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Seymour Stein: The Sire Of Punk And New Wave
Seymour Stein

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

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Seymour Stein: The Sire Of Punk And New Wave

Sire Records co-founder discusses the most memorable artists he's worked with and being honored with the CBGB Icon Award

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Seymour Stein's first exposure to music was listening to the chart countdown on Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" upon returning home from synagogue, hiding the radio under the pillow from his disapproving father. Billboard's Tom Noonan hired him to work at the trade publication as a teenager, where he immediately began devouring the history of the business.

From there, Stein served as an assistant to the man he describes as "my greatest mentor," the legendary Syd Nathan at Cincinnati's King Records, home of James Brown. Working at the Brill Building for Red Bird Records, he met Richard Gottehrer, with whom he launched Sire Records in 1966, first as a production company, then as a groundbreaking label, home of, among others, the first wave of artists to emerge from the punk scene at New York's famed music club CBGB. His signings to Sire ranged from the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell to second-wave groups from across the globe, including the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, the Smiths, the Cure, Soft Cell, the Replacements, Echo & The Bunnymen, Dinosaur Jr., and k.d. lang. In 1982 he signed an ambitious dancer-turned-artist from Detroit named Madonna, and the rest was history.

Today, as chairman of Sire and senior label A&R executive for independent music at Warner Music Group (where his duties include signing labels for indie distributor Alternative Distribution Alliance), Stein's latest discoveries include Regina Spektor, Tegan And Sara, Delta Rae, Kill It Kid, Ben Fields, and Ewert And The Two Dragons. In recognition of his exemplary career, Stein will receive the inaugural CBGB Icon Award at the second annual CBGB Music & Film Festival, taking place Oct. 8–13 in New York.

In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Stein discussed his CBGB honor, the allure of '70s-era punk and new wave, his career legacy, and working with artists such as Madonna and the Ramones.

What does this honor mean to you, coming from CBGB?
I'm blessed to have been born and grown up in Brooklyn. I had Alan Freed to listen to on the radio when I came home from school. I had the D-train to take me from Kings Highway up to 125th Street to buy my records at the Record Shack, Bobby's [Happy House] or Rainbow. I had the Alan Freed shows every Easter and Christmas. My mom would pack up sandwiches so I could sit through the three shows. The only horrible thing [was] those movies in between. New York was the music business back then … Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, along with the major labels, RCA, Columbia and Decca.

Little by little, New York had eroded as a music capitol by the '70s. It was slowly becoming less important. CBGB brought it all back home, at least for me. It was a place to hang out. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the fact that no one from any of the major labels ever came there, or else I wouldn't have been able to sign any of the bands I did. I loved [CBGB owner] Hilly [Kristal]. When I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I invited both Tom Noonan and Hilly to sit at my table. I wanted them to be with me.

Why does that '70s punk-new wave era continue to fascinate?
The music traveled much better than anyone expected. Those bands did better internationally than they did in America, even though some of them did very well here. I felt so bad for the Ramones. They'd come back from England, playing big theaters in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle, and then have to go back to playing small venues like CBGB here.

Are you one of those who pines for "the good old days" of the music business?
Of course I do. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't. The music is what always motivated me. And the songs. I much prefer "words and music by" in the credits, rather than "top line." If you don't think the Ramones were great f*ing songwriters, listen to their music now. They were so influential on bands that came after them.

What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the music business today as an executive?
If you're in college, get an internship to learn what the business is about. I know former interns who have managed to get good jobs. There aren't as many positions. Sales are probably half what they were 12 years ago. It's very, very hard. Don't expect it to happen overnight. It certainly didn't for me. We had a hard time keeping our doors open at Sire. Our first really big success was the Dutch band Focus in 1973. What drew attention to Sire Records was CBGB, which is why I'm so grateful to them.

What's left for you to accomplish in the record industry?
I'm working at ADA now, where my job is to bring on new labels. I've already signed a small company called Baltic Records, which is run by Dave Pichilingi, who is the prime mover in Liverpool Sound City, a great UK event held early spring every year. I love the guys at ADA. I work closely with Mike Jbara, who heads it up. I think this is a big part of Warner's future.

