Monday, February 22, 2016

Vinyl II: Into the Cut-Out Bin

I’ll do this one more time with the new HBO series, Vinyl.  It’s a bad show.  It’s not going to get better.  Ship wreck bad.  Feels nothing like the 70’s that’s part of my musical and cultural DNA.  Watchable for rock fans to see just how wrong they’re going to get it each week.  Of course, I’ve read it’s already renewed for a second season, which I suspect HBO is going to regret.  But Terence Winter is a heavy-hitter in the industry, a lot of time and money is committed, and I’m sure this is standard procedure for someone who’s proved himself on that level.  I’ll say this: it’s nowhere near as bad as the CBGB’s movie!  But it sure isn’t good.
Record label head Richie after blowing a meeting with the Germans looking to buy his company: “I had a vision … an epiphany … rock and roll, that fucking energy, forget Yes, forget Emerson Lake & Palmer, like the first time you heard it, it’s fast, it’s dirty, it hits you over the head.”
1n 1973, this line of reasoning was predictable bloviating from the usual suspects: staff and contributing writers for rock magazines who resented that they had no power over popular opinion.  All those prog rock bands, no matter what anyone said or did, sold millions of albums all the way through the 70’s.  Punk had zero effect on their popularity.  Johnny Rotten was running around in a Pink Floyd Animals t-shirt with a big X through the album cover?  Fuck Johnny Rotten.  He didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to Pink Floyd.  Punk killed nothing, or maybe you want to tell the guys in Pink Floyd and Roger Waters that the millions of dollars they made on their last tours is really Monopoly money.  And I don’t know what you’d tell Johnny Rotten, who’s made a nice living in the music industry over the course of decades.  He punched the clock just like David Gilmour did.
If the show will be about a guy driving his record-company into the ground in 1973, this would be the way to do it.  Mercury Records took a chance on The New York Dolls that didn’t pay off: they were a commercial failure in their time and ceased to exist by 1975.  (For a number of reasons you can read about in this book, punk would not have existed without them.)  David Johansen had a spotty solo career through the late 70’s before morphing into Buster Poindexter in the 80’s and becoming a massive success.  It took all those “underground” New York City bands years to first form, gather a small following then possibly break through.  Most of them didn’t.  You could argue that only The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and The Talking Heads made it on that high a level at the time.  Television came close, deserved so much more, but were gone after two albums.  There were dozens of bands in that scene through the early 80’s.  Dozens.
Look at a top album list from 1973.  Or another.  Or another.  Or another.  And that’s just the popular stuff, never mind the really cool stuff that was bubbling under and would influence artists decades after the fact.  Could we, once and for all, put to rest the concept that punk “saved” or “killed” anything that was going on with music at the time?  It didn’t, not even in the U.K.  It had a noticeable influence, particularly over there.  In that supposedly horrible 1970-76 period after The Beatles broke up and all those 60’s band started to wane, there were dozens of great album being made by artists who are still active today because of the brilliance of their work then.  Punk killed Roxy Music?  Bowie?  Get out of here with that bullshit.
Band on the Run, in particular, stands out for me.  Revisionist history has it that Ram was McCartney’s real masterpiece.  It wasn’t.  (Nor was McCartney II a few years later, which pop fans who must be smoking banana peels are trying to elevate to that level.)  Ram was dumped on at the time for the reason it’s lauded now: it was a very organic, unpolished album by a former Beatle who didn’t seem to have the urge to swing for the fences a la Side 2 of Abbey Road.  This was as if McCartney had locked in on "Two of Us" from Let It Be and went with that feel: a homemade album by a talented artist.  Fans were indifferent to critics – they bought the album anyway, but the general critical perception was that Ram was a misfire.  Band on the Run was the sound of McCartney taking his rightful place.  Considering the album was made under such odd conditions, partially in Africa at a very strange, violent time (which could be any time in the past few centuries), with his band falling apart.  He stopped screwing around and got his bearings.
If anything, I’d put forth the concept that music was so good then that fans from that time period are disinclined to seek out newer music as a result.  Everything thereafter to them pales in comparison.  A mistake, sure, but I can’t fault them for their taste.  They’re not the first set of fans to do this with “their” music nor will they be the last.  When you hear some asshole rolling out “Dad Rock” … this is what he’s trying to say.  It’s petty jealousy as much as critical analysis.  Not everyone moves forward with music in their lives; most people don’t.
