stardust ballroom

Remembering The Decline

Here is the full text of my interview with noiseymusic about the Decline of Western Civilization film:

Q1: When did you remember first hearing about someone wanting to make a film about the LA Punk scene? Was it already known it was going to be made by Slash/Penelope? Did anyone know who exactly was going to produce/direct it right off the bat? Do you remember the time frame this was all being spoken about?

Q2: How did The Bags end up in the film? Do you have any inkling of what the decision making process was as to which bands made it into the film? Were there any bands who felt jilted over not being in the film? Are there any bands you personally think should have been in the film?

Alice: I don’t remember hearing anything about the film in advance. One day, I showed up at rehearsal and my guitarist, Craig Lee told me that there was a director who was going to stop by the studio to talk to us about being in a punk documentary. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I trusted Craig…to a point.

When I met Penelope, I didn’t immediately trust her. I had seen her at a few shows but I didn’t know her story or her reasons for making the film. In my eyes, she was an outsider to the scene. My first impression of her was that she was very assertive, no nonsense, almost abrasive. She told us right away that she would have the final say over what would be going into the film. The whole idea of handing over control of what our band would look and sound like to a total stranger made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t used to having a director, I was used to making up my own rules.

Penelope also shared with us the fact that she had originally approached the Go Gos about being in the film but talks with the Go Gos’ management had stalled due to negotiations about points and other financial details. Penelope said she felt she didn’t have enough women in the film and I believe that was the reason she was interested in the Bags. I got the impression that she wasn’t necessarily a Bags fan but maybe we just fit the concept she had in mind for her film.

After the meeting with Penelope, the band met to discuss our impressions. I didn’t want to do it. I figured the Go Gos had a good management team looking out for them and they must have a good reason for not being in the film. Patricia and Craig were always much wiser about business than I was and Terry and Rob were usually really easy going. The band felt that being in the film would give us greater exposure. I was the only dissenting voice so we signed up to do the taping.

Over the years, I’ve come to accept the film for what it is. It is called The Decline of Western Civilization, not The Golden Age of the Hollywood Punk Scene. The film was shaped by the director’s vision, that’s usually how it works. I didn’t really like the film when I first saw it, in fact I walked out of the premiere screening because I couldn’t bear to watch it. Now, I recognize the film’s value, it has introduced a lot of people to punk and for many, it led to further exploration and research about the music and the ideology behind punk.

My impression of Penelope has changed too. I applaud her for being strong, taking control and making the film she wanted to make.

There were many great bands in the early L.A. Punk scene who deserve recognition and I still hope that someday, someone will make a documentary and include all those very early, quirky, eclectic bands that got the scene started.

 Q3: Do you have any memories from the Bags sets that were filmed for the documentary? Did they film more than one Bags set? Were you at the other shows in the film besides the ones The Bags were filmed at?

 Alice: They only filmed one set and yes, I remember the night we were filmed. It was crazy because we had to get there early and there was all kinds of technical stuff that had to happen. People were checking cameras, lighting, sound. In all the preoccupation with the filming, Penelope neglected to tell the bands when they were expected to play. I believe there were at least five bands on the bill that night, two or three was the norm in those days except for all day events. Tensions started to build backstage as band members grew restless. At one point, an argument started because two bands wanted to go on at the same time. Basically, nobody wanted to go on first because they wanted to wait for a full house and nobody wanted to go on last when the audience might be tired or spent.

Being the only woman backstage, I took control of the situation and proposed that we draw straws. I was rewarded for my diplomacy with the shortest straw. My band went on last.

Q4: What was your personal feelings at the time in regards to a film being made about the LA Punk scene? Were you afraid they wouldn’t ‘get’ the real story of it or were you confident Penelope would know what she’s doing?

Alice: I wasn’t hoping for the “real story” because Penelope never said it was her goal to tell the real story of L.A. Punk.

