Thursday, 10 December 2015
'Popkiss: The Life & Afterlife of Sarah Records' by Michael White
When Sarah Records, the purest of all the indie labels, folded in 1995 it broke the hearts of not only its most loyal fans all over the globe but also those of some of its bands - bands who would never have found such a sympathetic home for their unique and unfashionable music elsewhere in the world.
It's astonishing it's taken someone so long to do this but now in Popkiss Michael White has produced a potted history of Sarah Records, complete with interviews with some of the key players (label founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, as well as band members from the Field Mice, Heavenly, Brighter and co).
What surprised me most of all is the brevity of the book (250 pages of text, plus a colour photo insert) given the decades that have passed since the label closed, the easy accessibility of many of the acts, the wealth of artefacts dutifully saved by anorak-clad Sarah fans (such as me) that could have been shared with Michael for his research... just so much information to be gathered and shared.
Michael writes in a friendly but authoritative tone, his respect for Clare and Matt is evident, and his admiration for the bands he speaks to shines through. His style is easy to read (despite the daunting prospect of this being published by the serious sounding Bloomsbury Academic, it is not a dry book) and you will whizz through it in just a few gleeful sittings that will have you reaching for the 7" rack at regular intervals.
But Popkiss also feels like a disappointment in many respects. There are so many bands who don't even get a mention except for in the discography, and a lot of the interviews are just printed verbatim - which feels a little lazy. As a writer myself, this is something I would only resort to if a) I was up against a tight deadline and had no bright ideas left, or b) the editor insisted on it and I was being paid to go against my better judgement. I don't think either are the case here for Michael and wonder why he did it - especially as it is not a consistent style throughout the book.
More than anything, what is missing from Popkiss is Clare and Matt themselves. Yes, they were interviewed and their anecdotes pepper the book from time to time, but they feel very absent from this biography of their record label. Which is a huge oversight. Sarah Records WAS Clare and Matt. It was unique because of their singular vision, their potty way of doing things, their stubbornness, their politics, the fact they never faltered from their principles, the shoestring budget they operated on...
What I wanted to know was more about the minutiae of their day-to-day lives, how the label got off the ground, the meetings they had with other people, stories from them about what it was really like, the decision-making process for choosing a band... And I see no reason why the book couldn't have followed a more clear chronological structure. Michael White has said before that he feels this would have been impossible but I'd beg to disagree.
In short, I enjoyed Popkiss very much but it feels like only half of the story. And once you've read one detailed chapter about a band making a cheap demo and receiving shitty reviews from the papers, you don't really need to read several more almost identical chapters about other bands.
I'd be interested to know if the editor of Popkiss at Bloomsbury Academic was a Sarah Records fan themselves, as it feels like they didn't know anything about this wonderful and unique little label. Otherwise they would surely have intervened to point out how much was missing and how much more needed to be done.
I've been harsh in this review despite how much I enjoyed Popkiss because I felt so invested in Sarah Records, and had anticipated this book for more than a year... but it feels like there was so much more to be said that was left out. And I just can't think why that was.