t’s rather fitting Sarah Records’ headquarters in Bristol were just minutes away from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of England’s most notorious suicide spots. Because for eight years, this independent label’s gossamer paeans and against-the-grain sensibilities had many indie pop fans wanting to take a flying leap. Such cavilers deemed Sarah’s dogged quest for pop “purity” as forced and self-righteous: the rejection of core rock tenets (“mustn’t bubble with machismo, mustn’t be myopically hip!”); the transmission of significant, dramatic concepts through simple diction and devices; the flirtation with socialism and sexual politics; the diaristic, maudlin writing found in both the songs and the label’s fanzines (my favorite: co-founder Clare Wadd’s “Some days I hate myself so much it makes me CRY” admission in the Sarah 004 fanzine).
Of course, cultish fans flocked to that basement flat at 46 Upper Belgrave Road for these very same qualities, reveling in noble constructs like Sarah’s seven-inch singles (complete with hand-assembled packages and the occasional fold-out poster), a cheaper, more accessible format selected by co-founder Matt Haynes to challenge the 12-inch staple of the music industry. (“I like the idea that records should be affordable,” Haynes once told a writer, “that you can buy them from your pocket money.”) Or pouring over the rambling, chimerical prose found on the back of various releases (see Sarah 039). Such tactics were considered “pop art statements” and only added more cardigan-attired converts to the Sarah masses.
Wadd and Haynes never intended to stick around past 100 singles and so, when the label reached the century mark in August of 1995, they ran advertisements in the NME and Melody Maker under the heading “A Day For Destroying Things,” and sponsored an everything-must-go gig aboard an old German-built Baltic trader that, fittingly, shared its name with a martyr. Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher, one of the label’s biggest names, ended the services with a rather funereal version of “So?”
“So you gave me your time, love, and hope . . . .” How fitting.
Like the piece that inspired this one (Todd Hutlock’s engrossing breakdown of the first 50 Creation Records singles), I intend to cover 10 Sarah releases a day for the week, reviewing each one individually. Those who come along for this pop shamble, meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sarah’s birth, will realize there was far more to this label than the dreaded t-word. Sarah bands frequently colored outside pop’s basic lines—and rather brilliantly, too. And while there was a criticized gravitas to much of the label’s output, there were enough sugary hiccups tossed in to tweak your mood.
As music scribe Everett True once wrote in a review of a Heavenly LP, reacting to Sarah’s preoccupation with adolescent drama and preciousness, “No one can live this way forever, but what’s wrong with indulging in a little daydreaming now and then?” Hear, hear, Mr. True.
The Sea Urchins – “Pristine Christine”
It took just one release for that trademark Sarah sound to be established. Following on the heels of the stalwart title track (and nicking the melody from New Order’s “Age of Consent”) the b-side “Sullen Eyes” crafts a label template: a guitar multiplicity consisting of wistful, circular melodies and / or lazy, limp-wrested chord strumming; a dilettante with a vulnerable and limited voice; and lyrics lifted straight from the scrawl-covered pages of a dog-eared journal (“She said it’s only good that hurts,” whimpers vocalist James Roberts, “It’s only love that will bring you down.”) The perfect elixir for that lovesick teenager quarantined within bedroom walls and as we’ll see, bottled countless times over by subsequent Sarah artists.
Ignoring critics who dismissed them as mere Sixties parroters (thanks to a fetish for attire from that time period: Chelsea boots, polka-dot shirts, etc.), the Sea Urchins got the burgeoning label off to an auspicious start.
The Orchids – “I’ve Got A Habit”
Few acts were as synonymous with Sarah as Penilee, Scotland’s the Orchids. Founded one year before the label’s inception, the group released half a dozen singles, three LPs (including Sarah’s first full-length: 1989’s Lyceum), and one compilation, before playing their last gig at the label’s 1995 farewell social. (Until 2004’s reunion and subsequent album release.)
