Wednesday 30 April 2014

Sarah Records - There and Back Again

Badges to celebrate the launch of 'Le Jardin Du Heavenly' LP in 1992 

“I think you’ll find that you ‘haven’t got a clue what’s happening anymore’ more because of stuff like adolescence, hormones, growing up in the Nineties in the shadow of The Bomb/AIDS/Paddy Ashdown, than because you haven’t got an up-to-date Sarah price list. But maybe you know best, so here one is”
– Matt, March 1994

“Flexis are made of recycled plastic dustbins rolled out flat:
hence the phrase ‘throwaway pop’”
– Matt, February 1993

This weekend (May 2-5), Bristol’s Arnolfini is hosting a retrospective celebrating Bristol’s much-loved record label, Sarah Records. Running from 1987-1995 and lasting precisely 100 x 7” singles long, this anti-capitalist, staunchly feminist record label was run by Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd from their Bedminster flat to promote the kind of bands that benefitted from the DIY and fanzine culture in the post punk era.

But Sarah Records was more than that. To me, growing up in a sleepy Somerset village, Sarah Records was a step into an accessible world of indie music. This was 1992 – I was 14 years old, horribly precious musically (thanks to my older brother’s eclectic vinyl collection), and thought there was nothing cooler than loving the obscure. There was no internet, no email, no YouTube, no Spotify. But there was a fanzine culture: a buzzing independent press that defied the newsagents and advertisers, and went straight to the heart of the matter. 

Fans sat on their bedroom floors armed with a typewriter and a Pritt Stick and created mini tributes to their favourite obscure bands, which were posted to other obsessives all around the world (yes, world!), thanks to a primitive-sounding (but highly successful) network of mini flyers popped in envelopes as a courtesy. Friendships were formed with the most unlikely people, tapes were swapped of the strangest music, and all kinds of opportunities opened themselves up. It was a brilliantly exciting time. You didn’t need to live in London for something to happen – you made something happen for yourself.

“Writing a fanzine and expecting people to give you money for it is arrogant.
So is being in a band. But if you didn’t think you were better than everybody else, hopefully you wouldn’t be doing it. DON’T BE MEEK. Meek is BORING”
– Matt, January 1994

This was what Sarah Records grew out of and flourished within. I discovered Sarah Records in 1992. I was 14 years old, and my brother lent me his Talulah Gosh LP and advised me to like it. I did like it. That record was They’ve Scoffed The Lot, a 1991 compilation of Talulah Gosh songs such as Beatnik Boy and Break Your Face. I was mesmerised and wanted more. I discovered that although Talulah Gosh had split up in 1988, many of the members still played in a band called Heavenly – who were signed to Bristol’s Sarah Records. I scoured through my brother’s meticulously alphabeticised 7”s to find what I needed… I Fell In Love Last Night and Our Love Is Heavenly. Eventually, this led me to America and the Olympia-based K Records (run by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening). The world was opening up to me and I hadn’t even needed to leave Somerset.

Sarah Records packaged their 7”s in a true DIY spirit. The chunky vinyl records all had paper labels with bright cherries on and typewritten credits. The block coloured wraparound sleeves were folded and contained in plastic bags (presumably to save on production costs), and inside each bag was a typewritten sheet containing musings on Bristol, love, music, anything really. It was all very romantic. Especially to a 14-year-old girl in a tiny Somerset village. I discovered who Jean Cocteau was through these inserts (what a precocious madam)!

For me, it was never so much about the music as what it all represented. Sure, some of the Sarah bands I really loved – Even As We Speak, East River Pipe, Ivy, The Springfields and Heavenly of course. But a lot of it wasn’t to my taste. That didn’t matter. To me what mattered was the romanticism of it, the escapism and the potential for the future. In the three years that followed, Sarah Records gave me a lot of confidence. And this is why…

In 1992, if you wanted to buy the kind of records that weren’t stocked in your local record shop (and Sarah weren’t), you bought them by mail order – maybe from Rhythm, maybe through an ad at the back of Melody Maker, or maybe from the label direct. I went direct to the label. And that led me to Matt Haynes – one of the two founders of Sarah Records.

