HBO’s ‘Vinyl’: Destined for the Dustbin of History

“I saw the future,” screams Richie Finestra, lead character of Vinyl, after snorting a mountainous bump of coke and withstanding a full-frontal assault from the music that would become punk.

It’s the doldrums of 1973 and Finestra, head of the floundering record company American Century, uses his encounter with the-sound-of-tomorrow to browbeat his A&R staff of hippie-leftovers with edicts like “Go back to Woodstock and take that f—ing Jefferson Airplane poster with you!”

It’s that cultural pivot point – when the bullet of punk blew away the rotting carcass of rock – that the turbo-hyped new HBO series Vinyl promises to capture.

The series has credits which suggest it just might pull that off. The always musically attuned director Martin Scorsese helmed the two-hour opening episode (which debuts Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9 p.m.). The erudite writer Terence Winter (of Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame) had a strong hand in the scripts. And Sir Mick Jagger co-produced the thing.

What could go possibly wrong?

Sadly, a lot.

The first five episodes of Vinyl’s 10-part series – comprising six rudderless hours – makes that recent bomb flick about CBGB look as spot-on as Quadrophenia. Vinyl may get some of the cherished ephemera right – the rock magazines of the day, (Circus! Rock Scene!), the forgotten bands (Frampton’s Camel, the Good Rats). But its plot lists like a leaking ship and its script badly wants for spark.

The essential plot of Vinyl follows the flawed life of Finestra, telegraphed by the wounded doe eyes of actor Bobby Cannavale. His record company has lost its way and he’s looking for a buyout from the stiff German conglomerate PolyGram.

I worked for Polygram in the early ‘80s, in a job writing all of their artists’ biographies. I was also a staff writer for Circus magazine in the mid-‘70s during college. Which means if anyone was going to love this series, it would be me.

Believe me, I wish I did.

On the positive side, Vinyl gets the unhip hierarchy of the German wing of Polygram just right. To a more strained degree, it also captures the proudly vulgarian banter of their U.S. counterparts. Ray Romano, who plays the label’s head of promotion, has some shtick-y fun with his character’s Jewish brand of black humor. Aided by Scorsese’s fine ear, the series also has some feel for the old music industry’s nexus of New York Jewish and Italian sensibilities, as well as its mob connection, captured in classic books like Fred Goodman’s Hit Men.

If the outlines of Vinyl ring true, however, there’s no emotional core to make it connect. Finestra is something of a cypher, and the leisure suits, wide lapels, and gold chains sported by his staff speak more eloquently of their souls than they do.

In the bad-rock-movie tradition, every character delivers each line with a sneering yelp because, one assumes, that’s so “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Like any work of fiction, Vinyl fiddles with history significantly. It depicts the structural collapse of the Mercer Arts Center in the East Village, an actual event but not one which took place at the time presented here – while the New York Dolls were right onstage. A far more problematic stretch involves one of the series’ pivotal characters – Kip Stevens, frontman of the Nasty Bits, played by Mick’s kid James Jagger. Bizarrely, this full-on 1977-style British punk has been transposed to New York four years earlier. As some compensation for that supernatural event – and as a rebuke to any charges of nepotism – the young Jagger turns out to be one of the production’s few bright lights. He has the kind of attitude and swagger the series means to foist on nearly every character.

Another gem amid the dross: Andrew Dice Clay, who plays a coked-out, power-mad radio czar. His scenes have power, absurdity, and a crazy kind of street-cred.

For older music nerds, there is a certain thrill to any show that would not only mention the deliciously awful duo England Dan and John Ford Coley, but would actually depict them. Extra points go for the show’s random Captain Beefheart reference. At the same time, it’s painful to watch actors play dress-up as stars like Robert Plant, Little Richard, and Lou Reed (who’s seen in both a Velvet Underground ‘60s flashback and a ‘70s, zombified incarnation). It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll Halloween in hell.

Admittedly, getting such characters, ideologies, and attitudes right is no mean feat. But it’s not impossible. The ‘70s British TV series Rock Follies did a bang-up job of both satirizing the music industry and individuating the passion of its stars. I’d hoped for a whiff of that here. But, at least judging by its first half, the HBO series seems less like a cherished piece of vintage vinyl than like an 8-track tape, destined for the dustbin of history.