/ You deserve more than a maybe, Sarah Records, 1988
It was about time we inducted a Sarah flipside into the B/w Hall of Obscurity, for no other label made quite such a song and dance about the aesthetic and political value and impact of the seven inch single. Influenced by the high standards and joi de vivre of Alan Horne’s Postcard, the ideals and aesthetics of Factory, and the punk rock attitude not only of Creation but also of Subway, the Bristol label that preceded theirs, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes took the politics of format and value to new heights. Unfortunately the content didn’t always match the solidity of the principles, and a fair number of the records they released were excessively gauche or incompetent, with to these ears few redeeming features. But the Sea Urchins, the Orchids, Another Sunny Day, the Springfields, Even As We Speak, the Wake (on a free transfer from Factory), Blueboy, the Sugargliders, the Hit Parade, the Harvest Ministers, and yes, the Field Mice all had something going for them – usually more than something. In terms of the ongoing battle in pop between those hoping to create timeless music and those happy to realise music specific to the times, Sarah may have had a foot in both camps – in his Are you scared to get happy? fanzines and through Sarah’s predecessor, the flexi label Sha-la-la, Matt had subscribed to the notion of ‘throwaway pop’ – but much of the music made by the groups listed above is standing up well to the 21st century.
The politics, the ferocity of eighties fanzine writers’ economic critique arose from having very little money to live on. Money only went so far when you were a student or unemployed or working for peanuts. Brought up to be distrustful of the economics of loans, disciplined to make do on very little, but addicted to music, you soon gained an awareness of and contempt for the financial excesses washing around the music industry. The choice was often whether to give in and feed that vinyl craving, or keep it back for a pint or two at the gig that night. Matt wrote evocatively of having to choose between the electric meter and the photocopier. Not much give and take, very little room for manoeuvre. So there seemed to be good cause to react angrily if groups chose to do a 3 track 12 inch, especially if you knew that they were not much further away from poverty than you. That extra track would usually have fitted on a 7 inch at half the price. But songs were more preciously meted out than they are now, for there never seemed to be a surfeit of them. Then the musical landscape was finite; now it is virtually infinite.
Impoverished consumers with an addiction to pop got it for free wherever they could – taped by friends, from LPs lent by the public library, or off the radio – but they also spent what money they had on must-have purchases. Home-taping never killed music, just as it won’t be killed by free downloading. Kids today may on average be better off than we were twenty-odd years ago, but their disposable income is probably as limited in a relative sense; why would they apportion more of it to music than they do when so much is not only available for free but actually given away as teasers by the industry itself? Twenty years on, I sit here surrounded by an instant eBay shop’s worth of vinyl and CD stock were I ever inclined to go down that business road. Whether he likes it or not, the home taper turns out not to be the industry’s assassin, but its greatest supporter. Kids may not buy music now, as kids, but as their earning power grows and their understanding of value changes in their adult lives, many will think through the consequences of not supporting the music they have come to love and be more inclined to part with their virtual cash. Or – in defiance of the myth the industry likes to peddle – continue parting with that cash.
From 1987 onwards, Sarah Records carried its fight to the music industry, or at least its independent sector. The majority of the label’s seven inch records offered three songs in transparent plastic bags with wraparound covers. Ten inch and full LPs were very reasonably priced. 12 inches when they finally appeared were more like mini-LPs, or, as was the case with the Field Mice’s ‘Missing the moon’, bore the legend ‘this single sells at 7” price’. Thematic care was taken over labels – Bristol’s transport systems were a feature – and the singles came with posters or postcards and/or inserts which were usually comedic but sometimes poetic, giving you the sense not only of care, attention to detail and wit, but also of a world view that was altogether more rounded than the music media of the time would have had you believe (‘monomaniacs’ is a brickbat that sticks in my mind). Sarah’s first compilation Shadow factory thanked ‘all of our chums in the independent record industry, without whom none of this would have been necessary.’ They even devised a board game, Saropoly, documenting the trials and tribulations of being an independent, provincial record label in a world of Ivos, Tonys and Alans.
