About this Playlist
A holiday playlist built around a nearly forty-year-old book may not seem the most obvious thing in the world. Not only that, Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero may not be the first book that comes to mind when you think about Christmas. And yet, here we are.
People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. That was the first thing Clay heard when he landed, ca. December 1983, in LAX. All it comes down to is that Less Than Zero is the story of a boy coming home for Christmas and meeting people whom he hadn’t seen in four months and people are afraid to merge.
While there are plenty of authors out there who are not afraid to merge their appetite for pop culture with their work, none use music references quite so effectively or profusely as Bret Easton Ellis. In Less Than Zero — itself named after an Elvis Costello song — music is more than background noise or a reminder of the time and place: every song referenced in Less Than Zero adds to the characterization of the cast and tells a story of its own.
At first glance, this may feel like a saccharine early ’80s pop playlist, but much like in the L.A. of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, that feeling is soon drowned out by the surprisingly dark undertones of even the poppiest entries.
More Than Less Than Zero track listing
Less Than Zero — Elvis Costello
The Have Nots — X
Stairway to Heaven — Led Zeppelin
“This is the game that moves as you play . . .” — X
“There is a feeling I get when I look to the West . . .” — Led Zeppelin
Hazy Shade of Winter — The Bangles — BONUS TRACK!
“Hazy Shade of Winter” is one of only two songs in this playlist not directly or indirectly referenced in Less Than Zero, but I think it has earned its place. The Bangles had been performing their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” since 1983. When they recorded it for the film adaptation of Less than Zero, in 1987, it became the standout hit of the soundtrack.
Clubland — Elvis Costello
. . . I look up with caution at the poster encased in glass that hangs on the wall above my bed, but it hasn’t changed either. It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off center. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window, but I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window.
New Kid in Town — Eagles
He’s also wearing black suede gloves because he cut himself badly on a piece of glass a week earlier in New Hampshire. I had gone with him to the emergency room at the hospital and had watched as they cleaned the wound and washed the blood off and started to sew in the wire until I started feeling sick and then I went and sat in the waiting room at five o’clock in the morning and heard The Eagles sing ‘New Kid in Town’ and I wanted to come back.
Crimson and Clover — Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
I don’t say anything and notice that the walls have been painted a very bright, almost painful yellow and under the glare of the fluorescent lights, they seem to glow. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are on the jukebox singing “Crimson and Clover.” I stare at the walls and listen to the words. “Crimson and clover, over and over and over and over . . .”
Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage — Killer Pussy
“Mom, tell him to answer me. Why do you lock your door, Clay?”
I turn around. “Because you both stole a quarter gram of cocaine from me the last time I left my door open. That’s why.”
My sisters don’t say anything. “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” by a group called Killer Pussy comes on the radio, and my mother asks if we have to listen to this and my sisters tell her to turn it up, and no one says anything else until the song’s over. When we get home, my younger sister finally tells me, out by the pool, “That’s bullshit. I can get my own cocaine.”
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me — Culture Club
Blair dances over to me, singing the words to “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” probably stoned out of her mind, and she says that I look happy and that I look good and she hands me a box from Jerry Magnin and whispers “Merry Christmas, you fox,” in my ear, and kisses me.
Artificial Incemination — Elton Motello
The alarm goes off at eleven. A song called “Artificial Insemination” is playing on the radio and I wait until it’s over to open my eyes and get up.
The Earthquake Song — The Little Girls
I sigh, turn up the radio, some little girls are singing about an earthquake in L.A. “My surfboard’s ready for the tidal wave.”
Straight Into Darkness — Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been around. Went to that Tom Petty concert at the . . . Forum. He sang that song, oh, you know, that song we always used to listen to . . .” Julian closes his eyes and tries to remember the song. “Oh, shit, you know . . .” He begins to hum and then sing the words. “Straight into darkness, we went straight into darkness, out over that line, yeah straight into darkness, straight into night . . .“
September Song — Dave Brubeck
Jimmy’s is pretty empty; except for a few scattered couples at the bar and another family that sits across from us, there’s nobody in the bar. A piano player’s singing “September Song” and he sings softly. My father complains that he should be playing Christmas carols.
Don’t Change — INXS
Love My Way — The Psychedelic Furs
In the Sun — Blondie
I don’t put enough tanning oil on my legs or chest. Alana has brought a portable tape-deck and keeps playing the same INXS song, over and over; talk of the new Psychedelic Furs album goes around; Blair tells everyone that Muriel just got out of Cedars-Sinai; Alana mentions that she called Julian up to ask him if he wanted to come but there wasn’t anyone home. Everyone eventually stops talking and concentrates on what sun is left. Some Blondie song comes on and Blair and Kim ask Alana to turn it up. Griffin and I get up to go to the locker room. Deborah Harry is asking, “Where is my wave?”
