“Sarah’s eight years were the years when CDs took over and vinyl died, when majors set up fake indies and indie became a genre not an ideology. They were the years before mobile phones, home computers and the internet, the years of call boxes, paste-ups and fanzines sent through the mail. They were the years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the years when Lad Culture took hold. Sarah Records attempted to mock the sexist and capitalist culture of the right-on independent music industry – and the vitriolic and contemptuous response of a (largely male) press that missed the point, were annoyed by it, or worried that liking a label with a girl’s name, co-run by a woman, would bring their own masculinity into question” – Excerpt from the synopsis for My Secret World: The Story Of Sarah Records.
“…because when you were nineteen, didn’t you want to create something beautiful and pure just so that one day you could set it on fire and then watch the city light up as it burned?” So began the advert which ran in selected magazine in August1995. As it continued, so too did it burn with a deeps-seated and fierce independence, stating unequivocally that “Sarah Records is owned by no-one but us, so it’s OURS to create and destroy how we want and we don’t do encores.” “The first act of revolution is destruction,” it concludes, with a fair degree of poeticism “and the first thing to destroy is THE PAST. Scary, like falling in love, it reminds us we’re alive”
It was the final chapter of an 8-year long story that seems remarkable, especially given it took place during the pre-internet days. In the current era of Bandcamp, everyone has a fighting chance (in theory at least) of taking on the big players. But none of that existed when two people – Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes – operating out of the basement of a terraced house in Bristol (45 Upper Belgrave Road – immortalised in former signing The Hit Parade’s poignant farewell note, ‘The House Of Sarah‘. They’d later set up shop in another house on Gwilliam Street) graduated from fanzine writers to label bosses in 1987 and never looked back. Over 100 carefully-curated releases and with a combination of guile and determination they amassed coverage and a fanbase that had the majors at once scratching their heads in disbelief and tearing their hair out out of annoyance. Moreover, Wadd and Haynes showed you could do it without existing in a manic, drug-fuelled frenzy like Creation’s Alan McGee (who in a weird twist of fate is cited as one of the godfathers of the C86 scene which Sarah – arguably erroneously – has forever been associated with) or being a well-connected media wizz like Factory’s Tony Wilson. It’s a story of doing things your own way, sticking to your principles and overcoming the odds.
Twenty years after its dissolution, the fact that this month sees the commercial release of Lucy Dawkins’ (rightly) acclaimed documentary, My Secret World, and Michael White’s label biography Popkiss, suggests that as far creating a legacy is concerned they’ve been undeniably successful. It’s also the perfect time to recount the label’s story, it’s pleasing to know they’ve lost none of their fierce independence and desire to do things their way – the playlist below came with the note that “Matt and I wanted to make a list of some of the less obvious tracks, B-sides really, to make the point that all of the releases were effectively double-A sides, with all of the tracks as valuable as each other etc. – and to make it a bit more interesting as there have been plenty of lists before.”. This then is their story, told via an unedited Q&A with Clare and a dash of narrative to fill in the gaps.
It begins in the mid 1980s where, as pointed out in My Secret World by longtime indie heroine and OBE-holding economics ace Amelia Fletcher, the pre-internet options for those wanting to discover off-the-radar music were essentially limited to John Peel and the UK’s burgeoning fanzine network. Enter Haynes and Wadd. The former, originally from London, edited Are You Scared To Get Happy?, part of the Sha-la-la flexicsic collective. The latter, from Yorkshire, Kvatch. Already loosely acquainted via said fanzine scene, the two would end up at Bristol university together where releasing opposing tracks of a Sea Urchins demo via flexis through their respective fanzines – and a helping hand from cupid – would start the ball rolling…(the formative events are told, for those interested, in far greater detail and from both perspectives, here)
It felt like a natural progression at the time – but in retrospect the catalyst was that Matt and I got together as a couple in the summer of 1987, and then it felt very natural for us to set up a record label together.
Was the 100 release premise a part of the plan from the outset or did it become a part of the project over time? Did it present a degree of curatorial pressure or did it, on reflection, instil a high quality control?
No, we most definitely didn’t have that big a plan at the start – we always knew we didn’t just want to put out one record, or maybe a couple of records, we always wanted to be a proper bona fide record label. I think we wanted to do at least ten, or we certainly had the idea that the labels would form a series of 10 quite early on (because they turned out to be stupidly expensive and we wanted to change the design, but also wait until we got to ten and could do a different series).
