Rick Rubin didn’t feel dependent on Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 novel Less than zero when he signed on as music supervisor for a film adaptation. So he decided to do something completely different.
“The music [in the book] had a particular sensibility for his time, and I don’t know what it equates to today,” Rubin shared Los Angeles Times in 1988. “But that [didn’t bother me] because I don’t think the movie had much to do with the book either. I didn’t really care what the movie was going to look like. I wanted to make a good album that would stand alone.”
He started out using a number of artists from his Def Jam label, but Less than zero the 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. Behaves as Elvis Costello and X from Ellis’ novel was replaced with more modern hair metal, R&B and hip-hop.
There would be no easy nostalgia. Instead of including all-classic recordings, Rubin inverted expectations: Newer bands (Marriedthe bangles, Kills) tackled older songs, while older tracks (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 edge to it,” Avnet shared Hits magazine in 1988. “His ideas and my ideas had a lot of convergence. There was no fear of good old rock ‘n’ roll, and doing things both in the music and in the film that were all over the place.”
Rubin did not produce all the tracks; Def Jam colleagues handled duties in Public enemy‘Bring the Noise’ and R&B twists by Oran “Juice” Jones and the Black Flames. But the album is nonetheless the product of a firm musical vision based on two core beliefs: Soundtracks are usually terrible, and the source material for this particular movie just wasn’t that great. (Legend has it that Rubin never got past page 30 or so when he read Ellis’s tale of worn-out, drugged-up Los Angeles jocks.)
As for movie soundtracks, “I don’t even own one,” he flatly admitted. “The problem is, there’s usually not a thread that runs through the whole album that does that [work] – just a selection of songs, and I don’t know anyone who’s going to pick 10 songs I want to like on a record label.”
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That Less than zero record, if not the film, tried something more equal. Rubin intended to focus on the musical interests of a typical late 80s record buyer.
“When I read the script, I saw that there were these dressed-up, rich Beverly Hills kids going to a party at an art gallery,” Rubin noted. “And to me it’s a foreign image.” [someone in middle America] probably wouldn’t like it. 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 this, maybe we’re the same kind of people—even though we dress differently and he has money and I don’t .’
Published on Nov. 6, 1987, Less than zero arrived when newer, more aggressive sounds were pushing so-called classic rock aside, and Rubin was in touch with it all. He had already worked with Run DMC and Slayer, Beastie Boys and Cult. (Rubin was the one first suggested Run-DMC cover Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”) Less than zero echoed that lilting sensibility as the tracklist moved from Poison straight into LL Cool J. Jones finds a home in between Joan Jett and the bangles.
Former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig, a newly signed Def Jam artist at the time, handled Elvis Presley– inspired title track; he also wrote “Life Fades Away” for Orbison, extending an unbroken streak of impossibly heart-wrenching ballads for the ’60s hitmaker. Aerosmith maintained the early rock era vibe with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”. But Slayer’s fleet and fearless passage of Iron butterflyEspecially its typically turgid “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, felt like a bell tolling for the old guard.
Not everything works – are we to believe that Poison’s paint by number covers of 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 really accessible, aggressive teenage feel because the movie had to be aggressive and teenage,” Rubin told Hits. “The idea was to make the characters more accessible through the music they listened to.”
Still, convincing 20th Century Fox to go along with the then 24-year-old’s tough juxtapositions would be more difficult.
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“Honestly, we were all on it,” said studio vice president Elliot Lurie Hits. “We evaluated the situation and there were certain reservations we had. We all decided that, all in all, this would be a great thing to do. It was an interesting concept because, on the one hand, I had a lot of faith in Rick’s talent as a producer , but on the other hand, he had never really done this sort of thing before.”
The film bombed, but the soundtrack roared into the Top 40. Poison’s cover became the soundtrack’s first single, but was quickly overtaken by the Bangles’ driving version of “Hazy Shade of Winter”. They had performed Simon & Garfunkel sang since their early days and it helped shape the band’s vision for this No. 2 smash.
Rubin disagreed. “We recorded the song and I was really happy with it,” Rubin shared 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 that the drums had a much more rock ‘n’ roll sound on my version than this one. This one is much more processed.”
However, they were pressed for time, and Rubin said that continuing these discussions would have “meant that the album would not have been able to come out anywhere near the movie.” In addition, 20th Century Fox had taken a high-profile interest in the track at the time. “We felt the bangles were particularly important,” Lurie said Hits. “Because of all the groups, they seemed like the best base for Top 40 radio — and very high acceptance on 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 Walk with a panther LP. “Bring the Noise” also 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 ahead Less than zero‘s mix-and-match aesthetic, re-recording “Bring the Noise” with Anthrax.
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