The first image in episode 1 of Denis Leary’s new series Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is of centerpiece Johnny Rock (Leary) raving about the cocaine he is snorting. “It’s got little green flecks in it!” he shouts, only to realize that he has been inhaling powdered dish soap. It’s a funny jump-start that might seem too absurd if we weren’t already familiar with so many rock & roll tales that are even more insane—remember that story about Ozzy Osborne sucking an entire row of ants up his nose while on tour with Mötley Crüe?
Those little details are all over SDRR, and most of it comes from Leary’s experiences with friends who spent their lives toiling in bands. He’s particularly enamored of the relationship between singers and lead guitarists, which creates the basis for one of the many sources of conflict on the show. Rock is the frontman of a band called the Heathens, a semi-legendary fake group whose debut album was loved by the likes of Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs (both of whom appear in the faux-documentary that lays out the salient points of the Heathens’ backstory). But they could not last—the same day their album arrived, the band broke up.
Twenty-five years later, Rock has alienated most everybody. Guitarist Flash wants nothing to do with him and is happily strumming on tour for Lady Gaga; bassist Rehab resents Rock for sleeping with his fiancée; drummer Bam Bam has cleaned up and doesn’t cotton to Rock’s drinking and drugging ways. Even his agent isn’t that interested in him, and he wants to book him in a series of embarrassing cover bands.
In walks Gigi, played by former Nickelodeon staple Liz Gillies (tweens will recognize her as Jade from Victorious). Is she merely a hot chick trying to hit on the Bowie-loving Rock? That’s what Johnny thinks, but before he can make a proper move, she reveals that she is the daughter he never knew he had. Now that she’s of age (and well-appointed, money-wise), she’s looking to break into the music business with Rock’s songwriting help in exchange for some much-needed cash.
But she won’t do the deal without Flash, which galvanizes the core conflict of the first episode (and the series). Rock needs the dough, and so he comes at Flash with a number of different pitches about why the Heathens should get back together. While Flash ultimately decides to show up at the session for the re-constituted Heathens because he thinks he can get into Gigi’s pants, the one other approach that potently works is the idea that Rock and Flash were at their strongest when they were totally simpatico musically. That’s the nut of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: When these particular people are working at this specific thing, they conjure something ephemeral that can barely be described but is certainly felt among the participants, who have grown closer than family. It’s (theoretically) a greater high than any drug that Johnny Rock can scam on, and when Gigi proves her chops on a Heathens classic at the end of episode 1, that energy is clearly back. What everybody decides to do with that energy will dictate where Sex&Drugs goes from here.
- The songs were all written (or co-written) by Leary, and Afghan Whigs founder Greg Dulli assisted with arranging and recording. It’s not the first collaboration between Leary and Dulli (Dulli’s band the Twilight Singers provided the theme song to Leary’s Rescue Me), nor is it Leary’s first encounter with songwriting (his tune “A—hole,” from his No Cure for Cancer stand-up album, actually charted in Australia in 1994).
- All of the members of the Heathens can actually play their instruments, even though it’s not necessarily them playing on the soundtrack: Robert Kelly actually learned how to play the drums to look convincing in the role, which was written for him; John Corbett is also really a skilled guitar player; John Ales scored the role of Rehab when he sent in an audition tape of him playing bass; and Liz Gillies recorded three albums’ worth of music with the Victorious cast, including some tunes with Ariana Grande.
- Do we think Dave Grohl’s description of the Heathens’ sound is accurate? There’s obviously a lot of New York Dolls in there, and also a touch of Cheap Trick-esque heavy power pop. That makes the time frame they became big—their debut album was supposed to have arrived in 1990—pretty accurate, at the tail end of hair metal and just before the alt-rock revolution.
- Between the theme song and the track we hear Gigi singing at the end of the show, we get a pretty good sense of what the Heathens’ tunes were like. Would you buy a whole Heathens album?