Remember the Altamont!
We have all wanted to kill a hippy, right? Oh come on, you know you have. They were cute at Woodstock, but then they started to get way too hairy and smell (even worse). They became more of a pestilence in an untended field than gophers, and harder to get rid of. The everything should be free mantra got a bit old, too – yeah, that free concert at Altamont was great, wasn’t it. Well, if you agree, then this movie is for you. This is the anti-hippy film of all time. It is never explained where all the vitriol comes from, but it is there. To be fair to the hippies, they didn’t cause the dystopia that was in full swing by the end of the 70s, they were fighting (well, whatever it was they did) against it. Most hippies weren’t really hippies anyway. For most it was just a fashionable ideal, and once something becomes fashionable, it becomes meaningless – you hear that, punks? The punks did get it right for a while, but in the end became as watered down as the hippies.
Where did it all go wrong. Well, as for music, the free form psychedelia of the 60s turned into prog rock opuses that just never bloody ended. Too much musical technique became its own worst enemy. All spontaneity was driven from rock – it became heavily orchestrated to the point of being unlistenable – except for the yet undefined, nerds, waiting for Unix to be invented – ooh, did you hear that chord progression…I love Steely Dan. Did anyone really need, for example, a double album from Yes that only had four songs? Honestly, how often would anyone listen to it. I think once was enough for most people. Getting stoned and looking at the gate fold cover was probably the best part, though not by much. Music had lost its way and needed a complete dismantling. The same bands just kept trundling along, pumping out pomp rock albums one after another. Many of the guilty bands were engaging at one point in their careers, but devolved into coke snorting egomaniacs, oblivious to their condition and the affect it was having on their music.
Enter Punk. A complete backlash against technique, and originally, fake rock posturing. Attitude always has been and always will be the essential ingredient in rock. Well fed musicians living in mansions do not make cutting edge rock. They make Tubular Bells. When punk began, it truly was the less privileged rebelling against the excesses of modern rock and the downward spiral and fake morality of their society. Popular music didn’t speak to them, didn’t reflect their societal standing – especially in England, where one’s regional accent could decide one’s success or failure in life. The English punks had a reason to be pissed off. The once great England was a shit hole and was getting worse every day.
Fast forward to 1979 and The Decline of Western Civilization. These weren’t poor, hard done by kids. One can tell that some came from fairly good backgrounds – the worst of them obviously came from dysfunctional families, others had mental problems – now they manage networks for IT companies. Some were just bored. So, what was it they were they rebelling against? I guess the title gives us a hint. L.A., the back drop for this film, is a plastic cesspool of gaudy affluence. The phoniness of it did not inspire the youth to do anything but become sullen and disillusioned. Sure, the kids in California had it better than the English punks, but what was their motivation in life – to perpetuate the non-existent California Dream? They are an angry lot, and there is a lot of them, so there must have been something fueling it. That said, they still comes across as a bunch of bored, white, and compared to the majority of the world, rich suburbanites. Still, they made some fucking great music!
The film starts with a candid interview of a fan, Eugene, who is illuminated by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, describing the L.A. punk scene – and essentially discrediting it, “that’s stupid, punk rock…I don’t know…I just think of it as rock and roll, cause that’s all it is”. A few more fans, journalists and musicians try, during the course of the film, to explain what the whole scene is all about, but do not come up with anything unifying or conclusive – wait, are these the parents of the Occupy Movementeers?
The first song in the film, by L.A. legends, X, plays over images of what looks like a punch up in a dingy hall. Lead singer, Exene, sneers over top of a truly menacing riff as the crowd forms a vortex of fists and legs. The line up of bands captured in this film is pretty impressive and the concert footage is as raw as you are ever going to see. What happened on stage, and in the audience, is fully documented. It is so visceral that the LAPD Chief of Police, Daryl Gates, demanded that the film never be shown in L.A. again.
The most self destructive band in this film is The Germs. The interview with their, Scarlett Johannsson-esq, manager, is illuminating and starts off their segment of the film.The Germs come off like really bad performance art. No song is allowed to reach its logical conclusion before the singer, Darby Crash (that’s him laying supine on the film poster), tries to mortally injure himself, attack, or be attacked by, a member of the audience. He eventually died of a heroin overdose before the film was released – though not during filming. It becomes pretty clear from his antics, and nihilism, that he was not long for this world. Hippies 1 – Punks 0. Darby Crash comes off like a clone of Sid Vicious, though, if possible, less talented. He even has a girlfriend who resembles Nancy Spungeon, but thankfully does not have her adenoidal whine. There is a scene of the two eating breakfast in their crash pad, and above the table is a picture of Syd and Nancy – can you be any more obvious? The best that can be taken from The Germs performance is the guitar playing of Pat Smear, later of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. He is a sonic reducer on stage. Actually, the rest of the band seem pretty good, but their playing is neutralized by Darby.
Pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag is also featured in the film. Current, as of this film, singer, Ron Reyes, flails more than Darby Crash, but is much more coherent, in control and has a lot more to say. The film makers were still kind enough to include subtitles, though. Black Flag are interviewed in a church basement, where they live in complete squalor. Apparently, punk, nor the band, have any intention of paying the bills, which is why they live in a (discount) church. Their neighbors down the hall are a bunch of hippies, who according to the band, never get anything done because they just get high and talk about feelings. Over all, they come off as fairly intelligent young men who do not wish to buy into the American dream. Cheap beer, punk rock and female fans to feed them, seems to be all they need. Wouldn’t be too bad if they didn’t live in such a fucking dump.
X starts off their concert portion of the film with a video of a large burning X in a field (or the unwatered back yard of whatever condemned building they happen to live in). It resembles a crucifix that fell over at a KKK rally. They are not as bad as the imagery suggests, but they are punks, rooted, for the most part, in 50s rock and roll – cause that’s all punk really is – just rock and roll, right Eugene? They are probably the most accessible and musically talented band in this film. Some would argue that they weren’t really punk. Watching them backstage giving themselves homemade tattoos kind of belies that notion, though the rather clean-cut lead guitarist, Billy Zoom, wants nothing to do with it. He looks like he’d rather be doing his taxes.
My favorite band in the film is Fear. In their musical segment they incite the crowd into a riot long before they have played a note. It seems that they need this kind of frenzy as a back drop for their music to work – and it does work. If the crowd weren’t already angry, Fear made them fucking irate. During the singer’s tirade against the audience, he is constantly assailed and spat upon by members of the audience, who rush the stage and are then kicked and punched, by the band and the bouncers, back into the crowd. It comes across like some strange form of karaoke, as everyone who can, tries to scream obscenities into the mics before it is the next persons turn to make an ass of themselves – much like karaoke. Fear writes some of the catchier tunes in this film and have an acerbic wit about them that underlines the punk angst swirling around them. I think they sum up the California punk movement best and I wish they had been interviewed to give their opinion on it all. I think it would have been insightful.
This film is presently unavailable (other than as a bootleg DVD and an insanely overpriced VHS tape) and would really benefit from a re-mastering. This is an incredibly important document in the history of North American music and deserves to be acknowledged as such.