Fuck Christmas — Fear
We follow her downstairs to where there are only about twelve or thirteen people. Kim tells us that Fear’s supposed to play tonight. She introduces Blair and me to Spit, who’s a friend of the drummer’s . . .
Little Girls — Oingo Boingo
“Can you believe it?”
Spit says he can’t and that he’s going to try to forget about it and decide what albums to play and Kim tells him, “Go ahead,” and then before he goes over to the stereo, “Listen, Spit, don’t get Muriel down. Just keep quiet. She just left Cedar-Sinai and once she gets drunk, she’s fine. She’s just a little strung out.”
Spit ignores this and holds up an old Oingo Boingo record.
“Can I play this or not?”
“Why don’t you save that for later?”
Mirror Man — The Human League
“Yeah, I like rockabilly too,” Kim says, wiping her hands. “But I’m still into the Psychedelic Furs and I like that new Human League song.”
Benjamin says, “The Human League are out. Over. Finished. You don’t know what’s going on, Kim.”
1999 — Prince
There’s a large dog at Blair’s feet and I lean down and stroke the dog’s head. Kim comes out of the bathroom, takes a drag off the cigarette Blair was smoking and then throws it on the floor. She turns the stereo back up, some Prince song.
“Jesus, Clay, you look like you’re on acid or something,” Blair says, lighting another cigarette.
“I just had dinner with my mother,” I tell her.
Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure) — Spandau Ballet
Kim says that The Garage reopened somewhere on La Brea and Blair drives to La Brea and then down La Brea and then up and then down once more and she can’t find it. Blair laughs and says, “This is ridiculous,” and pushes in some Spandau Ballet tape and turns the volume up.
Hotel California — Eagles
I sit down on the couch and look through some of the magazines spread across the table; a couple of GQ’s, and a few Rolling Stones and an issue of Playboy and the issue of People with the picture of Blair and her father in it and a copy of Stereo Review and Surfer. Flip through a Playboy then start to space out and stare at the framed poster for the “Hotel California” album; at the hypnotizing blue lettering; at the shadow of the palms.
No Feelings — Bananarama
We get into Blair’s car and she puts in a tape that she made the other night and Bananarama starts to sing and Trent asks her where the Beach-Mix tape is and Blair tells him that she burned it because she heard it too many times. For some reason I believe this and unroll the window and we drive to After Hours.
Modern Love — David Bowie
After a while I stop and reach over to her and she stops me and says no, and then places my hand back on myself and her hand begins again and after this goes on for a while I tell her that I’m going to come and she tells me to hold on a minute and that she’s almost there and she begins to move her hand faster, spreading her legs wider, leaning back against the pillows, and I take the sunglasses off and she tells me to put them back on and I put them back on and it stings when I come and then I guess she comes too. Bowie’s on the stereo and she gets up, flushed, and turns the stereo off and turns on MTV. I lie there, naked, sunglasses still on, and she hands me a box of Kleenex. I wipe myself off and then look through a Vogue that’s lying by the side of the bed.
TKO (Boxing Day) — Elvis Costello
“At least you realize these things. But that’s not what I’m talking about, that’s not really what I’m asking you, not really.”
He gets up and walks across the room and straightens a framed cover of a Rolling Stone with Elvis Costello on the cover and the words “Elvis Costello Repents” in large white letters. I wait for him to ask me the question.
“Like him? Did you see him at the Amphitheater? Yeah? He’s in Europe now, I guess. At least that’s what I heard on MTV. Like the last album?”
Hungry Like the Wolf — Duran Duran
Spin shakes his head and “Hungry Like the Wolf” bursts out of the speakers that are attached to the ceiling, above Dead’s balding, sweaty head.
“You gotta be more careful.”
Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream) — The Icicle Works
The music’s loud and there are a lot of people dancing and the entire floor smells like beer and sweat and gasoline. The new Icicle Works single comes on and a couple of The Go-Go’s are there and so is one of The Blasters and Kim says that she spotted John Doe and Exene standing by the DJ.
Are You Receiving Me? — XTC
And at Kim’s party that night, while everyone plays Quarters and gets drunk, Blair and I sit on a couch in the living room and listen to an old XTC album and Blair tells me that maybe we should go out to the guest house and we get up and leave the living room and walk by the lighted pool and once inside the guest house we kiss roughly and I’ve never wanted her more . . .
Summer Wind — Frank Sinatra
“What was his name? What was the kid’s name?”
