Digging into the under-the-counter stash of Seymour Stein’s legendary label
There’s more to the Sire Records story than most folks may realize.
When label co-founder Seymour Stein died in April just shy of his 81st birthday, the music press and social media were understandably flooded with fond looks at the legacy of the man who was Sire’s artistic heartbeat. With a history that began back in 1968 and continues to this day, there’s a lot to love in the label’s catalog. And as many have pointed out since Stein’s passing, the roster he curated with an eclectic ear and an openness to fresh concepts was jam-packed with a jaw-dropping number of innovative, influential artists.
There’s no need to recount the game-changing acts launched by Sire here—there are countless other places to catch up on that.
Now that some of the smoke has begun to clear, leaving space for more intensive investigations, let’s look at just a handful of the great, lesser-known records Stein helped usher into the world.
We’re capping the tally at 10, but this list could go on forever. There’s Secret Affair, Silicon Teens, Positive Noise, Judybats, Gallon Drunk, The Derailers, Parlor James, and a jillion others, depending on your personal predilection.
Stackridge – Pinafore Days (1974)
One of the most idiosyncratic bands to emerge from England in the first half of the ‘70s, Stackridge was the quintessential cult phenomenon. Their songs possess a distinctly British brand of quirkiness (song titles like “Dangerous Bacon” and “The Indifferent Hedgehog” offer a hint) and a neither-fish-nor-fowl sound with elements of folk rock, 10cc-ish art pop, prog, and post-Beatles songcraft. The Man in the Bowler Hat, released in the U.S. by Sire under the title Pinafore Days for some reason, is one of Stackridge’s finest moments.
The Beckies – The Beckies (1976)
After helping to birth some of the most brilliant baroque pop ever as songwriter/keyboardist for The Left Banke, Michael Brown had a short stint with Stories in the early ‘70s. But he split before they had their one big hit with “Brother Louie.” His next band, The Beckies, delivered a 1976 debut album full of classic power-pop goodness. But being a tad late for the Badfinger/Raspberries crowd and early for New Wave’s power-pop revival, they didn’t last long enough for a follow-up.
The Paley Brothers – The Paley Brothers (1978)
Andy and Jonathan Paley’s duo also seems to have fallen victim to the aforementioned mid-’70s dead zone for power pop. They edged a little closer to pop than rock, seemingly drawing on bands like The Beach Boys for inspiration, and their tight sibling harmonies added a dash of Everly Brothers to the mix. Like The Beckies, The Paley Brothers didn’t last past their first album, but it’s still one to remember.
Duncan Browne – The Wild Places (1978)
British singer/songwriter Duncan Browne cut a couple of chamber-pop cult classics before forming Metro in the mid ‘70s. By the time he re-emerged as a solo artist with The Wild Places, he was mixing elements of art rock and New Wave with his earlier sound, ending up with a moody, nuanced vibe that sometimes feels like a more natural precursor to Roxy Music’s 1982 Avalon than what Roxy themselves were releasing in the late ‘70s.
The Nitecaps – Go to the Line (1982)
The Nitecaps had their roots in the NYC punk scene, coming out of bands like Richard Hell & The Voidoids and latter-day New York Dolls. But instead of a punky roar, they combined a deep soul influence with a dollop of hooky New Wave, occupying a space broadly akin to the one that pre-Celtic makeover Dexys Midnight Runners filled in England. Jahn Xavier, the precocious young frontman with pipes like Solomon Burke, eventually distinguished himself as a solo artist, but The Nitecaps’ roof-raising appeal is captured for posterity on Go to the Line.
The Assembly – “Never Never” (1983)
What could have been one of ‘80s pop’s greatest partnerships unfortunately never made it past a lone 45. In between Yaz and Erasure, former Depeche Mode mastermind Vince Clarke crossed paths with singer Feargal Sharkey, freshly divorced from The Undertones. The fruit of their collaboration is limited to one song (the single’s B-side is an instrumental), but “Never Never” is perhaps the ultimate “lost classic” of ‘80s synth pop, with Clarke’s peerless pop songwriting and Sharkey’s keening tenor combining for a sumptuous slice of electronic melancholy.
AUDIO: The Assembly “Never Never”
Weekend – La Variete (1983)
Singer Alison Staton and bassist Philip Moxham could scarcely have landed further from the downcast post-punk minimalism of Young Marble Giants than their subsequent band, Weekend. A breezy, unprecedented blend of cool jazz, sophistopop, African highlife, with a touch of twee, their only studio album was probably everything the UK pop audience wasn’t looking for in 1983, but oddly, if you lean in close enough, you may occasionally hear what sounds like a foreshadowing of Stereolab.
Richard X. Heyman – Hey Man! (1991)
After The Paley Brothers broke up, Andy Paley began making his way as a producer, and he lends a cool hand on this largely unheralded piece of pop mastery. New Yorker Richard X. Heyman made enough of a splash with his DIY one-man-band debut, Living Room, to land on Sire for his second. Still playing most of the instruments himself, he delivers a batch of tunes aimed at the ears of anyone who bears the sounds of The Beatles, Byrds, et al close to their heart, but without a whiff of slavish retro pastiche.
AUDIO: Richard X. Heyman “Falling Away”
Greenberry Woods – Rapple Dapple (1994)
In the wake of the Gin Blossoms’ success, it seemed for a moment like there was room in the post-grunge mid-’90s alt-rock world for bands with bountiful hooks and ear-tickling vocal harmonies. Enter Greenberry Woods, who hung around long enough to deliver two albums overflowing with the aforementioned elements. The first, Rapple Dapple, didn’t make them MTV darlings, but it’s a timeless pack of tunes nevertheless.
Lilys – The Three Way (1999)
Garage rock, psych pop, and indie rock collide in the work of Kurt Heasley and his cohorts, who spent several years banging around small labels before stepping up for their one brief aboveground flirtation on Sire. If you played the original Nuggets comp and slipped a few of these tunes in between tracks, casual listeners might be none the wiser.
AUDIO: Lilys The 3 Way (full album)
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