“I’ve Got A Habit” finds the Orchids unblushingly mimicking Glaswegian contemporaries: James Hackett’s endearing vocals, and Matthew Drummond and John Scally’s vibrant guitar work evoking early Primal Scream, Hackett’s bubbly lyrics tickle the nose like the Scottish soft drink he namedrops: “So I’m drinking Irn-Bru / And I’m thinking of you / You’ve got the sunshine in your eyes.” Meanwhile, “Give Me Some Peppermint Freedom” ranks as one of the label’s best b-sides: a sashaying number steered by a melodic bass line, capering guitar, and Hackett’s emotive vocals on the choruses.
Another Sunny Day – “Anorak City”
Music movements often fall prey to the vicissitudes of fashion, frequently requiring followers to don established uniforms. During the U.K.’s twee pop scene, one ubiquitous piece of clothing was the anorak: the nylon snorkel parka frequently worn by the island’s school-aged boys.
Another Sunny Day was the alias for fey, flaxen-haired Harvey Williams, and on this five-inch flexidisc, he pays tribute to the fashion accessory (or quite possibly, the very “anoraks” who came to religiously follow Sarah, as the word became slang for those individuals of the geeky, hobby-obsessed kind). Williams deviates from the Sarah template a bit, employing fuzzed-up guitar parts and a warbly, repetitive coda. The track’s most endearing quality is its lo-fi vocals, all distorted and androgynous, which is fitting when you consider how asexual the twee movement was: boys in pudding bowl haircuts, girls with straight, short fringes.
14 Iced Bears – “Come Get Me”
After a momentary derailment in the form of Wadd and Haynes’ first joint fanzine (the highlight of the publication being the former’s mock fantasy tale involving a character named Bobby Gillespie and his gnome, Alan), the label got back on track with the April of ‘88 release “Come Get Me.” South London’s 14 Iced Bears were known for their earfuls of chaotic pop (on the back of the single, one of the band members, Susan, is listed as contributing “noises & things”), fumbling together tingling, slapdash guitar and pulsing bass on both the title track and “Unhappy Days.”
But after hearing the more polished second b-side, “Sure To See,” one can’t help but wonder: If the Bears’ cornerstone of singer / songwriter Rob Sekula and rhythm guitarist Kevin Canham further explored the hushed balladry of “Sure To See,” would the one-and-done act have become a Sarah mainstay?
The Poppyheads – “Creation Town”
Cambridge’s the Poppyheads were another group that churned out just one release with the label. Information on the band is sparse at best and typically focuses on one-time member Rob Young, who later served as assistant editor of the Wire. Quick, humorous aside: as a youngster, Young allegedly wrote to Factory Records, looking to procure a copy of Stockholm Monsters’ latest release for a review in his fanzine, Tony France; the return letter was a rather succinct: “Fuck off and buy their records.”
“Cremation Town” is your standard Sarah confessional but certainly darker than anything prior, thanks to lyrics such as the oft-repeated, “I’ve seen all I had vanish down the drain,” and imagery focusing on a hamlet’s expiring population and the acrid smell of autumn leaves. Musically, it has the lazy, sloppy lurch of the Pastels, but enough original touches to keep it from being completely derivative. We’ll never hear from the Poppyheads again, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Another Sunny Day – “I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist”
One could argue no other artist penned more anthemic songs for Sarah than Williams. With “Anorak City” still ringing in the ears, Another Sunny Day returns with “I'm In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist,” the track Sarah detractors would often cite as Exhibit A in their case against the label’s proclivity for sad bastard pop. (Conversely, Haynes said it was one of the most perfect releases in the entire Sarah catalogue.)
Sure, the single is pure schmaltz, evoking modern acts like Aberfeldy – gushy guitar lines, near whining vocals, and Williams revealed to be naive to a fault (“So many times this has happened before / But I never knew that love could make you feel so sore”) – but it’s got subtle, ironic flourishes, too, like that dance-like bass drum featured in the beat. And checking in at just 1:40, one gets the impression Williams got over his romantic mugging rather quickly.
