Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION--THE METAL YEARS

With Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and others.
Directed by Penelope Spheeris.
(RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, color, 94 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

In theory, metal is today's real rock and roll--the music of the people. It's basic, it's rude, kids love it, parents hate it. But the closer you look, the stupider and more delusory it seems. Metal isn't basic--it cultivates a pseudo-virtuosity that negates content. The dreams it promulgates are usually foolish and often destructive. Eighty per cent of the "people" who like it are male, and 98 per cent of them are white.

We get the feeling Penelope Spheeris went into this sequel to her L.A. punk documentary enamored of the theory and came out dismayed by the facts. After interviewing dozens of performers, several groupies, one self-promoting impresario, and a woman cop, she still obviously admires the manic dedication and hang-loose irreverence of metal's musicians and fans. But the evidence does pile up. Sex talk that at first seems purely bawdy is gradually revealed as the usual locker-room misogyny--musician after musician observes that a woman who'd sleep with him would sleep with anybody. Drugs have gone out of fashion, but not alcohol. In one truly horrifying sequence, W.A.S.P.'s Chris Holmes, reclining in a swimming pool wearing full leathers, pours two bottles of vodka down his throat as his mother looks on with a nervous smile.

L.A.'s atypically glam scene is where the hot American metal bands hail from these days, but that's a new development--of the six elder statesmen who volunteer their tarnished wisdom, only Alice Cooper got his start in the showbiz capital. Maybe that's why the old guys make so much more sense than the young ambition addicts whose mercifully truncated music is the film's ostenisble subject. More likely it's that they're successful enough to have turned into elder statesmen and smart enough to have succeeded. This movie bombed because it got panned in metal's word-of-mouth underground. Nonfans will learn a lot from it.

Video Review, Nov. 1988