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Sire Records Co-Founder Seymour Stein Reflects On Life In 'The Pursuit Of Music'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has had a huge impact on music by signing such groundbreaking artists as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Madonna, Ice-T and k.d. lang. He released solo albums by Lou Reed and Brian Wilson. Seymour Stein co-founded Sire Records in 1966 and continued to run it decades after his founding partner left the company. Stein got his start in the record industry when he was still in his teens working at King Records, which specialized in R&B and had James Brown and The Famous Flames on its roster. Stein has a new autobiography called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."

Seymour Stein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book, you write, I'm a hit man, a record business entrepreneur. What I'm not is a producer like Phil Spector or Quincy Jones. I can't play any instrument. I can't operate a studio. My exact job description is A&R, artist and repertoire, the old show business term for talent hunting.

How do you think not being a musician has been both a shortcoming and an advantage for you?

SEYMOUR STEIN: Well, I think that, for me, it's been somewhat of an advantage because what I listen to, first and foremost, are the songs. And I always feel that an artist as a performer can always get better and usually does - the same thing with a musician. They usually get stronger, you know, as it goes along. But the songs have to be great from the very beginning, and that's what I've always looked for in all the different categories and fields of music that I've signed artists in. It's always been the songs.

GROSS: You started in the record business at age 15 when Syd Nathan, the founder of King Records, convinced your father to allow you to spend summers in Cincinnati at King's headquarters.

STEIN: Well, no. No, that's not exactly correct. I started really going up to Billboard when I was 15 years old, just to copy down the charts because I had kept the charts religiously from around - when I was about 9 years old, I started writing them down. I would listen to a show called "Make Believe Ballroom," and they would play the top 25 hits off of the Billboard chart. And I wanted to go backwards and go into the '40s and find out what was going on then. But that brought me to New York. That brought me to Billboard in the Palace Theatre building. And that was the center of the music business there, and I saw everything that was going on.

GROSS: You were just really pivotal in the punk movement in America. You signed the Ramones, one of the first punk rock bands. How were you tipped off about them? How did you know to go hear them?

STEIN: I had heard about them from a number of people, but I think mostly from Danny Fields. And I had wanted to go see them a couple of times, but I was in England. And I came back particularly to see them. And I got sick when I was in England, and I couldn't go, so I sent my wife with Danny, and she came back raving. So the next evening, I bundled up, rented a rehearsal studio. And I rented it for an hour, but their set - they must've done, you know, about 18 songs in about 25 minutes. I may exaggerate a little bit. But they were just incredible. I was - it was like nothing else I had ever heard. I started talking to them immediately, and we came to an agreement, a deal right then and there. And two days later, they were in the recording studio. And that was it - you know, one of the greatest signings for me and really a great thing for Sire Records.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite track from the Ramones among the records that you put out on Sire?

STEIN: I suppose, you know, what always comes to mind immediately is "Blitzkrieg Bop." There are so many of their songs that I like, but "Blitzkrieg Bop," I think, is my favorite.

GROSS: So let's hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones on an album released by Sire Records, which is the label co-created by my guest, Seymour Stein, who still has Sire Records.


RAMONES: Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho Let's go. (Singing) They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind. The kids are losing their minds. The blitzkrieg bop. They're piling in the back seat. They're generating steam heat. Pulsating to the backbeat. The blitzkrieg bop. Hey, ho. Let's go. Shoot them in the back now. What they want, I don't know. They're all revved up and ready to go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind.

GROSS: So that's the Ramones, one of the great bands signed by my guest, Seymour Stein of Sire Records. So you...


GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead.

STEIN: Wait - one correction. I don't still have Sire Records. About a month ago, I left. And...


STEIN: You know - yes. I left Sire, and I left Warner Bros. And I'm now interested in pursuing new objectives in music.

GROSS: Well, that's interesting because in your book - and granted, you write the book, like, months or a year before it's actually published.


GROSS: In the book, you keep saying, like, I'm still in the music biz; I still have Sire Records; I'm 75, but I still got the company. So what was the turning point for you?

