A Few Thoughts on “Vinyl”

I binge-watched HBO’s much-anticipated “Vinyl” over the last week. It wasn’t bad but it could have been so much better.

Despite having Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger involved along with Terence Winter from “Boardwalk Empire,” it struck me as having been put together by people under the age of, say 35. There was a feeling to me that those who authored this piece set in the early 1970s New York music scene were getting much of their info from magazines, TV retrospectives and books rather than people who were there. There was a superficialness to it. It was as if there was a fear in digging too deep lest the romanticized glamor of Warholian New York be exposed for the great seedy con it was.

The story centers around a struggling record label, American Century Records, c. 1972-73. It’s about to be sold off to multinational megalabel Polygram when the head honcho, Richie Finestra, has some kind of breakdown/episode. He decides not to sell to the “Krauts” because he has seen the future of music and it’s the New York Dolls or maybe just the idea of glam rock or maybe punk rock or… something. Whatever, can’t sell; must find spirit of music! The show tends to throw a lot against the wall to see what sticks.

The New York Dolls were a real band in 1970s New York. Often called “influential,” the band has always been far more talked about than an actual playing band. Drugs and egos destroyed it before it ever went anywhere but New Yorkers of a certain age will swear they saw them — like all those people who went to Woodstock.

But okay, this could go somewhere. Digging into the early glam rock and punk scenes could be very interesting. But it doesn’t go there.

The record label is funny. It has an oddball collection of acts — including Donny Osmond, Robert Goulet, Jose Feliciano, America, Bread, Grand Funk Railroad and England Dan & John Ford Coley. For reasons specific to the entertainment, despite millions of records sold by several of these acts, the label is always on the brink of bankruptcy (this might be the show’s strength). However, the show never misses a chance to take potshots at Osmond, Goulet or England Dan & John Ford Coley while giving the old sophisticate’s nod to Johnny Winter, Iggy and the Stooges or whatever ancient blues artist jumps to mind. “My mother loves Bob Goulet,” says a polyester-suited cop while the label employees roll their eyes at the plebian tastes (that pay their salaries). Guaranteed that Goulet sold more records than those three hipster heroes combined. There’s a lot of taste-pimping in “Vinyl.”

One thing that I immediately picked up on was that for a record label eagerly seeking out new acts, it seemed that the employees didn’t really talk much about music — beyond “We gotta get some hot new acts!” There wasn’t any serious discussion about music. No interest in what might be happening in London, Boston, New York or, GOD FORBID! Los Angeles (other than eye-rolling about “Who’s buying Chicago!?!”). No talk about music coming from Broadway or London shows. There’s not a lot of talking about what’s charting or what’s the latest on The Beatles (or the former members), the Rolling Stones or a hundred other big acts of the time or who was on TV. Their act Jose Feliciano is mentioned as being scheduled for “The Midnight Special” and no one seems to do anything to promote it or take advantage of the opportunity. There are no agents wandering the halls begging the A&R people to come see their acts.

Plenty of drugs though!

The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman wrote a good piece here. I agree with most of it. My main quibble is his projection of current “sexism” judgments into the past. But I’ll let that slide.

He’s right, why does this show have a dozen or so “Executive Producers”?

He’s absolutely right about the “murder” subplot. Where did that come from?

He’s right about making more use of Andrea Zito, a PR professional. She’s an interesting character. Too many of the characters are on the edge of plastic/acrylic 1970s caricatures. Another interesting plot is the white-bread kid who accidentally stumbles onto a record gold mine in the proto-disco scene.

Goodman’s right about the “music interludes,” wherein actors portray famous musicians and singers from the past. I’m pretty knowledgeable on pop music and some of these I can’t recognize. Get rid of them.

He’s also right about the underlying musical tastes of the show. They may talk about looking to the future of the music but they keep falling back on declaring that the blues and early rock and country music will never be equaled.

And here is where “Vinyl” really wanders into a ditch. Richie thinks some band called the Nasty Bits is going to be the next big thing. When he initially sees them they do demonstrate a proto-punk anger, anarchy and they generate loud noise.He likes that energy. He signs them and tries to get them ready to open for the aforementioned Dolls — an event apparently guaranteeing success.

They need some songs. So (I’ll spare you the Byzantine plot details) they come upon a song called, “A Woman Like You.” Now, unless the next word in the title might be “Bitch” or “Slut” or some other colorful term, this wouldn’t seem to really be the type of song a high-energy proto-punk band would go for. Even more odd is that the song is a blues song. Punks never really went much for the blues — early 1960s pop rock-n rollers, notably the Brits did but not most punk bands of the 1970s. And when they perform the song they sound like the Stray Cats (not formed until 1979) with a rockabilly flavor. To dirty it up they throw in some improbable F-Bombs. They don’t even do an alternative take for radio play. The label seems to be laying it all on the club word of mouth. How many bands were successful exclusively through club dates only? Controversy only gets you so far. You eventually have to come up with playable records — if you want to pay the bills.

I’ll probably watch the second season of “Vinyl” but I won’t be anticipating it the way I do “Game of Thrones,” “Homeland” or “Penny Dreadful.”

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