Terence Winter, Violent Chaos and HBO's Vinyl : This, Gentlemen, Is Rock 'n Roll

If you've ever admitted you didn't want to think about what goes into the sausage, maybe you also don't want to know all the ingredients behind the music that came out of 1970s New York.

Terence Winter, on the other hand, thinks those elements make way too good a story not to tell. So the creator of Boardwalk Empire is dramatizing all their ragged glory in Vinyl, a new HBO series whose 10-episode first season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

"People romanticize New York in the 1970s," says Winter. "But I lived in New York then and there's nothing romantic about getting held up at knifepoint. A lot of what we're writing about in this series is chaos."

What interests Winter, and a team of co-creators and executive producers that includes Mick Jagger, is how musicians parlayed that chaos into hip-hop, punk rock, new wave, disco and other sounds that paved the road for much of the music we've been hearing ever since.

The seventies has always been mocked as the era of totally inconsequential mainstream pop music, and while that's pretty much true, what bubbled under the surface in places like the Bronx and downtown Manhattan was something else altogether.

Winter builds Vinyl around Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), owner of a record label called American Century that's drifting into irrelevance. Clueless how to stop the drift, Richie turns to self-help solutions like cocaine.

Then one night he stumbles into the Mercer Arts Center, where he's the oldest person by 15 years, and he hears the New York Dolls playing "Stranded in the Jungle," their hard-edged take on a 1950s hit by the Cadets.

Suddenly he remembers why he got into this corrupt, cutthroat game in the first place. He loved the music. Now American Century just needs a bottle in which to catch this new lightning.

The more you love music, the more you'll love Vinyl. That's also the starting point for Winter.

"There's always a song rolling around in my head," he says. "The last few days it's been 'Brass Monkey' by the Beastie Boys. I don't know why. After that it will be something else. There's always a radio on.

"The other day I sat in the studio listening to David Johansen re-record 'Stranded in the Jungle,' and I was thinking I can't believe I get to do this for a living."

The music in Vinyl mostly stays in the '70s, but Winter isn't afraid to throw in a "Stranded in the Jungle" even if most viewers won't remember it.

"The Dolls were going back to basic 1950s rock 'n roll," he says. "The music that Richie fell in love with. So now he wants to capture that feeling again. Get rid of these 20-minute organ solos, he says, and back to two-, three-minute records."

The show's 1970s contemporary music will blend actual recordings with original music written for the show. Winter wouldn't mind if viewers can't always tell the difference.

"We have a new disco song in an episode toward the end of the season," he says. "When we were shooting the scene, some of the extras were looking it up on their phones, thinking it had to have been a real record."

Music has always had a niche on TV, back to Ozzie and Harriet and The Monkees, but it has rarely captured the excitement of live performance. Winter says that has slowly changed.

"Audiences are more sophisticated now," he says. "They want it to sound like the real thing, and I think television has learned how. Shows like Nashville and Empire do incredible things."

Vinyl is saturated with live music scenes, creating a soundtrack for a backstage story that's as raw and graphic as Boardwalk or another show for which Winter wrote extensively, The Sopranos.

Not surprisingly, Richie Finestra walks the same good guy/bad guy edge as Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson or James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano.

"I like that kind of character," says Winter. "I grew up in Brooklyn and I knew a dozen Richies. Guys who came in and took over a room. They always had an opinion. They talked too loud. They drank too much.

"They're just interesting. You love 'em or you hate 'em. You see someone who says 'No, I limit myself to one glass of wine at dinner,' who wants to watch a TV show about that guy?"

Cannavale is surrounded by an impressive ensemble cast that includes the likes of Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde, Ato Essandoh, P.J. Byrne, Juno Temple (above with James Jagger) and Max Casella, and Winter says strong characters both drive and help shape the story.

He mentions the famous "Pinelands" episode of The Sopranos, which he wrote.

"You find characters who just have chemistry," he says. "Like Christopher and Paulie Walnuts. So you look for ways to get them together."

The humor in Vinyl tends to develop in a similarly organic way, he says, meaning it can emerge in spots that might make it seem almost absurd.

"Often humor comes out of the darkest moments," he says. "It's the same thing as in life. Something terrible happens and humor somehow relieves it."

With Vinyl, the amusing off-camera minidramas included discovering that New York had to be dirtied up.

"New York is so clean now," Winter says. "We show a subway car in the first episode that is actually pristine. We had to digitally put in the chipped tiles, the grime and the graffiti.

"With most shows you have to find a way to make things look better. This time we had to make them look worse."

As for where it all goes, Winter says he doesn't have full details sorted out yet.

"I have a vague idea," he says. "But since the run is dependent on whether HBO picks up future seasons, at this point it's more writing for the moment. If we're fortunate enough to continue, the endpoint may suggest itself, like it did with Boardwalk.

"At a certain point, you've told your story."