On the stage of the packed club the singer is thrusting, shouting and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. His lips are pouty, his hips teenage-boy narrow, his charisma a mega-watt force. When he speaks he has a chewy and somewhat effete English accent. When his band are in full pelt they sound like the most dangerous group in town. Any grown-ups watching would be advised to lock up their daughters forthwith.
Sound (and look) familiar? It should. They are the Nasty Bits and they’re led by James Jagger, eldest son of Rolling Stone Sir Mick.
Jagger Jr, 30, is the spit of his dad in his 70s pomp. Which is useful as the youngster has been cast as a snotty British musician noising up 1973 New York in HBO’s new music-industry drama series, Vinyl. The lavish-but-gritty show has an impressive troika of executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and M Jagger Sr.
“Someone just asked if it was easy playing a rock star having a rock star as a father,” begins the engagingly energetic James as he fidgets in his chair at HBO’s New York HQ. He fronts his own (real-life) punk band, Turbogeist, but he’s acted for almost a decade, making his professional debut on the London stage in 2007. Vinyl, though, is his biggest gig to date. “But,” he adds, “I don’t think you can say there’s much similarity with the character I play and my father.”
This is halfway true. Unlike the Stones, the fictional Nasty Bits are a ramshackle punk outfit trying to make a name for themselves in a New York that’s both a crime-ridden mess and a city in the grip of a sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll revolution. Apart from that, James, who was born in New York but raised in London, moves like Jagger. How could the son of Mick and Jerry Hall do otherwise?
That said, the upbringing of James and siblings Lizzie (31, a model), Georgia May (24, also a model) and Gabriel (18) was more purposefully traditional than louchely rock ’n’ roll. “Dad was stricter than mum – he sent me to Sunday school,” he smiles, adding that Hall’s looser style of parenting was a reaction against her own strait-laced upbringing in Texas. After his education at the private Stowe School, James moved to New York to study acting. He now appears to be nomadically “transatlantic”, based in the UK and US, in the way that only the rich and/or famous can be – he married his British wife in upstate New York last year.
Vinyl, which revolves around the triumphs and trials of record-label boss Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), has been a long-running passion project for Sir Mick. James remembers his dad talking about it a decade ago. But in the wake of the Rolling Stones and Scorsese collaborating on 2007’s concert documentary Shine a Light, plans stepped up a gear.
When I interviewed him at the time Scorsese talked about the debt he owed the British band, personally and professionally. His New York-set 1973 film Mean Streets used Jumpin’ Jack Flash to powerful effect.
“The actual visualisation of sequences and scenes in Mean Streets comes from… living with their music,” Scorsese rhapsodised of the Stones. “Not just the songs I use in the film – it’s about the tone and mood of their music, their attitude.”
With Jagger and Scorsese mutually inspired, they set about developing a story set in the same city in the same year as Mean Streets. We see Finestra battle to save his label and sign Led Zeppelin, while an eager young staffer (played by Britain’s Juno Temple, left) is scouring the clubs trying to find hot young talent like the Nasty Bits. Meanwhile, Andy Warhol’s Factory offers a decadent artistic side-attraction, with Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen playing a Nico-like scenester.
James Jagger read a script for a film version of Vinyl eight years ago. But a story this big (the dawn of punk, a countercultural spasm that in turn helped beget disco and hip-hop), with reverberations this potent (this was a revolution with powerful gender, racial and cultural dynamics), set in a city as totemic as New York, needed a broader canvas than a two-hour movie could offer.
Step forward HBO with a ten-episode order – and rock fans can raise a clenched-fist salute to the premium channel’s deep pockets and grand vision. Translating the magic of music onto the screen is notoriously tricky, like capturing lightning in a bottle. But now, buoyed by cash-rich networks and the influx of big-screen talent, TV is fully exploring the rich history of pop and rock.
E4’s glossy import Empire – a ratings juggernaut in the US – does a decent job of re-creating the hustle and thrust of the contemporary rap and R&B scene, albeit within the same soapy bubble as country music-focused series Nashville. Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series, The Get Down, due on screen later this year, also looks at New York music in the 70s, but from the perspective of hip-hop.
James Jagger thinks the success of another Manhattan-set retro series helped create the context in which Vinyl could finally make it from page to screen. “Mad Men paved the way for us. It’s a period show about a business that has a lot of similarity to what we’re doing. To get a close-up education of how the music industry dealt with things is really interesting.”
Even high school-set series Glee played a role in increasing the small-screen viability of music drama. By selling hit songs weekly from the show, it established a chart-invading, revenue-generating formula that the record labels couldn’t ignore. Vinyl will do the same, releasing a weekly digital EP featuring music featured in, or inspired by, the series.
Vinyl has a contemporary currency in other ways, too. “Even though it’s set in the 70s its themes are hugely relevant today – a lot of the changes we see, whether based on race or sexuality or gender, are still happening,” notes director Jon S Baird. Scorsese directed Vinyl’s two-hour pilot; Baird had the daunting task of following that by directing a future episode. “It kinda feels like the time we’re living in now,” adds the Scotsman (the director of James McAvoy movie Filth and an upcoming BBC biopic of Laurel and Hardy). “It needs another change. We’re coming out the back of a recession and people are looking for something new. That’s why Vinyl has landed at a very important time.”
Juno Temple is another offspring of rock ’n’ roll royalty – her dad is director Julien Temple, who was the Sex Pistols’ go-to film-maker. She says she grew up with the sound of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious “kinda like being a lullaby”. Like Baird, she acknowledges Vinyl’s contemporary relevance – but is also excited at the prospect of a new generation digging the music of her own past.
“I really hope the series encourages people to go out and buy vinyl again,” beams the excitable 26-year-old. “It’s so different listening to a record – it almost seeps in through your pores. If you’re just listening on your iPhone it’s just going through your eardrums. Hopefully sales of record players will go flying through the roof!”
It’s that “visceral excitement” that also enthrals James Jagger, a man raised backstage at Rolling Stones shows. In the 70s New York of Vinyl, we see rock in the exciting raw, with less focus on the OTT theatricality of an era where gigs might feature “an inflatable penis”, scoffs Jagger.
“Nothing against inflatable penises, though,” he quickly adds. “My dad used one of those very well.”