Q5: Nowadays, the movie seems to be a perfect time capsule as to the time when the LA Punk scene morphed into the more physical, male dominated Hardcore Punk scene. Do you agree? Do you think this was a conscious effort on the film makers’

Alice: No, I don’t agree. Although the Decline includes bands from the early scene as well as the developing hardcore scene, I don’t think the essence of the early scene is captured in the film. Hardcore dominates the movie. It’s true that the director was shooting during a transitional time when the Masque bands were fading and the beach bands were on the rise but there were still plenty of shows that could have been filmed where the original L.A. punk bands would kick sonic ass and whip a crowd into a frenzy.

The Weirdos at the Stardust Ballroom, photo by Mike Murphy.

I can’t speak to Penelope’s goals or motives because I don’t know what she wanted to achieve. It’s her film and as an artist I know that you can’t worry about pleasing others, you have to be true to your own vision.

Q6: Do you feel Darby Crash was portrayed as the ‘centerpiece’ of the documentary? Do you feel there were certain bands that got more screen time than others? If so, why do you think that happened?

 Alice: Yes, I think Darby was the centerpiece. He was an interesting subject. The Darby I knew was also very warm and friendly and easily confided in people. I imagine Penelope was drawn by his warmth and charm.

Yes, I do think some bands got more screen time, some bands were filmed more than once and as a result they may have better clips in the film, simply because there was more to choose from. I don’t know why certain bands got more time but speaking as someone who really didn’t want to be in the film in the first place, I was not all that concerned by it.

My band was filmed once, we were the last band playing the end of a long night. We were on the verge of breaking up. Our former bassist was threatening to sue us if we used the name The Bags. I had tried to perm my hair the night before and it had burned and started to fall off just in time to be captured for posterity. I could see all of it on screen when I went to the premier and I couldn’t stand to watch but I can’t blame Penelope for any of those things. You can’t blame the mirror for your pimples.

Q7: Do you feel the film is an accurate portrayal of the LA Punk scene of the time? If not, what are your issues/qualms with it?

Alice: Anyone who is interested in getting an accurate portrayal of anything should seek out multiple sources of information. The Decline is one part of a much larger story.

Q8: Do you recall any instances with some of the ‘characters’ who are interviewed for the film? (ie: Eugene, X-Head, etc.)

Alice: Not much. They were not the people I usually hung out with. I remember seeing Eugene on Facebook a few years ago.

Q9: What was the reaction to the film from the LA punk scene once it was released?

 Alice: It was well received by most of the audience, my reaction was to walk out of the screening.

The LAPD turnout for the premiere of the Decline, photo by Ed Colver.

Q10: Why do you think people still reference and watch ‘The Decline’ to this day? Is there something special to it for you personally?

Alice: The specialness of The Decline is that it introduced a lot of people to punk. If you lived in a big city you might have already had a punk scene, but for many The Decline was the first taste of a radical new music that would either terrify or piss off your parents - what more could a teenager ask for?

As for me, after bitching and complaining about how we looked and sounded in the film, I finally decided to get over it. The Decline has given me just enough name recognition to help me launch other projects more easily. It is an important film to so many people and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

Guns N’ Roses at Los Angeles’ Stardust Ballroom, June 28, 1985

“We formed Guns N’ Roses within a couple of months of me moving to LA. The band was a really cool amalgamation of punk, metal – like Motorhead – and basically just really good, deep-cut records. Axl even brought in some stuff like Nazareth that I’d never been exposed to before. There were Prince and Cameo, and all this cool funk stuff in there as well. That’s what you hear driving the backbeat on Appetite [for Destruction]. We’d listen to that stuff all the time. And Hanoi Rocks were a big influence on us, too. Slash and I had tickets to see them at The Palace [Avalon Hollywood], and the week before the concert was due to take place the car accident happened. Razzle [Nicholas Dingley, drummer in Hanoi Rocks] died and the band broke up. That was during the winter of ’84. Afterward, there was a wide-open space. It felt like whatever happened next was going to be on our shoulders. But then again, at that time every 20-year-old kid who was in a band in LA probably thought that.” - Duff McKagan