The Day Sarah Records Died

I first loved and admired Sarah Records not because it had begun, but because it had ended. It seemed to me ending things took much more courage, strength and self-discipline than beginning them.

We Don’t Do Encores

The strength and beauty of Bristol-based Sarah Records lay in its brevity. Sarah Records (1987-1995) was an independent record label; it also resembled a poem, a quick, awkward haiku. The label combined words, sounds, photographs – scattered curiosities for listeners to find again and endlessly remember or reassemble. And though it primarily released pop records – lovelorn, melancholic, spacious songs by the likes of Blueboy, the Field Mice or Talulah Gosh (to cite only three of the 34 artists on the label), there was something rather esoteric about Sarah Records. The label was simultaneously too much of this world (radically enmeshed with the life of Bristol) and not of this world at all. It reminded me a bit of Folkways, the New York dream of a street song-hunter – a universe within the universe, extremely politicized yet also defiantly self-enclosed.

Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, the two founders, shut down the label in the summer of 1995, and more or less disappeared. The farewell party was documented. There were balloons and bands – fans from everywhere, some donning the characteristic Sarah Records t-shirts (with its red cherry). When all was over, people duly went back home, kept on living and let the story fade. An obituary in the pages of the Melody Maker and the New Musical Express announced the end of the Sarah era.

Nothing should be forever.

Bands should do one single and then split-up,

fanzines finish after one flawless issue,

lovers leave in the rain at 5am and never be seen again –

Habit and fear of change are the worst reasons for ever doing ANYTHING


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 full text can be read here.)

I first loved and admired Sarah Records not because it had begun, but because it had ended. It seemed to me ending things took much more courage, strength and self-discipline than beginning them. As most people who felt drawn to the label did, I took to reconstructing it romantically; through records, old interviews, fanzines, newsletters. There was much that I didn’t know. The gaps and interstices were the most precious: they were precisely the places that one could inhabit. It didn’t matter that the music did not systematically move me; for I could move in this music, wander, imagine. I could run away with it. Sarah Records created a sense of space and movement and – it’s not too strong a word – emancipation. Even its absence for the last 20 years meant something. The founders had not looked back. Or if they did it was all too discrete, all too subtle to notice. This in itself appeared as a miracle.

The label appealed to my aesthetic sense of form. It had the persuasive, insistent grace of Bob Dylan’s 1967 invitation (by way of D. A. Pennebaker): “don’t look back”. It was too good to be true, certainly too good to be real. But what Sarah Records did was to transform an idealistic phrase into an embodied reality. It turned language into action. And it transformed a human process (that of running a record label) into an artwork. As Wadd said to journalist Michael White: ‘Sarah was a complete piece: very much the music, but more than the music – a piece of art with a beginning, a middle and an end. […] There’s a circularity and completeness about it’. And for a long time I thought it was wonderful: one could do something, humbly disappear, and let the piece carry on existing autonomously, almost outside time – as a monument.

Specters of Sarah

A film and a book about Sarah Records have recently been released, both of them produced in collaboration with Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes. Of course it’s not the only time Sarah Records has been written about; it has already received some exposure in blogs, websites and academic essays; it was included in reference books such as The Guinness Who’s Who of Indie and New Wave Music (1992) or the expansive French Dictionnaire du Rock (2003).

At first the return of actual authors in the story of Sarah Records seemed odd. Only because I never imagined it would ever ‘come back’. In a perfect world, there would be no book or film about Sarah Records. No attempt to catch up. No encore. No reunion. I did believe in the label’s obituary. It may be a bit harsh or unfair to expect people to remain faithful to words they wrote long ago in a rage — in a kind of ecstatic, joyful act of deliberate destruction. I came to realize this. Still I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed at Wadd and Haynes’ eagerness to appear again.

I saw Lucy Dawkins’ My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records in Glasgow earlier this year. The room was crammed with ageing fans and a few former band members, including the local Orchids. The film featured interviews with the label-founders, members of Heavenly, The Orchids, The Field Mice, Secret Shine. The absence of Bobby Wratten was glaring. New information was effectively uncovered and duly dispatched. Yet, on leaving the cinema, one felt they knew less than upon entering. The film did take something away from the audience.

Is it because anything about Sarah Records can only weaken or deplete it? I don’t think so. There’s a striking phrase by the literary critic Harold Bloom: “the meaning of a poem is another poem”. So a poem can be augmented; if it’s matched in intensity (and in intensity only) by another poem. A film about Sarah Records should strive to be as luminous, vibrant and inspiring – as ideal – as the label was. But My Secret World felt a bit rushed, flat, almost crudely put together – this had less to do with amateurism and limited budget than with its repetitive structure and mechanical, dull editorial gimmicks.