I think the idea for stopping at 100 took form after Sarah 50 – we’d wanted to do something special for 50, and then 100 was the next obvious stopping point (and there isn’t another one for a while after that). There are pretty much three ways a record label can end – put out increasingly duff records and fizzle out; get bought; or go bust – we were always very clear that our choice was none of the above, which meant that we had to find a different way. I still think it makes us pretty unique, and I really believe that the end was as important as the beginning, the last ten records as important as the first ten etc.
A couple of people have used the “curatorial” word recently – well it’s used in the film – but that’s certainly never the way we thought of it. It was all about pop music, pop art statements, not doing what you’re supposed to do, not turning into a business that does what it does because that’s what it does. Neither of us is a collector, and we always rather enjoyed poking fun at the people who are.
At its heart, Sarah was shaped by two political standpoints – anti-capitalism, and feminism. In the world of Sarah Records, releases were pop-art statements not ‘products’, designed to matter and be played to death rather than be released on a super-limited shiny-sleeved pictured disc costing the eventual punter three times as much. A sort of proto-take of Bis’ ‘This Is Fake DIY’, if you will. Similarly, a label co-run by a woman and bearing a female name (itself a knowingly anti-macho statement) was a direct challenge to what they felt was an increasingly male-focussed arena, even going as far as to eschew were the clichéd, stylised 50s and 60s film star sleeve images. Not ones to sit back having set out their stall, both Wadd and Haynes remained vocally loyal to heir causes, as one French licenser who dared to take out a press advert featuring a scantily clad woman alongside details of the Sarah releases soon out to their cost. Clare could be found regularly championing both causes in the press letters page, be it railing against the capitalist leanings of the supposed indie sector, or having the temerity to stand up against the likes of Stephen Wells and Everett True on matters of gender equality.
With the benefit of hindsight, Sarah’s values seemed anomalously (and admirably) progressive compared to the industry norms at the time. Is that something you felt then or is it something that’s only become apparent with the passing of time?
I think that they were simultaneously progressive and nothing new. We didn’t invent any of the concepts we used, we stole from everybody who went before us – feminism certainly existed long before, and you can make a link between a lot of the political actions (value for money, not duplicating tracks, no special editions, limited releases, attempts to get people to buy multiple formats etc.) and some punk labels, CRASS, or bands like Chumbawamba. All we did in a way was translate the methods of the labels and bands we admired politically to a musical genre that had started to see itself (naively) as apolitical and which was often blatantly depressingly sexist. Independent music had been very political in the early-mid eighties and then seemed to stop being for some reason around the time Sarah started, and we didn’t like the fact it stopped being.
But as time went by and the Eighties gave way to the Nineties the label, and everything it stood for, became ever more anachronistic and at odds with the unstoppable march of the macho, Loaded culture that swept Britain. Sarah faced both the insurgence of Britpop and the American grunge invasion and stood adrift of both, continuing to exist on its own terms. Perhaps as a result, the hard work of Wadd and Haynes which had initially garnered reams of singles of the week gradually became the kicking post of choice, the butt of an industry-wide game to deliver ever-more extreme barbs and tropes at their expense. A sequence in My Secret World shows how bad things became, as a series of ever-more derogatory review excepts flash by culminating in Stephen Wells claiming that Secret Shine’s ‘Loveblind’ “isn’t music, it’s cancer”. Everett True claims that if it were not for him and future Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley fighting their corner within the Melody Maker office their singles were due an almost automatic panning, or binning. And if they weren’t deriding the lyrical content (ignoring songwriting depth such as Blueboy’s Keith Girdler and his attempts to describe life as a gay man in Section 28 Britain, or Another Sunny Day’s ‘You Should All Be Murdered’, which gives an insight into what Morrissey would’ve turned out like had he swapped vegetarianism for psychopathy) then they’d be painting all releases as reductive C86 janglefests, despite Heavenly’s later material being inspired by the riot grrrl movement, former Factory signings The Wake coming armed with their own take on New Order-esque electro-pop (see also: the ever-eclectic Field Mice, on occasion), Blueboy’s wistful/pastoral reflections or the label’s noisepop faction featuring the likes of Golden Dawn, Boyracer and the full-on shoegzae of Secret Shine.
