“Christmas, you go so fast. Christmas, come back!”
Sure, the Christmas song Bob Goulet cuts for American Century in “The Racket” – a canny play for the underserved post-Christmas market – is kind of terrible, and if it’s a real song that Goulet really recorded, Google has done a great job of scrubbing the evidence. But it reflects the way the characters on Vinyl are feeling: like Christmas is over, and it’s time to grudgingly go back to real life and adjust to their changed circumstances.
Four weeks in, it finally feels like Vinyl is settling into (ahem) a groove: Plotlines are coalescing, the world is expanding, and new characters are coming to the fore. More than any of the previous three episodes, including the Scorsese-directed pilot, this feels like the show HBO has been hyping since last spring: a whirlwind slice of life in the Rock Business circa 1973.
And I mean “whirlwind” almost literally, as director S.J. Clarkson’s camera spins and dips all over the American Century offices, bouncing from one conversation to another on a particularly busy afternoon, as Richie welcomes (fictional) funk superstar Hannibal for some ego stroking and light, off-the-record negotiations, Robert Goulet shows up to discuss his upcoming Christmas album (cleverly titled “The Robert Goulet Christmas Album”) while the Nasty Bitz wait in the lobby to sign their contract and a disgruntled Lester Grimes turns up to set fire to Richie’s office and, on his way out, scoop up the Bitz as his new management clients. Oh, and the NYPD shows up to ask why Richie was the last person the departed “Buck” Rogers called before he was murdered.
Meanwhile, Zak, Skip, and Scott are adjusting to the fact that not only are they not getting the seven-figure payouts they expected from the scuttled PolyGram deal, the label is being audited. Zak considers jumping ship to Warner Brothers, Scott mourns losing the possibility of moving to PolyGram’s home office in Germany, and Skip, in an amusing subplot, has to suspend his old reliable extra-pressing scam, which allows the label to profit whether or not a record is a hit (as explained back in the pilot).
This scam, as well as the nature of recording advances and touring expenses, was presented to the PolyGram executives (and the audience) as a stroke of genius and an ongoing triumph, which it certainly was for the record industry. But this episode cleverly inverts that logic by having an angry Lester, hearing that the Nasty Bitz are about to sign with Richie, explain all the same stuff, but from the perspective of the artist – perspective Lester gained the hard way.
Pretty soon Lester is the Nasty Bitz’ new manager – obviously for no other reason than to mess with Richie, because his affinity for their music is doubtful at best – and negotiates double the advance they were originally offered. Not missing a trick, Richie asks about Kool Herc, and it seems that we finally have a tentative renewal in the Richie-Lester relationship, which is really the most interesting in the series.
Hannibal, who seems to be an amalgam of Sly Stone and George Clinton (you could do worse, DNA-wise, so long as you stay away from the powders), is mostly a lens to show just how lavishly the label would treat a favored artist, and to flesh out Cece, Richie’s assistant. This is the most interesting new character we’ve met since the pilot, and her combination of professionalism and normal human enthusiasm for meeting Hannibal and being invited to his show – not to mention the way she wears that red dress – is completely charming and something this show could use more of, as the Music Fan community (as opposed to the Music Business Professional community) was sorely underrepresented in the first three episodes.
Meanwhile in Greenwich, Devon, who seemed to be sympathetic to Richie’s tumble off the wagon in the second episode, has had a change of heart that may or may not be related to the subsequent news that Richie fell off the wagon AND canceled the multimillion-dollar PolyGram deal. After some very ‘70s marriage counseling that only inflames her frustration, Devon’s consultation with a divorce lawyer was one of the best scenes in the series so far: finding herself defending Richie against the lawyer’s probing about poor parenting and physical abuse, the lawyer dismisses her by curtly declaring, “You’re not getting divorced. You just wasted an hour of my time generating a card to play in the next fight with your husband.” A card that Richie doesn’t even acknowledge when she tries to play it during their next conversation.
Devon’s frustration mirrors that of another wife on a prestige period drama – paging Mrs. Draper – but we leave her framed in her kitchen window, raging at the way she’s been boxed in, and while I doubt that a divorce is imminent, I think she’s got more cards up her sleeve whether she knows it yet or not.
*In marriage counseling, Richie answers Devon’s hectoring about falling off the wagon by saying, “Nobody got hurt this time,” which a) is a lie and b) raises the question, Who got hurt last time? I see more flashbacks in our future.
*Poor, hapless Clark has not bounced back from his failed Alice Cooper signing, he is still trying to find acts that replicate the sound of other, successful acts, and he is introducing weird racial tension into the A&R department by suggesting to another rep that he should only be after black acts. Oh Clark.
*More proof that this is actually the show that HBO advertised: a peek at the record-manufacturing process.
*Skip’s contact at Sam Goody, refusing to disappear the surplus Donny Osmond records: “I just bought a bumper pool table! I can’t be out of work right now!”
*The cops’ interest in Robert Goulet taking priority over the murder investigation is amusing.
Tony Orlando and Dawn - “Candida”
The Temptations - “Psychedelic Shack”
Pink Floyd - “Money”
Curtis Mayfield - “Pusherman”
Janis Joplin - “Cry Baby”
Death - “Politicians In My Eyes”
Hannibal - “Lady, Let’s Make a Baby”