There’s never been a music drama like Vinyl. Set in New York in the 1970s, the 10-part series, which begins on Sky Atlantic on February 15, aims to give viewers an almost visceral experience of what it felt like to work in the music industry in the era of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Patti Smith.
“I’ve had this idea about a film set in the music industry for years,” says Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, the show’s executive producer. “Then I started working with Marty [director Martin Scorsese] on a documentary about the Rolling Stones [2008’s Shine A Light] and I mentioned it to him and asked him what he thought.”
Scorsese, fresh from shooting the pilot for HBO’s period gangster drama Boardwalk Empire, swiftly signed up to the idea. “Music has always played a big part in my films, ever since the days of Mean Streets, so I wanted to create something that reflected the way I experience listening to music, and especially that feeling where music becomes part of your life,” he says. “So what I wanted to create was something where the music becomes part of the narrative, but also the whole narrative is a piece of music.”
To that end the show is interspersed with moments when leading man Richie Finestra, the beleaguered record executive played by Bobby Cannavale, imagines the likes of Bo Diddley and Janis Joplin performing in front of him. “The idea is that it’s almost like Richie’s soundtrack,” says Scorsese. “You’re hearing what he hears in his head.”
That isn’t the only novel use of music in the series. Clearly a great deal of money has been spent ensuring that the period feels just right. To that end, actors play various big names from the era from Lou Reed and Andy Warhol to Bowie and, memorably in the opening episode, irascible Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant. There is also a swift blast of Zeppelin themselves; something that show’s writer, Terence Winter, admits didn’t come cheap. “Using Led Zeppelin was expensive. I don’t know how much, and I don’t want to know, because if I start to think of that then it starts to cloud my judgement creatively. ”
While Jagger’s original idea was for a film covering one friendship and 40 years in the business, by the time Winter came on board for the TV series the focus had narrowed. “We went with 1973 because to me that was the most interesting year because it was the year that punk, disco and hip-hop all happened,” he says. “It was the chance to put myself in the shoes of a record executive at a time when it was really exciting working in the industry and so many genres were being born.”
Vinyl, is ostensibly the story of Cannavale’s Richie, a man with a golden ear who started out in A&R and then slowly built up his own company, only to see it on the verge of crashing to the ground.
“His biggest fear is that if he sells out by selling the company, then that’s it,” says Cannavale. “When the series starts, he’s done all the things he always thought he was supposed to do. You know, he’s bought the house out in the suburbs and he’s got the two-point-whatever kids and the cars and he just starts to think life is pretty boring. Plus the company’s in the toilet and he equates that with his sobriety. He sees himself as an artist, and he struggles with what he can and can’t do creatively now he’s sober.”
Cannavale admits that it helped that Scorsese and Jagger were involved. “The pedigree of the show really opened doors.” he says. “They hired [Patti Smith Group guitarist] Lenny Kaye to teach me how to play guitar, so then I got to hang with him and Patti a little bit. And then we use the New York Dolls in the show, so I hung out with Dave Johansen. Then I met Danny Goldberg, who was Led Zeppelin’s publicist at that time. Danny was an incredible resource because he hadn’t done drugs for a long time so he remembered stuff.”
Alongside the story of Richie’s fight to save both his business and his soul runs the parallel tale of Juno Temple’s would-be A&R executive Jamie Vine and her newest discovery, the nihilistic Sex Pistols-style band Nasty Bits.
For Winter, the show’s success will be found in the detail. “We try to stay as faithful to the real world as possible, and to do that we really needed to depict real bands,” he says. “If you’re saying that you’re in the record business in 1973, then Led Zeppelin has to be a presence, David Bowie has to be a presence, Alice Cooper and those bands that were happening then have to addressed and confronted, so you’ll see actors playing all those people as the series goes on. And then we also have our fictional record company and fictional bands too. But at the same time, Richie is a very unreliable narrator and this is his story as he remembers it. It’s close to reality, but it’s also a reality seen through the eyes of a guy whose been on drugs and done a lot of shady things.”
Vinyl airs Sundays on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.