Rick Rubin’s ‘Less Than Zero’ Soundtrack Perfectly Emulates the Excessive ’80s

In the middle of the Reagan / MTV / “Greed is good” ’80s, some musical trends played themselves out while some important new ones took hold. Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) altered popular music on a worldwide scale, yet the ’80s did not otherwise see a major event, such as the advent of rock, punk, or rap. Rather, the decade saw some crucial shifts and fragmenting of rock and popular music in a post-punk world. The soundtrack to the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, Less Than Zero (1987) is a classic artifact and case study of the times.

The story in the film, directed by Marek Kanievska, veered from the book and is much less decadent. Less Than Zero is the tale of ’80s excess and the Beverly Hills version of latch-key kids. Recent high school graduates Clay (Andrew McCarthy), girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz), and Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), are three best friends with access to seemingly anything a teen could want — short of moral direction or meaningful parental relationships. Clay is back for Christmas break after his freshman semester as an Ivy League school.

Julian, Downey’s breakout character, and who foreshadows Downey’s own drug problems, is a downward-spiraling cocaine addict in the process of being disowned by his rich family. Julian is in debt $50,000 to his dealer (James Spader) and cannot get ahead. Eventually Julian’s life is threatened and he is coerced into prostituting himself. The film follows the friendship of the three as Julian falls deeper and deeper into oblivion and soon Blair is slipping into addiction, herself. Blair and Clay try to help Julian without losing themselves in the process.

Rick Rubin, the legendary producer and co-founder of Def Jam Records, is credited as the film’s “Music Supervisor” and produced of most of the tracks and Def Jam artists dominate the soundtrack. Through that music, Less Than Zero captures some of the significant musical and social trends of the decade.

In the mid-’80s, rock and popular music were redefining themselves and fragmenting. Traditional, “classic” rock, as it is now called, was beginning to fade; hair metal reared its ugly head; thrash metal first asserted itself; and a hip hop generation began to come of age. Top British acts like the brooding Smiths and the early-Goth of The Cure were slower to catch on in the US, and Post-punk and New Wave split into segments of the more arty (Pere Ubu or Wire), the weird (Devo, the Human League), and the headier crowds (Talking Heads), while MTV catered to the more pop-oriented (Cindy Lauper, Madonna), and pop/funk crossover (Prince and Michael Jackson).

The lack of direction portrayed in Less Than Zero, musically and socially, can at least in part be seen as a response to a loss of the idealism of the ’60s. One perspective was that the Flower Children had given up on lasting societal change and — after having had their own run of “free love”, music festivals and rampant drug use — were now driving Volvos, chasing the almighty dollar, and snorting lots of cocaine (all depicted in the movie by parents and an uncle of the three co-stars). For many, the thread had been lost, and now they were looking to fill the void. The lesson of Less Than Zero seems to be that times were again a-changing, and some were adapting and finding new directions, while others were getting lost or simply crashing and burning.

In one early scene, some Beverly Hills’ parents are apparently on vacation, leaving their kid to throw a blowout, “Fuck Christmas” party, as an invitation reads, in their mansion. The party’s theme and decor reflects the excesses of the times: dozens upon dozens of video monitors, mostly showing images of the partygoers themselves, and briefly of Marilyn Monroe, are stacked one on top of the other, lining the walls and crowding the home. The enormous stereo system is blasting throughout the house and the sounds carries outside to the backyard and pool area. The kids are doing what kids do when moms and dads are gone; they drink, do drugs, gyrate to music, and so on. At one point, there’s a sudden brownout, as if this one party is so indulgent and ridiculously excessive that it is sucking up all of California’s energy. Clearly something is going to have to give.

Early-thrash metal band, Slayer, Def Jam’s first metal act, bludgeons the heavy, ’60s psych rock staple, “Inagaddadavida”, by Iron Butterfly. The 1968 original was notoriously excessive — at over 17 minutes long — and was emblematic of the coming excesses of ’70s arena rock. In Slayer’s gnarly, three-plus minute version, the vocals are more sickly wailings and the guitar work intentionally rough. Slayer is either celebrating or mocking their roots, or otherwise delivering the death-knell for dinosaur rock, depending on your perspective. The film’s inclusion of music from two of rock’s most talented but youngest, drug casualties, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, does not seem coincidental.

Also, by the mid-’80s, Aerosmith — one of the best and edgiest hard rock bands of the ’70s — was flat-lining, both in the professional sense and nearly literally. Singer Steven Tyler and lead guitarist Joe Perry were both hitting bottom with cocaine addictions. For Less Than Zero, Aerosmith mails in a pretty stale cover of the old boogie rock staple, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”. AllMusic labeled it, along with the Slayer and Poison entries on the soundtrack as “insipid” in an otherwise very positive review. (“Original Soundtrack: Less Than Zero, S.T. Erlewine)

Folk rock fares better as the film opens with the Bangles’ faster, fuzz-rock, update of the moving, acoustic Simon and Garfunkel hit, “Hazy Shade of Winter” (1966). It’s a great version of a great song, with the the Bangles’ take making for an exciting opening cruise through their hometown of L.A. Despite the sunshine, though, it is a ride straight into uncertainty and quite possibly some painful, bittersweet loss.

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me

While I looked around

For my possibilities

I was so hard to please

But look around, leaves are brown

And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

The bleak feeling lies in the trio’s uncertain future and Julian’s in particular. Clay and Blair are having trouble sorting their relationship out, while they struggle to help Julian defeat his addiction. Former Misfits’ vocalist, Glenn Danzig, adds the doom-laden title track, “You and Me (Less Than Zero)”, and he wrote the self-explanatory, “Life Fades Away”, for the master of haunting vocals, Roy Orbison, which closes the film.