Some (just *some*) of the many letters Matt sent me between 1992-1995

Matt and I struck up what was perhaps an unusual friendship (in the sense that I was 14 and he was, I dunno, 30-something). With no online shopping cart to anonymously place my orders in, I would buy records having first written a letter and then given my mum the money to write a cheque for it. And when the big brown 7” card envelopes came back, they were invariably added to with carefully written letters, drawings, postcards and other bits and bobs that Matt sent. And as such, we built up a friendship that extended to phone calls and sometimes meeting up in Bristol for a chat in Revolver Records on the Triangle (now a defunct Indian restaurant), or walking on Cabot Hill. I had an open invitation to come and stay with Matt and Clare if I wanted to come up and see a band in Bristol (although I was too shy to take them up on it)!

The letters themselves were always handwritten on the back of scraps of old paper, which didn’t mean much to me at the time but looking at them now – 20 years later – they’re pieces of history in themselves. One letter is on the reverse of estate agents details for houses around the corner from where I now live (which were then going for £48,000 and now fetch £250,000). Another was on the back of an early drawing for a Sugargliders tape insert. One from 1992 is on the reverse of a letter from Billboard magazine, billing itself as the “single source tape/disc directory for all your needs”). Another is on the reverse of BBC Radio Bristol’s December 1993 playlist (includes Chumbawumba, The Breeders and Lemonheads). While one from September 1994 is on the reverse of Matt’s subs demand from the Windmill Hill Labour Party (he was overdue to the tune of £15). There are tons more. How did they find the time?!

“Today’s NME reviews the East River Pipe LP as being like a cross between The Go Betweens and Guns’n’Roses – it’s a funny old world… Guns’n’Roses???”
– Matt, 1994

Over the three years of our friendship, until Sarah Records closed in 1995, I now realise I learned a lot of things from Matt. I’d always known I wanted to write a music fanzine: I wanted above all else to be a music journalist, and thought fanzines were impossibly cool. I ended up running a fanzine, Arketino, from 1994-1996. Matt helped me find a printer and gave me tips and suggestions on how to go about everything, and he put me in touch with some Sarah Records bands to interview. And then when it was printed, he sent a carefully typed (the only typed letter he ever sent me, so I knew it was serious) deconstruction of what he thought of my efforts. He was complimentary about the content but contemptuous of the 50p cover price. 

“There’s only three reasons for writing a fanzine. A) to make money. B) to boost your ego. C) to communicate your love/hate for things to as many people as possible. And if you’re doing it for any reason other than C, then you’re doing it for the WRONG reason and should stop now”
– Matt, August 1994

The end of a letter from Mathew, from spring 1995. He sadly died the following year.

Through my friendship with Matt, I got to know the fabled Amelia Fletcher from Heavenly and interview her for my fanzine. And I got to know her brother Mathew, who played drums in the band. Mathew sadly hung himself in 1996, and I treasure the card he posted me with a little coloured-in drawing on even more as a result. It’s in a folder of my fanzine things upstairs, next to some pictures of Stephen Duffy in a Canadian photobooth and a handwritten letter from Bernard Butler. None of these things would exist if I’d been doing my fanzine ten years later. Instead my fanzine would have been a blog and all these exchanges would be emails. Reading through the old letters today and seeing mentions of Mathew and what he was up to, it feels extra sad to know he is now no longer around.

“'Twas indeed the young Ms Fletcher on Huggy Bear backing vox – more to the point, it was also Heavenly’s guitar amp. Did you know Mathew used to play bass for Huggy Bear in their early days? Not a lot of people do. Or that two of Huggy Bear share a flat with the deputy editor of Melody Maker? I’m a terrible gossip"
- Matt, February 1993

Through my friendship with Matt, I put on my first ever gig (I’m now a journalist who also runs events – so both my teenage dreams came true)… with Heavenly headlining, obviously. Helped by Simon Barber (a singer and guitarist in 1980s indie band The Chesterfields, he lived in Somerset and now ran his own label, Hair – and who I now knew through my Saturday job in the local indie record shop Acorn), we put on a gig at the Quicksilver Mail in Yeovil - with Simon’s band Gear supporting Heavenly in November 1994 - and we packed it out. Admittedly, Simon, Matt and Clare did most of the work – but it was such a buzz to have helped make something happen. I was 16 years old. I had had an idea for an event, I had talked to the right people, and I had helped to make something happen that I wanted to happen. This was the DIY ethos. Somewhere, I still have a copy of my fanzine that they all signed, and in which Mathew drew a little picture. Sarah Records gave me the confidence to do it.

The poster for 'our' Heavenly gig in November 1994.

