Seymour Stein co-founded Sire Records in 1966. His philosophy then is his philosophy now: Find good artists with good songs. That simple directive helped Sire build a roster that has featured the likes of Madonna, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, the Pretenders, the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and k.d. lang. With the three-CD, one-DVD box set Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story (due September 13th), Stein — who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year — chronicles his label’s storied history.
How did you get Sire off the ground?
When I started Sire Records with [producer] Richard Gottehrer, we had very little money. To complicate matters, that was the same year Clive Davis came into power at Columbia Records and started doing the wonderful job he did revitalizing that company, which had very few rock artists. So it turned a hard job of signing artists into virtually an impossible one. I had noticed from working at Billboard — where one of the things I did was look after the English chart — that so many great British records never got released in the United States. In fact, you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles: Capitol rejected them twice, and that’s why those early records came out on Vee-Jay and Swan and Tollie, and record labels like that. So I went over to England and started signing up artists that I believed in, like Climax Blues Band, My Renaissance and Barclay James Harvest.
If you were starting a label from scratch today, would you use the same approach, and could it work?
I still think it’s about the same thing that it’s always been about: the songs. Long before I got in the business, most of the songs came from Broadway shows or Tin Pan Alley songwriters or — later, when they had talkies — the movies. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the Mills Brothers didn’t write. Peggy Lee was a very good songwriter, but for the most part the songwriters and the music publishers held sway over the business. Now, artists write their own songs or co-write with songwriters, but I think it all revolves around a hit song and the ability to follow up those hit songs with more hit songs. And, really, that’s what people are buying. Every time some young A&R guy says to me, “I just saw this band, they had two or three Number One smashes but I didn’t hear anything else, so I don’t think I’m going to sign them,” I’m very tempted to say, “What’s their name and where are they playing? I’d like to see them.” Two or three Number One songs is phenomenal in itself.
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What was your first meeting with Madonna like?
There was this great DJ, Mark Kamins, who I would follow around to whatever club he was playing. He wanted to become a producer, and I said, “Look, I could introduce you to some of my artists, but you have no track record so they’re not going to want to work with you. You better go out and find the acts yourself.” So I gave him some money, a budget enough to make six demos by six different acts. And the third or fourth thing he brought me was Madonna. I was in the hospital at the time, and I had an infection. It was not life-threatening or anything, but I had to stay in the hospital and be on a penicillin drip. When I heard Madonna’s demo that he made of “Everybody” I got so excited, I said, “I want to sign her right away. I want you to bring her to the hospital.” He said, “I can do it tonight. She really wants to get signed.” I got off the phone, and I looked at myself in the mirror. I was wearing the hospital garb, with the slit up my ass, and I needed a haircut, a shave and a good shower. I got a barber to come cut my hair, and I got my secretary to come with a pair of pajamas and a bathrobe. I wanted her to look at somebody who she thought would be around for a few years to help guide her career — not somebody who was in hospital on the way out. I managed to get it all together by the time she got there. But, to my amazement and disappointment, as anxious as I was to sign her, she was just as anxious to jumpstart her career. If I was lying in a coffin on top of the bed and could get my hand out to sign a contract, she would have been happy. I’m glad I made a presentable appearance, but it was absolutely unnecessary.
How did you connect with the Talking Heads?
I had been wanting to see the Talking Heads for a very long time — Joey Ramone told me about them, Johnny Ramone told me about them, Tommy Ramone told me about them. I think everybody but Dee Dee. Dee Dee was really into Television because he was very friendly with Richard Lloyd. I was traveling in Europe all the time, signing English bands and things like that. So I get back from England, and the Ramones call me up and say, “We’ve got some new material, and we want you to hear it.” So I said, “Just get me a tape and I’ll be happy.” They said, “No, we want you to hear it live. We’ll get a date at CBGB’s.” I said, “Fine.” CBGB’s was like my second home. I think I slept there more than I slept at my apartment. So I go down there on a beautiful November night in 1975, and the opening act was supposed to be the Shirts. I’m standing outside with [Patti Smith Group guitarist] Lenny Kaye, and all of a sudden I hear David Byrne singing, “When my love stands next to your love” [from “Love –> Building On Fire”]. And I said, “This is not the Shirts.” And he said, “No, it’s the Talking Heads. The Shirts got another gig in Staten Island.” And as this conversation is happening, the music is like a vacuum cleaner sucking me into CBGB’s. That’s how strong it was. And that was one of the greatest nights of my life, the first time I saw the Talking Heads.
What was your first impression of the Smiths?
They were playing at a place called the ICA, very close to Buckingham Palace. Between the music and having all these gladiolas thrown at me, I wanted to sign them on the spot. A lot of people were saying “The Smiths, the Smiths, the Smiths . . . Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey,” and I was quick to notice that this band has two superstars. Johnny Marr is a very integral part of the Smiths. Sometimes a band is built around one person, and sometimes not. But I did think Morrissey’s lyrics were just amazing, great poetry. They’re timeless. I said to him, “You know, you could have made it at any time in the past or in the future — that’s how strong your lyrics are. If you had been around at the beginning of the nineteenth century, you would have been a star, but your name would have been Lord Byron.”
Were there any acts you signed that could have been bigger stars if they’d only played the game better?
Well, certainly the Replacements should have been so much bigger than they were. Maybe by playing the game, as you put it, they would have lost that edge they had. Ministry — they were difficult, very, very difficult. If k.d. lang, who I respect from top to bottom, had been less principled and didn’t stand up for her beliefs the way she did, she might have been more accessible to people at radio, but you’re talking about artists here. Chrissie Hynde is another great artist and a great friend of mine. She’s someone I truly love and adore. But she’s very strong-willed and has her beliefs. But she wouldn’t be the person she is without them. I love her for that.
How do you feel about the future of the album? Will a twelve-song collection continue to be a viable way of selling music in the years to come?
I think that if somebody makes an album that contains really strong material, then there’s no reason for the album to disappear. But if somebody is going to take one or two songs and the rest is filler, why should anybody buy it? The first albums were made up of singles. Fats Domino would have five or six hit records, and they were good on both sides. Same with Chuck Berry and Hank Williams. If you give people good music, they’re going to buy it. If you give them some good music and a bunch of mediocre music, they’re going to find other ways to separate the good from the mediocre.
What’s next for Sire?
I got a band called H.I.M. from Finland, and I think they’re going to explode as soon as this record comes out. They’re already well-known in Europe and particularly in Scandinavia and Germany. There’s two twin sisters we’re working with called the Veronicas. They’re from Brisbane, Australia, and we’ve already leaked the release of that record in Australia and it’s the number two most requested song on radio right now. There’s another band from New Zealand called Evermore that I’m real proud of. The Futureheads are doing real well, and we’ve got more bands to come from England, like the Subways and the Battle. There’s Regina Spektor, the Von Bondies and the Fags, and I’m sure I’m leaving some out. I’m having as much fun today as I did thirty years ago.