Vinyl episode 1 review: Pilot

Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger's new HBO drama looks and sounds great, but can Vinyl grow into more than just Mad Men: The Rock Years?

My favourite rock ’n’ roll conspiracy theory runs as follows. Punk rock, with its cheap DIY ethic, mistrust (and deliberate avoidance) of wealth and dismissal of the decadent excess of earlier rock bands was a deliberately nefarious creation of major music labels that had grown fearful of the growing power of artists and who found a clever way of redressing the balance so that they, the anonymous suits, remained in charge.  A Sid Vicious, so the theory goes, would be far more biddable and less likely to demand a larger slice of the cake than a Neil Young or a Roger Waters.

Whether by deliberate policy or not, it’s certainly true that some of the business elements of the music industry were changing. Many of the sixties generation of artists, among them such giants as the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, had been working to contracts that grossly favoured the record label over the musicians. As their contracts expired, and they grew more business savvy, these artists started to recognise their power and demanded far better settlements. And in a fair number of cases, they got them. Whether you believed in conspiracies or not, the fact is that by the mid 1970s the music industry was in something of a crisis. The system that had worked so well for so long was being challenged. Something had to be done.

This, broadly speaking, is the background to Vinyl, which has in Mick Jagger, a writer/producer who was not only there at the time, but who has a deserved reputation for possessing a better understanding the intricacies of music industry finances than most of his contemporaries. A partnership with Martin Scorsese, whose love of classic rock is almost as well-known as his passion for cinema, and Boardwalk Empire‘s Terence Winter, whose skill as marshalling long-form visual storytelling is just as well established, gives the show an obvious pedigree. Indeed, on the evidence of the first, feature length, episode, it is a perfect balance of the interests of these three men.

It begins in 1973 New York, a faithful and expensive recreation of the seedy cityscape, all graffiti and streetlife, that we know so well from Scorsese’s early film work. Record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is a quivering, sweating and spaced-out mess, a man who has clearly had enough of drugs and music but who has, at the same time, not enough drugs or music. He very quickly scores both of them and with him we take a woozy plunge into the narcotic labyrinth of the record industry.

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Richie’s label, American Century, has found itself in difficult circumstances. The company has lost its knack for finding the next big thing and the big things that it has already found (among them an imperial phase Led Zeppelin) have started to assert their authority in ways that the executives find genuinely frightening. A potential buy-out from a German classical music label is simultaneously dreaded and welcomed, while in clubs, bands such as the New York Dolls and the fictional Nasty Bitz are offering a rawer and more primitive sound. The times, they are a-changing.

Backed by a solid, charismatic performance from Cannavale, Finestra is a character squarely in the model of the modern male TV lead. He, like Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson, embodies his professional crisis so perfectly that it is difficult to see where his problems end and his company’s problems start. Perhaps the closest analogue is Don Draper, with his mixture of the maverick and the corporate, his front row seat in a rapidly changing New York and his frustration at the strange opinions exhibited by his junior colleagues. Like Draper, Finestra seems to walk the line between suburban family man and city-dwelling night owl and like Draper, Finestra seems destined to lose that balance before too long. He also shares the ad man’s problems with his own past, explored here through lengthy flashbacks that offer insights into the development of not just Richie but also the music business that has served him so well until now. It’s almost too close a match. Finestra is a fine character, but he’ll need to show something distinctive if Vinyl is to have anything new to say about such a man.

The show is on far stronger territory when it comes to the music business. It’s necessarily expository and several lengthy scenes are dedicated to explaining the byzantine logic of the industry. The exposition is embedded reasonably well, with the well-financed but naive German executives receiving a crash-course in rock management that assists the viewer at the same time. The source of the financial woes are presented in a manner that manages to combine subtlety with an in-your-face directness. The executives travel on private jets, have chauffeured cars complete with carphones and snort their way through thousands of dollars worth of cocaine with the casual abandon of schoolboys on sherbet. The income problems are outlined at great volume in a series of passionate rants from Finestra and, in a memorable cameo, from Ian Hart as legendary Led Zep manager and architect of artist-favouring business deals, Peter Grant. Hart’s performance is top-notch, a whirlwind of London-accented profane bile but he lacks Grant’s overwhelming physicality and something is lost in lessening the former wrestler’s status as a man-mountain.

A more convincing transformation is offered by Ray Romano, almost unrecognisable as promotions head Zak Yankovich, who along with A&R man Julie Silver (Max Casella), accompany Finestra on his goal of saving the company. Olivia Wilde plays Devon, Richie’s wife who may also be in the mood for change, or at least capturing something that she too has lost. A conversation with Ingrid (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) suggests that Devon may have a hinterland to match her husband’s.

At the company itself Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) has her eye on climbing the corporate ladder and choses for her vehicle, Kip Stevens, (a nepotistically unconvincing James Jagger) the cocky singer from the Nasty Bitz, who needs a gimmick (or ‘persona’) to compensate for his lack of talent. If Finestra is a Don Draper then Vine is a Peggy Olson, determined to thwart the limitations of an established business and make achievements commensurate with her talents. If by doing so she manages to resurrect American Century’s reputation for riding the next big wave, that’s all to the good.

That wave seems certain to be of a rawer nature that the company’s earlier swells. The Nasty Bitz gig offers a violent taste of things to come and it’s made clear that inspiring hatred is better than inducing apathy. That gig and the New York Dolls one that bookends this episode are filmed with the exceptionally sure hand that we expect from Scorsese, who has decades of experience in capturing the noisy vividness of live music from the performance of the band to the rapture of the audience. Appropriately, Vinyl positively revels in music and has an admirably catholic approach, encompassing punk, classic rock, soul, funk, blues and doo-wop and seems certain to inspire several tie-in compiliations of its own. Fans of the era will enjoy the references to Rod Stewart, Abba and Slade and the running joke about Donny Osmond is well made.

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Nevertheless, the music will only take Vinyl so far. It needs to succeed, first and foremost, as a TV show. As things stand, it offers a great deal of promise but it needs to swiftly establish its own voice and its own set of things to say if it is ever to escape the charge of being little more than Mad Men: The Rock Years. In an era in which the music industry  is experiencing one of the most significant crises of its existence, a critical reflection of earlier troubles is timely and rich territory for drama. The 1970s were difficult years and it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see why. 

Vinyl is repeated on Sky Atlantic tonight, Monday the 15th of February, at 9pm.