The Sea Urchins – “ Solace”
Produced by Creation Records forefather Joe Foster, “Solace” sounds like the Sea Urchins’ ode to the Nuggets compilation. Chugging, unremitting guitar supplements frenetic drums and stubbly touches of organ. What really charms, however, are those out-of-tune background vocals that pop up on the verse and chorus, restoring an amateurishness that was in danger of being swept away by the cacophony of instrumentation. On the flip side, Roberts tugs on the band’s leash for “Please Rain Fall,” a tune more in line with the refined numbers from “Pristine Christine.”
The Golden Dawn – “My Secret World”
A band / musician spellbound by the occult (horrible pun intended) is hardly a radical concept. However, Glasgow’s the Golden Dawn took that fascination to another level, going as far as naming their band after the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that traced it roots to a magical fraternity founded in London in the late 1800s. The group also had a penchant for bestowing titles upon gigs, like “Musick In Theory And Practice,” a play on the Aleister Crowley book, Magick In Theory And Practice.
Unfortunately, The Golden Dawn’s side interests were discussed as much as their music, thanks to a rather minimal sonic output. The first of just two singles the Scottish outfit ever released (and both with Sarah), the abrasive “My Secret World” is driven by a plodding bass line, the song’s melody neatly tucked away in the background. Amid squalors of distortion and feedback, the song closes with an incantation of its title (fitting, since at the time of this release, the relatively unknown label was starting to gather a stable of fervid followers) before vocals and amps couple to produce a stern “Shhhhhh.”
The Springfields – “Sunflower”
Let’s be honest: While still indeed enchanting, portions of the Sarah catalogue do sound a tad dated, from those teenage-centric, lovelorn narratives to that neophyte guitar puttering. The same can’t be said of the Springfields’ “Sunflower,” which features a sun-pecked melody that evokes modern acts like the Thrills, Cosmic Rough Riders, and the Sails. (Fittingly, the song was released in July of 1988.) One of the song's neat little nuances: the way lead singer Ric Menck blissfully declares, “The sun shines on me / All day,” yet sounds like he left the air conditioning on all night and now has a maddening summer cold.
Trivia that may only interest the Sarah diehards: The Springfields were the first American act featured on the label (hailing from Barrington, Ill.). “Sunflower” was also a joint-release with the Midwest’s Bus Stop, long regarded as the sister label to Sarah.
The Orchids – “Underneath the Window, Underneath the Sink”
Act II from the Orchids, “Underneath the Window, Underneath the Sink,” displays disappointing creative inertia. It dozes contently until 30 seconds remain, finally rousing itself with hammering drum work and some emotional vocals from Hackett.
The real gems here are the b-sides: “Defy the Law” incorporating cutting synthesizers, which gleam like sunlight off the blade of a knife; and “Walter,” which opens with a blip of a dance beat, before giving way to a crunchy guitar melody and blasts of sax from a bloke named Houndog McGowan (we can thank the back cover for that bit of information). These brave dalliances are brief, as both tracks check in at two minutes long, but it’s a harbinger of things to come.
Interesting note which makes “Defy the Law” all the more cogent: The single was released during the U.K.’s Poll Tax controversy in the late 1980s; it came with a fold-out poster depicting various anti-Poll Tax propaganda and the words, “'The Orchids say don’t pay the Poll Tax.”
The Field Mice – “Emma’s House”
The Field Mice and Sarah Records: inexorably linked for all of pop eternity. And not just because the Mitcham act were the label’s most diligent, releasing seven singles (the most by any artist) and three albums. It’s for the belief that the group produced detached, cuddlesome, lip-biting pop—and for a label that fobbed nothing but. Well, if this little endeavor teaches anything, it’s that neither assertion is particularly accurate. Throughout their tenure on Sarah, the Field Mice frequently clawed at twee’s restraining yellow ribbons, dabbling in jigsaw pop when they incorporated Madchester and shoegaze into later efforts.
“Emma’s House,” released in November of 1988, was achingly modest: Robert Wratten and Michael Hiscock dolefully playing guitar to the beat of a drum machine (a gift from Wratten’s sister, Lisa). The song’s cold, synthetic spine is warmed by the rush of human emotion: “Where you are / Where you now are,” Wratten wonders, “You have nothing to live up to / You have nothing to live down / Emma’s house is empty / So why do I call it Emma’s house?”
