Saturday, 25 February 2012

Another Sarah Records Story

Did Not Chart recently wrote an excellent piece on his relationship with Sarah Records. It was an object lesson in blogging: it was personal, well thought-out and insightful.  What follows is my version of the story mixed with a few pointed counter opinions on some of the bands who came in for criticism in his piece. Since I didn't read the music press (save for sneaking a peak at the Singles of the Week in the NME and Melody Maker in WH Smith each week), wasn't immersed in the fanzine culture of the time and, for most of the time, didn't know anyone else into Sarah, it won't have the same cultural context but it will be my story.

I came to Sarah Records comparatively late. Their catalogue was already more than 50 releases deep when Blueboy's fragile "Clearer" became my first purchase on the label.  My personal folklore would have it that I rescued it rather than bought it as it came from the Rock department of Glasgow's dingy 23rd Precinct where I suspect it had been, by a fair distance, the softest record in their racks.  I don't recall what attracted me to it but I can guess that it was the sleeve and the (wrong) assumption that the group was named after Orange Juice's incredible song.  When I got home and put the stylus down on my dad's Pye Black Box - I didn't own a record player at the time - I immediately fell in love with its sparse, gentle but not folky sound.  It was unlike anything I'd bought before. At that stage I was still flipping over the up-tempo jangling of The Trashcan Sinatras and The Wedding Present and R.E.M.'s enjoyably inscrutable first few records.  At that time, as money was tight (some of the aforementioned R.E.M. lps were paid for using record tokens obtained through a Robinsons juice promotion) I would keep a note of the records I loved most that John Peel played on his radio show with a view to buying them when I finally had some spare money.  Sometimes, though by no means always, I also noted the label and I started noticing the name Sarah Records' name cropping up semi-regularly.  I went back to 23rd Precinct a while later to see if they had any more Sarah records.  They did. They had Brighter's "Half Hearted" but not being financially reckless it was few weeks before I actually stumped up the pennies for it.  I loved it, too. It sounded extra-jangly on the Pye Black Box on which I would purposefully turn the bass knob down as far as it would go whilst doing the opposite to the treble knob.

In retrospect, I was possibly a bit dim. It didn't occur to me to go back and attempt to hoover up Sarah's earlier releases when they may still have been relatively cheap.  This was partly because around the same time I'd bought Pavement's "Demolition Plot J-7" from Missing Records and had my head turned by American college rock and partly because buying records wasn't about accumulation, it was about brilliance. I only wanted to own amazing music. I remember being utterly bemused that friends would buy an lp because they liked just one song on it.  That just didn't seem worthwhile to me.  No, I only wanted incredible records, singles preferably.  With their emphasis on the 7" single, I was ripe for Sarah.  It didn't occur to me, either, that anyone would or could afford to buy everything on a given label. I really don't remember people doing that.  Mind you, I only really knew 2 people who bought records in any great numbers and neither particularly liked Sarah.

In the run up to my 21st birthday I must've been wittering on about Sarah Records incessantly so my sister ordered me a bunch of back catalogue releases.  Nearly 20 years on it's still one of the best birthday presents I have ever received.  When I heard The Field Mice's "Missing The Moon" it seemed like the most incredible piece of music I'd ever heard. It still sounds that way:

That bit at 5min 36secs where the new guitar comes in and the pace quickens never fails to set my pulse racing. I'll still take "Missing The Moon" over all the Factory Records releases that no doubt inspired it.

By the time I was becoming devoted to Sarah Records Did Not Chart was moving on, discovering the myriad treats to be found in the output of The Bus Stop Label, Slumberland Records and Summershine Records.  I had no room or money for them at that time, though.  That came later.  Listening back to the mid-period Sarah records, they stack up very well against the incredible early, more widely regarded releases (The Sea Urchins, 14 Iced Bears, The Orchids, The Springfields etc.).  Over the years I've read lots of carping about Brighter, The Sweetest Ache and especially Secret Shine. I can only say that I loved all three.  I never saw The Sweetest Ache as anaemic Field Mice imitators.  Their "Heaven-Scented World" remains one of my favourite songs ever and one of the few b-sides I've come close to wearing out.  The way the jumbled, disorientating intro gives way to the softest, prettiest male voice you ever heard still makes my heart soar.  When it plays I can almost reconnect with the unsure, intimidated-by-life youngster I once was.

