The Decline of Western Civilisation II

(I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while.)

In the past few months, I mangaged to see a documentary by Penelope Spheeris. Apparently, this volume (II) is part of a larger corpus of works. The first film, The Decline of Western Civilsation concerns the punk rock movement around the end of the 1970s while the third part is about a more gritty gutter punks. I’ve yet to see these two. Part II of this film series concerns the glam and heavy metal music scene in Los Angeles, California.

There are some very clear themes in this work. Firstly is the misogny of the musicians and the overt objectification of women. Another feature is this ‘bohemian’ complex had by many of the musicians, of how they are very much striving for a reputation and gain merit by virtue of their musical achievement. However there is a questional nature to their claims; many bands and individuals were interviewed and each represented different phases in their career. There were the old guard of heavy metal; Motorhead’s Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne (during a time when he was kicked out of Black Sabbath and successful in his own eponymously titled band), represented the more experienced and wisened rock idol. Ozzy and Lemmy were aware of the damage that alcohol and narcotics can do, while they were agnostic at best about the groupies; they were quite clear that there is a tragedy to success.

There were a great number of metal failures in this documentary as well. Many of the bands interviewed were either signed, unsigned or in a position which is surprisingly common: signed to a label, yet poor. This documentary was an exploration of the youth culture of the time. I though this perspective was particularly enlightening. The youths who sustained the heavy metal scene were sometimes also the members of small-time bands. Heavy metal possesses a hierarchy which may be likened to some crass contractarian state of nature. The powerful, and successful bigwigs are those who are idolised and siphoned. Women throw themselves freely to the big stars of the time, while those (males) lower on the food chain fight and struggle to compete for popularity, success, and sexual delight.

Club owners are overtly perverse. The less a girl wears, the more likely they will get in, one of the owners say. A distinct element stated early on in the film is that the heavy metal fan is powerless socially. Normally they are high school dropouts and with little employment prospects. Facing the Reganite conservatism of the time and the PMC; youth culture has no longer become a matter of deviance. Acceptable forms of ‘parental rejection’ are granted as the original baby boomers (the first generation who had a ‘youth culture’) have set the rules for social conformity. It is a partial irony that those original teenagers were the later arbiters of conformity.

There is a secret pathos to the interviews of the characters. We see alcoholic and ultimately doomed heavy metal musicians. Those who strive for success and a deified status akin to the likes of Dio or Ozzy are doomed to fail and are oblivious to said failure. It is, I think, clear to the audience watching the documentary, that this ‘vanguard’ of heavy metal is really a bloated failure. Heavy metal seems not to be a genre and ideology with clear goals or determinate ideas. The reception of this documentary led to an eventual change of attitude towards the late 1980s’. Hard rock and glam metal fell away of popularity, or slowly sidelined as the tassels and building blocks of future pop and AOR rock music towards the 1990s. Challenging guitar-heavy music moved away from NWOBHM heavy metal in a variety of directions. The bloated and popular scene of glam and mainstream heavy metal were divided. Some bands who were always underground, found new forms of expression. The disgust at the self-indulgence and percieved ‘femininity’ of glam metal led to a desire for more ‘authentic’ forms of music. Enter Generation X….

One redeeming feature of the documentary was the appearance of Megadeth at the end. Megadeth, while part of this scene which was largely indulgent, had the seeds of change. Some artists, particularly Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer; stayed true (initially) to their underground routes and formed a unique style of heavy metal in the 80s that reclaimed the authentic aspirations of heavy metal: challenging, gritty, dark, technical, political and relevant. The discourse of the mainstream and bloated indulgence seems always to be not far away in musical scenes. A similar story can be told in the origins of Black and Death Metal; another reactionary movement (in part) to the glam scene.


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