CBGB's, New York, April 1976. Left to right: Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Iggy Pop, Danny Fields (obscured, co-manager of The Ramones), Seymour Stein, Linda Stein (also co-managed the Ramones), Dee Dee Ramone and Johnny Ramone. (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images)
This week sees the publication of Siren Song: My Life in Music, the memoir of legendary Sire Records boss Seymour Stein. ILYOS remembers his 1977 visit to Australia to sign the Saints and Radio Birdman, and looks at his label's amazing legacy with music from Talking Heads, Madonna, the Pretenders and more.
Of course, Seymour and Sire are known and loved by generations of music lovers for the records they have released and the artists they have worked with - and in most instances discovered - including the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Madonna and k.d. lang.
Sire was founded in New York in 1966 (by Stein and original partner, producer Richard Gottehrer) and spent its first decade or so licensing English blues-rock and progressive rock for the US, and reissuing material by earlier artists including the Troggs and Duane Eddy. But the Sire we know and love famously came of age around the nascent punk scene that grew out of home-town venue CBGB’s in the mid-70s. The Ramones and the Talking Heads were the label’s two biggest names at the time, and they also had the Dead Boys and Richard Hell & The Voidoids from the same scene. Stein had previously, in ’75, signed the San Francisco’s critically-acclaimed Flamin’ Groovies, who were seen to be leading a return to rock’n’roll’s roots; the New York bands were a natural follow on. Stein soon looked further afield to find more bands of this ilk; to Boston‘s DMZ and the Paley Brothers, and then to Australia.
In ’77 Seymour flew to Sydney to check out the Saints, who already had a UK and Australian deal with EMI on the back of their independently release “(I’m ) Stranded” single. Whilst in town he also caught Radio Birdman and, having supposedly danced on a table while they played, he ended up signing them too. He then looked to the UK, where he signed kitsch Scottish punk-popper the Rezillos, Northern Ireland’s Undertones (on the back of their much loved “Teenage Kicks” single) and former New York Doll Johnny Thunders who briefly made his home in London hanging out with the likes of various Sex Pistols and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott.
Whilst none of these bands saw much chart success at the time – not even the Ramones or the Talking Heads – Sire was by the beginning of the ‘80s was a major presence and helping shape modern music. Success would soon come with the discovery of another new UK band – one fronted by an American singer with roots in the punk scene – the Pretenders, who had immediate global success with their classic first album. Other UK signings (for the US) including Depeche Mode, the Cure and the Smiths would give the label further success and critical cache at home as the decade progressed.
Back in New York, with the Talking Heads achieving some serious success, Stein discovered a young singer named Madonna in 1982, taking the label to a whole other level.
Talking Heads' David Byrne, Seymour Stein and Madonna (Photo by KMazur/WireImage/Getty Images)
In the late ‘80s and beyond, Sire kept its connections to rock’s roots alive with career-reviving new albums from Brian Wilson and Lou Reed, and stayed on the cutting edge with new signings including the Replacements, Ice-T and k.d. lang.
On the eve of the release of Siren Song: My Life in Music, ILYOS looks at ten of the best from Seymour Stein and Sire Records.
Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action
Before he signed the Ramones or any of the New York bands, Seymour Stein signed the Groovies, whose new ‘60s-influenced material suggested to many critics and fans a way back to the exciting days of early rock’n’roll. The Groovies would soon by overshadowed by the Ramones and so many of the punk rockers that followed, but they were there first and helped open the door.
Ramones – Do You Remember Rock’n’Roll Radio?
After four albums that failed to commercially capitalise on the excitement that the Ramones had generated around the world, Seymour Stein had the brilliant idea of hooking them up with Phil Spector. Only marginally successful, End of the Century did give the Ramones their sole Australian hit “Rock’n’Roll High School” and it opened with this track, the perfect Spector/Ramones collaboration.
Talking Heads – Once In A Life Time
It took years and much crucial stylistic development for the Talking Heads to cross over to a mass audience, but with Remain In Light they were well on their way to becoming hugely influential and successful.
Pretenders – Brass In Pocket
Early punk adopter and NME writer Chrissie Hynde had moved to London from Akron Ohio - and nearly joined the nascent Sex Pistols – years before she got her own band happening. But boy did they happen!
Madonna – Borderline
From Madonna’s 1983 debut album which put the world at Sire’s feet.
The Replacements – Alex Chilton
Proving his raw rock credentials were still intact late in the ‘80s, Stein signed these indie faves and took them to the next level.
Ice-T – I’m Your Pusher
Seymour’s rock credentials weren’t the only things still intact – he could sense something significant happening when he heard gangsta rapper Ice-T, saying he reminded him of a young Bob Dylan.
Lou Reed – Dirty Boulevard
From Lou’s 1989 Sire debut New York - undoubtedly one of his greatest works.
Brian Wilson – Love and Mercy
All but lost to music by the ‘80s, Seymour Stein helped get Beach Boy Brian’s career started again towards decade’s end, with help from Andy Paley of former Sire act the Paley Brothers.
k.d.lang – Constant Craving
Again proving that you didn’t need to follow formulas to find success, Sire enabled the rest of the world to find out about what Canada already knew with the release of k.d. lang & the Reclines’ Angel with a Lariat in 1987. Things went next level five years later with the sublime Ingénue
- Dave Laing