Book Review: Siren Song by Seymour Stein

One thing you could never say about the man born Seymour Steinbigle is that he’s led a dull life. And his new autobiography ‘Siren Song’ is anything but a dull book.

Born in a down-at-heel corner of Brooklyn, he did his time at Billboard, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB and Studio 54 and either discovered or nurtured Madonna, Talking Heads, k.d. lang (who calls him ‘the man with the golden ears’), Ramones, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Ice-T, Soft Cell, Squeeze, The Smiths, The Cult (by now you’ll be gleaning that he’s somewhat of an Anglophile), Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, all via his imprint Sire Records (which he co-founded with Richard Gottehrer).

So far, so common Rock Snob knowledge. And there’s no question that ‘Siren Song’ is a great resource for those who want to know about the making of and/or music-biz machinations behind some of the great modern pop/rock albums: Fear Of Music, Like A Virgin (complete with fascinating gossip about Nile Rodgers’ business dealings), My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, The Queen Is Dead, Ramones, New York. 

And then there are the fascinating tales of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed, visiting Talking Heads’ weird Long Island City loft and stalking Jethro Tull. He also writes superbly about the early ’80s music scene, when electro, hip-hop, Afro-beat, indie, new wave, reggae and post-disco combined to produce arguably the greatest ever pop period.

But two aspects separate ‘Siren Song’ from other similar tomes: Stein’s sheer love of music and his penchant for a pithy – but seldom tawdry – one-liner. On his lack of musical knowledge: ‘It’s usually better not to know the disgusting secrets of how the sausage got made.’ On David Byrne’s quirkiness: ‘He was someone I’d always support even if he wanted to make a concept album about toothpicks.’ On seeing Depeche Mode live for the first time: ‘They were four kids poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs.’ On the future of music: ‘Labels will always be needed, because only maniacs like me are insane enough to roam the globe, trawling through miles and miles of sh*t to just every now and then pick out a tiny diamond.’

Stein writes powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the ramifications of being a gay man living a ‘straight’ life in the ’70s and ’80s (he had a wife and two daughters during the period). He superbly explains the timeless appeal of English guitar bands to Americans. The prologue is also a classic, describing what it means to love music and the joys, perils and sacrifices involved (especially if you’re coming from a working-class family) with seeking a career in A&R (artist and repertoire, or, in Stein-speak, people and songs).

‘Siren Songs’ is an unexpected gem and highly recommended.

Siren Song’ by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy is published by St Martin’s Press.

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Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.

Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman. When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.

Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films. He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).

Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that. As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.

So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

‘Something Wild’ (1986)

‘Swimming To Cambodia’ (1987) (swearing alert)

‘Married To The Mob’ (1988)

‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

‘Heart Of Gold’ (2006)

‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

Laurie Anderson: Big Science 35 Years On

Warner Bros. Records, released April 1982

8/10

The 1980s were littered with ‘novelty’ hits but perhaps none was more unexpected – or more powerful – than Laurie Anderson’s John Peel-endorsed, eight-minute UK number 2 ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’. Massenet was a French composer, whose aria ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (‘O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father’) appeared in the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’.

‘O Superman’ was totally hip at the time, appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and also featuring a video which looked like avant-garde art. David Bowie was a big fan, covering the song during his 1997 Earthling tour. It still sounds unique and pretty hip today, even managing to throw in a little ode to Philip Glass with its brief, circular melodic motif that appears a few times.

A live performance of ‘O Superman’ was recorded in New York City in the week following the 9/11 attacks, and later appeared on the album Live In New York. In this context, certain lyrics seem to take on greater significance: ‘Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Smoking or non-smoking?’ Anderson has intimated that the song was inspired by watching television news reports of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/80.

‘O Superman’ came from Anderson’s performance art/music piece ‘United States I-IV’, and was initially released as a single on the indie One Ten label. When it quickly sold out of its initial run of 1,000 copies, Warners picked it up and also asked for a whole album of music from the show.

What about the rest of Big Science? Not having heard it for a few years, I approached the album with trepidation. But there was no need – ‘From The Air’ and ‘Sweaters’ (‘I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pen…cils’) are still very funny, but also oddly disquieting. There’s just something so fresh about Anderson’s persona. The album cover says it all (I was remiss to leave it out of my top covers of the 1980s lists) – she is the epitome of NYC post-punk cool minimalism.

Lyrically, Big Science – like the performance piece it comes from – seems to be satirising the rebirth of American ‘heroism’ and industrial might of the Reagan era. Anderson often speaks with (and mocks) the ‘voice of authority’, someone who, as she later said in an interview, is ‘either a shoe salesman or someone who wants to sell you an insurance policy you don’t want or need’ (now who does that remind me of?).

