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HBO's "VINYL" Is A Wild Ride With More Than a Few Bad Bumps - by Jon Peterson

When HBO first announced that they were producing a new dramatic series about the radio & record industry that was set in the 1970's, I got really excited.  Even more reason to get "amped up" when it was announced that Martin Scorsese was co-creating this series with Mick Jagger and Terrence Winter, the writer of dozens of great Boardwalk Empire and Sopranos episodes.  With that creative team, Vinyl would surely feature a mind-blowing blend of sex & drugs & rock n' roll... all in the appropriate dosages... with top-notch storytelling. But that was a rock and roll fantasy.... all happening in my head.  

I had hoped for a synergistic blend of these major talents to knock it out of the park and create my favorite HBO show ever.  At the very least, all the earmarks were certainly there for a fantastic series.  Scorsese is a director who has utilized rock music in his films better than anyone else.  Anyone who has seen Mean Streets and Goodfellas knows what I'm talking about.  With Vinyl, he was teaming up with HBO's finest writer and Mick Jagger, the ultimate rock icon with six decades of first-hand music industry knowledge.  

If you are late to the party, the Season One finale just aired last night.  So perhaps it's time to binge... especially if you are an insane music freak or radio & records insider. 

Or... maybe not?   I mean, you would naturally think that folks like us should dig this show the most!!

Well, although I am still enjoying the show, it is not without a struggle.  For me, knowing a lot about rock n' roll history has actually made it a more difficult experience to just "let go" and enjoy the sensory overload.  But I can't let go of all the inside knowledge and rock background:  like the liner note details on the inside sleeve of "Let It Bleed"; it's the kind of shit I tend to memorize.  Folks like myself (and I'm sure most of the regular Pencilstorm readers) tend to be sticklers for historical accuracy and detail.  

Did Robert Plant really have last minute doubts about re-signing a deal with Atlantic?  Were Grand Funk Railroad, Donny Osmond, America and Robert Goulet all on the same label... real or otherwise?  Did a Sex Pistols-like UK Punk band exist in 1973 that the fictional band here (The Nasty Bits) were based on?  Last time I checked, The Sex Pistols formed in 1975 while The Clash and The Damned formed in 1976.  

Last time I checked the timelines, The New York Dolls were an underground cult band that got virtually no radio airplay at all.  To a younger viewer or mini-rock fan, Vinyl makes you think that they has some of the top selling records of 1973.  As a reality check, some of the top hits of that pretty dreadful year include "Tie A Yellow Ribbon," "Half Breed," "Delta Dawn" and "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia."  

Okay, there was some decent rock stuff too that year.  But even some of the better hits were all pretty mainstream songs, including "We're An American Band," "Little Willie," Frankenstein," "Smoke On The Water" and "Crocodile Rock."  All of that, a far cry from Sex Pistol-like songs that say "fuck, fuck, fuck."

So that's where Vinyl has some real issues. I have no problem at all with fictional characters intersecting with historical timelines... but those timelines have to be correct.  And the overarching vibe of the plot details must resemble something close to the reality of 1973... or don't set the damn show in 1973.  Happy Days had an amorphous blob as to what year is actually was supposed to taking place in.....same here!

I I truly think that the less one know about rock/pop hit music of 1973 or the radio & record industry, the better.  Indeed, some of my twenty and thirty-something colleagues at work think the series is amazing... as good as "The Wolf of Wall Street," as they say. Get it? They love that cartoon-like hedonism!  "It's all old and before my time. Correct details don't really matter!"

But here is a better analogy. "The Goldbergs" is a current comedy on ABC set in the 1980's that zips around the entire decade to mix historical tidbits and fads with the fictional narrative because they don't think the audience will know (or care) anything about the actually historical timeline,... all to broad comic effect.  With Vinyl, a similar thing is happening.  Yeah, it's a drama, but it's also a bit of a broad "cartoon" of non-stop-partying and hedonistic excess. And the more clueless about the actual shenanigans of rock n' roll sausage-grinding and hit-making of 1973, the better! 

So in true rock nerd style... here are some bullet-pointed Cliff Notes:

THE GOOD

--- The Production Design - It sure looks and feels like the streets of NYC in 1973... dirty, raunchy and bursting with musical excitement. It's also pretty damn cool seeing historical landmarks like Max's Kansas City and a Sam Goody's record store.

--- The Physicality of the Acting - Bobby Cannavale (from Boardwalk Empire and Nurse Jackie) has the perfect blend of ego, attitude and over-the-top wild kinetic energy as record company president Richie Finestra.  He does his lines of coke with the same zeal and screams of madness as Al Pacino in Scarface.  Also impressive is James Jagger (Mick's son) who plays Kip Stevens, the lead singer of a proto-punk band called The Nasty Bits.  He's got the 'fuck off' attitude and sneer down perfectly. Like father, like son...probably not a hard acting stretch for him.. given his pedigree.  But despite all the great technical acting and period hair/makeup and costumes..... there is definitely a lack of emotional depth to it all.  That problem, however, could be inseparably tied to the show's writing and premise.  See next section below.