The single was Sarah’s first big hit, selling over 5,000 copies. The label had officially established itself as a player in the U.K.’s ever-competitive independent market.
Christine’s Cat – “Your Love Is . . .”
During those early, struggling-to-find-a-niche days, every independent label is guilty of foisting at least one shit band upon the unsuspecting public. On Creation, there was the Legend!; Factory had the Distractions. Christine’s Cat was Sarah’s abomination, an impermanent act that produced “Your Love Is . . . ” which was released as a five-inch flexidisc in July of 1989. Despite its penchant for bubblegum pop, Sarah had yet to feature a release with cutesy boy-girl vocals, so this was indeed welcome. However, there’s little else to praise, as the noise-ensconced track has Christine’s Cat forgetting the most important lesson when emulating the Jesus and Mary Chain: there has to be something flickering beneath that sound of a needle scratching back and forth over vinyl. And in this case, the subterranean melody is just downright flat.
Still, as mentioned earlier, Sarah had a number of acts that weren’t exactly career-focused, often regarding the entire process of making music as mere hobby and nothing else. And there’s something appealing about irrelevant, ephemeral pop careers—such as the one fostered by Christine’s Cat—now being preserved on such a celebrated indie label.
St. Christopher – “You Deserve More Than A Maybe”
Another fanzine break—these ones dubbed “Lemonade” and “Cold—A Lie,” and packaged with the aforementioned Christine’s Cat flexi (highlights: Wadd telling the boys, “You kept blathering on about fields and trees and stars when all she wanted was a bloody good FUCK”)—before Sarah tears the paisley gift wrap off another newcomer: St. Christopher. The name is rather fitting, too, as the York band has traveled from one label to another during its 20 years of existence: from U.K.-based ventures such as Sarah and Vinyl Japan to overseas labels like Bus Stop, Elefant, and Parasol.
“You Deserve More Than a Maybe” features a circular melody and minimal drumming, mixed low enough to showcase the echoey vocal work of Glenn Melia. Not a soaring tenor by any means, Melia still possesses pipes more robust than anything heard on Sarah previously. “I could never treat you wrong / I could never let you down again,” he sings, expressing cookie-cutter, love-fueled regret.
Another Sunny Day – “What’s Happened to You, My Dearest Friend?”
On it’s own, “What’s Happened to You, My Dearest Friend?” comes across as hyper, new wave apery; examined within the context of Williams' entire body of Sarah work, the track is more alluring, revealing itself to be a diverting, up-tempo break between the waggish mush of his previous single and the pop menace that follows (which easily ranks as one of the label’s best releases).
Over dinky synthesizers and a crisp snare drum, Williams sings of a friend altered for the worst by money and success: “And how you’ve changed now / I’m always amazed at what a difference money makes.” Ironically, despite being heaped with much Sarah-induced acclaim, the pop star will never know with such a transformation is like.
The Golden Dawn – “George Hamilton’s Dead”
The Golden Dawn continue their tumultuous quest to tear up Sarah’s pop precepts. “George Hamilton’s Dead” (the actor? the 19th century prime minister? hmmm . . .) builds to an ominous tension thanks to heavy guitar and bass parts wriggling for room; the release comes with 1:15 left: a maelstrom of feedback, crash cymbal racket, and vocal squawks. One of the b-sides, the lolling and dreamy “The Sweetest Touch,” finds the Golden Dawn putting away the effects pedals and slipping flowers into their lapels.
The Field Mice – “Sensitive”
Pop history tells us that by the time Sarah had squeezed out the first dozen releases or so (including several which garnered coveted “Single of the Week” status), the media-fueled backlash began in earnest. “Sensitive” is a moment of cranky self-awareness, Wratten reacting to the inkie flak by defending his right to be overly sentimental in expression: “If the sun going down can make me cry / Why should I hide the way I feel?” and “By showing your sensitive side / You do risk being crucified.” The music does some of the emotional heavy lifting, too: the bursts of sandpaper guitar and prickly melodies a giant “Fuck off” to those attacking the label and its cadre of bands.