The Velvet Underground/Warhol Factory flashback scene.  A guy like record label head Richie, who had been at the forefront of early 60’s R&B, wouldn’t have a fucking clue about The Velvet Underground.  (In the first episode he “got” ABBA while his AR staff laughed at him.  That, I can believe.)  He wouldn’t have been prescient enough to “get” The Velvet Underground.  It’s not fair to say The VU failed in the 60’s – they put out four studio albums, all of which went relatively nowhere despite being brilliant.  When you talk to guys now in their 60’s who were serious rock fans in the 60’s, in their teenage years, none of them were Velvet Underground fans.  If you were into The Velvet Underground at that time, you were pretty hip.  Very hip.  Presciently hip.  The few people who knew about them were just as likely to view them as a half-assed, East Coast version of The Doors.  Which wasn’t fair, as history has shown us.  That’s the problem with this show.  It’s trying to rewrite history to match the revisionism that has since placed a band like The Velvet Underground in its higher context.  At that time?  Richie would have been flipping out over Tommy James and the Shondells.  And he wouldn’t have been wrong.  But we can’t have a gritty HBO series about a smart record-company guy flipping out over a poppy guy performing “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  Unless Richie is breaking a beer bottle over some guy’s head in a bar, then we can play shit like that as a goof on the soundtrack, right?  Or The Monkees, maybe?
And why do movies and TV shows constantly make Andy Warhol seem like a shallow, strange jackass?  He wasn’t.  He built a successful production company employing dozens of people that handled his art work, the art work of friends, movies and music.  Most people who knew him always comment on his intelligence, politeness and manners.  Not how strange he was.  I never, and I mean never, get any sense of that in any of these movies or shows.  He was a well-mannered guy from Pittsburgh who made it big in the art world and spread around his success.  If you did a pie chart showing all he did in his life, anything to do with The Velvet Underground and rock music in general would represent a single-digit sliver.  He wasn't some hipster albino vampire as portrayed in more than a few movies over the past few decades.
Using “Yesterday Once More” by The Carpenters as a flashback scene to denote the hip, former Warhol Factory chick transitioning to a suburban Connecticut housewife.  Was this meant as a joke or ironic commentary on this woman changing her life so radically?  It’s about the only honest moment I’ve seen in the show thus far.  I’m not sure why this episode has that song title.  Every episode appears to be yesterday once more.  Given that time has been kind to The Carpenters, I’ll assume that the makers of the show are being serious here … as the scene didn’t feature the suburban housewife purposely running over one of her asshole neighbors with her station wagon.  It seems that’s the only way this kind of pop music is normally used in a series like this.
“The new (Jethro) Tull?!”  record label head Richie barks incredulously, as he pulls the Tull album from the turntable in a coke-fueled fit of rage and breaks it during an AR meeting.  He yells at his staff to run out there and find blazing new rock acts that make them feel alive.  Because Jethro Tull, like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, are dicks in revisionist rock history.  Which is all wrong.  Those prog rock bands were and are fantastic.  Most of them still have careers in music, if they want them.  My advice: if you find a critic now shit-canning Yes and other prog rock bands, write him off, because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  (It’s time to file away those hip credentials with all the wedgies you suffered in high school, guys.)
What would have taken real balls?  Have record label head Richie storm into the AR meeting, Goats Head Soup is on the turntable, in a coke-fueled fit of rage, Richie rips the record from the turntable, smashes it into pieces and screams, “Get this shit off!  Don’t you know the Stones are dead?” then goes off into his troop-rallying rant about real rock and roll.  That album came out in the summer of 1973, and it sucked!  Of course, the Stones weren’t dead.  Mick Jagger is executive producing the series!  But it was a commonly-held opinion at the time, and not wrong in the context of the album’s mediocrity compared to what came before.
(What would also be cool, too: working lesser-known Stones tracks like “Fingerprint File” and “Till the Next Goodbye” into the background music, assuming they're going to get into the next few years. 1973 was about songs like “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” … not Kool Herc in his Bronx Project rec-room basement getting way ahead of history that no one was grasping at the time.  I suspect all he was doing was mimicking the Jamaican folks living in the Bronx then who had been toasting at block parties long before this.)