--- The Acting of Ray Romano - Probably the most impressive dramatic acting comes courtesy of Ray Romano from the great TV comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond."  As Zack Yanovich, the Head of Radio Promotion at the mythical American Century Records, Ray brings surprising depth and nuance to his character who laughs, cries and tries to bring a creative edge and common sense to his senior leadership position,

--- (Some of the) Rock Stars that intersect with the fictional story-line -  Throughout the season, we are treated to more than a handful of re-created rock star encounters. These appearances are most successful when they are not integral to the plot and do not change important facts in Rock History.  It sure is fun to see John Lennon & May Pang out partying and having a night on the town, or seeing The New York Dolls on stage in present day 1973, or The Velvet Underground on stage in 1967 (via a flashback).  It also is pretty cool that Richie's wife was one of Andy Warhol's former Factory girls... providing alot of insight into her character's party girl past. See, none of that fiction messes up anything in Rock History.  Or if David Bowie is soundschecking during the Ziggy Stardust tour and is friends with a women publicist at the record company and comes over to chat with her... all that can provide for a colorful backdrop. Where all this becomes a lot more problematic is when these characters are more than just cameos.  Sometimes they  are fully integral into the plot.. with the result of that fictional storyline bastardizing rock history in the process.  See "The Bad" below.....

--- The Most Revealing Scene about the Music Industry - When a wild-man radio station group owner (played by Andrew Dice Clay) attacks Richie in a drug-fueled rage, an Indy Promo Man named Joe Corso (hired by Richie) pulls him off and kills him with violent gusto.  After he bludgeons him and bashes in his skull with a lamp, Richie says "Why did you do that?"  Corso replies, "I didn't do it, you did!" This totally illustrates the symbiotic need for record labels to hire indy promo people.  They hire these Indy Promo guys to "do what needs to be done" to secure radio airplay. Thinking they are finding easy solutions, they actually are creating their own scary monsters for the future.

--- The Coolest Intersection of Fact and Fiction - comes in the episode where Richie gets a meeting with Elvis in the Las Vegas Hilton after a show. Elvis is getting fat and bloated, but listens to Richie's passionate plea to get out of his RCA deal and come to the fictional American Century.  Richie promises to hire all Memphis session men and have Pops Staples produce.  Elvis says "You get it, you get" and is all set to jump ship... until Col. Parker comes back to room and he caves.   This is awesome because it doesn't fuck with rock history... because it didn't actually happen... and it didn't create a convoluted outcome.  It's cool because it happened behind closed doors and  makes us all think... "Wow.. what if! What if?!?"  


THE BAD

--- The Lack of Emotional Depth - It's hard to say the problem here is entirely with the cast.  Bobby Cannivale is a top notch actor and is certainly capable of creating a complicated portrayal. The script tells us we are to believe that he also loves his wife, and really wants to live a sober life too. It just all goes to hell as soon as he sees the bags of drugs.  I guess that emotional depth thing is tough when you are rockin' a 70s 'shag haircut' and a polyester shirt and snorting blow like Tony Montana.

--- Rock Stars that become part of the story line - The cameos are usually fine.  What I don't like is when there is an inference or fictional plot detail that flies in the face of rock history.  In the finale, we see The Ramones in the audience watching the fictional Nasty Bits on stage..... supposedly getting inspiration and stealing their sloppy style. Okay, something like that might have actually happened, but if it did, it was from seeing The Dictators, an American Pop Punk band from 1973 that  was also a total flop in terms of hit-making, not from a fictional UK band resembling the Sex Pistols that were still three more years in the future. Then there's the Alice Cooper episode, where an American Century A&R guy tries to get Alice Cooper to dump his band and go solo.  Alice outs him in front of his boys and they tie him up and scare the shit out of him by sticking his head in their stage guillotine. The problem here?  Alice did dump his band and go solo in 1975... so it's not to much of a stretch to think he might have been thinking about that in 1973.  But this fictional outcome was a lot more inherently visual.  Then of course, there's the pilot where Robert Plant is thinking about jumping ship from Atlantic and signing with another label at the end of their five year contract. Fictional here, but it would make someone not aware of that fact think that the mighty Zeppelin actually contemplated that.  The truth of the matter is that Atlantic was more than happy to let them form their own imprint label (Swan Song) and continue with their distribution... which, by the way, happened in May of 1974, not 1973.

