I would guess that knowing who Seymour Stein is depends entirely on what music you listened to in the mid/late Seventies and on through the Eighties. But if it was geared towards punk (and later ‘new wave”) from New York and the UK, you definitely know Seymour Stein and his legacy via his record label, Sire Records. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the music will: The Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna, for starters.
If you’re still unsure who Seymour Stein is, well, you’re in luck, because this book features more subtitles to explain exactly who and what he is about than any book I’ve ever seen. I *think* the full title is Siren Song: My Life In Music: The Autobiography of America’s Greatest Living Record Man: Spotter of Rock Talent From The Ramones to Madonna. By Seymour Stein, of course.
But Seymour Stein is a legit, great record man who learned his chops from old school record men such as Syd Nathan of Cincinnati’s legendary King Records, whose roster included James Brown and the Famous Flames, Etta Jones, and Little Willie John to name a few. In fact, as Stein recounts, working at Billboard magazine during high school led to a meeting with Nathan, who talked Stein’s father into letting him move to Ohio and work for King while still in his teens.
Stein also crossed paths with other giants of the record industry, writing “my head is a giant jukebox. It’s also a ghost train of long departed showbiz characters that I’ve never let die.” Growing up the awkward kid, he clung to music to the point of obsession. And, he writes, the inspiration for his memoir is, in part, due to “what appears to be a dwindling interest in pop music.”
Readers looking for dirt will get some, but much of it is directed at the corporate suits and practices of the industry. Stein dishes a bit on Dee Dee Ramone, Madonna, and Talking Heads. He clearly regards frontman David Byrne as a genius, but has a softer spot for the rhythm section of Chris and Tina. It is industry titans such as Doug Morris, who took over Universal Music Group, and particularly Mo Ostin, who acquired Sire Records, that suffer Stein’s slings and arrows most.
In the end, this is a very personal tale of the record industry perhaps at its peak, and the business of music making and star-building. Early in his book, Stein warns us that he has “no easily definable skills or talents.” But what he did have, like all of the great A&R men, is vision. And that’s no easy feat in a business that often defines artistry in dollars and cents. “The more I see the old school,” he continues, “the more clearly I could see the new one walking past me on the street.” And in an industry that is in the midst of massive change, and perhaps disappearing altogether from what it has been, those are indeed words to the wise.
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