STEIN: Well, a number of reasons - I'd rather not go into them right now. But I want to get back a little bit more to, you know, my indie roots. And, you know, that's what it's really all about.

GROSS: OK. So let's get back to the Ramones. It was very hard for you to get any kind of radio play for the Ramones because - because why? And we're talking at a time when there's like - there's AM, and there's FM. And FM is more album-oriented then, and AM is still, like, singles. So at the risk of asking the obvious, why was it so hard to get the Ramones some airplay?

STEIN: I think they were kind of misunderstood and not fully appreciated. And that was in the United States. But when we finally got them out of the United States and, you know, touring in England, they were a sensation. In fact, the first gig that they did, a lot of English bands came to see them - the Sex Pistols and The Clash and others, and they were so enthralled with the Ramones that it made them convinced that they could make it, too, and it kind of turned the tide for them. They were also big in other parts of Europe and South America. And it's a shame. They would be playing big theaters in England, and then coming back to America and playing, you know, small clubs. It kind of broke my heart, and I'm sure it broke their hearts, too.

GROSS: So one of the things you tried to do to get your bands airplay was to tell your promotion people, don't use the word punk; use the word new wave. Why did you do that? And was it effective?

STEIN: Well, that really came about with the Talking Heads because they were describing them as punk, and they were the furthest thing from punk. I said, look; New York used to be the absolute center of the music business. And that was maybe 20, 25 years before that. And then, of course, LA came into prominence, San Francisco, Detroit with Motown, and Philadelphia with labels, you know, like Cameo and Parkway and later Philadelphia International, and Memphis, and Nashville was growing. And it all took away from the importance of New York. And then I think that this music, which was predominantly coming from New York but not exclusively, was like a new wave for New York. And that's what I called it. And it didn't sound bad like punk.

GROSS: So let's talk about Talking Heads. You heard them kind of accidentally the first time around. Correct me if I'm wrong. But you went to hear new songs by the Ramones at a club.


GROSS: Talking Heads was opening for them.

STEIN: Yeah, and...

GROSS: And that's how you heard them.

STEIN: It was a surprise opening. They weren't supposed to be the opening act. But I had heard about Talking Heads. But they were not spending that much time in New York. They were very early involved in video, and they were working on that. And they were going back to Rhode Island, you know, which is where they went to school. And so they - I missed a lot of their gigs. And Johnny wanted me to hear some new songs.

GROSS: Johnny Ramone?

STEIN: Johnny Ramone, yes. And so I came down. I investigated what the opening band was going to be. And they were a band called The Shirts, which I had seen and liked but not liked enough to sign. And so I was waiting outside of CBGBs, and all of a sudden I hear this music. And, I mean, it, like, sucked me into the room. That's how incredibly good it was. I was standing outside with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith band, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was so incredible. I said, this isn't The Shirts. He said no, no, they got another gig. He said, this is Talking Heads. And, boy, I was just blown away.

GROSS: So I want to play a track from their first album that you released, "Talking Heads: 77." And this is "Psycho Killer," which is such a - it's such a great track.

STEIN: Fabulous.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear Talking Heads. And this is "Psycho Killer."


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax. I can't sleep cause my bed's on fire. Don't touch me. I'm a real live wire. Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa (ph) far better. Run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa far better. Run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You start a conversation. You can't even finish it.

GROSS: So that was the Talking Head's "Psycho Killer" from their first album, "Talking Heads: 77" after they were signed by my guest Seymour Stein, who co-founded Sire Records and continued to operate it until just a few weeks ago. He has a new autobiography called "Siren Song: My Life In Music." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Stein. And he is the man behind Sire Records. He signed groups like the Ramones, Madonna, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, The Replacements, Ice-T, k.d. lang, Lou Reed and Brian Wilson when they were doing solo records. His new autobiography is called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."

So let's talk about another great performer that you signed, and that's Madonna.


GROSS: And you signed her under the most unusual of circumstances. You were in the hospital...