Despite its cringe-inducing, penguin-laden cover art, John Peel thoroughly dug it, placing the song on his 1989 “Festive 50” list
Brighter – “Around the World in 80 Days”
For many genuflecting indie pop fans, the California-based Matinée Recordings is a successor to Sarah. Matinée has not only released music with the same dawdling, pensive sensibilities, but has managed to snag some of the label’s former players as well: Fletcher (Tender Trap) and Keris Howard (Harper Lee).
Howard was previously employed with Worthing’s Brighter (Matinée has released two compilations by his former group), which cut four singles and one album with the label. The first single was “Around the World in 80 Days,” which perfectly encapsulates Brighter’s approach to pop: piece-of-cake melodies, chords one could strum in their sleep, scarce percussion, and vocals delivered with simple, neurotic precision. Lessons learned from those studying at the Stephen Pastel School of Music: when it comes to an artist conveying what’s percolating inside, heartfelt emotion is often more important than sheer musical ability.
The highlight of this release is the airy title track, which bobs away like helium-filled balloons over Bristol’s Floating Harbour.
St. Christopher – “All Of A Tremble”
“All of a Tremble” was the second of two joint releases with the States’ Bus Stop Label. The single was issued months apart on both sides of the Atlantic (August of ‘89 in the U.K.) and packaged in separate sleeves (Sarah collectors, take note). Jangly guitars and a rudimentary drumbeat that irritates more than accentuates play a support role to more reverberating vocals from Melia. “You’ve got me all of a tremble,” he confesses, “if it takes a thousand years / Then I must try to catch her.” Thankfully, Melia’s quest ends after just two and a half minutes, as the wistfulness here is terribly wilted.
The Wake – “Crush The Flowers”
It’s surprising the Wake continue to loiter in the underlit alleys of obscurity. A 1983 tour with New Order, one-time band of Bobby Gillespie (he played bass), stints on two noteworthy independent labels—somehow this has brought the Glasgow band scant post-breakup acclaim.
The Wake released two albums and three singles with Factory Records, and a fourth with its subsidiary, Factory Benelux, before making the jump to Sarah for the fall of 1989 release “Crush the Flowers.” The title-track finds the Wake mincing Factory moodiness with bouncy pop textures. The highlight: Gerard “Caesar” McInulty and Clare Grogran soundalike Carolyn Allen clumsily repeating the song’s title, sounding every bit as if they’re hand-in-hand, skipping through a bed of purple thistles.
Another Sunny Day – “You Should All Be Murdered”
Williams unleashes his sinister side in the Smiths-inspired “You Should All Be Murdered,” certainly Sarah’s most sinister single yet. Set to a skittering guitar line, Williams provides the gory, bullet-pointed details to his massacre manifesto: “One day, when the world is set to rise / I’m going to murder all the people I don’t like.” He then proceeds to list his victims: the cruel, the chatty, the contemptible, the cowardly. Or, to put it more succinctly, “The people who do not deserve to live.” There’s an added edginess to the second half, a razor-sharp lead guitar slicing the track apart with only thin synthesizer lines to act as gauze.
Oh, to be in those messy bedrooms when the Sarahphiles first heard this number.
The Orchids – What Will We Do Next?
And the answer to that question is: mix guitars that echo like a voice through a heather-covered mountain valley, with bass that bubbles like gas on a blanket bog. Then adorn with garish plumes like handclaps and whistling. What you get is Sarah’s first, true epic: the b-side “Yawn.” One can’t help but wonder what Haynes thought about the seven-minute endeavor; he once remarked that a two-minute pop ditty is too long. Meanwhile, the title track is equally endearing: layered, diverse guitar parts over a frenetic rhythm section creating one of the label’s most rapturous releases to date. Hackett’s lyrics only add to the bedlam: “The world is crazy, but so am I.”
