Following Mute and 4AD in our extended look at the UK’s most influential indie labels, we asked Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes of DIY pop operation Sarah Records to talk us through the records (and board games) that defined the label.
Words: Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes
Sarah was a fiercely independent label run by Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes in Bristol between 1987 and 1995. Releasing mostly 7” singles as a socialist gesture in a capitalist world of 12”s and multiformatting, the label deliberately closed down when it reached SARAH 100 and celebrated by taking out half-page ads in the music press entitled A Day For Destroying Things and throwing a party in Bristol attended by fans from all over the world.
Sarah Records is now the subject of an award-winning documentary, My Secret World – the first film by director Lucy Dawkins – which has been shown at film festivals and is now screening around the UK and overseas.
To mark the film tour, Clare and Matt introduce the label in 10 defining releases, one of which just happens to be a board game. Dice at the ready, you can listen to tracks from each selection in this playlist or individually as you scroll.
The Sea Urchins were six teenagers from West Bromwich who’d already appeared on flexidiscs issued with our pre-Sarah fanzines and this still sounds like a record to launch a label with. It’s not amateurish, twee or lo-fi, it’s giddy, bold, unabashed and a little anthemic; a few twangs on a guitar, a drum roll, and we’re off. It was played by Radio One and got an NME Single of the Week, which meant the label began with a bit of a drum roll too.
We’d both started out by writing fanzines and releasing flexidiscs and we continued to do this throughout Sarah. In fact, only 87 of our hundred releases were 7″ singles: the others included fanzines, flexis, a board game – anything we thought had the same spirit, attitude and aesthetic as a 2-minute pop song pressed onto a 7” piece of plastic and was thus deserving of a regular catalogue number. ‘Anorak City’ was recorded on a 4-track, mastered onto cassette, pressed onto a 5½” flexidisc, taped into a fanzine and crackles with excitement and fizzes with electricity; it’s throwaway pop in the best possible sense of the word. In 2007 it was covered by Toronto hardcore punk band Fucked Up.
The Orchids, who were with the label from start to finish, ranged confidently through pure pop, heartbreaking ballads and euphoric dance anthems, often working in collaboration with producer Ian Carmichael of One Dove. Lyceum, though, is an early ten-inch containing eight exquisite three-minute pop songs, and probably about as close to perfect as a record can be. James Hackett’s aching vocals drift through music that effortlessly shimmers, soars and sighs, reminiscing about holidays in Whitley Bay (“I whispered ‘hi’ as you walked away…”) or lost weekends in their hometown, Glasgow (“alcohol says it all, I remember nothing at all…”); or, in ‘Blue Light’, with his voice cracking over acoustic guitar and keyboard, contemplating the realisation that “this could be for the rest of my life…”
Sarah was deeply rooted in our adopted city of Bristol, which we took every opportunity to celebrate: the centre labels of our 7″s featured pictures of Bristol in ten series of ten and our compilation albums were named after places in and around the city (and numbered after the buses that went to them). Initially, though, we didn’t have any Bristol bands, so we were delighted when Tramway, whose members we’d known from the label’s early days, sent us this slightly trip-hoppy ode to our favourite city and insisted that the sleeve be based on a Bristol Rovers shirt. The B-side of their second single tells the story of a Rovers fan who wears a blue ribbon in her hair in play-off season, and incorporates club song Goodnight Irene into its backing vocals.
We wanted to do something special for Sarah 50, so we made a board game based on running an independent record label in Bristol and packaged it as a 7” single. The board was a map of the city that folded into a 7” square and each player had to adopt the persona of a well-know music mogul (Alan McGee, Tony Wilson, Ivo from 4AD and Richard Branson – represented by tokens depicting rock-star shades, a cigar, an amorphous blur and a hot-air balloon) and then assemble a 7” record by collecting items from various locations around the city using public transport – Badgerline buses, the Severn Beach Line and the harbour ferry – whilst avoiding running out of parcel tape or being sent to Horfield jail for flyposting.
Although we were a political label, the politics was mostly in what we did, not the music. There were exceptions: the Orchids released the first ever Anti-Poll Tax song (‘Defy the Law’) and Brighter attacked the hypocrisy of record labels that lost track of their ideals on ‘So You Said’ (though we still released it), but the politics was mostly subtle, which is why it was mostly missed. More than one Blueboy song dealt with the issue of the Tories’ homophobic Clause 28 legislation, but none more beautifully than ‘Clearer’. Over shimmering droplets of guitar, singer Keith Girdler whispers “Goodbye freedom, goodbye freedom, we’ve gone back thirty years…” – because, as another song (‘Fondette’, on their debut album) chillingly reflects: “This is a country where it can be a criminal offence to wink”.
The Field Mice released everything from C&W to sampled sound collages, and their four Singles of the Week included praise from one of NME’s dance specialists for ‘Missing The Moon’, probably the only seven-minute sequencer-driven dancefloor epic ever to use the word “nevertheless” in its chorus. Noisy pop anthem ‘Sensitive’, meanwhile, ranked highly in John Peel’s Festive 50. They also received the usual press bile for being on Sarah and not being acceptably macho.
Even As We Speak
‘Swimming Song’ from Feral Pop Frenzy
A fantastic 100-second burst of pure pop from Australia. Though Sarah has a reputation for being and sounding very British, we had two Australian bands (Even As We Speak and The Sugargliders), one Irish (the Harvest Ministers) and three American (The Springfields, Aberdeen and East River Pipe). Even As We Speak simply wrote classic pop and were a brilliant live band and we wish we could have made them famous.
Frustratingly, it wasn’t until Sarah 30 that we signed a band whose leader was a woman: Heavenly, led by Amelia Fletcher, previously of Talulah Gosh. But that was because so few bands like Heavenly existed. A lot of independent music in the ’80s and early ’90s was politically right-on, but most of it was also very male; women in bands were often on backing vocals or tambourine or singing words written by male bandmates, and there was a dull, depressing habit of using women as decoration on record sleeves. Sarah had a rule not to do this and we spent ages arguing with photographers who wanted to put female band members front and centre because it was “symmetrical”. By 1993, Heavenly were influenced by riot grrrl to write angry, political pop songs like Atta Girl.
Maintaining quality is hard work – you fall out with bands and you fall out with friends in the endless battle never to release a substandard record. That was one reason for stopping the label at Sarah 100. Another was that we didn’t want to end up joylessly going through the motions; there was no point running the label if we weren’t excited by what we were doing. Our last ten records were just as good as our first ten, and included debut releases by four bands, including Shelley. A drum machine ticks, waves of guitar crash, and Dickon Edwards’ lyrics stop you dead: “I have nothing in common with those who think having babies is the way out…”
My Secret World: The Story Of Sarah Records is screening in Bristol on 14th May with a Q&A with Matt Haynes. Click here for more info.