Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records by Michael White (Bloomsbury Academic)
Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for a major publisher like Bloomsbury, which is probably most famous for bringing us Harry Potter, to publish a book about Sarah Records. Sarah was a staunchly independent, anti-capitalist label run from its owners' flat, and was routinely panned by a music press keen to destroy the label's reputation by incorrectly branding it as "twee" and countless other epithets centred largely around accusations of effeminacy and ineffectuality. However, the climate has changed to the extent that the NME have since admitted they were wrong about Sarah, even going so far as to name it the second best independent label of all time. A new generation of Sarah fans, some of whom weren't even born during the time the label existed, are finding out about the music via the internet. Once one of the most untrendy labels around, Sarah is now being rebranded as cool by today's tastemakers, whose praise for the label includes terms such as "legendary" and "iconic" - terms formerly reserved for the likes of The Beatles or Elvis. Interest in Sarah didn't die when the label shut down, so a book documenting Sarah's history has been sorely needed.
From a personal perspective, I was hugely excited to learn that such a book was being written, as Sarah Records was my first introduction to true independent music. It released a ton of music I loved when I was in my teens and which still deserves a place among my all time favourite records even today. I was one of many people who bought anything the label released without hearing it first, not due to any 'geeky collector' mentality, but because there was a big likelihood that I would love it. I had such a thirst for this type of music that I was keen to find more, and from Sarah moved on to other indie-pop labels and then on to the wider underground scene. Sarah was my gateway into the underground, and if I hadn't have come across the label quite by chance, I would never have set up my own fanzine and tape label (I probably wouldn't even have known that such things existed), and wouldn't have met my long-term partner who was a Sarah fan I met via the fanzine network. I will therefore always have a soft spot for Sarah, as this label literally changed my life.
Popkiss' author, Michael White, is a Canadian journalist. It may seem strange that a label for whom Bristol was such an integral part of its identity, and whose bands were mostly British (and the few that weren't were generally influenced by British music), would end up having its biography written by an overseas author. However, it mustn't be forgotten that Sarah had international appeal, its bands often proving far more popular abroad than here in the UK, and with this in mind, it isn't all that surprising that the first person to provide a book-length history of the label would hail from outside of Britain. White traces the roots of Sarah via a potted history of the indie-pop scene, beginning with Orange Juice and other early indie-pop bands from the post-punk era, to Creation when it was still a DIY label, and then on to C86. There is also an exploration of the 1980s fanzine underground, which Sarah founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes were both involved in with their fanzines Kvatch and Are You Scared to Get Happy? respectively.
The book contains several chapters dedicated to a specific band on Sarah, starting with the band responsible for the label's first release. The Sea Urchins were a band with an arrogant reputation and a penchant for 1960s music and fashion. They were very young at the time - just teenagers - and as one might expect from their age were somewhat prone to mischief. Some of their youthful shenanigans are detailed here, making for an amusing (if at times somewhat puerile) read. It wasn't all fun and games however; the band experienced a run of bad luck, from guitar theft and a car accident whilst on tour to interest from record labels more prestigious than Sarah ultimately coming to naught. Disillusioned with indie-pop and finding themselves being lumped in with a scene that was widely regarded as twee, The Sea Urchins reinvented themselves as a rock band, much to the chagrin of their former fans in the indie scene who saw rock and its associated trappings as anathema. (I had no such complaint and actually rate songs like Low Scene, Open Out, and My Ship Is Going Down as among their best material, on a par with early classics like Cling Film, Please Rain Fall, Sullen Eyes, Everglades, and the now ubiquitous contribution to indie-pop compilation albums that is Pristine Christine. These rock tracks were not released by Sarah and only appear as live recordings on the posthumously released compilation Live In London on Fierce Recordings). A tale is recounted here in which one such disgruntled (and arguably narrow minded) indie kid defaced one of their gig posters, replacing the band's name with that of Black Sabbath! There is one glaring unanswered question, namely how Sarah came to release Day Into Day after having vehemently rejected it, but this aside, there is a wealth of information on The Sea Urchins here, making this chapter worth its weight in gold. If you are a fan of The Sea Urchins, you NEED the book for this chapter alone.