--- The Transitional "Rock Ghost" storytelling device - The writers/producers use a "Rock History" ghost to act as a Greek Chorus, of sorts, to provide a recurring transitional device. Ritchie and Zack travel to Southern California? Then create a "Rock Ghost" segue by showing Jan & Dean singing "Surf City, here I come."  Ritchie is feeling sad and delusional? Their visually re-occurring solution is to have the Rock Ghost sing "It's Only Make Believe" by Conway Twitty.  Conway Twitty?!?!? Even without the running gag of the Rock Ghost, music is used in a similar "broad stroke" manner. Richie is feeling nervous and psychotic, play "Psychotic Reaction" by Count Five from 1965.  None of all this has anything to do with 1973 making hit records on vinyl.  All this reminds me of a bad version of what was done much more artfully in American Graffiti. The season ends on the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams".....which is obviously super-cool and bad-ass.  I'm just not certain it's relevant. In fact, I can't even see Seymour Stein picking that as 'theme music' for Sire Records.

--- The Name of the Series - A Hipster underground reference, Vinyl was actually a 1965 experimental film by Andy Warhol.  Who the hell knows that?  I didn't even know that.  'Vinyl' was a term said very rarely and didn't come into more prominent use until the 1990's.....when nostalgic club DJ's and others lamented the death of vinyl records.  It was not a term ever used in the 1970's in any kind of meaningful way.  It was all 45, LP, cassette or eight track!

--- The Opening Title Sequence - I have nothing against expressionism: indeed, Boardwalk Empire's title sequence was absolutely mind-blowing.  But there is nothing going on here.  A B&W shot of a needle skipping grooves interlaced with bouncing coke powder and/or sizzling heroin, quick abstract images.....I guess I just expected Kodachome's nice warm colors and the greens of summer.

THE UGLY

--- The Overall Writing - and all the dud scenes.  Get a research team to interview industry folks and have them write down record company terms like "rackjobbers" or let them tell you about the "buying back cut-out" scams... and then write dialogue about it.  Research the names of radio stations and DJ's and figure out ways to "name check" them in.  Read Tommy James' book about how the Mob owned him and figure out a way to work it in.  Create a fictional label that has an actual roster of America, Donny Osmond, Grand Funk Railroad, Robert Goulette and others.....all of whom were on different labels.  Hearing an insider thing like "Musicians Cemetery of America" (a common joke about MCA) and somehow equating it to this fictional label.  Yeah, all that makes for a fun "Oh, I know the cross-checked reference"... but does it actually move the plot forward?  Or it is just "insider dictionary" swallowing?

--- The Lack Of Ht Music from 1973 - If you are trying to make the point that radio music of the day was super lame... and that Richie is trying to create something fresh and exciting, then play us something lame like The Carpenters "Sing."  If American Century is about to sign a huge fictional early Disco act, then play us some actual songs like "Keep On Trucking" or "Love Train."  Make it actually feel like 1973... that would be "good history."  It would also cost the producers a lot of money in publishing and licensing rights. Let's not forget that Mick Jagger was also a graduate of the London School of Economics.  

--- The Overall Premise - That Richie, as a boy loved the rawness and power of jazz and blues... and that somehow correlates to his desire for something similar in 1973.  The music business is, first and foremost, a business! Indeed, his fictional American Century label made a boatload of money on mainstream pop music (like Donny Osmond) that sold through.  It was not a charity or hipster appreciation society. 

--- The Overarching Dramatic Story line - Sure, it was a dirty game back then.  But there were never any record company presidents murdering owners of radio station clusters like here.  Yes, there was the Mob and a lot of illegal activity.  It's all just a bit silly and over the top.  But then again, Vinyl is a drama... and Martin Scorsese is involved.  

So with all this complaining, the truth is that I am still enjoying it enough to see where Season Two takes us.  Hey, a name check of "Pet Sounds" in the finale can't be all bad!  

But there's a saying in the recording studio that "too many cooks will spoil the broth."  Indeed, there was only one Brian Wilson in charge of that masterpiece, not three.  What seems to have happened here is that too much of the creative work was a  "decision by the brain trust committee".. and the working in of all those "high concepts" was no easy feat.

Interesting side note, perhaps Terrence Winter thought so too.....as he is now gone. In April 2016 it was announced that Winter left his position as an Executive Producer due to "creative differences."  He was just replaced by Scott Z. Burns.  I'm sure that Vinyl will just "Keep On Truckin'!!!"

"Wild Jon" Peterson is the Host of "Shakin It" on WCBE.  He was also a radio programmer at KPFK Los Angeles, WRLT Nashville, WRNR Annapolis and WIVI/Pirate Radio in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  He was also Head of Promotion at Arista Austin Records.