Remembering Seymour Stein through four of Sire Records’ most influential artists

Seymour Stein Sire Records

San Francisco is a powerhouse vinyl DJ metropolis. I’d bet that for every laptop, CDJ, and USB DJ set, played around the city, three or four DJs are doing the Luddite thing—dragging that magical black wax around town. On their fixed gear resembling an apocalyptic suicide mission with a $500 Timbuk2 messenger bag housing stacks on jumpy Bart trains, Muni buses that show up late smelling weird, and within the confines of an Uber ride fueled by a Spotify playlist.

Why do folks carry all of this weight? Surfing through Vinyl at Amoeba Records, Vinyl Dreams on Haight Street, or the new Dark Entries Record Shop in the Tendernob neighborhood is a never-ending education.  With each new to you record, there is an explosion of information on the back or in the inner sleeve that gives each piece of physical media its own origin story that all DJs can apply in their own way, laying out a slow bubbling-up tale or an rapid Autobahn delivery (depending on whether it’s a Tuesday Happy Hour decompression set or a Friday night burn-the-Mother-down mission), constructing that dancefloor odyssey.

If you polled all of these DJs, I’m sure you’d find one record label in all those various bags: Sire Records.

When Seymour Stein died on Monday, April 2, at the age of 80, after a battle with cancer, a certain amount of knowledge died with him. He was a co-founder of Sire Records and a vice president at Warner Bros. Records, but that’s just the corporate tagline. In the introduction to his autobiography, Siren Song, published in 2018, this Jewish, Brooklyn native wrote, “I have no easily definable skills or talents… I’m a hit man, a record business entrepreneur.” And yet he came to identify, define, establish, and profit from an incredible catalog of late-twentieth-century music. 

In his autobiography, Ice-T wrote about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Stein, saying, “He’s cut from that cloth of the old-time music executives like Clive Davis, but he’s way more eccentric… Just a little more bizarre, a little more avant-garde, a little more edgy.”

We’d like to honor Stein’s life through the music he helped to bring to a wider audience. He was a musical wunderkind whose artists dominated an era of New York City radio, both over and underground. He was constantly introducing new sounds that would eventually become the norm, no matter how cocksure, audacious, or passively twee the idea might be. It became a part of a larger canon if it landed on Sire.

We’d like to highlight a couple of them.

Talking Heads

When Talking Heads opened for the Ramones at CBGB on June 5, 1975, they looked like the preppy kids who had their milk money stolen, and the crowd resembled the felons. From that fateful debut, they traveled through rock, punk rock, new wave, pop music, post-punk, and funk, constantly bending and breaking the rules, to become one of America’s most beloved bands 40 years later. 

The four-piece, which included David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison, was named after a phrase they read in an issue of TV Guide that “explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.”

For about five years, I kept Fear of Music in my DJ bag, the quirky funk of “Mind” was unshakeable. As fate would have it, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison came into a bar where I was playing records, and in between alerting “Fast Eddie” behind the bar and texting friends in the Mission “get over here, Byrne is at the bar,” I was able to dig out the unusual record and slide on “Mind” before DB trickled out into the night. When he heard the circus show intro to the song, he leaned over the bar, nodded his head and tipped his hat at me, solving the record’s five-year residency in my bag.

The Pretenders

Because punk was too rebellious for mainstream consumption, new wave took over the record charts as a piece of sellable music from a rebellious era. “Tattooed Love Boys” is the ruff n’ tuff classic that comes to mind when I think of the badass Chrissie Hynde, an American from Akron, Ohio, who started and fronted the UK-based The Pretenders, a name Hynde got from the Platters’ song “The Great Pretender,” which was a favorite of one of her ex-boyfriends.


Let me state it unequivocally. Those first few Madonna 12-inches, pressed without a photo because Stein was trying to pass her off as a Black vocalist to all of NYC’s hot black radio stations at the time—92 KTU, a proponent of Latin freestyle, 98.7 Kiss FM, and 107.5 WBLS—were built for boomboxes and Larry Levan’s dancefloor. 

In the early 1980s, Black radio in New York produced national hits. Period. Records would play, sink in for a year nonstop throughout the city, and then travel across the country. New York was always three to six months ahead of everybody. Seymour knew that.

A boombox playing “Physical Attraction” was my first introduction to her. The top of the keyboard is pitch-bending, beckoning us in. Linn drum machine, Moog bass, and Oberheim OB-X synthesizer communicating telepathically to create that smacking cathode ray of eternal groove. A slick thwacking bassline, Nile Rodgers-style guitar picking, and those synth washes, all imply that something, heavily borrowed but still very shrewd, is on the way.

According to Fab Five Freddy at the time, this was “city” music. Her music at the time was “attracting those who were more street, savvier, and flavorful.” And there she was, Madonna Louise Ciccone, presenting this version, a boho street fashion engineer who would make the entire world dance. Everything that happened to Madge after 1985 was aimed squarely at teenage girls’ mall consumption.

The Necessaries

Arthur Russell, a pioneer of dance music, joined the short-lived post-punk quartet The Necessaries as a keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter. Their 1982 album Event Horizon, built with infectious sway and searing power pop/new wave arrangements, is a hazy foreshadowing of what was to come in the future via The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture, and LCD Soundsystem—repping that NYC dance-pop confection.

Unfortunately for Russell, Seymour Stein was preoccupied with positioning Talking Heads, Blondie, The Pretenders, Soft Cell, The Cure, and all those Madonna 12 inches at the time, so The Necessaries went overlooked. The record man’s embarrassment of riches blinded him to Arthur Russell’s genius. The similarities between the singles “More Real” and “When You Were Mine” by Prince, a Warner Brothers artists at the time, are even more bizarre.

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