Sarah’s first EP (described as such on the back of the release), What Will We Do Next? is the Orchids’ second collaboration with producer Ian Carmichael, long regarded as the sixth member of the group. His willingness to brush away pop’s cobwebs with a searching flashlight was a reflection of his own diversified tastes; he later became a member of the dance outfit One Dove.
The Field Mice – “The Autumn Store Pt. 1”
The Field Mice – “The Autumn Store Pt. 2”
In January of 1990, Field Mice fans were presented a treat: back-to-back singles by the ever-industrious Mitcham act, which had made a notable addition by this time, bringing label mate Williams on board to handle guitars and keyboards.
The first single included “If You Need Someone,” a song that was the “in” for many Sarah disciples. The melody is sharp, tender, and instantly memorable. The drumming is infectious (no machines this time around), and there’s plenty of chivalrous, boyfriend posturing to go around: Wratten offering to chase away his love’s phobias and tears. Surely featured on countless mix tapes that spring (and accessible enough for even the Sarah loathers to appreciate), “If You Need Someone” is three and a half minutes of perfect pop. Meanwhile, the b-side, “The World to Me,” is a bit of a downer after such an incredible flip-side, but does excite on account of its rambunctious, reach-for-the-heavens synthesizers.
Listen to the month’s second release and it’s apparent Madchester has the Field Mice by the toes. “Song Six” employs dance-like rhythms and a bass-driven throb you can shake your apple to. While not nearly as memorable as any dance-pop hybrid churned out by, say . . . Happy Mondays that year, it’s further evidence the Field Mice were not proponents of a “live twee or die” philosophy.
Gentle Despite – The Darkest Blue EP
Gentle Despite are yet another of Sarah’s many lost bands, releasing two singles less than 18 months apart before being buried in one of pop’s unmarked graves. The only relevant information unearthed was gleaned from an old fanzine entitled “Shoot The Tulips.” Simon (no last name provided) fronted the group, which rose from the ashes of an outfit dubbed Esmerelda’s Kite. Collaborators included Ian Master of Pale Saints (who is thanked on the back of the single) and a gentleman named Robert (again, no last name), who went on to later found Adorable.
“Darkest Blue” is a departure from the previous releases by the Orchids and the Field Mice. It’s serene bedsit pop, effortless acoustic strumming with a mournful electric guitar shedding tears in the background. “I’ve seen the darkest blue in you,” sings the breathy Simon, before trying to remember happier times: “You’re the sweetest when you smile.” Even the cover art conveys the dolor theme, the EP looking like it was dipped in a well of blue ink.
Brighter – “Noah’s Ark”
Howard’s opening couplet sets the mood for “Noah’s Ark”: “I say goodbye and I sadly smile / Has it all been worthwhile or a waste of time?” The song’s central melody plays for a limited number of notes before abruptly departing, reappearing like a fickle lover, only to stroll off once more, which severely heightens the song’s pathos. What makes the track so memorable is the final two minutes: a rare Brighter drum beat takes over, the guitar parts become more pronounced, Howard la-la-las—and despite all the previous lyricism and dabbed eyes, you now have the feeling everything is going to be just fine.
Action Painting! – “These Things Happen”
Brighton’s Action Painting! make their debut for Sarah, cutting the first of three singles for the label before moving onto Fierce Panda and Damaged Goods. (According to Alistair Fitchett on the wonderful Tangents web site, either Wadd or Haynes are alleged to have said that all labels should have at least one act with an exclamation point in its moniker. Cute.)
Punk was often cited as a major influence for the 1980s indie pop movement, but more for its aesthetic principals: the self-reliance, the desire to ignore relative amateurishness when starting up a band, the elitist scenesterism, and the focus on politics (in this case, related to gender). On “These Things Happen,” Action Painting! takes it a step further, incorporating punk’s sonic wrinkles (the message on the back of the single: “Two pop songs before our instruments bust, amen!”), from the charged lyrics to the snotty vocals to the Buzzcocks’ guitars in the background. The b-side, “Boy Meets World,” is even more stimulating, a harsh rattling of Sarah fans’ bedroom windows. Wedding Present-inspired guitars that don’t let up for the song’s two minutes and repeated, sneering choruses of “Wake up!” and “Shake up!” The message here: Sarah is growing up and so too should its mooning fans.
