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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Claudia Brucken: Bush Hall, London, 12th March 2015

where_else_acpsc1Ex-Propaganda/Act vocalist (and, dare we say, ’80s icon?) Claudia Brucken has enjoyed a real career renaissance in the last decade. Her recent studio albums have featured collaborations with members of Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Erasure and OMD, and new release Where Else is a very strong record of torch songs which foregrounds fine melodies and an unexpected ’60s pop influence.

The Bush Hall was the perfect venue for this classy, deceptively low-key return to the London stage. With a minimalist red-curtain backdrop and versatile two-man backing band, Claudia began the gig seated but moved through the gears with consummate ease.

downloadHer vocals sounded rich and rounded, a big improvement on the last London gigs in 2013, and it was also great that she kept audience banter to an absolute minimum, a lesson to some younger artists who seem desperate to pass the time of day with audiences given half a chance.

Where Else was played pretty much in sequence as is the current way, and what’s clear is that the new songs are stark and slight but very catchy, with attractive, slow-burning melodies. To go along with the string synths, piano and digital beats, there was generally an unmistakable Zombies/Colin Bluntstone influence on the new material too, with some distinctly Doors-style keyboards thrown in for good measure.

The resplendent, still striking ‘Duel’ (which my companion very adroitly pegged as the sound a-Ha had vainly aimed for throughout their career) and ‘P-Machinery’ were saved for the rapturously-received encores, and a rousing cover of Bowie’s ‘Everyone Says Hi’ was perfectly judged. The gig was crying out for a real drummer though (paging Neil Conti…) to add more of the human element, but budgets are budgets.

If all her stars are aligned, Brucken might yet enjoy an Everything-But-The-Girl-style sleeper hit. What seems unlikely is any kind of Secret Wish 30th anniversary tour; she seems very happy and musically fulfilled where she is right now.