The current revisionism surrounding the catalogue suggests that it wasn’t really about the music, nor was it explicitly about the label’s values per se. Rather, it was a question of Sarah neither fitting in nor even attempting to play the game. Despite what the industry threw at them, so they continued to survive and the whole scenario created something of a vicious feedback loop. Yet everything appears to have come full circe again. The likes of The Drums and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart openly list Sarah bands as influences, several tracks appear in the Pitchfork 500 and – perhaps most amusingly/irritatingly given their period venom – NME listed Sarah as the second-best indie label of all time, ahead of Rough trade, XL, Transgressive and more.
Though the label chalked up 15 singles of the week, its relationship with the press was somewhat mixed. Did that dent your confidence at all or merely spur you on, and how much of it do you think was legitimately leveled at the music rather than the dualities of sticking out in the existing macho culture and achieving what you did/punching above your weight without jumping through industry hoops?
I think the relationship changed through the eight years of the label – a disproportionate number of the Singles of the Week were in the early years and new things often get championed and the UK weekly music press certainly always got bored of things quickly. When we started, it wasn’t long after the political heyday of papers like the NME; by the time we stopped, it was the era of Loaded with a massive overlap of current and former writers, it was the era of Oasis, Happy Mondays in the bath with topless Page 3 girls from the Sun or whatever. We were never going to be anything to do with any of that shit and were never going to be able to sit comfortably beside it. I think the press got more and more frustrated that whatever they threw at us, we still existed and still sold records, and it just became a game for them to say the worst things they could think of; most of it wasn’t remotely funny and much of it was sexist and homophobic.
There seems to be a certain degree of revisionism from the music press at the moment thanks to the film and attendant reappraisal of the catalogue. Is watching outlets who made a living giving Sarah bands a kicking suddenly talk about the label in glowing terms satisfying or irritating?
It’s both satisfying and irritating I suppose. For the bands’ sakes, more than anything, I really wish they’d given the music a proper chance at the time. So much of it, yes, probably it only got reviewed because it was on Sarah, but also it got slated explicitly because it was on Sarah, and that must have been so demoralising for the people who put their hearts and souls into making those beautiful records. On the other hand it’s nice to see rather fairer treatment now; NME making us the second greatest independent record label ever last year was frankly astonishing given some of what had been written in the past and I’ve absolutely no idea who on the paper now would have been responsible for that. But it was hard not to be a little bit pleased (and smug) about it; we think we should have been first of course.
With the label treading musical paths that took in everything from noise-pop to riot grrrl to New Order-esque dance-pop, was/is it galling that people described the output (and in certain quarters still do) in simplistic C86/jangly terms?
Oh yes, that was really galling, just beyond annoying. I understand that if you get sent a lot of stuff you leap to judgement – we all do it with music and books and whatever all the time – but the press did it to us as part of their bullying.
Several Sarah alumni would eventually end up working at some of the majors, all of whom expressed a degree of disbelief at the coverage the label had consistently received – however mean-spririted – on a fraction of the budget. In one of the final interviews given by the pair while the label as still a going concern, Wadd and Haynes would tell John Peel that they’d received orders for Sarah 100 way before they’d announced details (or that it was the final release), and similar scenes had played out throughout most of the Sarah 90s. Apparently not an uncommon scene according to Alexis Petridis who admits that he himself “trusted the label so much I’d buy anything they put out”. Quite the feat for two people who for a long time operated without a home telephone and had been known to take the most tortuous route to gigs and other commitments and sleep rough in order to keep costs down, not to mention Haynes doing all the artwork himself and having it made up in a local printing shop, Cliftonprint.
By the early 1990s the hard work came close, on a number of occasions, to catapulting the label and a couple of their charges into the mainstream limelight. The common consensus is that, had they not imploded onstage at Tufnell Park Dome in 1991 after long-simmering personality clashes, The Field Mice stood a chance at a genuine breakthrough moment. Sydney’s Even As We Speak went one step better gaining extensive Radio 1 airplay of ‘Falling Down The Stairs‘ and more, to the extent a move to a major seemed the next logical step; a move which ultimately didn’t happen owing to UK relocation demands and an unwillingness by the band to leave Australia. The mere fact the label had grown to add American and Australasian bands to its roster being indicative in itself of how far they’d come.
Major labels despaired at the attention your released achieved with your meager means compared to theirs – was this the result of boxing clever or were there carefully crafted plans at play? Looking back, can you attribute it to any one thing you were doing at the time?
