HBO’s Vinyl: Is It Any Good?

Yes. Vinyl is quite good, in fact.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve got: It’s late July/early August 1973 in the days when the music industry was in the process of moving from New York to Los Angeles. Bobby Finestra (played by Bobby Cannavale, who you’ll recognize from Boardwalk Empire) runs a record label called American Century. The label, headquartered in the Brill Building on Broadway, has done…okay, but has now fallen on some hard times. American Century’s roster isn’t that great and the company’s A&R people haven’t been able to land a Next Big Thing in quite some time. And given that Dev, Ritchie’s wife, has pretty much had it with his rock’n’roll ways, he decides that it’s time to sell and Polygram, the German-Dutch consortium, has its chequebook out. But just as the deal is about to be finalized, things go pear-shaped. VERY pear-shaped.

The Martin Scorsese-directed two-hour premiere is pretty epic and, for the most part, historically accurate. (Writer Terrance Winter took a few liberties with the timeline and the facts. For example, there’s something about how the end of the Mercer Arts Centre is depicted that kinda bugs me–it did NOT happen that way–but never mind. It’s not as if we’re dealing with Inglourious Basterds-level inaccuracies.) Co-executive producer Mick Jagger was there August 1973, so the stories of cooked books, payola, sex-and-drugs parties, artists getting cheated and all the various levels of corruption and mobbed-up creeps are more than just a little true.

And remember that 1970s New York was also Scorsese’s world–think Mean Streets and Taxi Driver–so he has more than a passing knowledge of what it was like back then. The result is a Casino-meets-Almost-Famous kind of mashup with the dirt, grit, crime, drugs and sex sitting front-and-centre. Just as it should be for a show like this.

Ray Romano (whom Scorsese had allegedly never heard of before he was cast) plays Ritchie’s head of payola. Mick Jagger’s kid, James, shows up as the singer of a proto-punk band called The Nasty Bits (or The Nasty Bitz, depending on which labelling you prefer). And Andrew Dice Clay is Buck Rogers, the worst radio man you can possibly imagine. Thank CHRIST I never had to deal with guys like that. His character gets seriously bent out of shape for being snubbed by, of all people, Donny Osmond–who, by the way, would have been 15 in August 1973–something that causes all kinds of complications.

Points to the writers for mentioning names like the Neon Boys, the little-known forerunners to Television. You can actually make a great drinking game out of spotting the obscure musical references.(Episode three features a quick appearance by a band called Sniper, fronted by the geeky, gawky kid who would in a year be known as Joey Ramone.) And the New York Dolls cover band they hired for the episode is really very good. It’s hard to find someone with David Johansen lips. (Audio gearheads will love the old-school stereo systems that constantly show up. Where did they find this stuff?)

Most of the early reviews have been good–hey, this is another one of those–but some reviewers have been rather unkind, saying it’s just another Baby Boomer musical fantasy. Yeah, it is. So what? It’s a period piece that just happens to be set in the music industry. Just go along for the ride.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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