Michael White’s Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records, written from a house in Vancouver, is an implicit companion to the film. In his introduction, the author cautiously and judiciously remarks: ‘If there is any drawback to this book, it’s that it finally ruptures the mystery that, for most people, has always surrounded Sarah and its music’.

White’s book is solidly researched – yet it remains a conversation, a sort of Sarah salon, a surface. Structurally, it works and reads very well. The author dedicated some chapters to the main Sarah acts (such The Sea Urchins, The Field Mice, The Orchids and Blueboy); other chapters focused on the principal themes of the label (such as fanzine culture, the public transport system, feminism and riot grrrl). Yet, sadly, the work never critically or fully comes to grip with the Sarah material, with the stuff, texture and messy meshes of pop history. It’s a typical, conformist account of the life of a record label; in this respect it could almost be about any record label. The mass of anecdotes and teenage gossip (generic heartbreaks, bowlies and anoraks) covers up the bigger sense or organic poetics of the label. The factual abundance will satisfy fans, hoarders and collectors’ inquisitive minds, yet facts are not enough for Sarah Records or for good music writing– and never were.

Contrary to, for example, David Cavanagh’s complex version of Creation Records (My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize, 2000) or Alistair Fitchett’s beautiful Young and Foolish: A Personal Pop Odyssey (1998), Popkiss presents a rather depoliticized and deflated version of the ‘independent’ ’80s. It reminded me a lot of Marc Spitz’s breezy Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film (2014). Everything is alright in the end, quietly labelled and recuperated. Everything is in its right place.

Just as Wes Anderson’s films result from a coldly meticulous ordering and ordaining of objects, Popkiss is a careful staging of facts. It’s not a book of dreams or a book of thoughts or a book of ideas. The facts are reassuringly neutral, devoid of any potential as revolutionary agents. They almost seem to miss the point. White’s book incarnates a strand of contemporary music journalism –terribly informative yet bizarrely disengaged and dispassionate.

What’s most regrettable in both the film and the book is precisely their lack of asperity, edge and nuance; more sadly, they lack the power to inspire. Their mildness of tone deeply contrasts with the writings of Wadd and Haynes, both of whom had a fully-developed commitment to the written world (they both wanted to become writers). It does contrast, too, with the patient care, minutia and love which informed the whole label. I couldn’t help thinking that the former founders could have written their own story, if their intentions were to come back (but again, maybe there was no need for any story to be written: it was always there, always changing, encapsulated in a kaleidoscope of artefacts).

There and Back Again Lane

Avowedly, I certainly made Sarah Records seem much more than it was. The ensuing, inevitable disappointment is therefore my own creation. But somehow the label incited me to do so: it inspired me to be idealist and demanding, perhaps to the point of stubbornness. I wanted the story to end and never surface again. But all this time Sarah Records was alive, if dormant. The Internet made it quite easy to get back in touch, rummage the annals of pop music history, reread and remake. Invisibility, anonymity and actual disappearance may be the most difficult – and perhaps one of the most worthwhile – things to achieve in the digital age. Sarah Records was not to remain hidden forever. It was too tempting to open the box again; a readymade, networked public was always already there, waiting in quiet anticipation.

I wonder whether the book release is meant to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the end of Sarah Records. I hope that’s pure chance rather than a slightly opportunistic, conveniently lucrative, recuperation. It’s also rather ironic (but inevitable) that the label artefacts should have become collectors’ items for the rich and tasteful electronic consumer – when so much of it came from wanting to distribute ‘socialist’, low-priced 7-inch records (the label long resisted the lure of the then-new CDs, which they deemed too expensive, the über-capitalistic format).

These retrospective celebrations confirm or consolidate the existence of the label: there will be more. A Cantonese record label has just released a tribute to Sarah Records’ bands and to obsolete media formats simultaneously (the album is available as a vinyl, a cassette and a digital download).

Part of the label’s appeal resided not in its music but in the strange fabric it created, weaving together musical, written and visual elements. Sarah Records existed as an urgent, necessary – if necessarily partial – response to the world (more exactly, to the Thatcherite UK – another label to achieve this was the Newcastle-based Slampt Records). Now there’s only the music left; somehow it’s only half as good. I’m not sure whether Sarah Records is entirely defunct or entirely alive. I’m not really sure what Sarah means, anymore.