Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A Sarah Records Story

Sarah Records is the subject of both a documentary and a book, each currently in progress. Now seems a good time to revisit the label, its triumphs, failures and influence.

I was there at the start, as a fan, less so during the middle and hardly at all at the end. This is my history and how I saw things evolve. It’s a mixture of opinion, fact and contemporary sources quoted from fanzines. I’m not expecting you to agree with all of it, but if you do want to invite me outside for a full and frank exchange about the quality of The Secret Shine’s output, I'm not interested.

Sarah’s first release, Pristine Christine by The Sea Urchins, came out in November 1987 when I was 14. I’d caught the end of the indiepop explosion a year earlier and found my musical home. I consumed as much as I could - records, fanzines, late-night radio. Despite the excitement and the samizdat’s sabre-rattling belligerence, the scene I felt I was becoming a part of in 1986 was giving way in 1987.

A small part of this was down to the bile spat at indiepop by the music press. I know now how the music press works, and accept that they’d moved on to a new scene. Yet it still strikes me as odd that a record as great as Sally Cinnamon by The Stone Roses was ignored in the summer of 87. I thought it was indiepop then. I still do.

Similarly, The Vaselines’ debut single was overlooked that same summer. They would remain underground until Nirvana became popular and covered them. I didn’t think The Vaselines were indiepop then; I thought whatever it was that they did was brilliant. I still do.

There was, then, hardly any appetite for indiepop or the guitar underground in 87. When Sarah launched, it became the UK’s last hurrah for post-86 indiepop. This was a label that would run on the ideals of punk’s democracy, a distinctly anti-rockist impulse (no sexpot poster sleeves) and the promise of not ripping off punters (no 12” singles with extra tracks).

Bob Stanley, just about the only hack with a soft spot for indiepop at the time, gave Pristine Christine single of the week in the NME and greeted The Orchids’ debut warmly. The good NME reviews continued with a runner up single of the week for Anorak City, until you got to the part where reviewer Simon Williams described Sarah Records as being "appallingly twee-sounding”.

This was the same reviewer who five years later celebrated Heavenly’s Atta Girl as a “riot grrrl anthem” not realising the lyrics were written by the male drummer. A minor point, I know, but I use it to illustrate that when the music press did pay attention to Sarah Records, it was often through a prejudiced lens or just plain wrong.

I thought most of the early Sarah releases were great – a few were average, one was terrible – but it seemed we (this was an imaginary ‘we’; restricted access to gigs and absence of friends with similar niche musical interests meant that even if I was alone, I definitely felt part of a community through sharing fellow fans’ passions) for a couple of years were fighting a good fight just by buying the records.

There were other UK indie labels that were putting out brilliant pop records in 87-88 – Medium Cool and September stand out particularly – but who weren’t associated so strongly with indiepop. This was largely because they didn’t set out on a crusade as Sarah did; I strongly suspect that neither labels thought of themselves as indiepop nor wanted to identify so strongly with a small scene.

Sarah, perhaps unintentionally, painted themselves into a corner. I might think the label would have been better if they’d signed The Pale Saints instead of related band Gentle Despite and that Slowdive were a better bet than offshoots Eternal. But even if they’d wanted to sign those bands, could they have afforded the studio costs? I’d guess not.

The important thing here is that it wasn’t my label. Good indie labels sign only what they like with scant regard to commercial potential. However, what I think eventually happened is that Sarah contracted to the point where they’d only get demos from bands who were inspired by bands on Sarah.

You can hear the diminishing returns on some releases. I wasn’t buying that many of them four years after Pristine Christine. When I went bought the latest Sarah release in October 1991, the debut by The Secret Shine, the man in the shop asked if I bought every release on that label. It was the last time I could say yes because The Secret Shine record was so shit.

Why did this record provoke such revulsion in me? Because I thought I was part of a club, a group of like-minded people, and I’d been badly let down. I can see now that this is incredibly silly. None of my favourite acts of the previous four years were on Sarah. Take 1988, for example. I was obsessed with East Village. Elsewhere, Creation were really ruling the school: My Bloody Valentine had turned the world upside down; The House Of Love were on fire; Felt had released The Pictorial Jackson Review; and The Jasmine Minks hit a new high with Another Age.

