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Penelope Spheeris, Director of Decline Of Western Civilization and Wayne’s World

Penelope Spheeris is an American film director best know for the Decline of Western Civilisation movies – a trio of seminal rock documentaries exploring the fiery punk rock movement of the late Seventies, the heavy metal scene of the mid-Eighties that showed “this time in Los Angeles when all of a sudden, everyone is wearing their hair out, tore their jeans up and put some bandannas on and looked totally different than they did the year before” as well as alternative rock in the Nineties. Featuring some of the most incredible rock musicians of all time – Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear, Circle Jerks, Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne – the Decline movies captured the moments in rock when everything shifted, through the lens of an insider.

In the third episode of the new “Riffing With Christina” podcast, Christina chats to Penelope Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox about the Decline films, Wayne’s World, and living a rock and roll life. Listen below on Soundcloud, or subscribe via iTunes here. Edited excerpts from the conversation below. 


Beyond the Decline movies, Penelope Spheeris also directed beloved rock and roll comedy Wayne’s World, a “goofy movie” that became cult and profound. Wayne and Garth, the Stairway to Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody in the car (she directed that Grammy-nominated video as well), the mystical white Fender Stratocaster (“she will be mine, oh yes, she will be mine”), the evils of the suit (“If Benjamin was an ice cream flavour, he’d be Pralines & Dick”) are now all an integral part of the rock lexicon.


On Decline I & The Punk Rock Years:

Christina: Were you involved in the scene back then [around the first Decline movie]? What initially drove the desire to cover this?

Penelope: I knew that it was a very unique time in music history. I felt that it was like a fruit ripe for picking. Nobody else was filming back then, not everyone had a cell phone.

Christina: There’s something really cool about (especially the first one) where everyone is really THERE. They’re not putting themselves in the picture or taking a shitty cell phone video. How different did it feel back then?

Penelope: If you had told us back then everyone would be filming everything 35 years later, it would have been a joke, [it would have been] that’s just impossible. But that’s what we do do. When I filmed the first Decline, people were really there, as you put it, and I think that’s a good way to put it, because it was a unique moment to be filmed, and they were trying to do their best to be their best, you know? I think that’s why it feels so honest. They do feel honest, I think they were very open and honest with me.

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Christina: Which of the bands really stuck in your mind?

Penelope: A lot of them have still survived, the ones I’ve really liked – Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Fear.

Anna: One of my favourite bands is still X, I go to all their shows, still.

Penelope: Catholic Discipline faded, well… it was an experiment in the first place, Claude never expected that band to last, didn’t want it to. And then Alice Bag, I guess she put her makeup on and went out and started performing again, right Anna? She’s doing something again.

On Fear, John Belushi & Saturday Night Live:

Christina: I saw recently Fear perform live on Saturday Night Live and read the story where they were kind of blacklisted from being booked and it was quite a significant thing and John Belushi kind of got [involved] in it. Were you sort of around at that point?

Penelope: John was a friend of mine. And he was at my house two days before he passed away actually. He loved Fear and he loved The Go-Gos and he loved punk rock in general. He told me we were going to make a punk rock movie together and he was going to write and act in it, and I was going to direct it … that was two days before he passed away.


Christina: There’s something really about that time that’s like I feel like we’re endlessly trying to re-create it because they were trying to do something different. And also it was kind of pre-fame … if you put it up against Decline The Metal Years, you actually captured that moment before everyone were so self-conscious … you were involved in music videos ten years before MTV almost. What were the first projects you were on?

Penelope: I started a company called Rock And Reel in the very early Seventies. I shot Funkadelic, I shot four videos for them … I shot Fleetwood [Mac] … there’s all kinds of bands back then I was filming. And yeah … I even shot the first Decline before MTV. It’s funny because I would always get questions from journalists that would say, “why did you copy the cutting and the shooting style of the MTV videos Penelope, when you did Decline?” And I’d have to tell them they’d better figure out what came first, the chicken or the egg.