In 1995, Matt sent me a newsletter and a handwritten note to say that Sarah Records was closing. It was quite a shock… for the past three years, the label and Matt had become a particular part of my life at a really pivotal time. I’d gone from being a 14-year-old gawky kid changing schools, to someone who published her own music fanzine from her bedroom floor, to someone who worked in a record shop alongside Rob Ellis (the original drummer from PJ Harvey) and occasionally put on gigs, to cadging lifts off older friends to go to gigs in Bristol… to being able to drive and buy my own car with my own earnings and was thinking about going to university. Sarah Records and Matt saw me through a significant time in my life. They propped me up… and all of it had been infused with subtle leanings towards feminism, socialism and the ability that if you believed in yourself, you could do anything.

Matt and I lost touch after Sarah Records closed. He sent me a few newsletters from his next label Shinkansen, which he formed after moving back to London, but we drifted in different directions. Although out of the blue, he did send me a test pressing of a Stephen Duffy 12", just because he'd seen it and knew I was a big fan - which was enormously thoughtful.

“I’ve just remembered the ABSOLUTELY Golden Rule, which is treat everybody as if they were an idiot. Use short words, spoken clearly. Honestly – you’d be amazed at some of the things they manage to do wrong”
– Matt, January 1994

One day in 2006 something happened. I was now a 28-year-old journalist living and working in London on big glossy women’s magazines (the very antithesis of the Sarah Records feminist DIY ethos). Browsing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime I picked up a small magazine called Smoke: A London Peculiar. There was something about it that felt familiar and I bought a copy. Back in the office I went online and discovered it was edited by Matt Haynes, the guy from Sarah Records. Thanks to the internet, within an hour I’d read lots of Smoke back issues and discovered all kinds of things about what Matt had been up to in the intervening 11 years.

Via email, we started our letters again. We were both older, different and we were now two adults writing to each other. But still Matt offered indirect advice. For instance, I had recently started writing a blog about my life in London. Matt questioned why I was doing it and said he had a dislike of blogs because nobody edits you. He was right but I wrote my blog anyway… albeit with an air of editorship in the back of my mind. I contributed various articles to Smoke - some he published and others he declined, quite rightly.

Matt attempted to explain the plot of 'Far From The Madding Crowd' to me in fewer than 10 words. He proudly did it in eight words. I had been stuck on my English homework. To be honest, he wasn't much help.
In November 2006, we met up for the first time in more than a decade. It was strange meeting Matt again. I’d seen that Tate Britain was showing The Great Stink, a documentary with Peter Bazalgette about the formation of the London sewer system. Who else was I going to go with but the editor of Smoke: A London Peculiar?! We sat in a pub afterwards on Millbank and talked about all sorts of things, but it felt very grown up now. Not as carefree and hopeful as it had in the early 1990s when my only concerns were what Clare Grogan was doing now. Although Matt did tell me that as someone who cycles all around London, he likes to wave in the background when he sees tourists taking photos – so that they wonder who that funny man is waving at them in the distance.

And I always think of that every single time I see tourists taking photos anywhere, and I’m always tempted to give them a little wave in the background.

“Melody Maker this week was scathing about Spencer’s middle-class vowels… but you won’t have a problem with this, since you have them, too”
– Matt, August 1994

Unable to make the Sarah records farewell party on the Thekla, Matt sent me a commemorative balloon. I am resisting the urge to put it on eBay. Which didn't exist then. 

  1. My husband gave me a Talulah Gosh CD for Christmas. Talulah Gosh’s music just doesn’t suit the CD format but it’s still fun to reminisce.
  2. The Arnolfini in Bristol has four days of Sarah Records events this coming weekend. Click here for info. 
  3. There is a documentary about Sarah Records, and you can get info and watch the trailer here
  4. Bloomsbury will be publishing a book about Sarah records in 2015. You can read up on it here
  5. Simon Barber edits Evolver magazine, and plays in the guitar pop band Design
  6. By a random turn of fate, I now live a five-minute walk from the former Sarah Records HQ on Gwilliam Street in Bedminster.
  7. Every time I pass There and Back Again Lane in Bristol I think of Sarah Records. It is just off Berkeley Square, the location of my comedy club’s first residency.
  8. Matt's Golden Rule about treating everyone like they're an idiot has stood me in good stead in every aspect of my life for the past 20 years.

There And Back Again Lane in Bristol. I've no idea why it is so called, but it's basically just an alley remarkable for little else than it's twee name.

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