I think it’s a bit of both. If you had John Peel and a couple of journalists on your side, you could do a lot. And we were really lucky to have an enormous degree of support from John Peel and specific journalists at the start who would stick their necks out for us. If you put out really good records that you really care about and really believe in, sometimes people will notice. If you put out expensive shit, you can throw all the money you like at it, but it might not make any difference. I just don’t really think we had anything in common with the majors – their explicit aim is to make money for their shareholders by trying to work out what the next big thing is going to be or by trying to emulate the last big thing. Our aim was to put out records that the two of us thought were totally brilliant, and in the hope enough other people would think so too, to enable us to put out some more. It’s just different things…
In Even As We Speak and The Field Mice you had two acts on the cusp of breakthroughs. Had that happened would you have considered expanding to allow that to continue on Sarah or encouraged them to look elsewhere?
I think if it had happened in a way where they had had the success with us – a record that just kept selling – then for them to stay on Sarah would have been lovely and we would have had the funds (from that successful record) to invest in them. But we would never have put the label in significant debt for any one band, we cared too much about the label for that, and never wanted to go bust. So, without any runaway successful record, it would have been about them signing with a different label and making whatever compromises went with that (not that there weren’t compromises for the bands in being on Sarah, I don’t think any of them ever actually asked for all of their records to have pictures of buses on the labels, for instance). It’s hard to say really – we’d have found expanding beyond the two of us weird and difficult, and we largely worked from home, so I don’t know who would have wanted to come and work for us, but we did consider it from time to time, and did employ people to do press and radio a couple of times.
Given you ended up with both a truly global roster and fanbase, was there a definitive point where you felt/realised that the label had far exceeded your initial plans and expectations you might have have had for it and if so, what?
No, I don’t think there was really, it was all so gradual. We had an American band by Sarah 10, when we were still just a 7” single label, so subsequently getting Australian bands and more from the US wasn’t such a big deal location-wise. I suppose there was the point where I graduated from university in 1989, and we had to decide if the label could just about support the two of us working for it full-time (and living like students) because I wasn’t getting a grant anymore. We simultaneously never had a plan – but also never expected it to become what it did.
Throughout its history, Sarah was famous for its relationship with its fans – it wasn’t a label in the traditional sense, more a community or gang with an open policy for newcomers. It was an element characterised by Clare and Matt’s legendary penchant for sharing correspondence with fans who’d write to them, great sprawling epics – not curt thank you notes – answering and discussing anything which the original sender might wish to know. If there’s a current label closest to this ethos, it’s probably Melbourne’s Milk! Records, it’s heartening to see that even in today’s quickfire online messaging culture they too encourage fans to write, as evidenced by this Instagram post. But returning to Sarah, Holy Moly editor Tim Chipping (a longtime fan turned eventual signing as a member of Shelley) recounts once asking why his girlfriend received trinkets and sundry goodies in her mail orders and he not, only to be ticked off for not writing to them as often as she did. Even after Sarah’s demise, it seems it’s something which never left those at its helm – on my shelf sits a parcel from Haynes’ post-label project, the London-centric Smoke magazine which he ran alongside music writer Jude Rogers. In it sits a note which, while brief in nature – “Hi Gareth, lots of old magazines and a book…Matt” – is nonetheless a nice touch. The effort in sending out the Sarah mailing list’s assorted packages of wonders was a feat in itself, in a ritual consisting of a shoebox index-card system of a thousand addresses, a matching number of envelopes (which, being the cheapest available, weren’t self-adhesive) and stamps (likewise) in an overall process which allegedly could take up to two days at a time to finish.
But with early releases also having their home address printed on them, they’d occasionally find people knocking on the door either for a cup of tea, a tour of Bristol, or both (Amelia Fletcher claims that when time was at a premium Matt and Clare weren’t, on occasion, above diving behind the sofa to be left in peace…). Which in turn presents an interesting a side-note: that of Sarah’s role in shaping people’s perceptions of the city. For many, the only snapshot they had was through release names such as actual locales There And Back Again Lane and Hot Air Balloon Road, the imagery on the sleeves such as the Clifton suspension bridge, or the series of Severn Beach line train stations on the labels of Sarah 21-30 and local buses on 71-80. Pre-dating the likes of Massive Attack and the trip-hop scene, it helped put Bristol on the map, a view backed up, fittingly, by last year’s acclaimed celebratory exhibition at the city’s Arnolfini gallery.
It’s impossible to talk about Sarah without bringing up the relationship it had with its fans. How big a part was that interaction a part of the Sarah make-up and did it become harder as time went on and the label became more well-known?