On Outrage, Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll:

Christina: What was that scene like, what was the world like? It’s really funny, everyone [in the second movie] are like, ‘drugs are terrible,’ and in the first one everyone seems pretty wasted. How do you think drugs affect art?

Penelope: I’ve been in rock and roll my whole life, and I’ve been around drugs my whole life, except for now, because I’m not in rock and roll anymore, because I don’t go to those shows. If I went to those shows, I would be around drugs. It’s just part of the rock and roll thing, that’s just the way it is. And it was prevalent back then. A boyfriend of mine at the time was a pretty big coke dealer and he actually did sell coke to John Belushi, and various other people. A lot of the bands … how do you sing songs that fast if you’re not on speed?

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Anyway, the drugs were always so prevalent. I think it’s really adorable how fascinated with the time [you are] because it was such a different time. It was totally different than it is now. It was focused on trying to change things and it was basically in a way, here in the United States, something of an art movement. It was an experimental movement.

Christina: Yeah! Like trying to make art, not get rich.

Penelope: Exactly! Well put.

Christina: And that’s I guess why people are so fascinated. It’s such a puritanical time now. Like this cult of gleeful outrage. I look at it and I can just imagine how many stupid essays would be written now about what an outrage everything was, in the film … I feel like it’s kind of constrictive to art.


Penelope: When the film was released, it was considered to be outrageous … the first time I screened the film, the first question in the Q&A was “how can you stand yourself when you’re glorifying these heathens?”

Christina: And then retrospectively they’re like historical figures.

Penelope: They are and also, I mean the time itself was unique in music history and just social American cultural history. It’s an extremely unique time and I feel quite fortunate that I have the insight I guess, and luck, to shoot it.

On Dave Mustaine, Thrash & Taking The Piss Out Of Glam:

Christina: You kind of take the piss out of glam rock quite obviously and then close on Dave Mustaine where thrash seems like a continuation of punk rock. Was that a conscious decision to kind of make fun of it a bit, in a light-hearted way?

Penelope: It was my final victory, actually. As we were making the film I kept being pushed toward – I paid for Decline 3 so I could do whatever I wanted there but this wasn’t my money so I had to do what I was told to a certain degree – I kept being pushed towards these flashy glam bands which I wasn’t really all interested in on a music level. I could look at them all day because they were very interesting to look at. My music tastes were always more hardcore and more hard rock. We were supposed to have Guns ‘N’ Roses, we were in negotiation with them to be the ending band for the film, that fell through at the last minute so I argued like all hell for Megadeth, just to give the film a bit more weight and substance.

Christina: It feels like it really anchors it and ties back to thrash feeling like a continuation of [punk rock].

Well that’s good, I mean they all have big hair and everything but their lyrics and just the tone of their music was a lot more serious, you know? I mean, Mustaine is a serious dude … he’s very charismatic, and if one of those kind of people that if he’s in the room, you pay attention to him. He’s very compelling because he’s extremely smart and he’s really good looking. It was like, Dave’s the man.

Anna: He’s just totally honest about his feelings and opinions too, which I respect.


On Punk Rock Back Then: Hopeful or Nihilistic?

Christina: Was it hopeful or was it more nihilistic back then?

Penelope: In my opinion, it was pseudo-nihilistic because – if that makes any sense – it was cool to say everything sucked. It was cool to say, ‘let’s destroy it all.’ But it was a lot of gesturing, you know? It’s not the guy running around with the Guy Fawkes faces today, that’s different. That’s a real ‘tear it down,’ that’s nihilistic, you know what I mean? These guys were doing it as a gesture to say let’s not kill each other but let’s change things. It was hopeful, I think, on the underside of it. Depending on whether or not you were the kind of person who liked to preserve and never change things. Some people like that. Today, when you look at the people who were in the film, I think a lot of them look exactly the same as they did back then, with more wrinkles.

On Anna Growing Up In The Moshpit & Dating Nikki Sixx:

Christina: Anna, what was it like growing up around that scene? How did it impact you, what got you into it?

