LIVE REPORT: Sarah Records Exhibition

Andrew Bulhak reports from Bristol's Arnolfini for Sarah Records' recent eight year anniversary exhibition, Between Hello And Goodbye

This weekend, I caught a train to Bristol to see the Between Hello And Goodbye exhibition, dedicated to the eight-year history of Bristol-based indie label Sarah Records. The exhibition, held at the Arnolfini by the harbour, consists of a room of artefacts connected with the label. The label’s 7" singles line the picture rail around the room, one of whose wall is plastered with (replicas of) gig flyers; on another wall is a map of Bristol, with the places which gave their names to Sarah compilations marked out with string. Several vitrines stand in the room, containing various artefacts: one holds a number of 7" singles, next to the photographs their centre labels were taken from; others contain demo tapes, master tapes, artwork sketches and some of the numerous correspondence generated and received by the label, as well as indie paraphernalia of the epoch: button badges, flyers, set lists and the ubiquitous zines that proliferated in the pre-Internet era. Two video projectors display a slideshow of newspaper reviews, many of them puzzlingly hostile. Elsewhere, several tables stand with two chairs and a copy of the board and pieces of Saropoly, the board game that was the label’s 50th release, set up for playing;  nobody seems to be taking up the invitation.

In the evening, there is the screening of a new documentary, My Secret World: The Story Of Sarah Records. The documentary, by Lucy Dawkins, looks at the label chronologically, going through the canonical hundred releases and the acts involved, talking with musicians (the Orchids were interviewed on the platform at Swanwick Railway Station, during Indietracks), a handful of journalists (Everett True and Alexis Petridis are featured) and, of course, the label’s founders, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, and examining various aspects of the story. There documentary is preceded by a hour-long Q&A session with Wadd and Haynes, during which they discuss things from production details to their relations with the press. Afterwards, there is a gig; first up are Sarah shoegazers Secret Shine, who start with a spirited cover of the Sea Urchins’ Pristine Christine, following it up with a set of songs they hadn’t played in two decades. They’re followed by a set from Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey (from Heavenly and Tender Trap; now playing as an as yet unnamed duo), who play mostly new songs, though play one or two Heavenly songs which can be done without a drummer; Scottish indiepop combo The Orchids close off the night, followed by the obligatory indie disco.

Sarah Records seems to finally be getting its due recognition; there is the documentary and a book (titled Popkiss: The Life And Afterlife Of Sarah Records, and written by Canadian music journalist Michael White) is coming out next year. The city of Bristol has honoured the label with this (admittedly brief) exhibition; it wouldn’t surprise me if, within the next 20 years, a blue plaque appears on 45/46 Upper Belgrave Road, the site of Wadd and Haynes’ bedsit office. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, high-profile bands such as The Drums and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have been openly citing Sarah and its bands as influences (following in the footsteps of a decade or two of Sarah-influenced music in Sweden, such as The Electric Pop Group and Jens Lekman; the Swedes, as so often, are ahead of the curve). Even the NME recently published a piece lauding the label which its writers denounced so vitriolically when it was around. This is a welcome change from just years ago, when in the various histories of the span of time between punk and Britpop, Sarah either went without mention or else was relegated to a perfunctory footnote, a sentence or two as an example of the ridiculous, unsuccessful outer fringes of indie in the hinterlands beyond Factory and Creation, and lazily summed up with the adjectives "twee", "wet" or "jingly-jangly".  History is, of course, written by the winners, and the obvious winners of the first round were the swaggering top lads took indie music and, applying the Thatcherite-Blairite principles that the losers were too pure for, merchandised it into empires, riding the cocaine supernova to massive commercial success and excess.  However, history is a palimpsest; the history of the last round’s losers is never wholly eradicated, merely buried, to be excavated sooner or later, and in these days of archive-digging, reference-revering retromania, that is more likely to be sooner.

Sarah was founded in 1987 by two students in Bristol— Wadd, from Harrogate, and Haynes, from London—who had both put out their own music zines, often with cheaply made flexidiscs of small bands attached. One band whose songs both of them had released in this way was the Sea Urchins, who became Sarah’s first release. They ran the label from the garden flat they lived in together; throughout its operation, it was a cottage operation; they never took on other staff, and to save money, would do everything from folding record sleeves to addressing envelopes and licking thousands of stamps by themselves; over the eight years that the label ran, they released 87 7" singles, a number of other artefacts such as several zines and the Saropoly board game, and, later, a number of albums (which came out as a necessity, as albums were more likely to recoup their costs than singles).