As for the oft-maligned Secret Shine, songs like "Loveblind", "Temporal" (from their debut album "Untouched") and "Liquid Indigo" still sound like vital, thrilling slices of pop whenever they grace my turntable.  I say turntable but in reality I bought a lot of Sarah's records on cd-single.  They always did them incredibly well.  The two which I loved most were Northern Picture Library's "Paris/Last September's Farewell Kiss e.p." and Blueboy's "Johnny Rave".  "Paris" was and is a potent - there's nothing remotely twee about those surging guitars - and profoundly moving song that ranks amongst Bob Wratten's finest and, in my opinion, features Annemari Davies's most heartbreaking vocal.  Its opening few lines are still remarkably affecting:

What you want is a girlfriend
That's what I don't want to be
I've never really enjoyed it
Never been much good at it

When Sarah Records announced it was shutting up shop I was genuinely sad. Sure they hadn't changed the world, hadn't stormed the charts or made Bob Wratten a millionaire but they had been a huge part of my life.   At the time I didn't feel that it had run its course.  Did I like Shelley's "Reproduction Is Pollution" ? You bet I did.  I always thought that the beat poetry of The Blue Aeroplanes was its direct antecedent and I dug that.  The final single, Blueboy's "Dirty Mags", was brilliant - like a better version of the Britpop that had been ubiquitous at the time. I found it infinitely more enjoyable than Suede and Oasis and their ilk. That it was urgent and not nearly as breakable as their early records didn't matter a jot.  I had just graduated from University and had precisely no money but I still made the trip to Bristol on August Bank Holiday Monday 1995 for a day for destroying things on board The Thekla. I'd never done anything remotely impulsive like that before.  Being skint, I couldn't afford a hotel so from when the bands finished until the time of the first bus to London I walked the streets of Bristol, snatching a few minutes of sleep here and there whenever I happened upon a bench.  I wasn't the only one.  At various points in the night I'd spy a floppy fringe and a cherry red cherries t-shirt and we'd exchange a bashful, knowing glance (but no words). Sadly, I remember so little of the evening itself even though I reviewed it for a fanzine. If I can find the zine and it's not too embarrassing, I'll post what I wrote here as much to remind myself of what went on. Ironically, it's the moment of bliss I spent in the sunshine, after showering and eating in the YMCA, listening to Secret Shine run through Take That covers during their soundcheck as a balloon race soared slowly overhead that is the strongest musical memory I have of that day.

Looking back on it, one of the things that set Sarah apart was that it produced some great ephemera: all those wonderfully funny/furious typewritten newsletters and inserts, the 5" flexis,  the absurdly yellow Le Jardin de Heavenly carrier bag with the bright red butterfly on it (which inexplicably used to wind up the Rock chaps at Uni) and, of course, the board game Saropoly.  Then there were the letters from co-owner of Sarah Matt Haynes.  I didn't get all that many of them but the ones I did receive were fabulous. There was one particularly hilarious one - I hope I still have it somewhere - which he wrote on the back of a glossy photo that he'd been sent by a light-entertainment hopeful who had hoped to get a slot on a Sarah Records bill.  The chap claimed to be a "Singer and Entertainer" which, in typically skewed fashion, prompted Matt to wonder if that meant his singing wasn't entertaining.  When I briefly flirted with releasing records, Wurlitzer Jukebox and Sarah were my primary influences.

In the final analysis, I'm glad I discovered Sarah when I did and I'm glad I stuck with them to the end.  As a sensitive, easily-intimidated late teenager the fact there was something as intelligent, non-aggressive and committed to beauty as Sarah Records to cling onto was very welcome.  One Bob Wratten-penned lyric in particular summed-up how I felt about life and it was a genuine comfort that someone felt similarly:

If the sun going down can make me cry why should I
why should I
why should I not like the way I am?

Huge thanks to Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes for their vision, hard work and impeccable taste. I just hope that the film and book that are currently in production are of a sufficiently high standard to do their contribution to culture justice for it's a story that deserves to be told well.


  1. Great post. I only discovered the label just at the time it came to an end. I bought a couple of Sarah records my local shop still had in stock and came across a few 2nd hand others here and there. It was just before the Internet spoiled the pleasure of the treasure hunt...
    I didn't know you had a label yourself. Nice!

  2. Hey Anne,

    Thanks for the kind words. I spied Blueboy's "Dirty Mags" in your recent photos of 7"s. I meant to leave a comment on your blog to that effect :)

    Take care, brogues

  3. Great Post and I also loved Brighter for some the same reasons you mention - and their songs were simply beautiful, The Sugargliders for their vocals and guitars which still set them apart, Sweetest Ache - when they found their groove, no one could touch them.

    And of course not to forget The Hit Parade who were so Pure POP that it was hard to understand why everyone in the world didn't like them, I even had genre made up for them ElectroMod, that very few bands could master (The Pageboys and Anorak Girl also fit into that genre).

    There were so many more great moments including Even As We Speak whose New Order cover introduced me to Sarah and then I went back and collected a bunch of stuff I missed and so much more ...

  4. Thanks, Wally :)

    I totally agree with what you said about the groups that didn't make it into my post. I'm gonna do a slightly longer piece for a Glasgow fanzine and I'll definitely mention them in that. Funnily enough, though, my Hit Parade song wasn't on Sarah: "Hitomi". That's unusual as Sarah always seemed to get the best music from the bands that recorded from them. When they moved on they were never quite as good. Smart move going back and collecting all you could get :)

    Happy days!


  5. Never before-and very, very sadly, probably never again-will at least some of the truths about the great taboo subject of overpopulation ever be called out as loudly and brightly as in Shelley’s in "Reproduction is Pollution". Who hasn't wondered what would have been the effect if by some miracle of nature that recording had been released on a major record label-AND if a music video was produced that aired on MTV?