Anna: I would say I was raised in a moshpit. My mum used to take me to all the shows during the punk rock times. And during the metal times, I was old enough to go myself. We used to hang out at the same clubs and whatnot, and have the same friends, which was awesome. Awesome to look back on now, but not awesome at the time necessarily because I had to hide the teenager I was.


But during the punk rock days it was awesome. My mum was friends with all of them, they would come over, we’d have barbecues and my mum would go inside and come back out and there would be Fear and Circle Jerks spray painted on the side of the house. Darby would come over and give our dog beer when we weren’t looking. Growing up in that environment taught me a lot of survival skills and taught me a lot about people as far as … I actually fit in better with the misfits. And it’s funny because my middle daughter, she’s now following that same path.

Penelope: Uh oh.

Anna: I know, right? Better nip it in the bud.

Penelope: Anna went out with Nikki Sixx around the late eighties and I thought, oh man, this rock and roll lifestyle is really coming back to haunt me.

Christina: Was he a polite young man?

Anna: Nikki? My mum actually made him come to the house (beceause I was seventeen) and properly meet her. And he did it conveniently right after a photo shoot. So he had on these you know, skintight leather head to toe, hair charged up, makeup, the whole thing. He came in and properly met my mother, it was pretty interesting. What did you think about it mum?

Penelope: I thought he was a dipshit, honestly. He was twice your age, whatever. You know, I’ve still got a little bit of a pissed off thing about that, I gotta get over it. It’s your underage daughter, you know what I mean. Get over it, dude.

Christina: I think it’s hilarious.

Penelope: It’s great that it’s over with and many years past. And you know what? He’s got a bunch of daughters now so you know what, it’s going to bite him in the ass too.

Christina: He’s going to get his (laughs).

On The Shift From Punk Rock To Metal, MTV & Fame:

Christina: There’s quite a shift between the two films. How were your goals different, with the second film and how had your perspective shifted?

Penelope: Here’s the thing. You have to let a documentary take it where it’s going to take you. You can’t have a goal, except for to shoot some film that day … that’s the goal. Whatever comes up on the film, you have to sort it out later in the editing room. I didn’t have a goal when I did Decline #2, it was just, you know, try to show this time in Los Angeles where all of a sudden, everyone is wearing their hair out, tore their jeans up and put some bandannas on and looked totally different than they did the year before.


For me, I really am fascinated with human behaviour and documenting human behaviour. That’s the part that I go toward and what fascinates me. Yes, the music, but that’s not the only reason. The music is sort of a backdrop to explore human behaviour. And there is a big difference between those two times, and they were only like seven years apart.

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Christina: What was the starkest difference do you think? What was kind of left behind?

Penelope: The most stark difference obviously was the values that changed in terms of commerciality and not worrying about being a sell-out or anything, just going for it, you know? And that ridiculous concept that if you want something bad enough, you can have it. I so disbelieve that. It’s almost like if you want something that bad, you’re never going to get it.

Christina: Yeah, like when you say this is essential to my ego, the world kind of stops you, a bit.

Penelope: That was the difference. And I think I more respected the punk rock movement because it was not ego-less, but there was less ego.

Christina: It felt like a collective vibe, like it was about kind of creating a space in the room [in the first Decline movie] …whereas – I re-watched everything last night – it’s so funny, in the second one it was like, ‘I’m going to make it, I’m going to be the biggest thing ever, I want to be rich, I want to have a mansion.’ It pulled it away from the music a bit …

Penelope: WAY before the Kardashians.

Christina: Yeah, well I feel like you captured prot0-Kardashians. Like that was the beginning of the end, of culture. Its funny, I look at them sometimes and ten years ago they were seen as a joke, and now they’re this. Do you think MTV, and putting a camera on that [scene] in a really big mainstream way drove that [shift]?

Penelope: Yeah, I think it did. Because if you got your video on MTV, then you could probably get a record deal. And then vice versa, if you had a record deal, you could probably get your video on MTV. I think MTV was accidentally a great driving force of that, that’s obviously not what it set out to be, but that was how it got usurped by humans, who tend to usurp everything.