STEIN: Yes, I did.

GROSS: Explain why you were there.

STEIN: Well, let's go back a little before that. Mark Kamins was someone that I thought had a lot of potential as a producer or a scout and everything. I gave him some money, $18,000, to try to find some artists for me that I might sign. The third or fourth artist he brought me was Madonna. And he brought the record to me while I was in the hospital. I had come down with a thing called subacute endocarditis. And in those days, the only cure for that was 28 days in the hospital on a drip of penicillin or something like that.

And this - I was there about a week and a half when he came to see me. And he played me this one track, "Everybody" by Madonna. And I was totally blown away. And so I said, look; I'd like to see her. I'm going to be here for another almost three weeks. Try to bring her down here so I can meet her and we can, you know, do a deal.

So he goes away and calls me up at 5 o'clock and says, Madonna and I are coming to see you at 8 o'clock. And here I was, you know, laying in this hospital uniform and a mess. You know, and I probably hadn't taken a shower in a few days and all that because they had to take all the needles out of me.

I freaked out. I had somebody come and shave me and cut my hair and look the best I could in 2 1/2 hours before she got there. But when she came - when I saw her, I realized that the way she spoke - firstly, she's amazing. But she wanted a shot more than anything. And I wanted to give her that shot 'cause I totally believed in her. So we spoke about a deal, and we agreed on a deal for recording and for publishing as well. And, you know...

GROSS: This is in the hospital you're agreeing on - to all this?

STEIN: In the hospital. Yes, in the hospital, me and Madonna and Mark Kamins. And she walked out of there very happy. And I went to bed very happy that night. And that was great. And later I learned that she had been trying to get a deal for over two years. And people like Chris Blackwell, who was somebody that...

GROSS: He ran Island Records.

STEIN: Yeah, he owned Island Records and ran it - had turned her down. And other people had turned her down. I couldn't believe it because to me it was a no-brainer. And it was a great day in my life.

GROSS: So of the early tracks that you recorded with her, do you have a favorite?

STEIN: I think that the song I like best and was really the song that became the one that launched her most was "Borderline." I loved it. But I liked everything that she did.

GROSS: Well why don't we hear "Borderline"? So this is Madonna, one of her first tracks after she was signed by Sire Records, the record company of my guest, Seymour Stein, who has a new autobiography.


MADONNA: (Singing) Something in the way you love me won't let me be. I don't want to be your prisoner. So, baby, won't you set me free? Stop playing with my heart. Finish what you start when you make my love come down. If you want me, let me know. Baby, let it show. Honey, don't you fool around. Just try to understand. I've given all I can because you got the best of me. Borderline, feels like I'm going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Stein. And he owned and operated Sire Records for decades - until very recently. Among the performers he signed were The Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna, The Pretenders, The Replacements, Ice-T, k.d. lang, Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, when they were solo performers. And the track that we just heard, "Borderline," was one of the first tracks that Madonna recorded for Sire Records after he signed her.

Do you ever have a conflict in terms of how much listening you want to do to music of the past and how much you want to listen to what's happening right now? I know I experience that in my life because I like a lot of early recordings from the '20s and '30s and '40s and '50s. And I want to listen to that, but I also want to know what's happening now. And there just is a limited amount of time.

STEIN: Yes, I agree with you completely on that. I try to listen as much as I can to new music. But I probably don't listen to enough. But the older you get, the more attached you also to the past. But I try to keep current as much as possible.

GROSS: Seymour Stein, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for signing the bands that you signed.

STEIN: I appreciate it very much.

GROSS: Seymour Stein's new memoir is called "Siren Song: My Life In Music." Let's hear a great Brian Wilson recording "Love And Mercy" on Sire Records, released after Stein signed Wilson to record solo. And then after a break, we'll hear from Jim Gavin, the creator of the new AMC comedy series "Lodge 49." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) I was sitting in a crummy mood with my hands on my chin. All the violence that occurs - seems like we never win. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. I was lying in my room, and the news came on TV. A lot of people out there hurting, and it really scares me. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.