Niall McGuirk on Pop Kiss – The Life And Afterlife Of Sarah Records
The best biographies are written by fans. It’s not solely about the style of writing or indeed the substance in the pages but when I’m reading a story and get a persons feel for the content then I’m won over. Michael White is one such fan and hence his decision to write about a label that hasn’t released a record in over 20 years
For White’s line “what would it sound like if punk rock had sought not to set fire to society but to fill it with love” to make sense then its soundtrack would be Sarah Records. A label set up by fans and friends Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes. There is a generation of pop fans that have received hand written letters from one of these two as they sent out their mail orders with painstaking love and attention.
You can’t really say that Sarah Records has anything in common with the punk sound that stormed through Britain in 1976/77 but you can sure take for granted the spirit of DIY that emerged was one that drove many labels, including this one. Punk rock spawned post punk which spawned the next genre that was ready to fill the typeset of the growing music press at the time. One part of it was “new pop” and bands like Orange Juice influenced some to feel that whilst they can do it for themselves they could also force their way to large record sales. Thankfully others wanted to make music first and foremost with their jangly guitars
With the innocence of youth and a strong independent spirit, Clare and Matt followed their fanzine publishing with the creation of a record label, one that mixed pop and politics. I’m reminded of my young days as a fanzine editor. I would think nothing of going up to a band, requesting an interview and then challenge their right to do as they wished. I felt nothing of asking New Model Army why they signed to a major label, or pushing The Redskins and The Housemartins into big political discussions. That’s what they were there for, wasn’t it? Well time has taught me that they weren’t really there for my dissecting, but the era that was in it told me we were all part of a community. Sarah records belonged to this too. Even when one of its bands wrote a song condemning the label, they were happy to release it. So when Brighter sang during ‘So You Said‘
Matt and Clare agreed to release this but Brighter felt the Sarah machine was becoming too aligned to the music business of touring and pawning yourself. Something most bands and labels aspire too.
The book charts many bands that appeared on Sarah Records. From the debut release by the Sea Urchins, through The Orchids, Blueboy and Harvey Williams’ Another Sunny Day, some detail is explored and background explained. Even Dublin guitar troubadors Stars of Heaven and Harvest Ministers get a mention. This helps paint a picture of the label as a whole. For many of us who listen to music we rarely think about the individuals behind the instruments. They have the same feelings and emotions as the rest of us, and many of the same fears, and for those that are introverted, being in a band can be a challenge. This was the case with The Field Mice. Whilst their songs of love and relationships struck a chord with many adolescents and young adults the chords were hard to strike in public for the band as shyness poured through them.
The majority of bands on the Bristol-based label were from outside that cities boundaries, with two of the many bands on the label from this southwest English city. Indeed, Sarah Records’ founders were both brought to Bristol by their need to attend university. Ironically, it was very loyal to Bristol and the city became as much a piece of the label as any band. So much so that one of the compilation albums had etched into its groove “SARAH RECORDS UNEQUIVOCALLY SUPPORTS A FULLY INTEGRATED LIGHT-RAIL RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEM FOR THE GREATER BRISTOL AREA”. Makes a difference to the usual “porky prime cut ” that is displayed on much of my record collection.
Being the early 90s we are reminded that whilst communication was key the best way to communicate was through letters. Way before snail mail became a term it was the way we spoke to each other and arranged things. Be that the purchase of a record, the confirmation of a gig or just a chat to a band our email was done through letters, and plenty of them. Sarah Records were notable in that you always got a written reply or a note with a record bought on mail order. It was a choice made by the owners – they were no different to the listener.
A notable factor with the book is that it doesn’t mention the obvious link between the label and Riot Grrl and feminism until it is the right time. Events are described pretty much chronologically and while my interest with the label piqued with Talulah Gosh, White doesn’t jump the queue and brings them in at the appropriate time. A book could be written on Amelia Fletchers recorded output rather than a chapter in the Sarah story. Fletcher was the driving force behind Talulah Gosh and subsequently Heavenly (and is still performing with Catenary Wires). Bands on Sarah Records had women in them, but never was any focus or attention put on that fact. They were all people. By the time Heavenly had hooked up with K Records in the states and Riot Grrrl had taken off, Sarah was in demise but its influence remains huge.
This is a perfect piece of pop and indie history, a story of a label not concerned with profit but with releasing the records they wanted to made by people they liked.