“The Decline of Western Civilization”
Uni/Slash records, 1981
That I was thirteen when I first heard this album isn’t particularly relevant; that twenty years later, a large part of me is still thirteen as a result of having heard it makes “The Decline of Western Civilization” worth writing about. “The Decline…” is the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, chronicling the years 1979 and 1980, a brief period when Southern California choked on its own sunny guts and spewed forth some of the angriest, rawest and realest music to ever have the label punk rock slapped on it. A collage of live recordings and interviews punctuated with chaotic outbursts, “The Decline…” is the seminal album of the early American punk scene, marking the precise moment when it became clear that punk no longer needed a British accent. A new term was coined to delineate this shift, and Hardcore, upon whose deafening teat I suckled for years, was born.
Two decades later, some of the figures introduced in “The Decline…” have achieved some semblance of recognition. While Black Flag (who perform thrice on the Album, “White Minority,” “Depression” & “Revenge”) is but a noisy memory, front man Henry Rollins has carved a niche for himself as a spoken word artist, angst ridden front man for his own band. Other bands, like the Circle Jerks (with whom I was fortunate enough to have broken bread in the mid 1980’s,) “X,” and “Fear” (the only band on the album not from Southern California) lived on for a while as punk rock legends, while others, like “The Alice Bag Band” and “Catholic Discipline” faded away entirely. Of course, one leading figure from “The Decline…” didn’t even live long enough to attend the premiere; instead, Germs’ Darby Crash (whose blistering “Manimal” is at once the best and least comprehensible cut on the album ) mainlined his way to permanent rock and roll deification in 1980, aged 22. Germs’ guitarist Pat Smear would live on to become a living punk rock icon, playing with Nirvana, and (after watching yet another band mate martyred on the alter of his own madness,) the Foo Fighters.
Musically, how you’ll like this album depends on how you feel about hardcore punk. “X’s” contributions to the album display the most in terms of virtuosity. Despite lyrics designed to inspire loathing, “Fear” was always too musically tight to really be 100% credible on the hardcore scene. But even in – especially in – its least digestible moments (again, the Germs’ “Manimal,”) “The Decline…” is so completely authentic that it earns total respect. Over the next two decades, performers would strive for this level of gut spewing shocking authenticity. Some, like Kurt Cobain, would achieve it, much to their own detriment. Others, like the hideous G.G. Allen, would gorge themselves on so much pure bile that they would be shunned by all but the most mentally unbalanced. Still others, like Marylyn Manson, would achieve some degree of “respect” through shock, only to become a self-parody in the process. All three owned this album, along with anyone who ever called themselves a punk. If you don’t, you ought to. As a time capsule, “The Decline of Western Civilization” is among the most important albums released in the twentieth century.
Black Velvet Flag
“Come Recline…with Black Velvet Flag”
Go Kart Records / 1995
As Hsimending Tower Records’ clerk extraordinaire Catwalk (who has recently been elevated to the position of this reviewer’s personal musical guru) will attest, I’m a slave to weird cover albums; it is only in this obscure genre that “Come Recline…with Black Velvet Flag” could ever find a home. Fourteen blistering tracks of punk rock songs done up in glorious cocktail lounge style by the Indy rock quartet “Black Velvet Flag” (counting Ringo, their bargain basement drum machine) the group that coined the phrase “Loungecore.” Featuring lyrics by many of the same bands featured on “The Decline of Western Civilization,” “Come Recline” features perky, up tempo versions of songs like Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” the Germs’ “Media Blitz,” and Fear’s “I don’t care about you.”
The album’s catchphrase – “Groove the Mellow Angst” – should clue you in to what it’s all about, and groove you will, whether you want to or not. Doing hardcore punk rock songs as lounge music is not an original concept – The Circle Jerks (whose “Group Sex” is covered cocktail style on “Come Recline…”) did it when they portrayed themselves as lounge singers in the cult classic “Repo Man”. But Black Velvet Flag actually went out and did it – the only thing they ever did, apparently – in front of a seemingly bemused live audience. “Come Recline with Black Velvet Flag” offers a nightmarish look into the hellish fate of middle age that awaits us all, no matter how much Ritalin we chomped down in our formative years. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.