Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna
The music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about his faith in God, rockstar Kabbalah, and the soundtracks of life
How could I not know it? It was written about me. I’m very happy that they chose to write a song about me. The story behind the song is that Belle and Sebastian were a band I really believed in and wanted to sign. At the time I was very unhappy with where I was. I was at Elektra records and I was put into a position where I was working with someone I didn’t want to be working with. A woman named Sylvia Rhone. The same weekend that I saw Belle and Sebastian up in Scotland I had made up my mind that I had to get away. Even if it meant that I wouldn’t be in the music business anymore I had to get away, I just couldn’t stand working there with her. Fortunately that didn’t happen but I told the band, “I love you, I think you’re wonderful, but for personal reasons, and personal reasons only, I’m not going to sign you at this moment, and I’m sure you’ll get signed by someone else very quickly, before I get settled again.” And that’s what happened. And they wrote this song about me, about flying home from Scotland to the United States. It’s a good song, it’s a very good song.
Do you think it’s a song about disappointment?
I don’t know. There are many interpretations to the song. But I look at it in a good way. I know in my heart that I did the right thing and they didn’t suffer by it. They’re still around. I’m very dedicated to my artists and too many of them have short careers.
Did you ever make music yourself?
No, I never did. There was a time that I so badly wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. It got at its worst level when I met Richard Gottehrer who I started Sire record with. He was such a talented musician, and we’re still best friends. Being around him I just felt that I wasn’t contributing enough. In actuality I was contributing more, and I think he would agree to that. But the fact that I couldn’t play an instrument used to bug the hell out of me. For a long time that was my complex, and that complex was broken by a strange event.
On my early trips to the U.K. I met a guy called Mike Vernon. He was a producer at Decca Records and a very very very talented man. He was producing artists like Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, John Mayall, Eric Clapton. So, Mike Vernon says to me, “My brother and I want to start a record company, would you help us?” I said, “I’m struggling myself. Sure, I’ll help you in any way I can but you have to know this is like the blind leading the blind.” This is 1966 or 1967, I just started my company about a year ago and we’re really struggling, but I helped him and he was really grateful. So he asked me and Richard if we wanted to become partners with him and his brother in their company, Blue Horizon Records. They were doing very well already. They took off immediately because the first band he signed he put together and it was Fleetwood Mac. So I’m in England and he wanted me to come with him and his engineer, Gus Dudgeon, to a music festival to see new bands and maybe we’ll find something to sign.
So I went. I was sitting in the middle—Gus on one side, Mike on the other—and an unbelievably great band came on. I was blown away! I turn to Mike and say, “Hey, this band is great! We should sign them up to Blue Horizon immediately!” He says, “Seymour, I don’t want any bands with flautists in them.” I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t know what a flautist was, I thought that maybe they were drug addicts or perverts. It sounds like someone who likes to get whipped. I didn’t know what a flautist was because we call them flute players.
Anyway, I turn to Gus and say, “This band is great! What is he talking about?” So Gus says, “I think that band is terrible. Can I ask you a question? Do you play a musical instrument?” I say, “What on earth has that anything to do with this band?” He says, “Well, if you played a musical instrument you would have heard all of the bad notes that this band hit when they were playing. They were so annoying to me, they were awful!” I said, “Let me tell you something. I always wanted to play a musical instrument and now I’m so glad that I don’t.”
Was the band Jethro Tull?
Yes. And that story got me so over wanting to play a musical instrument. I never thought about it again. I just think about that story and remember how lucky I am that I don’t play an instrument.
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