It’s a curious decision, setting a TV show about the record industry in 1973 in New York and then bulking up the soundtrack with music that didn’t exist until decades later. It’s not like there weren’t enough songs from the era to choose from: The early ’70s were an incredibly fertile time for music, especially in New York. The first 30 minutes of the two-hour pilot for Vinyl, the new HBO series from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter, features Led Zeppelin onstage at Madison Square Garden making their Song Remains the Same concert film, the New York Dolls catering to a more transgressive crowd at the Mercer Arts Center downtown, and a quick glimpse of the party in the Bronx where DJ Kool Herc essentially invented hip hop.
And yet, the first of two full-length soundtracks planned from season one (augmented by weekly EPs with music from each episode) strays 40 years into the future, putting new songs by country singer Sturgill Simpson, Icelandic rockers Kaleo and Rock Star: INXS contestant/Vintage Trouble frontman Ty Taylor alongside period jams by the Dolls (re-recorded by singer David Johansen), Otis Redding, Foghat, the Edgar Winter Group and the Meters, among others. The juxtaposition is sometimes jarring, not because the new songs don’t stand on their own merits, but because they haven’t had time yet to seep into our subconscious minds the way that music from that era has. Instead of evoking a period, or a place, the new songs are still blank slates, waiting for the associations that only come with time and becoming part of a shared experience.
For now, that experience is the first episode of Vinyl. It’s a start, at any rate. Simpson plays against type with his contribution, “Sugar Daddy (Theme from Vinyl),” switching from throwback twang a la Waylon Jennings to grainy blues-rock on a song that shifts through sections steered by choogling guitars and overdriven vocals. Of all the new tunes, “Sugar Daddy” sounds the most like it could have slipped through the cracks back in the day.
Taylor’s “The World Is Yours” draws on the blues, too, powering through a Chicago-style sound built around sticky-wet electric guitar, low moaning horns and vocals that are just raw enough, steeped in reverb for good measure. The early-’60s feel is spot on: the song accompanies a flashback scene set 10 years before the main action as singer Lester Grimes (played by Ato Essandoh, lip-syncing) performs it onstage in a club where protagonist Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is working as a bartender.
Not all the music of the early ’70s was as electrifying as Zeppelin, the Dolls or DJ Kool Herc. Kaleo’s riff-heavy “No Good” echoes the joyless plodding of hard-rock acts of the day like Mountain or Foghat, and what little charm there is gets lost in leering vocals, delivered through pounding bomp-bomp drums and turgid bass. Better is “Rotten Apple” by the Nasty Bits, the fictional proto-punk band in Vinyl fronted by Kip Stevens (James Jagger). With hints of the Stooges and the Dictators, it’s a tough, scrappy song reveling with snotty glee in the dissolute decay of New York City in the early ’70s. Johansen’s re-recordings of “Personality Crisis” and “Stranded in the Jungle” retain their feral appeal, and while his voice has thickened over the years, he still comes across as a gleeful provocateur having the time of his life.
As Vinyl rolls out the EP series (in digital form, for that dash of irony), Johansen is the model that other contemporary acts should aspire to as they cover vintage songs, just as Simpson sets the standard for artists recording new songs for the show. Each singer finds the essence of the era—easy enough for Johansen, who lived through it—without trying too slavishly to imitate it. Let’s see if the show itself can follow suit.