The Orchids – “Something For The Longing”
Oh, those shrewd jocks from Penilee. What sounds like whirling helicopter blades gives way to a militaristic, marching beat and it's not until you hear that glorious, soaring chorus that one realizes the Orchids have crafted one of Sarah’s most memorable releases. As usual, what prevents the entire number from collapsing into a heap of pure bombast is Hackett, who handles simple lines like “We can walk for hours and hours” with his usual amateur aplomb. Four singles into their career with Sarah and the Orchids have emerged as arguably the label’s most potent act.
Heavenly – “I Fell In Love Last Night”
The stellar releases are coming fast and furious now. “I Fell In Love Last Night’ is the Sarah debut for Heavenly, featuring one of indie pop’s most recognizable voices: Amelia Fletcher. Heavenly featured members of her previous act, Talulah Gosh, and in many ways, was a continuation of that group’s pop approach: girl group grousing fleshed out with punk flair, then softened by the lilt of Fletcher’s angelic voice.
Amid a clutter of twangy guitar, “I Fell In Love Last Night” has Fletcher falling ass over teacups for a boy, though she never lets on that he’s the one in control: “Took me out for a walk in the park / Said you wanted to show me romance / Now’s your chance, say you can.” Fletcher—once described as “so perfect, her socks fall down”—injects the cheery-cheeked innocence of bands like Marine Girls with her own breathless enthusiasm for devotion and doting. Poison arrows were fired on account of Fletcher’s supposed leadership of “the cutie movement,” but such missives (and missiles) were unfair, as lurking beneath those hairbrush-and-dresser-mirror confessions was a severe sense of self-awareness. Truly one of Sarah’s best releases.
Eternal – “Breathe”
The June 1990 release of “Breathe” is the label leaping headfirst (and headlong) into shoegaze. Calling Eternal a minor blip in that scene is an overstatement, as the group only released this single and played just one gig: a triple-bill with Slowdive and Chapterhouse at a now defunct club in Eternal’s hometown of Reading (the former eventually welcomed Eternal vocalist / guitarist Christian Savill as a fulltime member). Interestingly, Savill and part-time member Sean Hewson began recording music again under the pseudonym Monster Movie, cutting a five-song EP for Clairerecords in 2001.
“Breathe” and “Sleep” feature the drone-swarm aesthetic found in most shoegaze material, but fail to procure the rush of sensations commonly associated with works by My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Those artists produced sounds that swooned, caressed, stimulated: true escapist pop. Eternal just ambles about aimlessly, leading us to deem this one disappointing debut.
The Sea Urchins – “A Morning Odyssey”
After another fanzine break (this one entitled, “Sunstroke”), the Sea Urchins return with their third Sarah release. Bobbing piano and charming vocals highlight the title track, but overall, it’s a familiar trope. Other Sarah artists with numerous releases under their belts are showing significant growth, but the Sea Urchins seem to be exhibiting significant creative stasis. Fittingly, this was their last single for Sarah.
St. Christopher – “Antoinette”
Sarah had a rather dedicated, significant following in France, a relationship born out of Les Inrockuptibles (the leading music publication at the time) consecrating the Field Mice’s 1989 single “Sensitive.” Numerous Sarah bands toured the country during the label’s existence, with a pair of festivals taking place in Paris.
St. Christopher crossed the Channel for such tours; maybe this was the inspiration for “Antoinette,” a rather melodramatic hymn to a French tart and their now defunct relationship. Spurred on by a plastic piano melody and sweetheart lucidity, Melia crosses over into Associates territory, continuing to impress with his pipes. The same can’t be said for his lyrics, however, which express the most savage of human emotion with quite unaffecting verbiage—even for Sarah standards: “I’m not perfect, you know / Though I try to be.”
