an African American three piece in between 1971 and 1976. But I digress…)