Who are some of the most memorable artists you've worked with?
Ice-T for his resiliency. Madonna for her determination. David Byrne for the diversity of his talent. The Ramones for never giving up. Chrissie Hynde for being so down to earth. The Replacements for being completely crazy. Johnny Marr for being the greatest guitar player, better than a lot of people give him credit for. Morrissey for being totally outrageous. Depeche Mode for being so loyal to the people around them. Mac from Echo & The Bunnymen, for that voice, which sent chills up my spine. And even that insane Marc Almond [for] "Tainted Love." I've been blessed to be surrounded by so many, many great artists. My batting average is better than most, and I'm proud of that.

(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.) 

The Ramones' Pioneering Punk Rock
Ramones

Photo: Redferns/Ebet Roberts

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The Ramones' Pioneering Punk Rock

Sire Records Founder Seymour Stein on 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Ramones and their pioneering punk rock

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(The Ramones were honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. The original version of the following tribute ran in the 53rd GRAMMY Awards program book that year. The last original founding member of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone died July 11 at the age of 62.)

Being head of Sire Records, which turns 45 in 2011, I was responsible for all artists, and as hard as it was not to show favoritism, for the most part I succeeded. It was hardest with the Ramones, partly because soon after I signed them their manager Danny Fields asked my wife Linda to be his partner. It was harder still because I admired the band's total dedication to their music, despite the fact that selling millions of records eluded them throughout their career. 

With Linda as their co-manager, the Ramones knew my every move. One Sunday within 10 minutes of returning from a 10-day trip to London, I received a call from Johnny. "Seymour, we got some great songs, ya know, we want you to hear 'em, ya know."

I said, "Great, just got home. Come in anytime you want on Tuesday."

"No, we want you to hear 'em live, ya know, and we know you're not doing anything Wednesday night, ya know, so we booked ourselves into CBGBs."

That evening proved monumental. The opening act was supposed to be the Shirts. I had seen them many times before and was standing outside the club with Lenny Kaye. 

The opening act goes on and I hear a screeching voice: "When my love, stands next to your love…" and all of a sudden as I'm sucked into CBGBs, I say, "That's not the Shirts." Lenny says, "No, they got another gig, that's the Talking Heads.

Armed with the Ramones and Talking Heads, amid the buzz building around the Bowery and CBGB, Sire finally got the distribution deal I always wanted with Warner Bros. Records, where we have been for the past 35 years. 

Thank you Johnny. Oh yes, and thank you Joey, thank you Tommy, and thank you Dee Dee. 

Over the years I can't tell you how many artists were lured to Sire by the Ramones, and yes, also Talking Heads.

The Ramones made it seem easy and as such were an inspiration to bands as varied as U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Pearl Jam, the Offspring, Motörhead, Metallica, the Undertones, the Strokes, Bad Religion, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, and many others.

I remember when we first brought the Ramones to London back in 1976. Members of the Clash and Sex Pistols, both only semiprofessional at the time, attended the second show and it was said both bands turned pro right after that.

According to Danny Fields, Johnny Ramone asked the Clash's bass player Paul Simonon, "Are you in a band?" Paul said, "Well, we just rehearse. We call ourselves the Clash, but we are not good enough." Johnny said, "Wait 'til you see us. We stink, we're lousy, we can't play. Just get out there and do it."

Joey Ramone had the biggest heart ever and was always trying to help new acts. Last time we spoke, two weeks before he died, Joey called to tell me he had just sent a new band's CD.

Bono once said at a Madison Square Garden gig, "We love New York City…New York City has given us a lot of things, but the best thing it ever gave us was a punk rock group called the Ramones, without whom a lot of people would have never gotten started; certainly us!"

Eddie Vedder might have set a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record by speaking for more than 20 minutes when he inducted the Ramones back in 2002. "The Ramones didn't need Mohawks to be punk. They're visually aggressive. They were four working-class, construction-worker delinquents from Forest Hills, Queens, who were armed with two-minute songs that they rattled off like machine-gun fire. And it was enough to change the Earth's revolution."

I've been to Beijing twice this past year to check out China's emerging punk music scene. There is a club called D-22, reminiscent of CBGB, and aspiring young bands like Carsick Cars, P.K. 14 and Rustic are carrying on the tradition, further proof the Ramones' music is truly global and will endure forever.

