Henry Rollins: Sire Records' Seymour Stein, Who Signed The Ramones, Is the Real Deal
I’ve been a music fan for as long as I can remember. While everything else around me was at best confusing and at worst terrifying, music was there for me. I went to record stores just to be in them. I listened to the men who hung out there, jousting with an endless supply of factoids. I was fascinated by how much there was to know about any one record or band. Learning about music was almost as good as listening to it. I knew then I wanted to be in the world of music somehow for the rest of my life.
Recently an old pal, Mandy Stein, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in interviewing her father, Seymour, on my radio show. That was an easy yes. Mr. Stein and the label he co-founded in 1966 with Richard Gottehrer, Sire Records, made an early and permanent dent in my musical universe. If anything, I wanted to get him into the studio just to thank him for putting out records by The Ramones, The Saints, Radio Birdman, Dinosaur Jr., The Pretenders, The Dead Boys and Talking Heads, to name a few.
I knew that two hours to do an interview, punctuated with the occasional song, wouldn’t be nearly enough time to get even the roughest overview of a man who started working at Billboard when he was 13. Now 75, he has had more than 60 years in the music industry and is still at it.
Days before we were to meet, Mandy connected me with Seymour. We talked for several minutes and he seemed as interested in doing the interview as I was. I’m usually nervous about interviewing someone. I prepare to the point to where I’m like a prosecutor asking the defendant questions I already know the answer to. During our conversation, it was obvious that the man was first and foremost a music fan. Enthusiasm poured out of him and I thought that maybe this was going to work out.
I went through my lists of records to see how many were on Sire, and it hit me that the Sire catalog had been with me since I was in high school. I know that sounds strange, but when I wasn’t working, I spent more time alone listening to music than I did among people.
The first time I heard The Ramones was when a guy named Bert loaned me their first album and told me to play it a few times to let it sink in. By the third play, my idea of music was changed forever. Ramones fans all over the world have Seymour Stein to thank for that album. He heard, he believed, he signed them.
Finally, on the 16th of this month, we did the interview. There was a lesson in almost everything he said. I asked Seymour what compelled him to seek employment at such an early age. He said when he was around 9, he started keeping his own charts and lists of how bands were doing from the information he gleaned from the radio. He went to Billboard after school to ask if he could get access to older lists. Tom Noonan and Paul Ackerman obviously saw something in him and gave him a job.
From there, Seymour went to King Records in Ohio, where he was further mentored by Syd Nathan, and from there to the Brill Building to work at Red Bird Records, operated by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. In his early 20s, already with years of experience and startup funds secured by Noonan, Stein and Gottehrer launched Sire as a production company, and within a couple of years they were putting out records.
Hearing stories of how Seymour came to sign these bands was like someone telling you how the world was formed. He sees Chrissie Hynde play. She knocks him out; he signs her. Johnny Ramone wants him to hear the band’s new songs and sets up a show at CBGB. Seymour goes and, while standing outside, is pulled in by the sound of the opening band, Talking Heads. In the early 1980s he hires a DJ named Mark Kamins to bring him demos. The third one is by a woman named Madonna. He signs her.
These stories came out of Seymour one after another. I kept looking up at the clock, trying to slow it down, but he made the time pass so quickly that all of a sudden I realized we would have to start wrapping things up.
I was hoping that the listeners were finding all of this as interesting as I was. I asked Seymour if he had heard the newly released mono mixes of the first Ramones album. He had not. We put on “Blitzkrieg Bop” in mono, and as it blasted out of the speakers, Seymour started singing along. He teared up slightly and it hit me how much all this means to him, that this band is a huge part of his life. I will never forget it. If I live to be 75, I want to still be moved by a Ramones record the way he was.
I asked him how he could take chances on bands like The Rezillos and The Undertones and he said, as he did throughout the interview, that music cannot be stopped and good music will always find a way. I asked if he was surprised at how popular Talking Heads became. He said no, he thought they were great the moment he heard them at CBGB. His faith in the bands and the power of music is absolute.
After he left, we all stood around our cars, kind of dazed. Seymour Stein is a genuine record man, decades in the making. We were lucky to catch a couple of hours of the work in progress.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier
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