Still, I think it would be unfair to claim there was a sonic hegemony on Sarah’s roster. You wouldn’t put The Field Mice’s house epic Missing The Moon…actually, outside of The Field Mice’s occasional forays into New Order inspired territory and The Orchids’ Ian Carmichael dance mixes, this is a question of degree.

There are probably only a few hundred people in the world who could say there’s a big difference between any of Sarah’s acts. Even if broader brush strokes could separate Action Painting! (who were grouped with the new wave of new wave scene) and Shelley (who were affiliated to the Romo lot)- and even differentiating those might be a push - everything else was ‘Sarah Records’.

The problem I have is that Sarah became synonymous with indiepop. There were imitators, of course. In Honey Hunt fanzine (April 89) Bob Stanley wrote: "Things have reached a pretty pass… there’s the folk who really misunderstood the 85/86 punk rematch and keep faith in Woosh and The Nivens and all the other no-hope tail enders named after dead film stars and dead holiday resorts."

I didn’t care much for the Woosh records. I’m really pleased the fanzines existed and I bet for anyone in Newcastle the gigs they put on were absolutely vital. What was happening in indiepop outside of the UK at this time, though, was far more exciting than anything Sarah’s cottage industry and other even smaller operations were keeping alive.

Bus Stop’s first proper single in 1988 was Sunflower by The Springfields. This had been released on Sarah a few months earlier, but had meant to originally come out on Bus Stop first. That, and signing St Christopher, got Bus Stop tagged – unfairly – as the ‘American Sarah Records’. The Waterbomb fanzine (issue 6) put it very well in 1991: “What (seemingly) began as America’s answer to Sarah Records has now ended up as one of the finest psych-pop labels of all time!”

Just look at the line-up: Engine No 9, Bag-O-Shells, The Sneetches, Velvet Crush, Honeybunch, The Caroline No, Matt Allison. These would surely be the first names on the team sheet for any label wanting the best in pop at that time.

Where Sarah had kept the indiepop flame flickering post-86 in the UK, in the USA the baton had been picked up with a new enthusiasm by a number of labels. After Bus Stop, Slumberland started brightly with noise, pop and really noisy pop. They raced out of the traps with Black Tambourine, the first American band to take The Shop Assistants’ template of girl group sass and Ramones suss. Then there were Velocity Girl and Small Factory, easily my two favourite singles bands of the early 90s.

This sort of scene wasn’t going on in the UK. There hadn’t been anything like it since 86. Loads of labels and fanzines popped up. Terry Banks, of US band Tree Fort Angst and English act St Christopher, told the American fanzine Amish Ways in 1992:

“As far as response to pop stuff here vs in America, I think, while Britain has certainly put out more than its fair share of pop stuff, the “scene” here isn’t much different than it is in the States. In fact, I find the “scene” in America much more honest, enthusiastic and open than it is in Britain, which is very stifled.”
Ric Menck, then of Choo Choo Train, explained his band’s name and the nascent US indiepop scene to the Fine Art Of Shoplifting fanzine (issue 3) in 1989:
“People never forget it. Over here you guys have got this whole indie cutie scene, but in America we don’t have a cutie indie scene or anything. There is no scene. I think it’s more…punk-rock – like The Sex Pistols, Every time you say it to somebody they’re either embarrassed to say it or they automatically hate it.”
The US just didn’t have the deep-seated vitriolic hatred to indiepop that existed in the UK. The Close Lobsters were asked by Scottish fanzine Do It For Fun in late 89 if they were getting more attention in the USA:
“The answer is a resounding yes. We’ve come back from there, 2 weeks in all and go back for a month soon. Not only that, our records seem to do pretty well especially in the college circuit. The reason for this is that Americans are far less self-conscious about most things, music among them, so the Lobsters’ chequered past, tattered present and shattered future (in UK terms) as shambling C86 anorak blah fucking blah is considered less than irrelevant.”
The UK music press back then had a very powerful hold on taste making. However, the indiepop scene didn’t die in the UK because of the music press; in fact, it didn’t die at all. There were fewer UK indiepop releases in the early 90s than in the 80s, it was more underground than it had been, but there still some fantastic records being made. Very few of them to my mind were on Sarah, though.