Informative, entertaining and at times poignant chapters follow on The Orchids, Harvey Williams, The Field Mice, Brighter, The Wake, The Hit Parade, Heavenly, and Blueboy. The sections on The Orchids and The Wake demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Glasgow music scene to which they belonged. John Scally of The Orchids is shown to be the cousin of Primal Scream's former drummer Tam McGurk, who lived on the same street as Scally. Caesar from The Wake had been a member of an early line-up of Altered Images, whilst an early incarnation of The Wake had included none other than Bobby Gillespie! The Wake had been signed to Factory Records prior to joining Sarah, their reasons for leaving the larger label being detailed here.
The press would often demonstrate their ignorance on multiple levels by hurling homophobic insults at Sarah's heterosexual bands, but Blueboy was a band whose singer, the late Keith Girdler, actually was gay, his sexuality informing much of his music. Blueboy were named after a gay men's magazine, and their debut single Clearer written in protest of institutionalised homophobia. The band's guitarist Paul Stewart is classically trained, and in addition to bringing a classical influence to Blueboy, the band also drew from international influences such as jazz and bossa nova, and were thus more musically sophisticated than many other Sarah bands. I get the feeling that Michael White prefers the more sophisticated, polished aspects of Sarah, as whilst he is clearly a fan of Blueboy, he discusses how the homemade artwork of The Field Mice's Emma's House was initially offputting to him, and is likewise dismissive towards the similarly DIY packaging of The Orchids' Underneath the Window, Underneath the Sink. For me, the low-budget nature of earlier Sarah releases was the precise reason for their appeal. I had reached a point in my life where I'd had my fill of chart pop and dance music and needed an alternative. The unpolished nature of early Sarah records, both in terms of music and packaging, fulfilled that need.
In discussing Heavenly, a look at the dreaded 'twee' word is required, as they were the Sarah band perhaps most likely to get saddled with this slur, though it would also come to be applied to practically every other band on Sarah, no matter what they actually sounded like. One dictionary definition of 'twee' is "affectedly dainty or quaint". Such chocolate box imagery is wholly alien to Sarah, and if that was the only meaning of 'twee', I would be thoroughly perplexed as to how Sarah bands came to be described in such a manner. However, the word derives from a child's pronunciation of 'sweet' and thus refers to things that are sweet or childlike, especially when they appear outside of their usual context by being appropriated by adults. Again, most bands on Sarah do not fit this description. Heavenly however, in their early days at least, adopted a sound that was sugary, bubbly, playful, and having an air of childhood innocence, and as such were the only band on Sarah for whom the word 'twee' came close to describing - although a less derogatory synonym would perhaps be more appropriate.
I first got into indie-pop in my teens and was faced with a subset of indie kids who called themselves 'cuties' and embraced the whole 'twee' aesthetic as a badge of pride. I couldn't understand it back then - adults pretending to be children - why? I thought it all a bit sad. As a teen I couldn't wait to be an adult, so why were adults renouncing adulthood in favour of the donning of childish anoraks and the writing of letters in pink crayon? As an adult I understand it a bit more: it's an alternative to being jaded, a means of putting a sense of wonder back into your life, the kind of wonder that's a large part of being a child but tends to deteriorate with age. Stephen Pastel is quoted in Popkiss as disliking the term 'indie-pop', though for better or worse, The Pastels are regarded as one of the genre's pioneering bands. In The Creation Records Story by David Cavanagh, the 'cutie' aesthetic is illustrated by a quote from Stephen Pastel regarding the cutie's favourite garment, the anorak: "It was saying: 'Everything else is fucked up and we've got to get back. Closer to the start of things. Being children". How much Heavenly agreed with this philosophy is not known, but what is known and is explored within Popkiss is that Heavenly eventually abandoned the cutesy sound in favour of a punked-up, riot grrrl influenced style, their lyrics examining such harrowing topics as date rape, as well as a track in which Amelia Fletcher directs an enraged "fuck you!" at a spurned lover. No more playful, innocent escapism for them. In common with Sarah themselves, Heavenly were feminist and explicitly opposed to macho rock cliches. The chapter on Heavenly also discusses Clare and Matt's feminist politics and what this meant for Sarah as a label.
The book reveals the truth about Clare and Matt's open relationship and the heartbreak that subsequently enfolded, a revelation that will no doubt shock and amaze anyone who had Sarah down as some bastion of sexlessness. Elsewhere in the book, there are explorations of Clare and Matt's love of their adopted home city of Bristol and its impact on the label's visual aesthetic, and the incessant letter-writing that was as much a part of Sarah's identity as the music, borne of a belief that "there shall be no barrier between those who make music and those who purchase it". Sarah was a label run by fans for fans; it refused to rip off its supporters by taking part in the sort of marketing gimmicks that other labels were guilty of, e.g. releasing multiple formats with different bonus tracks so that fans were forced to buy the same single several times. They would also price their records low so that almost anyone could afford them.
