Loosely based on the novel written by a then 21-year old Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero follows a bunch of spoiled Beverly Hills brats as they backstab, rat-fuck, and coke-whore the shit out of each other during the first Christmas break after their high school graduation. This movie is notable for its gripping homoerotic scenes of Robert Downey Jr. basically playing himself (at the time), huffing crack pipes in shitty dance clubs and blowing dudes for cocaine in Palm Springs hotel rooms while James Spader plays the smarmiest, preppiest, WASP-iest coke dealer in the history of coke dealers. Beyond the bad acting (except for Downey) and the completely unsympathetic rich-kid characters led by Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, even Ellis himself—who had nothing positive to say about the movie when it came out in 1987—has since admitted that it’s a “gorgeous” snapshot of the era. Presumably he meant to add, “from the perspective of the scions of the shitheels who elected Reagan. Twice.” But it’s the music that makes Less Than Zero unforgettable. Rick Rubin served as music supervisor on the flick, which explains why nearly all the bands on it are from the Def Jam roster—and why Def Jam released the soundtrack. Here’s a taste:
SLAYER – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”
Slayer’s version of Iron Butterfly’s 1968 power-dirge is so fucking evil that it feels like the L.A. speed metal masters could’ve written it themselves. Luckily, Kerry King and the boys didn’t adhere to the original’s full 17-minute, entire-side-of-an-LP, organ-solo-bullshit-version and whittled theirs down to a razor-sharp 3:19. King says this cover was Rick Rubin’s idea, and that he (King) still thinks the track is goofy, but you know what? He’s wrong.
PUBLIC ENEMY – “Bring The Noise”
Run DMC, N.W.A., and Wu-Tang are undeniable greats, but for my money the best rap group in the history of forever will always be Public Enemy. Their classic shout-out anthem “Bring The Noise” made its debut on the Less Than Zero soundtrack before appearing on 1988’s platinum-selling It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Taking a cue from Aerosmith and Run DMC, Public Enemy recorded a surprisingly decent rap-metal version (even typing the phrase makes me feel gross) of the song in 1991 with NYC thrash titans Anthrax, which only proved that not even Anthrax could ruin this banger.
Side note: Straightedge PE frontman Chuck D was probably bummed that the scene this song appears in features three girls doing coke in a bathroom at a Palm Springs Xmas party. Then again, Chuck D has spent most of his adult life putting up with Flavor Flav’s crack-inspired antics, so who knows?
GLENN DANZIG & THE POWER AND FURY ORCHESTRA – “You And Me (Less Than Zero)”
This song is a cool anomaly in that it’s technically the first post-Samhain Danzig track. Rubin originally signed Samhain, which Glenn Danzig quickly disbanded, keeping only his bassist and longtime friend Eerie Von for the Danzig lineup—which he rounded out with guitarist John Christ and former D.O.A./Black Flag/Circle Jerks drummer Chuck Biscuits. As the story goes, Rubin didn’t think Von was up to snuff as a bass player, so he enlisted his studio protégé (and now super-producer) George Drakoulias to play on this jangly Elvis-style ballad. Regardless, this is one of the great forgotten gems of the Danzig catalog.
ROY ORBISON – “Life Fades Away”
Glenn Danzig wrote this song for Orbison, who was clearly one of Danzig’s favorite singers. This closing-credits ballad is a testament to Evil Elvis’ ear and talent in that it sounds just like an Orbison original circa 1963. The orchestral arrangement, the Big O’s pleading croon—“Please forgive me, and try not to cry”—is proper gorgeous. Sadly, the song’s title proved to be oddly prophetic: Orbison was dead a year later.
THE BANGLES – “Hazy Shade Of Winter”
The all-female band/MTV darlings who shot to stardom singing “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Manic Monday” cover a Simon & Garfunkel song about depression. It sounds like a terrible idea on paper, but fuck me, I’ve always loved this version. It’s tougher and more upbeat than the original, and is probably the song most associated with Less Than Zero, owing to a popular video clip that featured scenes from the movie. It also appears in the opening credits sequence of the film itself. In an appropriate reflection of the MTV era, the song rocketed to #2 on the Billboard chart while Simon & Garfunkel’s original 1966 version stalled at #13.
LL COOL J – “Going Back To Cali”
“Her bikini? Small/ Heels? Tall/ She said she liked the ocean.” LL’s inimitable pseudo-rhyme appeared on the Less Than Zero soundtrack before resurfacing in ’89 on his own incredibly-titled Walking With A Panther album. In the classic Ric Menello-directed black-and-white video for “Going Back To Cali,” the artist formerly known as James Todd Smith envisions a Los Angeles in which white women dance on top of phone booths and black men in Kangol bucket hats drive Corvette convertibles down Venice Boulevard unmolested by the LAPD. More realistically, he also plays cards with Rick Rubin at a burger stand.
POISON – “Rock and Roll All Nite”
One of the worst/most popular hair metal bands doing one of the worst/most popular Kiss songs. And I say this as someone who enjoys both Kiss and Poison more than any sane person should. This cover is like some kind of strange alchemical process in which counterfeit money magically becomes real and Gene Simmons gets paid twice. Appropriately, this one is playing when Andrew McCarthy arrives at the big Christmas coke party.
THE CULT – “Lil’ Devil”
This is one of many songs that appear in the film but not on the soundtrack album. It’s playing at the Christmas party when Spader first confronts Downey about the $50K he owes him for blow. Just when it looks like the conversation might escalate into a physical confrontation, Downey sweet-talks him and Spader slips Downey an eight ball on spec. Tracks by Jimi Hendrix, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Lee Roth, Run DMC and the Doors also appear in the movie and not on the album, but this & Run DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” are the most notable in that the songs were actually produced by Rubin. Seems strange that our man would pass up an opportunity to squeeze another few bucks out of this thing. I’ve always wanted to ask him why he didn’t.
J. Bennett is still waiting for Rick Rubin to return his calls.