“the virtues of musical illiteracy”: seymour stein and the secrets of a&r

“I was standing there not sure whether to laugh,” Seymour Stein writes about his initial encounter with the Ramones, and that’s how it felt to a lot of people: they were absurd but also, one imagined, undeniable. But among record executives, as among rock critics, the verdict was by no means unanimous. Luckily for everyone, Stein stepped up and signed the band to his Sire label. He also signed Talking Heads, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys. Also on his resume: Madonna, the Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, the Smiths, the Replacements, “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand, and a number of other artists and records enumerated in his autobiography Siren Song: My Life in Music, co-written with Gareth Murphy. It’s an impressive list, certainly, and you can almost forgive the publisher’s claim that Stein is “America’s greatest living record man,” who has “signed and nurtured more important artists than anyone alive.” I checked, and Berry Gordy, Jac Holzman, Clive Davis and Mo Ostin are still around, and I’m pretty sure they’d take issue with that pronouncement, but let’s accept it as St. Martin’s Press revving up the hype machine.

The book made me sad, because it’s as much of a swan song as a siren song; it’s not just about the powerful lure of music (and the “sire” pun within), but about a record industry that ran on instinct and chutzpah, sheer nerve, threats and double-crosses, and the tastes of executives who only trusted their gut. Stein is romantic, with good reason, about the music world he entered, the world of Syd Nathan at King Records, Morris Levy and George Goldner, Red Bird Records. Together with songwriter-producer Richard Gottehrer, he formed Sire (one of the label’s first 45s was by a local group I was friendly with in the Bronx, Barry Pohl and the Concessions, and that was my introduction to the company; later, I wrote a couple of quickie music bios on Carole King and Simon & Garfunkel for a short-lived book-publishing alliance between Sire and Chappell Music). It took a while for Sire to find its own voice, but once it did, it became one of the hippest outfits in the business.

Key to Stein’s signing sensibility was being hooked by vocal group R&B. “Boy, did I love doo wop, and still do,” he says (true to his word, he’s been passionate about getting some of those groups into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Loving doo wop, it seems to me, means embracing inspired amateurism over slick professionalism, realizing that sincerity and stupidity can co-exist to make sublime noise, that competence – even “talent” – is a pretty routine commodity. Stein is the guy who heard potential in Madonna’s bright, silly demos, when a bunch of other labels had passed. He’s the guy who was knocked out by the Ramones and wrote the check for their debut album. In Siren Song he writes, “I’m no musician, so I never understood or even trusted technical virtuosity…Pop music is not just notes and beats; the really big vibration that rattles the city walls comes from a real-deal gang walking a tightrope together.” In another chapter, he talks about “the virtues of musical illiteracy.”

So of course Sire was an ideal home for the Replacements, for Lou Reed (another Jewish kid besotted with doo wop), for Madness’s “One Step Beyond” and Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation.” It always felt as though whatever was released on Sire — including k.d. lang, Brian Wilson’s solo album, the soundtrack from Shag, the heart-tugging vocalist Jimmy Scott, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – was the result of an impulse, beyond market calculation. Why be in charge of a record label if you can’t treat it like your own playground, give Jimmy Scott, or Charlie Rich, a third act, make records with the Flamin Groovies? Put out LPs by the Beckies and Duncan Browne? Flipping through Siren Song (which is not without some egregious errors, and some serious score-settling) is both exhilarating and depressing, because Stein’s generation of record men, the ones with “shellac in their veins,” is dwindling.

I used to cross paths with Seymour from time to time. At CBGB’s, checking out the same bands, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame dinners, at Mark Strausman’s restaurant Campagna on 21st Street in Manhattan, where he held court in a corner booth, leaving behind traces of white powder on the seats (his indulgences were no secret, and are detailed in Siren Song). Once, in a swanky clothing store in Paris. He never seemed to quite register who I was, despite the fact that we’d been introduced by friends we had in common, like A&R whirlwind Kate Hyman, and that he‘d had complimentary things to say about the books I did for Sire-Chappell. He was just on a different plane. But from my table at the Waldorf at those R&R HoF nights, I’d listen him rhapsodize about his formative years in the music business, the doo wop groups he championed. As the years went on, the bands he took a shot with, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, were inducted. Seymour Stein was one of the people who made A&R seem like a dream gig. You hear a demo, see a showcase, say yes. That’s how everything starts.

2 responses to ““the virtues of musical illiteracy”: seymour stein and the secrets of a&r

  1. Deborah Frost

    Lovely

  2. bitter sweet!

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