Clare mentions that the label's correspondents at the start were not the same as those at the end, though she attributes this to people growing up and moving on rather than making any reference to the feeling of disappointment - even sometimes outright betrayal - that many of the older fans got from the later releases. From around 1993 onwards, fanzines would be full of concerned complaints from Sarah fans who felt the label had somehow lost its way. Whilst an important part of the Sarah history, this phenomenon is rarely mentioned in any of the recent publicity the label has belatedly received. The only article I've seen in recent years that mentions Sarah fans' mass exodus from the label framed it as simply a case of blinkered indie snobs shying away from the noisy bands Sarah started signing in the 1990s, failing to take into account the fact that many people dislike noisy or punky music not out of genre purism but simply a matter of personal taste.
For me, it wasn't the noisy bands that killed Sarah. I enjoyed Secret Shine's new shoegaze style and also thought Boyracer were great - though I was admittedly perplexed as to how a band like Boyracer had ended up on Sarah. Many among the usual Sarah fanbase hated Boyracer, and the band would surely have found themselves a far more appreciative audience if they had been picked up by a label that was punk rock in terms of music, not just punk rock in terms of DIY anti-corporate ethics. For me, it was the releases that came out towards the end of the Sarah catalogue which were in a more 'typical Sarah style', yet were somehow lacking a certain something that made the early and mid-period Sarah releases so amazing, that caused me to stop buying Sarah records. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly this missing component is, or indeed what makes something 'typically Sarah', as I am applying that label to bands who often sound rather unalike yet still sounded to me as though they fitted in on Sarah. All I can say is I know it when I hear it!
As for whether Sarah should have signed noisy bands like Boyracer, this is a difficult question. Clare and Matt made a point of only releasing music they loved, which included noisy music like punk and shoegaze as well as the gentle, sensitive, melancholic indie-pop the label was mostly known for. Yet most Sarah fans followed the label for the latter and detested the former with a passion. By releasing music that was hated by the label's core fanbase, Sarah ran the risk of alienating their biggest supporters. Staying true to your own tastes and keeping the fans happy is a difficult balance to achieve.
A chapter on Sarah's "short-term visitors" contains briefer overviews of some of the label's less prolific bands, or bands whose time on Sarah was short despite a longer history elsewhere (plus a few bands who don't really fit into either of those categories but are included nonetheless). Some of these concise overviews provide enough information to give newcomers a good idea of what these bands were like, though others are disappointingly short. The Sweetest Ache were responsible for a string of superb records on Sarah, yet their history is condensed into a single paragraph which places the most emphasis on their reinvention as a classic rock outfit, a development that occurred after they had left Sarah. The discussion of Secret Shine focuses solely on their shoegaze material, giving the impression that they had always been a shoegaze band, when in fact their debut EP After Years was more in keeping with the gentler sounds more often associated with Sarah.
The controversial noisy bands get their own subsection, The Golden Dawn proving themselves to be just as confrontational as their music, with statements like "We thought all [Sarah's] other bands were shit" and "All the ones I've heard have been really weedy and insipid". Boyracer's Stewart Anderson says "We always thought that Matt and Clare had asked us to do a record just to upset some people". Anecdotes follow that illustrate the disgust that fans of bands like Another Sunny Day and Blueboy felt towards Boyracer.
An international section follows, focusing on the US and Australian bands who made Sarah their home. This chapter is made up largely of interview snippets from members of The Springfields, The Sugargliders, Even As We Speak, East River Pipe, and Aberdeen, and includes some very interesting bits of info on these bands' experiences with Sarah.
Next up, a look at the reasons why Clare and Matt chose to shut down the label, and a selection of reminiscences of the farewell party thrown to mark the occasion, followed by a summary of events that took place after Sarah closed its doors, including Matt's founding of the Shinkansen label. Shinkansen never piqued my interest in the way that Sarah did. Whilst Sarah had a huge impact on my life, Shinkansen to me was just another label. Sometimes I wondered retrospectively whether I had been too harsh on Shinkansen and didn't give the label enough of a chance, but it seems from reading the Shinkansen section here in Popkiss that a lot of others would agree with my assessment of this label - possibly even Matt himself. "In doing away with a strong label identity, I'd lost one of the aspects of running a label that I enjoyed the most," comments Matt. "[Shinkansen] was a much more orthodox label, and so, by definition, much duller".