The constant practice of hazy flashback scenes with actors lip-synching to late 50’s/early 60’s R&B songs.  I’m seeing an actor portraying Bobby Blue Bland doing “I’ll Take Care of You.”  Earlier, I saw a very half-assed imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Breathless.”  (I should also note the series uses a lot of re-recordings of classics rather than the actual songs … I forgive them, knowing the small fortunes they must be paying per episode to license all this music.)  This seems to be a routine practice in each episode.  I get what they’re trying to do: connect this music from record label head Richie’s past to his present … but I don’t get, at all, how it fits into the 1973 rock scene.  It didn’t.  It had next to nothing to do with it.  Vast oceans of music, styles and societal change had swept through the world in that ensuing decade.  If Richie was running an independent R&B label and trying to wrap his mind around the Philly International label gaining so much momentum and newer artists like Barry White rising, it would make perfect sense.  He wasn’t.  There’s a word that describes someone in 1973 who was into The New York Dolls, unsigned “punk” bands that didn’t exist, The Velvet Underground and Bobby Blue Bland: hipster.
The Nasty Bits rehearsal performance in a restaurant backroom.  Again, what a steaming pile of horseshit.  (These guys don’t even move right for the 70’s!)  This band did not exist in 1973.  Or 1974.  Or 1975.  Or 1976.  It might have existed in 1977, but if it did, I can assure you, it sucked.  But wait, man, their songs are based on the real-life band Jack Ruby?  I’ve listened to Jack Ruby’s few songs on youtube … they're not that good.  Yeah, I know real hip people are, like, going to disagree with me, man.  Impressive that they sounded this way in 1973, but you have to realize, they sound like a bunch of teenage white guys who can barely play their instruments.  I suspect a lot of nascent bands, even in the mid-60’s, sounded like this in their two-car garages.  The neighborhood jerk-offs in my small town circa 1975 blowing out “Smoke on the Water” on pawn-shop guitars sounded like The Sex Pistols because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing!
Record label head Richie was going to re-invent his company to capture the future of rock and roll?  I got news for you: what they’re getting so wrong in this show actually happened.  It was a small New York City record company called ROIR that was infamous for putting out live cassettes of all the hippest, most cutting edge punk and no-wave bands around New York in the late 70’s.  They were great; I owned at least a dozen of their releases, my favorite being a live collection of The Mekons.  I recall meeting the owner once at a record fare and being knocked out by how cool he was, just a wonderfully approachable, friendly, intelligent guy.  (This was late 1980’s.)  Not a cokehead Italian in a Black Sabbath t-shirt barking in my face about real rock and roll!
This has been the lot in life of most people in the recording industry on the cutting edge.  What was cutting edge rarely made it on a recognizable level culturally.  Hip people were aware of it.  Rock critics would become aware of this music over time, write about it occasionally, and if a band was lucky, it would get just enough traction to put out a single or EP, develop a small local following, sell cassettes and t-shirts at the shows, and maybe tour if they could find a manager and arrange dates.  This blossomed nicely into a very cool 80’s indie music scene that I threw down with.  What Vinyl is trying to do in 1973 actually happened in about 1983 or so, when labels like IRS, Twintone, Enigma and 4AD started putting out music regionally in various cities and college towns that blossomed into a thriving national indie scene.  Allowing young bands to tour by the seat of their pants, in vans, playing small clubs and theaters if they were really making it, and piecing together some kind of life in music.
HBO would have been better off trying to tell Alex Chilton’s story from Big Star onwards.  A guy who was famous in the 60’s, watched his band fall apart, got hooked into a younger pop band in the 70’s that was brilliant, over-hyped on its inception, but went largely unrecognized despite this (partially because of bad luck and timing with their failing record label), and pretty much followed every tenet put forth in this show about how real rock and roll did or didn’t happen in the 70’s.  I’d be remiss not to point out that Chilton was dead-ass broke at various times and working day jobs when the music wasn’t happening because there was little to no interest in what he was doing.  That’s rock and roll!  And not something that has anything to do with this series.


buzzbabyjesus said...

I'm so glad Sal directed me over here. You often write what I would have if I had the focus and energy. You've pulled it all together here down to referencing Jamaican dj culture.
This is exactly why I haven't watched "CBGB". I read "Please Kill Me" twice, and I don't need to see bad reenactments botched further by historical revisionism.

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks for the kind words. I wouldn't be too hard on Mick: his son clearly wants to be a movie star, and this is how that happens. Oddly, he looks a lot like Jakob Dylan, who wanted to be a rock star back in the 90's, and did.

Not kidding myself here ... series was renewed regardless of howlingly bad reviews and anemic veiwer numbers. It's too big to fail! Trying to kill this thing would be like going after a vampire with a cap gun. It aint going to happen!

buzzbabyjesus said...

I don't have to watch it at least.