Sarah Records: How Can You Have A Revolution Without Imagination?
Okay, this is a hard article to write, just because I’ve been obsessed with this label for years (IMO the best label of all time), and because there’s so little widely-available info on Sarah Records that my knowledge comes from only a couple different places (one being a documentary that interviews both of the founders as well as all the most important artists on the label, I highly recommend it). I’m gonna do my best to feature the coolest parts of the label.
Sarah Records was started in Bristol in 1987 and run by just two people (a couple), Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, Clare being just 18 when she began the label. From the very beginning they were on the attack against the incredibly male-dominated heteronormative climate of the English music press, starting with the name of the label, which was meant to be both a female reference as well as personifying the label as a woman. Clare and Matt both came from (and met in) backgrounds in distributing fanzines (which back then was your only source of hearing indie music along with John Peel), and they carried this into Sarah Records by not only distributing fanzines as part of their catalog, but also distributing random mini-fanzines in all of their releases (I own two myself).
Clare had an absolute acid tongue for sexists in the music world, and would write angrily in her fanzines about how people would call asking for Sarah Records, and then assume that she was some kind of secretary and wait to be passed to her boyfriend. Sarah Records was often referred to as “Matt Haynes and his girlfriend Clare” in the music press. In her fanzine "Lemonade" (number 14 out of Sarah’s 100 releases), she writes:
“This SARAH thing, it’s two people: joint decisions, equal finance etc. He maybe does more of the boring drudge stuff like letrasetting and packing up records into envelopes because I do other things - right now earning the money for the new releases, other times studying. No so-and-so and his wife/girlfriend 'I couldn’t have done it without her, she was so understanding and did all the typing' shit, but the TWO of us, equals for once.”
That being said, feminism ran with what I’d consider to be the theme running through Sarah: HONESTY. Brutal honesty. The literature Matt and Clare put in their releases was so honest that at some points it’d veer toward surrealist writings about their relationship. The bands on this label were derogatively referred to as “twee”, which today is a somewhat valid genre term, but back then was one of the absolute worst insults for a band. It referred to music that was overly emotional, childish, and bright, but the brutal honesty was lost on the music press. In a striking example of the music press’ absolute hopelessness, one of the best songs on the label, "Clearer" by Blueboy, a post-Section-28 song written by a gay man expressing his desire to love and be loved, was described as “a limp-wristed song about being sad”.
One of the coolest ways in which they expressed their honesty was by being active anti-capitalists running a capitalist venture, with the approach that you ARE being a capitalist just by taking people’s money, but you don’t have to actually abuse the fans while you’re at it. In this endeavor, Sarah forfeited a lot of money because they refused to release 12” singles of songs they’d already released, as they thought it was bullshit to try and make fans rebuy their record collections (much to the annoyance of their distributors). They also refused to reprint their discography on CD as (funnily enough for today) they felt it was a bourgeois format that not everybody had access to, and would only serve to squeeze more money out of fans for music they already had.
In one of the Sarah records that I own (I Fell In Love Last Night by Heavenly), Clare put in a small half-apologetic half-angrily-explanatory note saying that that would be the last record of theirs that would be released in a plastic bag and wraparound sleeve, and that they would begin to have their records printed in a factory. She ends the note saying:
“...from SARAH 31 on WE’LL BE DOING IT TOO, because we’ll be getting all our sleeves made in a FACTORY, even though it all costs lots more money and our mail-order prices will have to go up but, well, at least we’ll be doing our bit to bolster the current inflationary spiral and thus bring down the government while all YOU’LL be doing all day is hanging around record-shops looking gormless, so Q.E.D.”
Oh yeah, and did I mention they ended the label after exactly 100 single releases, at the peak of its popularity? Matt explains it in an inspiring chill-inducing ad taken out in the paper called A Day For Destroying Things: “Because when you were nineteen, didn’t YOU ever want to create something beautiful and pure just so one day you could set it on fire and then watch the city light up as it burned?”
They ran their label as outspoken anti-capitalists and feminists, based the label around brutally honest pop art, and then blew it up at its peak as their final pop-art statement. No matter who you are and how disappointing it is to have such a limited catalogue, you have to admire the dedication and commitment to their values.
You might have noticed I haven’t even begun to give any specific recommendations, but I will honestly just leave a playlist of their 100 releases for y’all to go through. There are no bad songs in their discography, and I frequently put that playlist on shuffle. My favorite full-length of theirs is Unisex by Blueboy (an album we’ve featured on WIDR before), but once again there are very few bad releases on this label.
Check out a playlist of the singles released by Sarah Records here.