The continuing interest in Sarah that has taken place in recent years is outlined here: enthusiastic teens posting videos about their new-found love of Sarah on YouTube; Sarah's influence on popular bands like The Drums; the return of several previously dormant Sarah bands for tours and/or new releases; the 2014 Sarah exhibition at Bristol's Arnolfini gallery; and the recent film My Secret World: The Story of Sarah Records. Sarah may be gone but its memory shows no sign of fading, and quite rightly so. This important and at one time vastly underrated label changed many lives for the better and the reappraisal it has been receiving over the last few years has been well deserved.
The book is illustrated throughout with black and white pictures, plus there is a glossy colour section in the centre, these band photos and ephemera pictures providing an additional visual dimension to the history. A full Sarah discography is included at the end.
Whilst my opinion of Popkiss is largely positive, it has to be said that my feelings about the book are essentially comparable to my feelings about Sarah: I was a massive Sarah fan, but didn't think the label was exempt from criticism. There is much about Popkiss that I can recommend highly, though I feel the book falls short in places. Michael White will often quote from previously published sources without stating what these sources are, aside from vague references like "a fanzine", "a journalist", or "a 2014 essay". Whilst this sort of laxity towards citing sources may be acceptable in the world of popular journalism from which the author comes, it is a frankly mindboggling thing to find in a book put out by the academic arm of a major publisher. Academic publishers normally demand that sources be cited in full, yet this book doesn't even contain a basic bibliography. On a similar note, I spotted several typos, as well as phrases with superfluous wording such as "liquid correction fluid". Whilst errors of typography and sentence structure are commonplace in self-published and small press works in which the editorial process is nonexistent, it is very odd to find such mistakes escaping the attention of the editorial team at a professional publishing house such as Bloomsbury Academic.
White is undoubtedly a true aficionado of indie music, which gives an extra layer of credibility and authority to his writing, though his total immersion in the indie scene sometimes leads to an apparent unawareness of references from wider popular culture. He points out that the sleeve of The Sea Urchins' Solace features a motorbike, but seems not to know that the picture is a still from the cult 1960s movie Bronco Bullfrog, which is popular with mods. Mentioning this fact would have lent extra weight to White's assertion that The Sea Urchins were moving in a mod direction with this single. The Orchids' The Sadness of Sex (Part 1) is described by White as "shoestring dance-pop featuring an incongruous Gregorian chant sample", though this would only be incongruous to anyone who is unaware of the hugely successful international hit single Sadness Part 1 by Enigma, a dance track mischievously pairing the sacred (Gregorian chants and psalm quotations) with the profane (orgasmic heavy breathing and references to the Marquis de Sade). The title of The Orchids' song and their combination of Gregorian chant samples and dance rhythms strongly suggests that their piece was intended as a nod towards Enigma's smash hit.
There are details of a Brighter demo entitled Wot! No Acid?, in reference to the band's rejection of the then-current acid house craze. Its cover is described as being illustrated with "a bowlcut-topped figure peeping over a wall", which is clearly intended as a playful reinvention of Chad as an indie kid, though no mention is made of Chad, a character who appeared in World War II-era graffiti accompanied by slogans such as "Wot! No Sugar?" or "Wot! No Bread?" in protest of rationing. I can only assume that White's apparent lack of knowledge of Chad could be because Chad is a peculiarly British phenomenon whose existence is unlikely to be a part of the history syllabus in Canadian schools. If that is indeed the case, White can perhaps be excused for not realising the full significance of this tape's title and artwork.
In addition, White shows an ambivalence towards musical eclecticism. He praises Clare for her varied musical taste as a teenager, but the works of any band who dare to draw from more than one genre are dismissed as "schizophrenic", an "unfocused jumble" or a "musical identity crisis".
Whilst I'm too much of a pedantic perfectionist to let the errors and oversights in Popkiss slide, I generally find that the positives outweigh the negatives. If you were a part of the Sarah inner circle, friends with Clare and Matt and assorted band members, the book probably won't tell you much that you didn't already know, but if like most Sarah fans you relied on fanzines for your information, your knowledge of the bands' and label's history is likely to be rather more sketchy. Popkiss will help to fill in the gaps. If you relied solely on the music press for Sarah info, you will in the most part have been grossly misinformed, and Popkiss will serve as a necessary means of unlearning this misinformation. The book is therefore a must read for Sarah's existing fans and anyone remotely curious about the label.
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