Before indie came in flatpack form there was Sarah records
It’s Britain, 1987. Bruce Willis has a song in the charts, Thatcher’s pissing off students and miners up and down the country and record company executives are living off a diet of cocaine and Duran Duran. In a sleepy suburban corner of Bristol, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes are dreaming of a different world. A secret world. The world of Sarah Records.
Matt and Claire were hard at work on their fanzines Are You Scared To Get Happy and Kvatch respectively at the time, when they decided to start putting out records from their flat. Their creative buzz resulted in the formation of Sarah Records, and whether they intended to or not, their response to the stifling, corporate nature of the late 80s music industry helped shape the genre that would later be ubiquitously referred to as ‘indie’. Sarah was instrumental in providing a platform for young bands to release music. Innovative and sincere in their approach, the duo focused primarily on releasing singles and compilations from the bands they loved. Bands like Heavenly and The Field Mice; bands who would go on to influence a generation of young people to pick up guitars, go back to basics and start making their own music.
While Sarah Records’ enduring influence has been far reaching, it was always a labour of love, “I’ve never thought there’s a link between how good a record is and commercial success – it’s all about money and marketing and looks and luck, and always has been”, Clare postulates. “We didn’t have the money, we never wanted to risk the whole label for one hit, and we didn’t want to do what it takes.
“There’s a lot of compromise involved in getting successful”, she continues, “a lot of doing what you have to do to sell, and it becomes less and less about the music.” Matt and Clare knew what they wanted from the start though. “Matt was part of Sha-la-la, which was a group of fanzine writers who got together to release flexidiscs and distribute them through their fanzines, and I had done a flexi with the Sea Urchins and The Groove Farm through my final Kvatch fanzine, so we had both already released music before we started Sarah. We had very clear ideas about what we wanted to do.”
The label grew out of a shared ethos to release the music they loved and the music they felt was authentic. “There’s a certain honesty and integrity about a lot of the music, and about Sarah itself; it’s all quite real and heartfelt and genuine,” she reflects, “that’s why it continues to resonate.” The resonance she speaks of can be heard in countless bands today: the off-kilter glockenspiels you hear in Los Campesinos, the jangly chords of Joanna Gruesome and the self-deprecating humour of The Cribs. Modern indie owes an outstanding debt to Sarah’s cast of misfit teenagers.
The likes of The Sea Urchins and The Field Mice were rag tag pioneers, experimenting with what they were discovering and learning on the job. “I think it was really important for the bands to embrace new sounds and experiment, and it worked really really well. Some of the bands were pretty young and had only just learnt to play and record when their first records came out”, Claire told us. “There’s a charming naivety to, say, the first Field Mice and Orchids singles, and I still love those records.”
Matt and Clare created Saraopoly (pictured below) in the early 90s to mark their 50th release. We asked filmmaker Lucy Dawkins if she’d ever played; “It’s incredibly complicated to play and requires a good knowledge of Bristol’s public transport system circa 1990. It was Sarah’s 50th release so they wanted to release something special, a kind of pop art statement. I think it sums up Sarah and Clare & Matt’s sense of humour.”
The legacy of Sarah is now being documented by Lucy in the form of My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records, which will be shown at Bristol’s Arnolfini as part of an extensive celebration of the Sarah Records legacy across May Bank Holiday Weekend. “Of course, it was perfect that she had lived near Bristol and known the label at the time, and lives in Bristol now”, Clare says on being approached by Lucy. “After she’d completed her Masters she was well on the way to tracking a lot of the bands down and had started to gather a lot of footage. She wanted to make it into a full length film, and we were happy to support that.” So with the renewed interest in Sarah, is there any chance of a revival?
“We won’t decide to resurrect Sarah.” Clare tells it how it is. We kinda knew the answer before we asked. Sarah is a document, evocative of a vital turning point in indie rock: a resounding reminder that music doesn’t need to be about posturing, production or money to be an outright success.
Find more information about My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records at storyofsarahrecords.com.