Rick Rubin didn’t feel beholden to Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 novel Less Than Zero when he signed on as music supervisor for a movie adaptation. So he decided to do something completely different.
“The music [in the book] had a particular sensibility for its time and I don’t know what the equivalent of that is today,” Rubin told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “But it [didn’t bother me] because I don’t think the film had very much to do with the book either. I didn’t really care what the film was going to be like. I wanted to make a good album that was going to stand alone.”
He started by using a slew of artists from his Def Jam label, but the Less Than Zero soundtrack ended up as more than a promotional tie-in. Under Rubin’s watchful eye, it came to deftly reflect a moment of generational change. Acts like Elvis Costello and X from Ellis’ novel were swapped out for more contemporary hair metal, R&B and hip-hop.
There’d be no easy nostalgia. Instead of including rote classic recordings, Rubin inverted expectations: Newer bands (Poison, the Bangles, Slayer) tackled older songs, while legacy acts (Roy Orbison, Aerosmith) were put in unexpected musical positions.
Jon Avnet, the film’s co-producer, immediately bought into Rubin’s ideas. “I like his music, and I thought it had the right kind of edge for it,” Avnet told Hits magazine in 1988. “His ideas and my ideas had a lot of convergence. There was not a fear of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, and doing stuff both in the music and in the film that was all over the place.”
Rubin didn’t produce all of the tracks; Def Jam colleagues handled duties in Public Enemy‘s “Bring the Noise,” and R&B turns by Oran “Juice” Jones and the Black Flames. But the album is nevertheless a product of a steadfast musical vision based on two core beliefs: Soundtracks are usually awful, and the source material for this particular film just wasn’t that great. (Legend has it that Rubin never got past the 30th page or so when reading Ellis’ tale of jaded, dope-sick Los Angeles jerks.)
As for movie soundtracks, “I don’t even own one,” he bluntly admitted. “The problem is, there isn’t usually a thread that runs through the whole album that makes it [work] – just a selection of songs, and I don’t know anybody who is going to pick 10 songs I am going to like at a record company.”
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The Less Than Zero record, if not the movie, tried for something more egalitarian. Rubin intended to focus on the musical interests of a typical late-’80s record buyer.
“When I read the script, I saw that there was these dressed up, rich Beverly Hills kids going to a party in an art gallery,” Rubin noted. “And to me, that’s a foreign image that [someone in middle America] probably wouldn’t like. But if you play Aerosmith at that party, hey, that’s a party he might be at. I wanted there to be a connection, where he could say, ‘Well, if they listen to that, maybe we are the same kind of people – even though we are dressed differently and he’s got money and I don’t.”
Released on Nov. 6, 1987, Less Than Zero arrived as newer, more aggressive sounds were pushing aside so-called classic rock, and Rubin was standing at the nexus of it all. He’d already worked with Run-DMC and Slayer, Beastie Boys and the Cult. (Rubin was the one who first suggested Run-DMC cover Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”) Less Than Zero echoed that rangy sensibility, as the track listing moved from Poison directly into LL Cool J. Jones finds a home between Joan Jett and the Bangles.
Former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig, a newly signed Def Jam artist at the time, handled the Elvis Presley-inspired title track; he also wrote “Life Fades Away” for Orbison, extending an unbroken line of impossibly heartsick ballads for the ’60s hitmaker. Aerosmith kept up the early-rock era vibe with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” But Slayer’s fleet and fearless run-through of Iron Butterfly‘s typically turgid “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” in particular, felt like a bell tolling for the old guard.
Not everything works – are we to believe that Poison’s paint-by-numbers cover of the 1975 Kiss single “Rock and Roll All Nite” caused a brownout during the big Christmas coke party? – but it’s all very much of its time. “I tried to give the music a real accessible, aggressive teenage feeling because the movie was supposed to be aggressive and teenage,” Rubin told Hits. “The idea was to make the characters more accessible through the music they were listening to.”
Still, convincing 20th Century Fox to go along with the then-24-year-old’s tough juxtapositions would be a more difficult sell.
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“Quite frankly, we all huddled on it,” studio vice president Elliot Lurie told Hits. “We evaluated the situation, and there were certain reservations we had. All of us decided that, on balance, this would be a great thing to do. It was an interesting concept because, on the one hand, I believed very much in Rick’s talent as a producer but, on the other hand, he had never really done this kind of thing before.”
The movie bombed, but the soundtrack roared into the Top 40. Poison’s cover became the soundtrack’s first single but was quickly surpassed by the Bangles’ propulsive take on “Hazy Shade of Winter.” They’d been performing the Simon & Garfunkel song since their early days, and that helped shape the band’s vision for this No. 2 smash.
Rubin did not agree. “We recorded the song and I was really happy with it,” Rubin told the Los Angeles Times. “We had an energetic, exciting, youthful record, a naive energy. I don’t know exactly what happened. They decided they wanted to go in and try different things, but I didn’t like the changes they made. I thought the drums had a much more rock ‘n’ roll sound on my version than this one. This one is much more processed.”
They were pressed for time, however, and Rubin said continuing these discussions would have “meant the album wouldn’t have been able to come out any time near the movie.” Besides, by then, 20th Century Fox had taken a high-profile interest in the track. “We felt that the Bangles were especially important,” Lurie told Hits. “Because, of all the groups, they seemed the best base for Top 40 radio – and very high acceptability at MTV.”
Rubin ultimately removed his production credit when “Hazy Shade of Winter” arrived as a single. LL Cool J’s platinum-selling “Going Back to Cali” was released next, then returned as part of his 1989 million-selling Walking with a Panther LP. “Bring the Noise” likewise made its debut on this record before appearing on Public Enemy’s platinum-certified It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Public Enemy would soon be found advancing Less Than Zero‘s mix-and-match aesthetic, rerecording “Bring the Noise” with Anthrax.
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