Sire Records Honcho Tells Tales of Ramones, Talking Heads, Pretenders, and Madonna!

Seymous Stein (center) with David Byrne and Madonna at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Seymous Stein (center) with David Byrne and Madonna at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Photo by Getty Images/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
Siren Song: My Life in Music
By Seymour Stein with Gareth Murphy
352 pp.
St. Martin’s Press

As co-founder of Sire Records in 1966 – and still active in the industry today – Seymour Stein has seen a lot. Just a partial list of artists he’s discovered, scouted, signed, championed, or exposed to U.S. audiences includes The Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna, the Pretenders, the Replacements, Ice-T, the Cure, the Cult, k.d. lang, Madness, The English Beat, the Barenaked Ladies, and more.

Book cover by St. Martin's Press
In the record biz, Stein was something of a bridge between the cigar-chomping, payola paying, questionable financial practices old school record men of the ‘40s-‘60s (Syd Nathan, Morris Levy, George Goldner, Ahmet Ertegun) and the newer breed of more business-minded successors (Mo Ostin, Dave Geffen, Clive Davis). All make appearances here, especially King Records’ Nathan, Stein’s first and most important mentor. And the book paints a great portrait of the workings of the music industry of that era.

Throughout, Stein is frank about his sexuality. Attracted to men since his teens, he nonetheless married a former teacher who wanted a higher level of life. Linda Stein was a loud, brassy, wild woman who would end up co-managing the Ramones and partied as hard with coke, booze, and pot as her husband. Stein admits their parenting was negligent, their two daughters basically raised by nannies.

Constant fighting, money arguments, and Seymour’s acceptance of his sexuality drove them to divorce, and there’s definitely some razor-edged score-settling here. Tragically, Linda Stein – who had transformed herself into a realtor to the stars – was brutally bludgeoned to death by an embezzling assistant in her own apartment in 2007.

The books is chock full of rock star anecdotes – and not always about music. Elton John shows up at the Steins for Thanksgiving dinner, with John Lennon appearing just in time for dessert. Dee Dee Ramone barges into Stein’s apartment, strips naked in his bedroom, then tells Stein to do what he wants with him (freaked out, Stein declined). Stein is transfixed by oddball group Talking Heads at CBGB’s, though he and the rest of the band walk on eggshells around frontman David Byrne. Madonna shows up in his hospital room saying “Take me, I’m yours!” as she discusses a contract with the prone label boss.

click to enlarge Seymour Stein (top, left, looking down) at a party with (bottom row) Linda Stein, David Bowie, and Dee Dee Ramone. - PHOTO BY BOB GRUEN/COURTESY OF ST. MARTIN'S PRESS
Seymour Stein (top, left, looking down) at a party with (bottom row) Linda Stein, David Bowie, and Dee Dee Ramone.
Photo by Bob Gruen/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
And, as if to show how far Stein would go to nab a hot act before a rival, in the wee hours of one morning, he was reading about a hot new synth-based band in an English music paper that was already several weeks old. A few hours later, was on a Concorde flight across the Atlantic.

That evening found himself in a dingy suburban nightclub in Essex where he met the teenaged members of said band were changing into their stage clothes in a stairwell (there was no dressing room) before playing to about 200 punters. And that’s how Sire Records got the distribution rights in America for Depeche Mode.

As the ‘90s unfold, the hit acts start to dissipate. He carps much about Warner head honcho Mo Ostin and complains about his treatment after the larger company acquired Sire outright, yet Stein willingly signed agreements and contracts with the larger label. The latter part of the book is filled with tales of backstabbing record executives in more recent times.

But at age 75, Seymour Stein still runs Sire and is a VP at Warner Brothers, probably still on the lookout for the next hot act. Belle and Sebastian paid tribute to him with their song “Seymour Stein, and he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has an ego, and it shows up in these pages. But his love for music and addiction to the hunt for new sounds, new bands, and new tunes is infectious.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero