On Tuesday, the local NPR affiliate had a really great interview with Seymour Stein, who co-founded the Sire Records label with musical genius Richard Gottehrer. Mr Stein was one of the godfathers of the NYC punk scene of the 1970s, having signed my beloved Ramones, Talking Heads and Dead Boys. He also brought such overseas bands as the Undertones (Derry's Ramones), Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths. He also signed the Pretenders and some woman named Ciccone, who sang lead on some Sex Pistols effort. He also signed the Replacements and Ice-T to Sire Records.
Needless to say, Seymour Stein has had an outsized influence on my musical tastes, since I was a wee lad. The list of artists recording for Sire encompasses much of my music collection. One of my favorite stories about Seymour Stein was recounted by Joey Ramone's brother Mickey Leigh in his memoir I Slept with Joey Ramone, an account of Seymour's distaste for a particularly transgressive song recorded for the first Ramones album:
(Sire Records executive) Seymour Stein came up to the studio in the afternoon and complained, "You can't say, 'I'm a Nazi baby, I'm a Nazi, yes I am,'" referring to the opening lines of the song "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World," which had become the Ramones' signature closer at live shows. It was kind of ridiculous, but not to Seymour. The words are:
I'm a Nazi, baby; I'm a Nazi yes I am
I'm a Nazi shatzi, y'know I fight for the Fatherland.
Little German boy, being pushed around
Little German boy, in a German town
It didn't offend me, and I'm a Jew.
It didn't offend my brother.
Tommy, whose parents had narrowly escaped the death camps during the Holocaust, was more sensitive to this issue but acquiesced so as not to impede the band's artistic freedom and black humor. To me, the song conjured up the image of a weak, skinny German kid, who after being bullied in his own little burg, found a way to become one of the bullies. It was like a glimpse into the mind-set of a typical Hitler Youth member, brilliantly summed up in two lines.
Seymour was insistent that the band change the lyrics. The Ramones were sticking to their guns. A heated and emotional argument ensued; it looked as if this could be a deal-breaker.
Then they started talking about alternatives and came up with the line, "I'm a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am."
Even that was too much for Seymour; to him, it was equally offensive.
But after a big struggle he finally gave in and allowed them to go with "shock trooper."
"I don't know if I should admit it," Seymour later confessed, "because I got over it pretty quickly, but I wasn't pleased with the Nazi references in the songs. You can't throw away twenty years of Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn."
If you are at all a fan of any of the bands signed to Sire Records, the NPR interview is a fun listen. After many years of playing songs by bands Seymour Stein signed, it was nice to hear the voice of the man himself.