Without Sarah at this time, however, it’s unlikely that Even As We Speak would have ever come to the UK. Did you see them live? They were amazing. Seriously. I saw them as often as I could. They were always red hot.

Even As We Speak were one of many Australian bands who had been making astonishingly good pop records in the 80s and were almost completely ignored outside of their home towns. What Melbourne's Summershine label did from 1990 was to impose a sense of order on the Australian scene and export it worldwide. You’d have to ask label boss Jason Reynolds or any of the bands from the 80s if they thought then they were part of an indiepop scene.

My feeling is that bands playing a very melodic brand of guitar pop in a country dominated by pub rock and a macho music culture were automatically oppositional, in the same way the anti-rockist mid-80s indiepop scene had been in the UK.

Years ago, I asked Robert Forster if he thought that his androgyny and The Go-Betweens’ melodic pop had encouraged younger Australian bands in the 80s like The Lighthouse Keepers, Charlotte’s Web and The Palisades.

He seemed astonished, and pleased, by the question. The old charmer exclaimed: ‘Yes! I’ve never been asked that question before and I’m glad you raised it, because I think it’s one of the most important things The Go-Betweens have done and it’s not recognised’.

The one connection that can be made between Australian indie and what was going on worldwide in the 80s is The Cannanes. They released a tape on K and in 1987 a single as part of K’s International Pop Underground series. I bought those releases. I didn’t think then they had a lot in common with the UK indiepop I was listening to.

Inevitably, too much probing here will lead us into the conversational cul-de-sac ‘what is indiepop’. We can more usefully explore the global situation by looking at indiepop in general as an important part of the post-punk subculture.

Nirvana got The Vaselines to support them in 1990, something no big UK band ever did for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Americans, Nirvana weren't blinded by the British music press's homophobic obloquy towards indiepop. Secondly, punk's legacy of an uncompromised mode of expression was embraced most enthusiastically by indiepop and hardcore acts. There was a shared egalitarianism, if not quite a shared record collection. Thirdly, the infrastructure left by the punk revolution - shops and venues, particularly - had to keep alive the communal spirit if only to survive; the survivalist techniques of indie had been honed in punk's aftermath, when there was no one dominant underground musical form. This communal spirit was still alive in the US mindset.

You could see the same machinations at work when Fugazi got post-Heavenly outfit Marine Research to support them on their 1999 European tour. This esprit de corps in the American underground has been central to the health of US indie. Its decline in the UK after 1986 led to the stigmatism of indiepop and the creation of Sarah, a label that focussed on indiepop as an ideal.

The broader range of the American labels who were influenced by Sarah (as well as Postcard, Creation and Rough Trade) made them more attractive to me. There was no fight against a dominant, reactionary music press in the US. There seemed to be an emphasis on getting records out to be heard and to build something new, rather than – valuable as it was in many ways – keeping older traditions alive.

As I saw it in the early 90s, most of the world’s best indiepop was coming out of the US and Australia. Things were relatively quiet in the UK and seldom inspiring on Sarah. I’m not criticising Sarah here. Like I said, it was an indie label and they released what they wanted. If I were to love everything on a label, I’d have to start it myself and run it on my own.

I didn’t do that. I’m very grateful that others did so I could see some cool bands and make some lifelong friends.

I accept that I could be romanticising records from America and Australia over British ones. You know, hunting down imports back then was like finding a message in a bottle. There’s nothing like distance – and happenstance – to burnish a romance.

So in the mid-90s when I used to hear what seemed like an endless stream of Swedish bands playing a diluted version of the – admittedly sometimes already quite thin – Field Mice’s electronic indiepop, I let it pass. In the same way that post-1996 I give bands that sound like the first two Belle and Sebastian lps a wide berth. Just as I didn’t let what was sometimes a rather incestuous sound from the later Sarah bands divest me of my money.

