More than perhaps any other era, the 1970s had a way of producing pop songs that got little to no respect at the time but that are now regarded as irresistible classics. Songs like Abba’s Dancing Queen, ELO’s Can’t Get It Out of My Head, Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You, or even a ditty like the Partridge Family’s I Woke Up in Love This Morning were once the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. But now they tend to hit our ears like pure gold. What’s changed? It may simply be that these songs, and others like them, were always beloved, but that a certain critical snobbery that was once in the air has now mercifully melted away. Finally, we can just admit it: when it comes to ‘70s pop, we’re all hooked on a feeling.
Part of the attraction of Vinyl, the HBO drama that resembles a down-and-dirty, cocaine-fueled Mad Men set inside a New York record company, is that for most of its first season, it has been working overtime to conjure an authentic image of the early-‘70s music world – when kitsch rubbed up against quality and it was often hard to tell the difference. But while Vinyl has proved to be a surprisingly addictive examination of shabby but complicated male behaviour – ‘men acting badly’ being a genre unto itself on TV since The Sopranos – it has also missed its biggest opportunity. Much as I’ve enjoyed it, the show’s main flaw is that even as it takes pains to name-check almost every fabled rock star of the period, from Bowie to Springsteen to Led Zeppelin to Lou Reed to Donny Osmond to Elvis, its musical vision is consistently a little nuts – a myopic purist’s dream of what rock & roll should be, rather than what it was.
The show’s hero appears to know absolutely nothing about what it takes to run a record company in 1973
Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the show’s brooding and self-destructive but cuddly hero, has got a problem: he’s working to save his record company in 1973, and he appears to know absolutely nothing about what it takes to run a record company in 1973. The crazy thing is, the series doesn’t seem to know how little he knows either.
At a glance, Richie’s troubles might seem related to the fact that he snorts coke by the pound, is a possible murder suspect, or that his marriage to a glamorous refugee from Andy Warhol’s entourage (Olivia Wilde) is hitting the skids. But no: this is all presented as routine ’70s insanity. Richie’s real problem is the quality the show salutes him for in every episode: his fearless quest to relight the fire of rock & roll – to retrofit that pulse and ecstasy and drive to a new era. He locates that spirit in The Nasty Bits, a discordant quartet of ruffians who remind him of the MC5.
At first, he turns over The Nasty Bits to one of his A&R gurus, an old-school taskmaster, who grooms and tames them by teaching them how to play You Really Got Me. But that turns out to be appalling to Richie – a toning down of their appeal. Really? Even the Sex Pistols covered (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone. So Richie returns them to their old, sloppy, quasi-tuneless selves and hands the grooming over to Jamie (Juno Temple), the show’s hippie version of Peggy Olsen, which sits just fine with the lead singer, Kip (James Jagger), a junkie wastrel who is not much of a vocalist, but who knows how to play his wide-mouthed sneer with impeccable slouchy attitude. All of which leaves us wondering how, exactly, the band is going to save Richie’s company.
If this were 1977, we might not have to wonder. The birth of punk is certainly a vital subject for a long-form television drama. And in an odd way, that seems to be the story that Vinyl most wants to tell. The Nasty Bits are supposed to be the early spirit of punk , a bridge between the anarchy of the MC5 and the ritualised mayhem of the CBGB era. But it’s worth noting that just as Abba rarely got credit during the ‘70s for being the genius tunesmiths they were, neither did the formative punk band of the era: The Ramones. The myth that gathered around them – that they could barely play their instruments, that it was all ‘attitude,’ – remains largely intact. Even though there’s almost no truth to it. The Ramones weren’t primitive noise-mongers – they were technically astonishing musicians who played sublimely catchy pop songs at death-defying speeds. The Nasty Bits, on the other hand, do not appear to have a tune like Sheena Is a Punk Rocker in them, and even that song didn’t sell. Not even in 1978. And so again, the question: what is Richie doing?
When Clive Davis added Patti Smith to his roster alongside Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester and the Bay City Rollers
Actually, what he’s doing, for the entire season, is ignoring everything that was exciting about 1973 – like, for instance, the debut albums of Steely Dan, Abba, or the newly retooled version of The Spinners, who under producer Thom Bell began their reign as the most celestial soul ensemble of the ‘70s. Not to mention the first two albums released by Bruce Springsteen. Or the release of the song that launched disco into the stratosphere, the O’Jay’s’ Love Train. But the problem is that some now feel none of that stuff is cool. It lacks the lo-fi hipster rock cred that the creators of Vinyl fetishise.
Almost all the songs that swirl around Vinyl come to seem quite trivial, whether it’s the label having Hocus Pocus by Focus as one of its novelty hits, or the moment when everyone in a conference room listens to a taped snippet of Patti Smith singing Hey Joe. (Richie’s terse verdict: “Worth listening to.”) Smith, who landed the first deal with a major label by a star identified with punk, signed with Clive Davis, who added her to his roster right along with the likes of Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester and The Bay City Rollers. He knew how his bread was buttered.
But what’s good enough for Clive Davis somehow isn’t good enough for Richie Finestra. On Vinyl, the whole world of ‘70s pop is standing in the way of The Nasty Bits – it’s a sideshow that delays the rise of four white guys who assault the audience with their scruffy rock fervour. Given how much the rise of punk before its time forces Vinyl to ignore what actually was happening in 1973, you could argue that the show’s snobbish musical vision has wound up stranding it between rock ‘n’ roll and a hard place.
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