It was a huge part, especially in the early days. We were both so much of the fanzine culture that we took it for granted you wrote everyone little notes with their records, and so many people were in a band or writing a fanzine or would do one of those things one day so there wasn’t really a clear distinction between fans and participants in the scene, because so many people were both. Later on, certainly keeping up the letter-writing got harder – and as we became a bigger label, with a PO box instead of our home address on the sleeves etc. – it probably got weirder for the recipients who probably no longer expected it. But in a sense the joy of doing it – and there was a lot that was difficult and boring about running the label – came from the fans. The pleasure came from putting out records people loved and them telling us they loved them. So we never really wanted to lose that relationship. Some of my best friends I got to know because they were fans of the label one way or another and also liked writing letters, so it has endured too.
There’s the school of thought that suggests transcendence in pop music comes from good storytelling mated to honesty and relatability. Is this, in your estimation, what has led to Sarah’s output enduring as it has? Are you surprised at the continued interest 20 years after its dissolution, including a demographic who probably hadn’t even been born in 1995?
We are definitely surprised at the continuing interest. I mean 15 years ago, it would have seemed ludicrous to think anyone would make a film or write a book about the label, there was just no interest at all really. I think there was an honesty about both what we did and about the music itself, and yes, people could relate because the bands weren’t big stars etc, they were sort of ordinary people (making extraordinary music, I would contend). I also think that we never put out anything crap, or even halfway crap – we genuinely loved and believed in every record, and we did fight with the bands and, on occasion fall out with them, about what got recorded and what got released, and what didn’t. It was hard work at times, but I’m glad we did it, because the music is what remains, and we stand or fall by that.
For a lot of people – your international audience especially – their first taste of Bristol came through Sarah. Do you feel that in some way you helped put the city on the map in some way?
Absolutely yes! We both really love Bristol and it felt so under-rated at the time – UK cities were rather neglected and unloved in the 1980s and Bristol was so often overshadowed by Bath, which is ridiculous because Bath has nothing on Bristol. So, yes, lots of people came to Bristol because of us, and some people moved to Bristol because of us – and it has an enormous amount to offer as a city. I always rather hoped the Tourist Board would spot what we were doing and want to encourage us in some way. We were really thrilled last year to have an exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol at the same time as the film first screened, it felt like we’d come home, and we were able to use it to show the way the label celebrated the city with the record sleeves and compilation names etc.
Finally, can you describe your feelings at that final party aboard the Thekla on August 28th, 1995 – sadness or the natural culmination of your work? In hindsight, what do you feel you learned from the experience and how do you think it’s shaped you as a person?
Blimey, it’s over 20 years ago, so other than somewhat drunk, I rather struggle to remember. It was a logistical nightmare, obviously, cramming all those performances into such a short space of time, and we were very lucky to work with grown up bands who were willing to muck in, share as much gear as possible and get themselves on and off stage with the minimum about of fuss in the shortest amount of time.
Stopping the label was exciting and terrifying and sad at the same time – we were throwing away both our lives and our livelihoods and didn’t really have any idea what we were going to do next. And it wasn’t really that fair on the bands, especially those who had only recently joined the label or who were sort in their prime. But at the same time I think we always knew it was the right thing to do, so there was never any doubt, and the decision had been made a long time before.
I’ve never really thought about what I learnt or how it shaped me before – perhaps weirdly. I very much wanted afterwards just to get a job and have a regular monthly salary and top not have to deal with “talent” for a while. And I’ve sort of done that one way or another for the last 20 years, so perhaps soon is the time to start thinking back to the fun and interesting things I did at Sarah and about how I might recapture some of that.
That, as they say, was that. Haynes and Wadd would split up as a couple shortly after the label’s death toll sounded – the former briefly running another label (Shinkansen) before lending his hand to the aforementioned wry, fascinating and never dull look at London, Smoke and the latter becoming a chartered accountant. Musing on the label’s official archive Wadd adds that “We always wanted to create something that would stand the test of time. We were arrogant (if quiet and shy), so always had an eye on a legacy. We wanted to be able to look back and be proud, for it to be obvious that everything was deliberate and thought-through. We were careful to make everything special and important”. Haynes, commenting on their relationship with the press, adds “all you can really do is sigh and hope that, even if it takes twenty years, they’ll eventually come round.”
I think all of their wishes have come true, don’t you?