There was a long silence and I could only feel the desert breeze and the sound of the jacuzzi beating and the pool draining and Frank Sinatra singing “Summer Wind” and I prayed that the director remembered the name. For some reason it seemed very important to me. I wanted very badly for the director to say the name. The director opened his mouth and said, “I forgot.”
L.A. Woman — The Doors
Dimitri’s wearing black Speedos and a sombrero and is holding an electric guitar, trying to play “L.A. Woman,” but he can’t play the guitar too well because his hand was recently rebandaged after he sliced it open at the New Garage and everytime his hand comes down on the guitar, his face flinches.
Screaming Skull — The Fleshtones
Rip asks the guy if he can get him a backstage pass to The Fleshtones concert.
“Sure.” He hands Rip two small envelopes.
Rip says that he’ll talk to him later, sometime soon, and hands him an envelope.
New Year’s Day — U2
This Old Feeling — The Go-Go’s
Driving down Pacific Coast Highway, I’m really careful not to speed and Blair and Daniel talk about the new U2 album and when the new song by The Go-Go’s comes on they ask me to turn it up and sing along with it, half joking, half serious.
On the Sunny Side of the Street — Billie Holiday
Since that summer, I have remembered my grandmother in a number of ways. I remember playing cards with her and sitting on her lap in airplanes, and the way she slowly turned away from my grandfather at one of my grandfather’s parties at one of his hotels when he tried to kiss her. And I remember her staying at the Bel Air Hotel and giving me pink and green mints, and at La Scala, late at night, sipping red wine, and humming “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to herself.
Your Summer Dream — The Beach Boys
To get to Finn’s place, we take the elevator and Julian presses P for Penthouse. The elevator’s empty and Julian starts to sing some old Beach Boys song, really loudly, and I lean against the wall of the elevator and take a deep breath as it comes to a stop.
Is That Love? — Squeeze
I look at Julian’s face and remember mornings sitting in his Porsche, double-parked, smoking thinly rolled joints, listening to the new Squeeze album before classes started at nine, and even though the image comes back to me, it doesn’t disturb me anymore. Julian’s face looks older to me now.
Tainted Love — Soft Cell
The club’s crowded tonight and some of the kids waiting out in back won’t be able to get in. “Tainted Love” is playing, loudly, over the stereo system and the dance floor is packed with people, most of them young, most of them bored, trying to look turned on.
Somebody Got Murdered — The Clash
. . . I follow Julian through the crowd, but I lose him and so I light a cigarette and wander over to the bathroom, but it’s locked. The Clash are singing “Somebody Got Murdered” and I lean against the wall and break out into a cold sweat and there’s a young guy who I sort of recognize sitting in a chair staring at me from across the room and I stare back, confused, wondering if he knows me, but I realize it’s pointless. That the guy is stoned and doesn’t see me, doesn’t see anything.
Sex and Dying in High Society — X
It’s hot in the club and I hold the drink up to my forehead, my face. Trent mentions that Rip’s here and I walk with Trent over to where Rip is, and Trent tells me that they’re going to be singing “Sex and Dying in High Society” any minute now and I say “That’s great.”
Adult Books — X
“We were just there.”
“Oh, how are they?”
“Okay. They didn’t sing ‘Adult Books’ though.”
“Oh, they never do.”
I Love L.A. — Randy Newman
The week before I leave, I listen to a song by an L.A. composer about the city. I would listen to the song over and over, ignoring the rest of the album. It wasn’t that I liked the song so much; it was more that it confused me and I would try to decipher it. For instance, I wanted to know why the bum in the song was on his knees. Someone told me that the bum was so grateful to be in the city instead of somewhere else. I told this person that I thought he missed the point and the person told me, in a tone I found slightly conspiratorial, “No, dude . . . I don’t think so.”
Worlds Away — The Go-Go’s
Vacation — The Go-Go’s
While reading the paper at twilight by the pool, I see a story about how a local man tried to bury himself alive in his backyard because it was “so hot, too hot.” I read the article a second time and then put the paper down and watch my sisters. They’re still wearing their bikinis and sunglasses and they lie beneath the darkening sky and play a game in which they pretend to be dead. They ask me to judge which one of them can look dead the longest; the one who wins gets to push the other one into the pool. I watch them and listen to the tape that’s playing on the Walkman I’m wearing. The Go-Go’s are singing “I wanna be worlds away / I know things will be okay when I get worlds away.” Whoever made the tape then let the record skip and I close my eyes and hear them start to sing “Vacation” and when I open my eyes, my sisters are floating face down in the pool, wondering who can look drowned the longest.
Los Angeles — X
There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called “Los Angeles” and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.
Song for Clay (Disappear Here) — Bloc Party — BONUS TRACK!
Pop culture being a two-way street, it should come as no surprise that Less Than Zero characters have also made their way into music.