But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and the spiritual binds that hold us together – family (‘O Mom and Dad…’), folklore and tradition. The title track rams home the point with its ‘primitive’ percussion and vocals that sound vaguely like Native American chanting. ‘O Superman’ also does it with its initial focus on a piece of new technology – an answering machine – and then more metaphysical concerns (justice, God, love).

As the 1980s wore on, Anderson’s studio albums possibly suffered from being right on the ‘technological cutting edge’, but Big Science revels in simple acoustic/electric juxtapositions – some Velvet Underground drums here, an analogue synth, Vocoder or Harmonizer there, plus sax, percussion and treated violin. Occasionally it would be nice to hear an instrumental solo, maybe someone of the NYC-art-rock-approved school such as Shankar or Jon Hassell, but generally Anderson keeps it simple and maintains a very assured minimalist musical style throughout.

Big Science slightly outstays its welcome, its last two tracks quite a stretch, but overall still sounds like a vital piece of work from a major, treasured artist.

Ladies And Gentlemen, It’s Max…Headroom!

388px-Mhcom_max_headroom_guidetolife_frontYep, it’s M-M-M-M-Max, scourge of celebrities everywhere and purveyor of surreal one-liners, bizarre stream-of-consciousness meanderings and often-quite-obscure music videos.

Max was created in 1985 by Annabel Jankel (sister of Ian Dury-collaborator Chaz), Rocky Morton and George Stone as rather eccentric, attention-grabbing ‘talking head’ to present videos on the burgeoning Channel Four (actually, with hindsight, it’s strange that no other terrestrial TV channels had aped the MTV format before Max came along).

Brilliantly played by Matt Frewer, who apparently had to endure over four hours in the make-up chair before each day of filming, Max was born in a one-off drama that played on Channel Four in 1985. He then returned to front two series in 1985 and 1986 and two further series emerged on US TV in ’87 and ’88.

I think it’s fair to say people either loved or hated Max. I confess I was an immediate fan. I even bought the book! Large swathes of his monologues are indelibly etched on my memory – maybe they tapped into how my teenage mind was being wired. Even today, I can’t hear the words ‘Sebastian Coe’ without thinking of Max’s unique delivery.

I also discovered some good music and vids on his shows too, including Peter Gabriel’s live version of ‘I Don’t Remember’, The Redskins’ ‘Bring It Down’, Donald Fagen’s amazing ‘New Frontier’ vid (directed by Jankel and Morton) and Sid Vicious’s terrifying ‘My Way’ (how did that get onto pre-watershed TV?).

Most of the press attention was aimed at the state-of-the-art computer graphics, his incredible make-up job and bizarre speech patterns. But, apart from the music vids, what immediately hooked me was his smarmy, gleeful piss-taking. He was kind of a mixture of Fletch and Johnny Rotten. There was also a touch of Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase’s portentous Weekend Update newsreaders on ‘Saturday Night Live’.

Though the show had three regular writers – David Hanson, Tim John and Paul Owen – Frewer apparently improvised a large part of Max’s ramblings. I always assumed Max’s ‘cool guy’ persona was coming from Steve Martin (with a soupçon of David Byrne’s big suit from ‘Stop Making Sense’), but Frewer claims that he based Max’s shtick on Ted Knight’s hilariously hammy portrayal of Ted Baxter in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. This performance was new to me, but watching it now makes perfect sense. I’ve always been a huge fan of Knight’s brilliant turn as Judge Smails in ‘Caddyshack’.

Ted_Knight_1972

Ted Knight, inspiration for Max

Possibly the sections of the show which have the most relevance now are Max’s interviews with stars like Sting (see below), Boy George and David Byrne. Years before Dennis Pennis, he was hilariously detached, if not downright dismissive of their celebrity status. I love the way he ridicules Sting’s new ‘jazz’ direction.

Later on, the tables were turned as Max found himself being interviewed on primetime chat shows by David Letterman and Terry Wogan. He calls Letterman ‘Davey-doo’ throughout and seems to be slowly driving him to distraction. By contrast, Terry is more than happy to play along, as is his wont.

Max signed off from his UK TV series with a rather lovely little ballad, which, I confess, still threatens to put a lump in my throat. Hey, I know, the mid-life crisis is kicking in big-time… I had a few episodes on video for many years but chucked them out a while ago – a big mistake, as there’s still no sign of a UK DVD.