Seymour Stein: Nine Songs that Shaped Modern Music

From the Ramones to Madonna, Ice-T to the Smiths, Seymour Stein and Sire records helped change the course of music history again and again.

Seymour Stein with Ice-T as he accepts his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, March 14, 2005. KMazur/WireImage

Record men like Seymour Stein simply don’t exist anymore. Stein, who died Monday, April 2 at 80 after a battle with cancer, had a career that spanned decades of originators, from James Brown and the Dixie Cups to Madonna and Morrissey. He was the ideal sort of person to start a record company: a musical obsessive with wide open ears. He was cognizant of trends as they happened — his first music job was at Billboard, where he had a front-row seat to the creation of the all-genre Hot 100 singles chart — but wasn’t afraid to venture into sonic territory that might scare the more narrow-minded A&R reps.

Within a decade of co-founding Sire Records in 1966, Stein dragged America kicking and screaming toward the sound of punk rock, and by the end of the ‘70s he’d helped coalesce a cornucopia of brash sonic ideas into a loose genre known as New Wave. The acts he signed had grit and gumption, and either created some of the coolest songs of their generation or helped shape how things were done for the next one — but all it took to convince Stein was how they wrote. “You have to see what’s in the songs,” he told The Guardian in 2018. “Musicianship can always improve, but at least a germ of the songwriting has to be there from the start.”

Celebrate Stein’s life with a look at nine songs from artists that were discovered or elevated by him during more than five decades at Sire.

Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976): For much of Sire’s first decade, the label would succeed by signing acts from the U.K. to stateside deals. (A key example: the looney rock instrumental “Hocus Pocus,” a Top 10 hit for Dutch rockers Focus in 1972.) Things changed when producer Craig Leon and Stein’s wife Linda convinced Stein to take a chance on the Ramones, a gangly group of leather-jacketed misfits from Queens who played loud, short, catchy rock tunes. Over seven days on a budget of just $6,400, the group recorded a self-titled debut that would server as a road map for the London punks to come and reverberate for years and year to come, thanks in large part to one of the greatest openers ever. Hey, ho, let’s go!

Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer” (1977): In the wake of the Ramones’ breakthrough, New York City became a hotbed for would-be punk rockers packing audiences into clubs like CBGB. One of the scene’s unlikeliest success stories was a group of art-school oddballs called Talking Heads: Stein enjoyed seeing them open for the Ramones, but suggested they add another member to beef up their sound. Singer David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz would in turn add multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison into the fold, but the single “Psycho Killer” showcased how much they could achieve with minimalist instrumentation. Talking Heads would expand their sonic horizons over the next decade, even making the Top 10 of the pop charts, but it’s hard to forget the tension of this track.

Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket” (1979): Punk made serious headway in England at the end of the ‘70s, with acts like the Sex Pistols and The Clash making headlines with snotty songs and rough-hewn fashion to match. Chrissie Hynde, an American working at Vivienne Westwood’s punk boutique SEX, decided to get into the action. Her group the Pretenders combined edge with killer melodies inspired by acts like The Kinks — their first single was a cover of that group’s “Stop Your Sobbing” — and helped personify what became known as New Wave music, perfect for another nascent movement starting in New York at the beginning of the decade: the video channel MTV.


Madonna, “Borderline” (1983): Stein’s commitment to honoring artists’ visions made him well-liked and highly sought after. Before she conquered the world as one of the top artists of the ‘80s, the ambitious Madonna Ciccone was so set on signing with Sire that she visited Stein in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart ailment. “She couldn’t have cared if I was laying in the bed in a coffin, as long as I could sign a contract,” he told WNYC. “She was as anxious to see me and get herself started as I was to see her. That was very very impressive to me.” The yearning dance-pop “Borderline” gave Madonna her first of 17 Top 10 hits in the 1980s alone.

The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?” (1984): A wellspring of innovative bands came out of England in the post-punk era, from Depeche Mode and The Cure to Echo & The Bunnymen and The English Beat. All found a home on Sire, but perhaps the most influential of them all was The Smiths, a four-piece built around the bookishly acidic lyrics of iconoclastic singer Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s innovative guitar textures. “He was one of the only people in the whole of the States who got it,” Marr wrote in the liner notes to the box set Just Say Sire. “We wanted to be on Sire.” (The red Gibson ES-355 Marr revealed Stein gifted him upon signing probably didn’t hurt, either.)

Ice-T, “6 ‘N the Mornin’” (1987): By the mid-’80s, it was clear that cutting-edge musical expression had shifted to hip-hop. Stein compared signee Ice-T to Bob Dylan, arguably understanding the power of hip-hop better than most in power at the time, and when the street hustling Ice-T asked why Sire wanted to sign him, Stein responded by playing him Mighty Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah,” a ribald calypso song about prostitutes. “6 ‘N the Mornin’,” one of Ice-T’s first releases for the label, offered similarly raw social commentary over the starkly explosive beats not yet known as gangsta rap.

The Replacements, “Alex Chilton” (1987): Loud, raucous, and often drunk, The Replacements had enough indie-rock cred to make signing to Sire look like a gamble. But Stein went to bat for Paul Westerberg and his brilliant songwriting, even one-upping the group on the party front courtesy of an infamous booze-soaked party and food fight with Sire staff. Bassist Tommy Stinson’s repetitive, sarcastic introduction to the staff that night became the title of 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, and single “Alex Chilton” influenced another generation of tuneful songwriters with edge.

Lou Reed, “Dirty Blvd.” (1989): Lou Reed had burned up his ‘70s career then returned with some of his best work in early ‘80s by the time he came to Sire, where he reinvented himself yet again as a gutter-poet protest singer with an album entitled simply New York. Stripped-down songs like “Dirty Blvd.” mixed Reed’s guitar with attention-getting social commentary, topping Billboard’s new modern rock chart and setting up an unlikely Velvet Underground reunion a year later.


k.d. lang, “Constant Craving” (1992): One of Sire’s boldest signees of the late ‘80s was k.d. lang, a Canadian country-punk crooner who held her own duetting with Roy Orbison on a cover of his own “Crying” shortly before his passing. lang’s sensual foray into pop, “Constant Craving,” took on even greater significance when she came out as a lesbian that same year, picking up a Grammy for the song as protesters picketed outside the Shrine Auditorium. (Stein himself would come out in 2017.)

Tegan & Sara, “Closer” (2012): Throughout most of the ‘90s, Sire was shuffled around as part of Warner Music Group’s roster of labels, sharing resources with Elektra, Reprise and others. Through it all, though, Stein remained a chairman for the label, shifting into decorated elder statesman mode while remaining invested in the company’s emerging artists. One of Sire’s most recent successes was a duo of queer identical twin sisters from Calgary, Alberta, Canada named Tegan and Sara. Their seventh album Heartthrob was a stunning shift from subtle indie rock to expansive, synth-assisted pop, and delirious lead single “Closer” only proved Stein’s long-held belief that a good song forms the foundation for anything worth building in popular music.

Seymour Stein: Nine Songs that Shaped Modern Music