For all their alleged inoffensiveness which so offended the sensibilities of the writers at the NME and Melody Maker, Sarah could be a very confrontational operation. Starting in Bristol and wearing their Bristolian roots on their (record) sleeves, immediately set them apart from the back-slapping bonhomie of the London music industry and press; they did themselves no favours with the fiery broadsides against said press that they included in their zines and singles. It could be argued that their fight with the press was one they had picked, though in the end, their artists and their records became the collateral damage.  While their music (usually) steered away from political agitation, the label made up for that in the way it did business. Socialist convictions manifested themselves in a preference for the proletarian accessibility of the 7" single over the bourgeois glitz of the £15 CD album, and a disdain for completist-gouging gimmicks such as limited editions with different covers and B-sides. Even the 12" vinyl record format, with its connotations (back then) of the Serious Rock Album on one hand and the Extended Club Mix on the other, was avoided in favour of the 10" EP; a decision which ended up costing Sarah money, as unknown to them at the time, 10"s were pressed on 12" vinyl and then cut down to size at added expense.

One of the areas where Sarah were at their most bolshy though, was the issue of sexism and gender representation in music; a lot of their actions pushed back against a macho culture of sexual objectification, a culture in which women in bands were there to look pretty in photo shoots and either sing or shake a tambourine, in which zines (even "twee" indiepop zines otherwise devoid of any trace of machismo) went out with pictures of 1960s cuties on the cover to pander to the male gaze, and women involved in the scene were assumed to be there supporting their boyfriends. Sarah specifically made a point to avoid these things, instructing photographers not to place the female guitarist at the front or centre of the shoot, correcting people who referred to them as run by "Matt Haynes and his girlfriend Clare Wadd", with its implications of subordinacy, and complaining when a French indie distributor used a picture of a topless woman in an ad for their records. (The distributor was reportedly perplexed by the complaint.) This undoubtedly did them no favours in building rapport with a largely macho music press, though looking back now, after the rise of Britpop, lad culture and ironic retro-sexism which gradually lost its patina of irony and decayed into ordinary boorishness, one cannot help but think that they were prophetic.  Even today, while things have improved, their work is not entirely done.  Sarah’s music may not have been punk rock in the classic sense (though some of it came pretty close), but the label’s ethos, from its radical political stance to its commitment to DIY as a principle, whether efficient or not, was; they were more confrontational than Alan McGee with a nostril full of coke, and considerably more coherent in what they were confronting.

Equally coherent was Sarah Records’ aesthetic sensibility. While constrained by a low-budget production process bedded in the photocopied zine culture of the 1980s, Sarah nonetheless managed to build as strong a sense of visual identity around its records as more acclaimed labels such as Factory and 4AD; a sense of identity organically bound to their surroundings.  The label’s connection to Bristol was central to this identity, with the centre labels on 7" singles bearing images of locales around town, grouped in batches of 10 (Sarah 21-30 were stations on the Severn Beach line; Sarah 71-80 were photographs of buses 71 to 80; public transport as a civic good also tied into Sarah’s left-wing ethos, and oppositional stance to the tide of Thatcherite devil-take-the-hindmost individualism), and the Saropoly game board was modelled on a map of Bristol, in which a group of recording industry types found themselves marooned. The record sleeves tended towards minimalism, partly due to constraints, with photographs and Constructivist-style geometric designs alternating. The fact that the artwork was all done by Haynes and Wadd undoubtedly contributed to the cohesion.

Sarah Records’ eight years of operation coincided with a time of change in the recording industry and the idea of the alternative; in 1987, when they started, indie music in the UK was still small and underground, a legacy of the wave of DIY production that came from the punk and post-punk moments of the late 1970s. Dozens of regional bedroom labels existed, flogging 7"s (or cassettes or flexidiscs) of young guitar-based bands touring the student-union circuit. (A year earlier, the NME C86 compilation, which later gave its name to this sort of sound, came out.) The major labels’ attention was largely on getting baby boomers to repurchase their collections in the new CD format, and consequently, at the indie level, things were pretty much ad hoc; anyone with a little money could press up some 7"s, send them to the distributors (of whom there were a number) and see them in shops a few days later.  Eight years later, things had changed drastically; alternative music had exploded in the US, and the ecosystem of indie bands in the UK had given rise to the huge mass-market phenomenon of Britpop. Major labels were buying up indies or setting up their own arm’s-length pseudo-indie imprints. The industry, flush with cash, had become professionalised; nowadays, getting a record out involved sending out press kits months in advance, and angling for airplay to build up demand on its day of release. And, needless to say, the swaggering machismo that Wadd and Haynes railed against had not gone away.

So, when the time came, they decided to call it a day; Sarah 100 was to be their last-ever release, though they kept the secret until the last moment. And so, August 28, 1995 became A Day For Destroying Things. (Thankfully, they decided against an original plan of making a bonfire of all the Sarah master tapes, realising that that would have been unfair to the artists.) A party on the Thekla in Bristol, a 10-track EP, and it was over for all time. And they stuck to their word; there has never been, and never will be, another Sarah release, or another object of any sort issued a Sarah catalogue number (though Haynes admitted in the Q&A that, were this not the case, they have occasionally thought about the idea of pressing another run of Sarah 7"s, just to drive down the extortionate prices they fetch on eBay; they have little love for the collector mindset).  And now, almost two decades on, Sarah Records’ legacy is starting to be more widely appreciated.

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