Richard Hell Reviews HBO’s Vinyl
Vinyl, Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger’s much-hyped series about record company men in early ’70s NYC, premiered last night on HBO. Stereogum turned to punk luminary and author Richard Hell (Television, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell & The Voidoids) to assess the first episode. As it turns out, the frontman of the show’s fictional group the Nasty Bits is based at least partly on Hell. Jagger’s son James, who plays the singer named Kip Stevens, said as much in a recent interview. You can see the resemblance during an early performance scene:
At one point, ambitious A&R assistant Jamie (Juno Temple) compares the Nasty Bits to Hell’s protopunk band Neon Boys — “They’re edgier than the Neon Boys and angrier than the Dolls!” — despite the fact Neon Boys never played live and were unknown to the public until the late ’70s. (A minor quibble, but it’s not the episode’s only anachronism; in case you were wondering, no the Mercer Arts Center did not collapse during a New York Dolls show.)
Still, with its appealing cast and the gritty depiction of a richer and druggier time in the music biz, is Vinyl a success? Here’s Hell’s take on the first episode…
I don’t want to be too hard on Vinyl. I thought it was boring, I thought it was innocuous trash, but I may not be objective. A major selling point of the show is its setting in the 1970s New York music scene, wherein were born punk and hip-hop and much of disco. Fascination with down and dirty, crazed, but semi-glamorous, ’70s New York has been durable. I was a part of the punk emergence back then, and the main character in one of the many subplots of the series is partly based on me. That had a lot to do with my getting invited to write this review, and agreeing to. But the show isn’t really about music, it’s about business, and business as understood by Martin Scorsese.
You're invited to the #Vinyl set.
— @vinylHBO (@vinylHBO) February 14, 2016
Scorsese, along with Mick Jagger and Terry Winter, is the co-creator of the serial, and he directed the two-hour pilot episode I’m talking about. (Terry Winter is the show runner as he was for his brainchild Boardwalk Empire, which also involved Scorsese; Winter wrote Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street.)
As we know, Martin Scorsese is cynical about business, or organized crime, or the police force or whatever you want to call it. Also about everything except maybe the glory of movies. I respect and admire Scorsese, but I get tired of his relentless framing of life as nothing but competition among men for power — represented by money, willingness to betray and kill, cocaine, and pussy. Something like that. Granted, it’s a valid perspective, and a good pretext for entertainment, and God knows the music industry is a perfect illustration, but Vinyl is sleepwalking.
You come to the series looking for music and what do you get? Bulky Italian-American peacocks so crazed by craving for coke that one of them tears the rear-view mirror off his luxury car for a surface to snort from; or two of them excitedly bashing in the head of a vulgar ally before wrapping his corpse in a table cloth and driving it in a car trunk to a dump spot; a prolonged extreme close-up of a fizzingly dynamic cigarette lighter flame against darkness; nonstop soundtrack of rock and roll, soul, funk, blues, punk, and disco pop music. It’s all routine Scorsese shtick, but cheaper. In fact nine tenths of the songs aren’t even the original tracks, but studio imitations. And what’s with the cocaine behavior? I get that coke gives these men the feeling of supremacy they also get from using baseball bats on upstarts and getting blowjobs from showgirls, but it’s just wrong to over and over again show them (usually from above) violently throwing their sweaty heads back grimacing in cross-eyed transport the moment they inhale a flake. Cocaine is not like getting a cattle prod up your butt. Everybody knows that. Cocaine is sweet. A warm smile would suffice.
As I say, maybe it’s just me. I didn’t much like Wolf Of Wall Street or Boardwalk Empire either. I naturally ate up Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Casino, but the mode is played out, and it’s more disappointing when substituted in a bait-and-switch for the ’70s NYC music scene its promotion proffers. There’s little of those musicians’ worlds in the show, and what there is is inaccurate. It’s not any closer to the truth than conventional youthsploitation movies, like say Blackboard Jungle (which gets a shout-out in the episode — and at least that movie used the original music) or Wild In The Streets (Vinyl amusingly, if falsely, treats New York Dolls fans as Wild type street rioters) or Jailhouse Rock (which unlike Vinyl is actually a good movie, because Elvis). I can’t get worked up about it. I’m just telling you, for juicy music-biz trash entertainment go to Fox’s Empire.
All right, I’ll get to the inaccuracies I’m positioned to recognize. You know what? I don’t care. The show is a typical TV soap opera. By modern standards it’s mediocre even at that, but most taste is mediocre anyway. It’s funny, the hero of the show, a record executive named Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), is shown being repeatedly singled out by his peers in the business for his “good ear,” and we’re led to believe that his whole music business motivation comes from a primal passion for “jump blues” music and roots rock and roll, meaning a kind of romantic integrity. His good ear is signified by a scene where he’s the only guy in the room that recognizes that ABBA is a group the record company he owns should sign immediately (he defends Donny Osmond too), and a centerpiece of the whole pilot episode has him explaining in detail how the label, to serve his financial interest, makes it almost impossible for any artist to profit. He viciously betrays the one unsigned artist we’re given to believe he fully admires, a black blues musician who provides the only half-second in the two hours when we see an artist choosing his desire to do his work well over selling out. These people are boring, all of them. They’ve made their choices and let them drive each other around in trunks.
It’s not even about giving any actual respect to musicians as artists, or the moment in pop musical/cultural history as meaningful, it’s just that Vinyl is nothing. By contrast, I can think of one actually quite good non-documentary movie about “punk,” and that’s Sid And Nancy. It’s sure not about any musicians’ exalted intentions or integrity either, but it’s honest and insightful and well-made and well-played. (Actually a recent not-punk, but primal-funk music flick that was produced by Jagger, Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic, Get On Up, was pretty great. It happens.) Speaking of playing, on some level I like most of the actors in Vinyl — I just don’t think they’re put to good use in the show. Sometimes these series do get better though. Judge for yourself.
Vinyl airs Sundays at 9PM EST on HBO. Richard Hell’s Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014 is out now via Soft Skull Press.