(As founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, Pretenders, Madonna — all of whom have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Depeche Mode, Echo And The Bunnymen, Ice-T, the Replacements, the Smiths, k.d. lang, Erasure, the Cult, the Cure, Seal, the Undertones, and Barenaked Ladies, among many others, to the label. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.) 

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Billboard Reveals Power 100 List

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Billboard Reveals Power 100 List
Billboard has released the Power 100, a list ranking the most powerful people in the music business based on market share, Billboard chart data and box score information, and revenue. Several GRAMMY-winning artists made the list, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z (No. 13), U2 (No. 27), Jon Bon Jovi (No. 50), Taylor Swift (No. 78), and Lady Gaga (No. 84). Topping the list was Live Nation Entertainment Chairman Irving Azoff. Recording Academy President's Merit Award recipient Doug Morris made the list at No. 5; this year's Producers & Engineers Wing GRAMMY Week event honoree Jimmy Iovine ranked No. 10; and Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow ranked No. 56. (1/30)

GRAMMY Winner Clare Fischer Dies
GRAMMY-winning composer/arranger Clare Fischer died Jan. 26 in Burbank, Calif., less than a month after suffering from cardiac arrest. He was 83. Considered one of the first jazz arrangers to fully embrace Latin music, Fischer began his career in the '50s as an accompanist/arranger for the Hi-Lo's. As a solo artist, he composed two now-classic jazz standards, "Pensativa" and "Morning." Fischer subsequently arranged songs for artists including Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Paul McCartney, Prince, and Santana, among others. He earned the lone GRAMMY of his career in 1981 for Best Latin Recording for "Guajira Pa La Jeva." (1/30)

Stein Honored By Billboard, ASCAP To Honor Anthony
Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein was honored as the first recipient of Billboard's Icon Award, which recognizes the lifetime achievements of industry executives, on Jan. 29 during the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. In related news, ASCAP will honor GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY winner Marc Anthony with the Founders Award, which honors songwriters and composers who have made "pioneering contributions to music by inspiring and influencing their fellow creators," during the 20th Annual Latin Music Awards on March 20 in Los Angeles. Previous recipients include Garth Brooks, Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, among others. (1/30)

Seymour Stein Visits The GRAMMY Museum
Seymour Stein

Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com

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Seymour Stein Visits The GRAMMY Museum

Sire Records co-founder discusses the signing of iconic bands such as Talking Heads; new Sire signee Delta Rae perform brief set

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Sire Records co-founder and chairman Seymour Stein was the featured guest for a recent installment of the GRAMMY Museum's Icons of the Music Industry series. Before an intimate audience at the Museum's Clive Davis Theater, Stein discussed his career in the music industry, founding Sire Records and signing the Ramones and Talking Heads, and his own musical influences. Additionally, folk/rock sextet Delta Rae, Stein's latest Sire signing, performed a brief set of songs from their debut album, Carry The Fire.

"The minute I [heard Talking Heads,] I was swooped in. I had no control — it was like a snake charmer," said Stein. "[They were] one of the greatest bands, not just that I signed, but ever."

As co-founder of Sire Records with producer/songwriter Richard Gottehrer, Stein has helped launch the careers of some of music's most iconic artists. Under Stein's leadership, Sire signed artists such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, Echo And The Bunnymen, k.d. lang, Madonna, the Pretenders, the Ramones, the Smiths, and Talking Heads, among others. Sire emerged as a driving force in establishing the punk and new wave genres in the '70s and '80s. The label was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1978 and became an important imprint within the Warner Bros. Records label family. Stein was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Formed in Durham, N.C., Delta Rae consists of siblings Brittany Hölljes (vocals), Ian Hölljes (vocals/guitar) and Eric Hölljes (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Elizabeth Hopkins (vocals), Mike McKee (percussion), and Grant Emerson (bass guitar). The group was signed to Sire Records in February. Their full-length debut album, Carry The Fire, was released in June and reached No. 20 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. Their latest single is "Morning Comes."

Upcoming GRAMMY Museum events include Reel To Reel: My Koaloha Story, featuring ukulele luthier Alvin Okami (Aug. 28), The Drop: Steve Fobert (Sept. 11), and An Evening With Lila Downs (Sept. 17).