Rick Rubin’s Sound Track: Much More Than Zero


How embarrassing: Calendar prints n-i-n-e-t-e-e-n year-end Top 10 album lists and not one of them gives a nod to what may prove to be one of the most influential records of 1987--the “Less Than Zero” sound track.

It’s easy to see how the album was overlooked. It was released during a flood of year-end albums and many critics simply didn’t get around to listening to it before submitting their ballots. The fact that the film was so widely panned certainly didn’t help spark interest in the package.

Another factor, however, was no doubt also at work: the low critical expectations surrounding sound-track collections. Though the Los Lobos half of “La Bamba” and the Cajun/R&B; strains in “The Big Easy” brought some respect to the genre last year, most sound track albums are blatantly commercial marketing devices devoid of character or art. Call it the “Top Gun” syndrome.


Still, the presence of one name alone should have been a hint that “Less Than Zero” might be something special: executive producer Rick Rubin.

Rubin is a 24-year-old New York record producer who has helped mastermind albums by such teen-focused rap ‘n’ rock sensations as Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J.

In some ways, in fact, it is helpful to think of “Less Than Zero” as the first Rick Rubin album. Rubin doesn’t sing on it, write most of the material or even produce all 11 tracks, yet he brings to the album a consistent vision--an aggressive juxtaposition of contemporary black and white musical styles, and a wry, streetwise edge--that gives the LP a strong, invigorating presence.

At times, there is such a clash of musical sensibilities in “Less Than Zero” that the album seems like the logical follow-up to the Beastie Boys’ 1986 “Licensed to Ill”--an album that mixed the sounds that parents love to hate (rap, heavy metal and punk) with a humor and street bravado to suggest a summit meeting between the Bowery Boys and the Sex Pistols at a hip-hop dance.

In this case, Rubin pokes fun at the follow-the-herd instincts of radio programmers and sound-track merchants. He lampoons the “Big Chill”-inspired tendency to cater to the nostalgia-minded yuppie crowd by filling the album with some familiar hits (preferably ‘60s Motown or Doors or Stones).

“Less Than Zero” does have oldies--but they are played by contemporary hard-rock bands in a way that should be appealing to those on both sides of pop’s generation gap. Poison’s rendition of KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” is too plain, but Aerosmith’s treatment of Huey Smith’s “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” is campy enough to draw smiles from ‘50s rock fans, and Slayer’s rave-up of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is hilarious. The speed-metal band doesn’t just race through what was originally a 17-minute song in under 4 minutes, but plays with a careless abandon that makes you wonder whether they even listened to the Iron Butterfly version long enough to fully learn the psychedelic-era landmark.


Rubin then reshuffles the deck and has Roy Orbison, one of rock’s most respected figures from the ‘60s, do a new song: “Life Fades Away,” written by Orbison and Glen Danzig. Because the song’s suicide theme extends Orbison’s classic tales of romantic anxiety to a moment of ultimate despair, the track could easily have become a parody, but Rubin obviously has too much respect for Orbison to settle for such an easy joke.

The final time-switch among the rock tracks is the Bangles’ reworking of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” a tune from the early Simon & Garfunkel days. Though Rubin worked with the Bangles on the track, he subsequently took his name off the single because, he said, he didn’t like some of the L.A. rock quartet’s post-production work.

Moving away from the modern rock oldies on the rest of the album, Rubin takes jabs at radio programmers by devoting four key songs on the “rock ‘n’ roll” sound track to black music styles. L.L. Cool J (whose “Going Back to Cali” has an almost winsome folk edge) and Public Enemy (whose “Bring the Noise” is a slap in part at programmers who resist rap music) provide the rap, while the smoother and traditional R&B; sounds come from the Black Flames (a young New Jersey vocal group) and a romantic duet by Oran (Juice) Jones and Alyson Williams.

Rubin didn’t make the mistake of programming the music into a black and white side for the convenience of radio programmers or the narrow musical sensibilities of most record buyers. L.L. Cool J follows KISS on Side 1, while the Jones/Williams duet is sandwiched in between Joan Jett and the Bangles on Side 2. The fact that the rock and rap and R&B; ballads work so well together serves as yet another powerful condemnation of the musical segregation that remains so prevalent on radio.

Rick Rubin is no fan of sound tracks. “I don’t even own one,” he said by phone from New York. “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.”

Rubin is also no fan of “Less Than Zero,” the book or the movie. He was so bored by author Bret Easton Ellis’ tale of jaded Los Angeles rich kids that he tossed the book aside after 30 pages, and he dismisses the characters in the film as unconvincing. So Rubin felt no obligation, in accepting the sound-track assignment, to stick with the hip, new-wave music that Ellis emphasized in the book.

Explaining his approach, Rubin said, “The music (in the book) had a particular sensibility for its time and I don’t know what the equivalent of that is today. 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.”

Rubin felt that the movie needed a more “middle American” hard-rock sound if most rock fans were going to be able to identify with the rich kids in the movie.

“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, 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.”

Though Rubin grew up on Long Island in an upper-middle-class family, he maintains he finds it easy to relate to the middle-America audience. Long Island, he stresses, is not Manhattan.

“If I was brought up in Manhattan, it’d be a lot harder to like some (musical) things that are as commonplace as they are.” Rubin said. “None of the guys in the Beastie Boys, for instance, ever liked AC/DC and I can understand it. If you grew up in Manhattan, you just didn’t like AC/DC. The band was so suburban, so Middle American. It wasn’t chic enough.”

The ironic thing about Rubin’s album is that the track getting the most airplay is the one the producer apparently likes the least: “Hazy Shade of Winter.”

About the Bangles’ number, he said, “We recorded the song and I was really happy with it. . . . 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.”

Rubin, who also objected to the Bangles’ policy of bringing in “studio-type” musicians during the post-production work, said he went along with the Bangles’ version on the album because a fight would have “meant the album wouldn’t have been able to come out any time near the movie,” but he took his name off the record when it was released as a single.

Though it would be interesting to hear Rubin’s more ragged “garage-rock” version of the Simon song, the Bangles’ treatment works fine on the album. Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson said the group enjoyed working with Rubin and would like to work with him again in the future, but felt that they wanted to add to “Hazy” some of the folkish textures of the original Simon & Garfunkel record and some of the more polished trademarks of the Bangles. The role of outside musicians, she said, was extremely limited.

Whatever the Rubin/Bangles differences, Columbia Records, which distributes Rubin’s Def Jam label, is encouraged by the late-blooming success of the album. Though some fans of the Bangles’ track are going to be surprised by all the hard-rock and rap on the album, that’s exactly the culture clash that makes Rubin’s music so stimulating and valuable.

Sales are already over the 400,000 mark and even critics are falling in line. In the Dec. 29 issue of the Village Voice, Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of American rock critics, declared “Less Than Zero” one “tough and imaginative sound track. . . . Those who never trust a sound track should buy this one.”