“That was a huge musical moment, especially in New York,” says Mick Jagger. “You had all of this interplay.” He’s talking about the mid-1970s, when the blues-fueled metal of Led Zeppelin coexisted with the gender-bending glam rock of New York Dolls, disco and the early strains of punk and hip-hop.
As a witness and survivor of the decade’s excesses, the Rolling Stones frontman, 72, says that 20 years ago, he sold his friend, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, on an idea for a movie about the record industry during that period. That film eventually morphed into Vinyl, a TV series that will debut Feb. 14 on HBO.
Jagger and Scorsese — who directed the pilot, set in 1973 New York — are among the show’s executive producers, along with showrunner Terence Winter, who previously collaborated with Scorsese on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Vinyl depicts no-inhibition-era New York much as Boardwalk Empire rendered Prohibition-era Atlantic City, N.J. — by mixing real characters and events (in the pilot, actors play the Dolls and Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, John Bonham and ferocious Zeppelin manager Peter Grant) with fictional ones. Richie Finestra, for example, is the cocaine-hoovering founder and head of the invented American Century Records, portrayed by Bobby Cannavale in an unforgettable haircut.
Organized crime also plays an occasionally bloody role. “There was money to be made in what became the music industry, and the mob wanted a piece of it,” Scorsese tells Billboard, adding, “Wherever money’s being made, violence is going to happen.”
Jagger spoke to Billboard about the outlandish label bosses he has encountered during his career and his 30-year-old son James Jagger’s portrayal of Kip Stevens, the sneering frontman of the show’s fictional raw rock group The Nasty Bits. (Jagger fils fronted British punk band Turbogeist, which is on hiatus while he pursues his acting career.)
Was your idea for Vinyl triggered by any specific experience?
Not really. I just thought it would be good to have these characters in the record business because there are so many crazy people and then make it go through different periods. In the series we do flashbacks, but in the movie we had a lot of flash-forwards, too. Who knows, we might do that in the series in the future.
You were close to Ahmet Ertegun. Are any of the characters infused with his spirit?
I was very close to Ahmet, and the company I probably saw the most of from the inside was Atlantic in that period. I wouldn’t say Vinyl is based on Atlantic. Ahmet wasn’t at all like the Richie character, but that’s the company I knew best. It was relatively small when I was there. That informed me when it came to the part in the pilot where Richie sells his label to the Germans. Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. during that time period. [In the movie], Richie was going to become this corporate person, which, who knows, could still happen.
The meetings with the German buyers suggest the music industry still harbored hostility over World War II. There also is a scene in which Peter Grant rants about his grandmother still having “shrapnel in her arse from a Nazi buzz bomb.”
There’s a lot of that in there, yeah. I mean, it’s 1973 — Jewish people in New York, and obviously the Peter Grant character, were still raw, so to speak.
The label bosses don’t come off well.
They were so wacky that it was hard to write up how mad they were in real life and expect people to actually believe that a businessperson could behave like that.
You must have a personal experience you can recount.
A lot of them, but all you need to do is read the book from [CBS Records CEO] Walter Yetnikoff [Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess]. Walter’s a wonderful guy, but in that period he was completely off his head. I once went to meet him at lunchtime. I was sober, and I found out later he was completely out of his mind. I wondered why he wasn’t making a lot of sense.
There is some darkly comic Scorsese violence in the pilot that involves a record promoter. Is that based on an actual event?
Whether it went down as depicted 100 percent I’m not going to claim or say, but there was definitely a seamy side to promotion, and organized crime was part of it in those days.
What happens when you and Scorsese disagree on something?
I’m bigger than him. We haven’t had any spats or anything, but obviously, there’s a huge committee involved. I had never done a TV series before — I’ve only been involved in movies — and it’s a totally different animal. You’ve got so many writers and directors involved.
Your son James plays the lead singer of The Nasty Bits. Was that a part you had in mind for him?
No, but when I saw the role was being created, I thought, “Well, wait a minute. They’re looking for a guy who likes this kind of music, can play it and can act as well.” He loves that kind of music — that kind of screaming racket. Not that I’ve got any objections to it, but I mean, he’s really into that. So I thought I’d put James into the mix. I’m very pleased with him.
What do you miss about the industry during the time that Vinyl takes place?
It seemed anything was possible at that point. Creating any kind of music and mixing up any kind of music and making it into something that people wanted to hear was possible then. Of course, there was a lot of dreck. When I go through all the songs of the period, there are a lot of wonderful things, but there’s also so much crap it’s unbelievable. And that was one of the things we debated: how much crap music are we going to have in the show because we want to represent the period. We don’t want to make out that the ’70s was only Marvin Gaye and James Brown and Bob Marley. It wasn’t. It was full of rubbish.
The pilot makes a running joke of England Dan & John Ford Coley, who had a hit with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” in 1976.
I’m not saying anything. There were even worse things. When you look back at what the big-selling records were, it’s hilarious. I found that all very amusing, but I kept saying to the music supervisor that there was too much dreck [on the soundtrack]. We had long discussions about how much dreck we could have.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.