Rap, which had just a few years earlier been seen as a strange, black fad, was growing in every way. Two months before the release of the Less Than Zero soundtrack, LL Cool J had already pulled off what most thought was impossible: a rap love ballad, with the hit “I Need Love”. That song teetered on pure schmaltz, yet Cool Js’ talent was such that he turned it into a crossover classic. Cool J’s apparent street smarts and smooth, lady-killer style brought rap new fans and credibility. In Less Than Zero, Cool J’s equally cool, “Going Back to Cali”, along with Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”, bring the new black American music into the lives of the virtually all-white world of Beverly Hills as Def Jam ushers in the hip hop generation.

Another Def Jam act, Public Enemy, first introduces another classic, here: “Bring the Noise”, with some brief snatches in the movie and a slot in the soundtrack. MC Chuck D delivers agitating, politicized raps in his rapid-fire baritone, and is offset by the humor of designated “hype man”, Flava Flav. The song is a collage of sounds, heavy and noisy enough to be punk, but with a deep, deep funk undertone. The group’s production crew, The Bomb Squad, established a new level of sophistication in rap, using dense layers of studio effects and samples, especially from James Brown songs. The simpler production and generally lighter themes of early rap were transforming into something else, entirely.

It’s worth noting that in “Bring the Noize” Chuck D name checks other rappers, as well as fellow New Yorkers, the white, thrash metal band Anthrax. Anthrax were known Public Enemy fans who had already recorded a jokey but reverent rap song of their own (“I’m the Man”). Anthrax later collaborated with PE to cover the song, followed by the two groups hugely successful joint-tour connecting their very different fan bases.

As the film progresses through multiple club and party scenes, Def Jam artists Oran “Juice” Jones’ “How to Love Again”, and the Black Flames cover of “Are You My Woman?” in particular, inject some soul into the void, as well.

Troubling for many rock enthusiasts of the ’80s was the rise of the much-maligned but popular glam or “hair” metal genre, straight from the clubs on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The “hair” reference came from the bands being defined by an MTV-ready image of large, teased, hair-sprayed and often bleached manes, to match flashy, over-the-top makeup, and outfits of brightly colored spandex pants, bandanas, scarves, etc. The “metal” referred to a general boogie style of rock.

In the film, the song played during the brownout is a cover of rock group Kiss’ party anthem, “Rock and Roll All Night” by Poison, the most successful band of the hair metal scene. Hair metal was a distant offshoot of the early-’70s glam rock, but was most closely modeled on Southern Californian, hard rock stars, Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen was the biggest guitar hero of the ’70s and ’80s and was mimicked endlessly. Singer David Lee Roth embraced the now clichéd, bigger-than-life, “Rock Star” persona. Yet, Roth was undeniably talented, vocally and as a stage performer, and never took himself too seriously. One writer notes that his style was “derived as much from lounge performers as Robert Plant.” (Erlewine I).

The hair metal genre, however, and with a few key exceptions, lacked the self-deprecation and self-awareness of the original glam rock of a New York Dolls or Roth, and the originality of a Van Halen. Poison certainly puts effort into their cover of “Rock and Roll All Night”, yet this version highlights hair metal’s fatal flaws. The feel of the song (it was not one produced by Rubin) is slight, the guitars tinny, and it is otherwise overloaded with gimmicky, self-indulgent effects: a lame, echoed cowboy yell, forced-sounding exhortations (“Kick it!”), a weak, stuttering effect, and, as hair metal bands were wont to do, the band name-checks themselves, not once (“Mr. Rockit…”), but twice (“Get in there, C.C.”). It’s as if a song that repeats a chorus of “I! Wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day!” an even dozen times in less than four minutes is not excessive and self-indulgent enough.

The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle swallow Julian. A critical moment occurs at the same party when one hopes that Julian is getting and staying clean. While the young crowd moves to the beat of Jimi Hendrix’s soul/psychedelic classic, “Fire”, Downey, Jr.’s character has a moment in which he could reassess his life’s direction, but instead, in the throes of his addiction and with a hit off a crack pipe, he throws himself back into the dance area. It’s a powerful image. This is not a kid letting loose to experience the promise of youth, but someone throwing his life into nihilism and addiction, apparently incapable of accounting for the consequences. Knowing that a few years later, the real-life Downey, Jr. would be following the same course makes it all the more gripping. Rubin’s soundtrack captures all of the above and even the seeming misfires speak volumes.

Where are they now? Ellis has had continued success, particularly with both the novel and film adaptation of American Psycho. Rubin is considered one of the greatest producers of his time. Public Enemy has made one of the biggest marks of any group of the last thirty years, rap or otherwise. LL Cool J’s career has scarcely slowed as he has transitioned into a successful TV and film career. Slayer spawned death metal (for better or for worse) and remains popular. Aerosmith got clean and sober toward the end of the ’80s and found a second career as a more pop-oriented, but still vital rock band. Downey, Jr. went on to more critical success, publicly imploded, got clean and sober in the mid-’90s, and is now again one of Hollywood’s most respected and most bankable actors.

Along with the Julian character, the other big casualty here is hair metal, which by 1991 had been killed off by Guns and Roses, Metallica and grunge. RIP. Poison lead singer, Bret Michaels, is currently a reality TV “star”. Take that however you wish.