In a non-mainstream sense Sarah Records has been incredibly influential in the years since it reached 99 single releases and Clare and Matt decided to call it a day. A host of labels have subsequently modelled themselves in Sarah’s image, promulgating – for better or worse – the musical style it fostered. You might even argue that those manufacturers of what until recently tasted like the best smoothies in the UK, Innocent, based their marketing style on Sarah’s inserts. But then Sarah never sold part of itself to Coca Cola.
That Sarah’s political ideals often overshadowed the music is reflected even now by the fact that I’ve saddled a B/w entry nominally about St. Christopher with an account of the label’s ethos. So let’s give old York’s St. Christopher their due, for as Sarah acts went, they were a particularly vibrant and musically competent bunch. Glenn Melia’s trio delivered rolling waves of rhythm and jangle, topped with his impassioned, declamatory vocals and a recording technique which evidently involved an echo chamber. The songs were high on melody and disinclined to outstay their welcome. That sixties-fixated duo known as the Last Shadow Puppets are a not unreasonable contemporary parallel. Although it has orchestral backing and a big production in comparison with St. Christopher’s solitary addition of keyboards to the basic guitar-bass-drums set-up, The age of the understatement is filled with a similarly stiff-backed dramatic style and a sound lovingly pilfered from the same sources (St. Christopher’s ten inch LP for Sarah was entitled Bacharach). Glenn’s lyrics are, however, more Walker Brothers at the height of their popularity than they are ‘Seventh seal’ Scott. But the atmosphere generated is suitably cinematic, a widescreen panorama of the emotions. The sound and songwriting is very English, but its pop and folk roots have been treated with exposure to American culture, and some European, albeit indirectly.
‘The kind of girl’ starts dreamily enough, with a pretty flowers-in-the-meadow pattern picked out on Glenn’s guitar. But the rude and sudden entrance of drummer Ian Kay soon puts an end to any daydreaming, and gives notice of altogether more urgent business, a celebration of the kind of girl she is – ‘the kind of girl that dreams are made of’. Fellow B side ‘The summer you love’ is just as dramatic, swirling and joyous. The A side has the same grandeur and haughty insouciance as the equally arresting work of Liverpool’s Wild Swans. In its run-out grooves a dedication – ‘For Mark’ – is scratched, the tragic story relating to which is told in the sleeve notes of the label’s final compilation, There And Back Again Lane.
St. Christopher is still a going concern, and there are no less than three retrospective compilations available starting from their time with Sarah. But as well as their Sarah singles, it’s to the three songs issued in 1987 as a flexi disc with the third issue of Caff fanzine that I most frequently return. On the flexi St. Christopher prove they have a big enough sound to overcome even the deficiencies of the bendable plastic format (hundreds of groups at the time did not). Had Stanley and Wiggs not got their hands on the songs first, these might have made for an even better Sarah debut. ‘Forevermore starts here’ led the charge with shimmering, transcendental pop whose strumming was a model of controlled frenzy. ‘Remember me to her’ again acts as a showpiece for Ian Kay’s wonderful drumming, part beat group, part raw garage, part orchestral timpani – yet amid all that rolling thunder, the group don’t forget to serve up another memorably melodic pop song. Finally ‘Sinking ships’ snaffles the spirit of a Sean O’Hagan solo from the Microdisney instrumental ‘Michael Murphy’, but also delivers on a jangling sound that gets as close as any kids of independent leaning got to the super-bright celebratory guitar campanology that was contemporaneously emanating from various parts of Africa. Now that’s what I call a ringing endorsement.
- St. Christopher – The kind of girl
- St. Christopher – Sinking ships
- St. Christopher MySpace
- Sarah Records and Shinkansen Recordings: the official website
- Sarah Records discography