Christina: It’s funny because now a record deal doesn’t mean anything. In Australia, it probably means you’re going to end up in a lot of debt. The truth of most Australian bands is they got a giant advance that they couldn’t pay back. Most of it was unrecoupable.

Penelope: You know what? Rock and roll karma again. The record companies deserved everything they got.

Christina: It was like partying on an expense account it seemed like.

Penelope: They were ripping off artists left and right. So many people who we perceived as having been massively successful are broke today because the record companies took all their money.


Anna: Now they’ve invented a new way to take all their money, which is called the internet. The Foo Fighters put out a free EP today, which is awesome.

Penelope: Tell Christina which band your husband plays in.

Anna: My husband [bassist Grant Fitzpatrick] is playing in The Cult. He’s really close with Matt Sorum and works with him a lot, from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Matt used to play in The Cult, so he kind of put those two together. Actually, Matt Sorum was the one, when we were going through all the different elements for one of the Declines, we had DAT tapes that we had to listen to and nothing to listen to them on. Finally I was able to source a DAT player from Matt Sorum. I was like oh great, I’ll borrow it and get it back to you and he was like why? Who would ever use this thing. That’s how hard it was to get all the footage together.

On The Making of Wayne’s World:

Christina: I love that movie more than anything. I just always wanted to be Wayne.

Penelope: Everyone wants to be Wayne because Wayne has not a care in the world, he’s the eternal optimist.

Penelope: I didn’t have that feeling that I did when I was doing the Decline movies that I was doing something that was going to have a lasting impact, you know? I thought I was just doing this goofy comedy. When I look back on it, none of us thought it would do what it did. We just set out to make a little goofy movie. And then it turned out to be profound … and goofy.


Christina: What was it like working on it?

Penelope: It was fine, I had to shoot the movie three ways. I had to shoot it four ways actually. My way, Mike’s (Wayne Campbell) way, Dana’s (Garth Algar) way, and Lorne’s (Saturday Night Live head honcho) way. And then sometimes the studio’s way. But I knew it was ok because when I got into the editing room, I could cut it my way. Which is what I did.

Anna: Mike was hypoglycaemic so he always needed to have a bagel and a Coke, on standby, ready for him at any moment. So I’d literally come in in the morning, make these sandwiches, put them in the cooler, and sit on the cooler on set the entire time until that moment that Mike needed his sandwich and his Coke.

Penelope: Yeah because he had a flip out one day because he didn’t have it, and that was right around the time my daughter got canned out of the wardrobe department so I said OK, she’s staying. She’s making sandwiches for Mike!

Christina: Did he have a bit of a rock star complex at the time?

Penelope: No, it’s not that. I’ve worked with a lot of comic geniuses, and I truly believe Mike is a comic genius. It’s just that when they’re trying to do the work right, it’s nerve wracking. His face is up on a forty foot-wide screen and it was the first movie he’d done and he was just trying to get it right, I think, you know?

Anna: I think you’re right.


Penelope: It was about trying to get the work done right and letting your neuroses come out in different ways and not targeting it toward the actual thing. He didn’t say “Hey! I’m really nervous because I gotta have my face up in front of this camera all day long. He didn’t say that. He goes, “I gotta have margarine on my bagel!” He knew he was nervous, but he didn’t know why.

Christina: You were in an edit suite for a few years with [legendary comedian] Richard Pryor. What was that like?

Penelope: Anna was there too but she was only nine days old. It was pretty crazy, but again – a genius. So when you’re around one of those people, or when I was anyway, I felt like I was there to facilitate them being the genius that they were … that’s all you can do. I did that with Richard, I did it with Mike, I did it with Albert Brooks, Chris Farley and all the other various comedians that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of their life.

The Decline Of Western Civilization movies were initially only available post-release on VHS tapes. Happily, last July the classic films made the leap to digital, when Spheeris’ daughter Anna Fox (who was “raised in the moshpit” alongside her punk rock aficionado mother) pushed Penelope to finally release the Decline movies on DVD. They’re essential viewing if you want to truly understand the history of punk rock, heavy metal and alternative music. Get the whole 3-movie collection on Amazon here.





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