Sarah Records was a Bristol-based independent label run by Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes between 1987 and 1995. Committed to socialism and feminism and influenced by the fanzine culture and the DIY attitude of earlier UK music scenes, Sarah was as much about politics as it was about music. Equally revered and loathed, the label came to define a certain kind of wistful, melancholic indie pop (the kind that detractors - usually male rockist music journalist - often called 'twee', 'insipid' and 'sexless') whilst making agit-prop statements through their fanzines, written communiqués and objet d'art (their 50th release was a board game). The best example of Sarah's Situationist-like aesthetic is perhaps their announcement of the end of the label - a guerrilla manifesto that appeared in the pages of the NME and Melody Maker at the height of Britpop fever.
Despite folding nearly twenty years ago, Sarah has been kept alive by a number of bands and music fans that prove that the label's influence was truly far-reaching. Listening to some of the releases on a wet Edinburgh afternoon, it's clear how prescient the music of bands like The Wake or The Field Mice truly was.
Clearly, I am not the only one who feels that a critical reappraisal of the label was long overdue. A film and a book about Sarah Records have recently been released, both of them produced in collaboration with Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes. Lucy Dawkins' acclaimed documentary My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records appeared in 2014 and was originally shown as part of a Bristol-based celebration of the label's legacy - complete with walking tours, Q&As and an appearance from The Orchids. Fittingly, the film is a self-funded, final-year university project made by a self-confessed music fanatic, and features extensive interviews with Sarah bands as well as Everett True and Calvin Johnson.
Michael White’s Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records was recently published by Bloomsbury and works as a companion to Dawkin's documentary. White approaches his subject very carefully: the book is very well-structured, with some chapters dedicated to the main Sarah acts (The Field Mice, Harvey Williams, Brighter) and others focusing on what the label was all about (fanzine culture, feminist attitudes). It's an engaging, informative read that works well as an introduction to the Sarah universe, but it still doesn't fully explain the complex charm and enduring influence of a tiny record label run by two young fanzine writers from a basement flat in Bristol. Like all great art, there is something mysterious and ultimately elusive about the Sarah output - in the words of Matt Haynes himself: 'The more you delve into it, the more there is to uncover'.
My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records is currently sold out on DVD. The film can be rented on Vimeo. Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records in out on Bloomsbury.