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Critics' Choice
'VINYL'S' HISTORY LESSON: WHAT'S RIGHT, WHAT'S PLAUSIBLE
2/17/16

By Phil Gallo

Since premiering 2/14, Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s take on the music industry of 1973, Vinyl, has been as bashed, heralded and dismissed as Lou Reed’s album from that year, Berlin. Everyone from the “I was there and you got it all wrong” critics on social media to  drug experts displeased with how the central characters react when they snort cocaine has weighed in. So why not us?

 Mixing fact and fiction—isn’t that what made Casino such a fun ride?—tests the credibility of Vinyl throughout its pilot episode. We’re really to believe that a record label executive is working Donny Osmond and the Honey Cone, trying to bring Led Zeppelin into its fold post-Houses of the Holy and envisions The New York Dolls as the future of rock ‘n’ roll? That’s not one. That sounds like Neil Bogart, Mike Curb and the A&M team rolled into one. Only Jagger and co-creator Terence Winter would know. 

There is a hidden history lesson within Vinyl that gives some credence to the fictionalized re-telling of the music industry. A $5,000 handshake in 1973? More like a grand.

Yes, it’s disappointing that so much of Vinyl  is driven by caricature rather that fully crafted characters, and the drama is more about a crumbling marriage, substance abuse and excessive lifestyles than what went into the industry at the time.

Still, after digging a bit deeper into the cut-out bins of history, there are conceivable truths in this series that warrant exploration. God forbid, they’d handle it in the exposition. Warning, there are spoilers from here on. 

+ The Mercer Arts Center did indeed collapse in 1973, though in the afternoon, not during a Dolls show as Vinyl depicts it. And, of course, the Dolls were long associated with the venue, a former hotel converted into multiple venues.

There is a logic as well to Vinyl’s label chief, Richie Finestra (played with bravado by Bobby Cannavale), showing up to see the Dolls perform. Finestra’s label, American Century Records, is potentially being sold to Polygram, which owned Mercury Records, the label the Dolls were signed to. Naturally, that’s too much of a deep dive  for a story like this so the audience is left to wonder why he is even driving his Mercedes in this decrepit neighborhood. And no, there was no Beatlemania-like reaction to the Dolls—swarms of people were not running to get to their gigs.

+ The Nasty Bits,  the group that A&R assistant Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) hopes to sign, is based on an actual New York group of the era, Jack Ruby. The zero-artifice sound of Jack Ruby/The Nasty Bits is a bit ahead of its time—more aggressive No Wave from the end of the ‘70s than any other act of the time. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo is fronting the band re-recording the Jack Ruby songs for Vinyl.

Jagger’s son James portrays the Nasty Bits lead singer Kip Stevens, and in stereotypical fashion, Vine quickly sleeps with Stevens and, of course, instead of morning coffee, he shoots up. Jack Ruby did eventually cut some demos for Epic Records, had several lineup changes and by mid-1977 was broken up. Jack Ruby singer Robin Hall, meanwhile, still lives in Brooklyn.

+ Peter Grant, Led Zep’s manager, is appropriately depicted as abrasive and argumentative. It’s just that Grant was behemoth of a man in the ‘70s and the guy they have playing him is 150 lbs., tops.  Robert Plant is portrayed by a male model version of the singer (Zebedee Row) who is given some of the worst lines of the script, adding to the pure disbelief that this man could take the stage at Madison Square Garden and command the attention of 18,000 people. 

Led Zep’s contract with Atlantic was expiring in ‘73, so the band was indeed in play. To keep them, Atlantic gave the band and Grant a label, Swan Song Records, which launched in early 1974.

+ Finestra’s Donny Osmond obsession—he’s desperate to get more hits from him though the singer is not portrayed on screen—adds to the strangeness of this fact/fiction melange. Truth is, The Osmonds and Donny, despite multiple releases every year from 1970 through ‘72, were pretty much played out by ‘73, but you would never know it based on MGM pumping the pipeline that year. 

Osmond’s first album of ‘73, Alone Together, peaked at #26 and its biggest single, “The Twelfth of Never,” only reached #8. History shows us that MGM, which had the Osmonds, did panic in the way Finestra does: In December they released a new Donny album (A Time for Us, which bombed); licensed his tracks to K-Tel for the simultaneous release of Donny Osmond Superstar; issued Osmonds Greatest Hits and, a month later, put out Donny, another LP to not hit the Top 40.

+ The Honey Cone, a female trio known for “Want Ads,” are part of the American Century family: A picture sleeve for their 45 is prominently displayed in the company’s board room and the band performs at Finestra’s birthday party. In reality, they were signed to Hot Wax, the label Eddie Holland set up with brother Brian and Lamont Dozier after leaving Motown.  At the time, though, they were distributed by Buddha Records, which a) was connected with MGM, b) had Bogart as its general manager, and c) if we trace the origins of Buddha and Kama Sutra, we wind up in the early ‘60s bubble gum pop era master-minded by the likes of Artie Ripp and George Goldner. Hence, there’s a logical explanation to Finestra’s early recordings, mob entanglements and his belief in a blues guitarist who never gets his due. The argument against this being Bogart is that he set up Casablanca Records in 1973, selling it to Polygram in ‘77.

+ We know all you record pluggers have gone to great lengths to get spins, but the efforts to get the attention of radio station group owner Buck Rogers (Andrew Clay in his “Dice” guise) seemed a bit beyond the call of duty. And bringing an unfortunate—and elaborately staged—end to one of your more engaging characters seems straight from Scorsese’s imagination. 

+ The 10 episode series is going to see a lot more familiar faces as Finestra and his team will have dealings with Alice Cooper, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, John Lennon, Danny Goldberg, Nico, Peter Tosh and David Bowie. We’ll see where it goes—and how close it adheres to reality.