When Sarah shut its doors in 1995, it barely registered with me. The newsletter they posted out in July 1995 to announce their closure had an interesting comment: “And even if it’s true that most of those who used to write to us when we first began have, over the years, gradually disappeared, wandered off into…what…jobs, marriages, babies, the backstreets of Naples – it doesn’t really matter, because you were there at the time.”

It’s true, you know. I knew someone who was obsessed with Sarah at university. Then he found jazz. Sarah Records played an important part in my life for a few years; for some it still does. I’m less enthusiastic by the idea that some people hold that it’s a paradigmatic absolute of indiepop. It’s not and nor do I ever think it meant to be. It’s part of the picture. It was fun while it lasted.


  1. Great post DNC! I wasn't early on the scene when it came to Sarah. The first single I bought was Blueboy's "Clearer". That was Sarah 55, I think. Had you lost interest by then? I hope not as it's wonderful. I bought it from the Rock department of 23rd Precinct in Glasgow. If you'd seen that place you would've known just how subversive an act that was. It just had to have been the most fragile thing in the whole shop. I can't even remember what attracted me to it. Probably the assumption that they took their name from an Orange Juice song. I'm surprised that I didn't get beaten up and robbed of my lunch money on the way out.

    cheers, brogues

    1. Clearer is the only Blueboy record I bought. It never struck me as being brilliant, but Sarah's schedule in autumn 91 included Missing The Moon, and that song's lasted.

      Like I said, there are probably only a few hundred people who can (and who care to) separate the shades between most Sarah bands. Unfortunately, I get the impression that some of those people think that you have to like it all, that it's sacrilegious to say otherwise.

      Indiepop is a broader church than many credit. Certainly, in my experience, many indiepop fans have musical passions that bounce around different genres. This is a good thing. I know you're one such person, Brogues.

      I have noticed at times a slightly hostile attitude from a few indiepop fans to anyone who doesn't share their exact same taste. I'm unsure if it's possible to be any more parochial than that.

    2. Actually, Brogues, what I should have mentioned is that I'd be interested to hear your story re Sarah. As I (hope I) made clear, the above is my experience. I hope that the documentary, for example, takes viewpoints from people with varied experiences. I'd like to know if Sarah inspired you to start your record label, or if it made the indiepop world a better place when you were getting in to the music. There were a lot of gigs that I'd have never seen without Sarah and a lot of good times and good people that I met. Their influence was positive in many respects.

    3. Y'know, I've been thinking over my position on Sarah for a blog posting. If I get a minute or two tomorrow I'll post it.

      You're right...I couldn't just stick to one narrow type of music. When I was first experiencing non-chart music, it was through the radio shows of John Peel and (Radio Scotland's) Peter Easton and they certainly didn't encourage a narrow range of listening. So, yeah, there'll be no hostility from me to people who speak their mind and have opinions that differ from mine. Mind you, you were totally WRONG not to buy this:

      One of Sarah's highpoints, for me :)

      cheers, brogues

    4. Fair enough, it is a good song and I bought worse singles in 93. But I also bought what I consider some much better ones (Ex-Pop Song by the Tender Engines, for example). I wonder, though, if most people outside of indiepop would find it hard to separate those two bands in style. So this is either a case of bald men fighting over a comb, or you being excited about Sarah in 93 and me having lost a bit of interest. I look forward to reading your thoughts about your own Sarah experience.

    5. Hi Ben,

      I finally found myself awake enough to write a bit on Sarah Records:

      I think I have Ex-Pop Song but (for shame!) I don't remember it. I'll dig it out tonight :)

      cheers, brogues

    6. ...been meaning to ask...which one of the early releases did you think was terrible? Just being nosey :)

      cheers, b

    7. Ha! I'll email you privately. I don't really want this to be about finger-pointing. It might be someone's favourite (though that would be an opinion I've never heard before...).

