At the risk of simplifying the series’ strengths, I’m going to call it: Tonight’s episode of Vinyl works because it focuses on making music—the writing of it, the distribution of it, the marketing of it, all of it. Almost every conflict and character motivation stems from the business of creating art, and when Vinyl sticks to being about business, Vinyl is good.

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Once again, I know that sounds simplistic, but like the title of “E.A.B.” implies, simplicity can result in an immeasurable amount of great things. As Lester explains to Nasty Bits, those three letters often serve as the magic key to songwriting, their chords having yielded everything from “The Twist” to “What’d I Say” to one of his original tunes, which the Bits soon “Ballroom Blitz”-ify into what could be their own hit record. There’s a primal thrill in watching the bluesman cycle through his retro sonic mashup, then bestow the knowledge upon the young band he’s managing—rock-solid proof that when talented people stick to a formula, they can put their own spin on something familiar.

Maybe that’s been Vinyl’s problem all along: a lack of formula. It’s tethered itself to gritty crime yarns, rise-and-fall-tragedies, speedball drug montages, and everything in between, all while sometimes dismissing its core of being a series about making music in the 1970s. And that’s more than enough to start with. In “E.A.B.,” that singularity even extends to Richie’s cocaine problem, which still worsens, but for once, merely serves as professional fuel rather than an elixir that transforms him into an all-knowing martial-arts God. I’m not saying his addiction won’t continue to have dramatic repercussions, but it’s refreshing to see him use it as a crutch instead of a rocket ship. Here, he still manages to stay focused on the business at hand, desperately yet doggedly wheeling and dealing his way through failed bank loans, logo redesigns, and priming the Bits for their New York Dolls show. He even expresses remorse to Zak for steering American Century into a pit of quicksand—granted, he never fully comes clean for the events in “The King And I”—and thankfully forgets about harassing Devon for the time being.

I’m not sure how permanent their separation will be, but both characters’ stories work far better when they’re apart. While being with Devon brings out Richie’s vulnerability, it also brings out his ugliness, as we saw in “He In Racist Fire.” Likewise, Devon breaks free of her damaged-housewife persona when forced to strike out on her own, tricking John Lennon into a photo op at Max’s Kansas City by pretending not to know who he is. In addition to fostering her burgeoning interest in photography, the sneak attack also impresses a fellow shutterbug at the famed rock venue named Billy McVicar (Richard Short). Somewhat reminiscent of a tabloid photographer, Billy certainly gives off a vibe that’s untrustworthy, but at the same time, his admiration of Devon’s talent appears to be genuine, which is more than you can say for Richie at the moment. Also, their tryst in the darkroom seems to help her make a clean break from her husband, thus defeating the usual outcome for the female half of a marriage these sort of prestige dramas. I’m sure this will come back around to Richie sooner or later—and who knows? Maybe he and Devon will ultimately end up together—but I hope the show has the guts to keep them separated for good.

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Zak and Clark are also hustling on their own, both making headway with a musician they’ve discovered. The former is grooming the young piano man he found in “Cyclone” into his own version of David Bowie, and the latter stumbles across Kool Herc after accompanying his mailroom coworkers to a club. He may not be as far along as Zak, Jamie, or many of his other colleagues in signing potential talent, but his finally being able to sniff out an artist that has something to say is a promising change of pace for a character who’s felt somewhat directionless thus far. Elsewhere at ACR, Andrea gets in on the business-ascension game as well by firing Hal, the hapless graphic designer who can’t seem to create a new logo that doesn’t look like a dick, a toilet, or plagiarism. In the episode’s most entertaining and bizarre sequence, he returns to the offices to put an earnest Satanic curse on the entire label, all while “Take Me Home, Country Roads” softly babbles in the background.

Of course, that’s not as amusing when you consider the dark directions the show has already gone, and “E.A.B.” brings back the darkest plot development in a big way. It turns out the police have what’s more or less a confession of Richie killing Buck Rogers, thanks to the wiretap they placed in his phone, landing him in jail before the credits roll. At this stage, it seems pointless to keep reiterating how out of place the murder element feels with the rest of the show, even as ACR finds itself deeply indebted to mobster Corrado Galasso. While it’s easy to buy a major record label doing business with a killer, it’s still never sat right from a narrative perspective that Richie himself is a killer, despite Buck’s death scene having some compelling symbolism for both the victim and the perpetrator.

Still, that’s the hole that Terence Winter and co. have dug themselves into, and they don’t appear to be getting out of it anytime soon. Maybe they’ll decide to Friday Night Lights it, resolving the crime storyline at the end of this season, then never speaking of it again. Or maybe it will continue to be a sometimes incongruous plot element that gets balanced out by the art-as-art and art-as-commerce side of things. Either way, the writers of Vinyl no longer seem to be preoccupied with how unlikable they can make their protagonist, and that’s a huge step in the right direction.

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Stray observations

  • Did anyone else get the vibe that Scott’s attracted to Gary Giombetta?
  • As much as I appreciated how the show didn’t make too big a deal about the Lennon appearance, I wish Billy hadn’t described so explicitly that the ex-Beatle was on his Lost Weekend with May Pang. It would have been more artful and effective for viewers to figure it out on their own.
  • Sadly, Gary and his alter ego, Xavier, appear to be fictional, if perhaps partly based on Jobriath. Also, are we meant to believe that David Bowie ends up ripping off Zak’s lightning-bolt face paint for the cover of Aladdin Sane? Or was the lightning bolt already a thing in the world of 1973 glam rock?
  • Andrea’s opinion of Hal’s graphic-design work: “A dick. Two dicks. A map of Italy. And finally, the actual logo of Volkswagen.” Ouch!
  • “It’s Satanism. I saw it on David Susskind.”

“It’s Mostly Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)“

  • The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” opens the episode. Has any other show outside of Mad Men been able to afford a non-cover usage of The Fab Four?
  • Royal Blood’s “Where Are You Now” (written specifically for the show) becomes Hal’s soundtrack for getting fired. And they weren’t even around in the ‘70s!
  • In his “E/A/B” mashup, Lester moves from Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” to Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” to his own “Woman Like You” to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band.” Phew!
  • As stated in the main copy, Hal’s Satanic freakout comically juxtaposes with John Denver’s career-making single (and eventual state anthem of West Virginia), “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
  • In case you wanted more prog-rock yodeling, Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” comes back during Richie, Skip, and Zak’s heated discussion of where to take the company.
  • John Lee Hooker’s “One Way Ticket” plays while Kip and Lester are talking on the roof.
  • In the mailroom, Clark and his coworker groove to Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.”
  • In the episode’s only musical fever dream, Conway Twitty performs “It’s Only Make Believe.”
  • In another instance of contrasting rage with top-40 syrup, Royal Teens’ “Believe Me” soundtracks Galasso strangling that poor guy with a lamp cord.
  • When The Wailers play Max’s Kansas City, we get not one, but three of their classics: “Kinky Reggae,” “Stir It Up,” and “Get Up, Stand Up.”
  • That’s Al Martino’s pompously cheesy “Spanish Eyes” in ACR’s meeting with Galasso.
  • Van Morrison’s “Gypsy Queen” proves to be suitable baby-making music in the darkroom.
  • And Barrabas’ “Wild Safari” closes us out. You can find that on this week’s Vinyl EP, along with “Hocus Pocus,” “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Here’s hoping that Lester’s “Woman Like You” will make it onto next week’s collection.

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