      Actually, I think it's more interesting what the average ones were, because they don't inspire love or hate and might just as well not been released.

  2. Lovely, well written piece.

    Reminded me of my interview with Mitch Easter talking about how cruel the collapse of interest in indiepop was to him. Sad!

    Keep flying the flag - Erin

    1. Erin - I'd already read your Mitch Easter interview. Massive fan of his. Easter produced the recent albums by Big Troubles and Boy Genius, both really good records.

  3. Nice read. And thanks for the mention!

    As to my place in the indiepop scene? interesting question, & probably one that would deserve a multi-layered answer...

    Jason R

    1. You write the multi-layered answer, I'll publish it as a separate post. Seriously. I'm really interested in how indiepop developed in Australia in the 80s; if there was a national network or scenes restricted to cities; if, say, EAWS in Sydney felt kinship with Charlotte's Web in Perth and if those bands were responding to a common UK indiepop influence or developed separately. This is, I think, fascinating stuff.

  4. Interesting history. As someone around the same age that grew up in the San Francisco area I probably romanticized things the other way and might have given passes to English bands that didn't necessarily deserve it. But your opinion on Sarah hits the nail on the head in my opinion -- you could probably distill the entire output into one really nice 20 song compilation, and 90% of the songs would be from the first 4-5 years. I'd have trouble narrowing Creation down to even 100 songs.

    1. I'd struggle to reduce Sarah's output to 20 songs, but I agree with your timeline. Creation were more adventurous in their approach - that label was fired initially by the influence of Dan Treacy's taste and was historically still in breathing distance of post-punk's experimentation - but their adventurism transmuted into self-indulgence with Oasis-generated cash (and possibly a drug-induced sense of invincibility). But, yes, Creation had more, er, highs and wasn't, unlike Sarah, restricted by any messianic mission.

  5. Recent events have got me thinking again about my time following Sarah records and indie pop in the period 87-92, and I thought you might be interested to hear a few thoughts. I was 16 when the Sea Urchins single came out, but didn't hear them until a friend taped me all their songs in the summer of 88. I bought The Poppyheads single and then most that came out in 1989 and 1990. Coming from Bristol, I got a chance to see quite a few of the bands play live, because if memory serves, Matt and Sarah used to put on gigs at a place called Le Cav, which was a cavernous cellar under a pub called The Crown in Bristol's covered market. There were non-Sarah indie bands playing on the bill there too, and I definitely remember seeing the Field Mice there in Spring or summer of 1989.
    Even at that young age, I got a sense that I'd missed out on a scene that had been at its peak in 1986 (Bristol had some very 'untwee' indie bands like The Flatmates and The Groove Farm who had a national following and I suppose were loosely affiliated to the Sarah records audience. What sticks in my mind is that by this time, indie pop of the 'anorak' variety was no longer a fashion or a major student thing (if it ever had been!), and so its core audience were absolutely devoted to it and it almost became a badge of honour to be dismissed in the music press as 'cuties' or 'fey' or whatever we were back then. And also, curiously enough, a typical audience at a Sarah gig (I can speak of Bristol, Leeds and London with any confidence) was by about 1990 no longer remotely dominated by cuties, but curious music fans of all types.
    One of the complications of the time was that by about 1987, indie bands were beginning to understand more about how music by two big influences, The Byrds and Velvet Underground actually worked. And most discovered the hard fact that those musicians were brilliant, either schooled in folk music, classically trained or one-off geniuses/drummers! So, most bands attempting to sound like either of those two bands didn't succeed very well sonically, though sometimes visually there would be a bowl cut and turtle neck or two in each band.I think that genuine 60s freaks who had gone along with the Primal Scream thing at first thought Sarah records might offer similar stuff and with the Sea Urchins they were not disappointed. Over time, though, the increasing availability of compilations/reeditions of obscure 60s records + the harder sound of bands like Loop and Spacemen 3 resulted in Sarah records becoming cast adrift from the wider indie scene. It also didn't help that (unfairly perhaps) by about 1991, old school indie pop was perceived as not having taken on board the 'dance/funk' cultural turn, which would lead in so many cases to indie kids getting into black music, either from the 60s (what you say about jazz rings very true) or house music/techno. In short, many indie kids became either mods or ravers.
    Of course, many of the independent labels were more influenced by the punk ethic as opposed to sixties pop and rock, and I think that is probably what kept the Sarah label going as long as it did, a sense of DIY, "we're doing this because we want" to attitude. Perhaps that is why it is popular in the US, which always has had a strong and varied punk rock scene.
    I could share more views on it all, but perhaps should leave it there for now. best wishes

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful response, James. We were probably at some of the same gigs in London and, similarly, I didn’t see too many (if any) ‘cuties’. For instance, outside the Heavenly/Wake/Field Mice/Brighter Bull & Gate gig in summer 1990 there were a group of people that would become Huggy Bear (indiepop’s influence on riot grrrl is never given its due).

      There was quite an interest back then in the Bam Caruso reissues – Rob Young of The Poppyheads wrote a fanzine It All Sounded The Same (in 87, I think) that showed his interest in that scene. There was a noticeable attempt to adopt that sound on their Sarah single compared to their flexi, I think.

      Although there was nothing on Sarah comparable to Loop, noisier pop like The Field Mice’s Sensitive wasn’t given its due by the press – I’m unsure if this is because, 2 years after launch, Sarah had been stigmatised.

      Sensitive was a reasonable indie hit, if you like, and made 26 in the 1989 Festive Fifty (ahead of Spacemen 3 and next to The Wedding Present and The Pale Saints). The Field Mice progressed to New Order territory afterwards, but the prevailing taste was for Madchester; similarly, The Field Mice’s previous work was out of fashion by the time it was released.

      The Orchids – this will give me a chance to correct my post when I said none of my favourite bands were on Sarah, as they were absolutely one of my favourite bands - were making essential dance-influenced pop with Ian Carmichael producing. He went on to considerable more attention with One Dove, who much as I like them I thought they were a lesser proposition.

      Does that mean The Orchids were ahead of their time or were the victim of an anti-Sarah sentiment? Both these things could be true; equally, they could’ve just been unlucky. I know they were shopping around for a different label, hence the 3-year gap between Unholy Soul and Striving. They got good reviews in the main, you know, but the public wasn’t behind them. Yes, more press coverage would’ve helped, but there were other great bands then (Pulp, for example) as there have always been and will always be, who didn’t get the fame and fortune we think they deserve at the time.

      Outside of The Orchids and The Field Mice, a lot (not all) of Sarah’s roster did sound a little unadventurous and pale. Many indie kids did move on, but this is what music fans do – get wrapped up in one scene then find something else to love. What’s happened with Sarah, I think, is those that only like indiepop hold up Sarah as the ideal; I think this stance does indiepop, which has many faces and flavours, a disservice.

    2. Hi Ben, thanks for your comments and reply. I think I went to two or three gigs in London by Heavenly, once when they might have been on the same bill as The Brilliant Corners. That would have been August 1990 in New Cross. The other one was in Islington the following year. I remember going to the two Xmas parties in Bristol as well (1991 and 1993), though by the time of the second one I had pretty much lost interest in the genre as I'd heard John Coltrane's Impulse recordings by then and this opened up another world to me. I'd also been going to Mod/Soul nights for a year or two by then, and, not long afterwards, I sold every indie record I owned (except by Felt). Do I regret this? No, not really, except for a few by The Go-Betweens, Biff Bang Pow! and Hurrah!. I've bought a few classic early 80s indie LPs on CD since then though.
      I think I saw the Orchids once, though that might be wishful thinking. I remember their stuff being, along with The Field Mice, the best on the label. I also remember organising a gig in Bristol featuring Tramway with a group called Eye Pilgrims who were based in Leeds. I knew the guitarist from Tramway a bit, though I lost touch with him completely as I did with many people from that era.
      One of the good things about getting older is that it no longer matters if the music you like is cool or not. So, I happily rediscovered prog rock a few years back and I now let the opuses do their work. Best wishes, James