The single’s most charming aspect: On the back, Haynes responds to critics and their pejoratives, including a tear-off strip with the statement, “I would like to quibble with what a lot of Sarah Records does,” complete with boxes for “yes” or “no.” He then lashes out fully: “Try to come to grips with new mail-order prices which I know some of you think mean we’ve sold out, success champagne-bubbling to our heads and every other vacant extremity, but it’s HONESTLY NOT TRUE...”
Another Sunny Day – “Rio”
Who better to rescue the label from a bit of a scoring drought than Williams, the man who’s become Sarah’s most dependable striker. “Rio” exemplifies the reason many adore his work: Williams’ John Denver-like appearance and sonic touches leave one thinking he’d be better served belting out tunes by the campfire, s’mores goo stuck to the side of his mouth. However, dig a little deeper and one will see there were few songwriters on Sarah as human. “Rio” soars with its lofty strings and atmospheric guitar lines—the rhythm section is minimal, too, so as not to weigh this endeavor down. But it’s Williams’ lyrics that give the song its power, coaxing feelings of alarm and self-doubt as he constantly repeats the question, “Where does this leave me?”
The Sweetest Ache – “If I Could Shine”
I like to think either Haynes or Wadd brought this Swansea sextet on board solely because of its moniker. If ever there were three words that best summed up the Sarah catalogue, it’s “the sweetest ache.”
The band released a trio of singles for the label, two more for Sunday Records, and a pair of albums (one with Sarah, one with Vinyl Japan). They also earned a mention in Sarah’s final newsletter, despite not playing in the farewell gig: “The Sweetest Ache have split and Stuart’s working in Our Price in Bristol (though demoing new stuff back home in Wales).”
“If I Could Shine” plumbs the depths of Galaxie 500 dream pop, the song’s most fetching feature is the dynamic that exists between the bramble-laden guitar parts and the leafy synthesizers. The b-side, “Here Comes The Ocean,” includes volume swells reminiscent of Pellumair, its quiet parts driven by snail-like bass and brittle taps of the hi-hat.
Even As We Speak – “Nothing Ever Happens”
Sarah unleashes its second consecutive effort from a six-piece from foreign soil: Sydney’s Even As We Speak. Forming in 1985, the band released a number of singles with native Australian labels such as Phantom and Voyeur, before setting up camp in England.
Hitting bins in November of 1990, this excellent, five-song debut never overindulges, checking in at an economic 10-plus minutes. Vocalist Matthew Love immediately calls to mind the lisping feyness of Stephen Pastel, his voice only attaining any sort of menace when lines such as, “My sense of touch / Words never mean that much / My heart beats like a cheap watch,” are set to the song’s hawkish bass line.
“Blue Suburban Skies” is as anthemic as they come, both for its lyrics (“Your friends all said you’re stupid / To leave your heart wide open / You know it only gets broken”) and the imagery it evokes: Sarah devotees dwelling along pop’s ideological outskirts, content nonetheless under blissful, cerulean skies. Also of note: “A Stranger Calls” drops a line that must be emblazoned on a homemade Sarah t-shirt somewhere: “I’d sell my grandma for a song.”
The Field Mice – “So Said Kay”
Sarah breaks tradition here, releasing its first-ever 10-inch. (Quick aside: The format ticked off a number of the label’s diehard fans. On the back of the Springfields’ “Wonder” Haynes writes, “And increasingly now I am accosted walking homewards from the chemists by small yet hideously deformed haircuts that jabber and twitter round my feet saying: ‘WHY’s you done a CD? WHY’s Sarah 38 a 10'”? WHY’s the Field Mice gone all funny?”)
The release showcases the Field Mice’s most poignant work to date. “Landmark” skitters along the edge of autumnal sadness with its doleful blend of piano and acoustic guitar, then turns downright glum thanks to the overcast synths. “If someone were to ask me / I’d say it’s remarkable / That she has stayed this long,” sings Wratten, wringing every last emotion out of the words, as if he can’t believe the girl’s persistence himself. The title track features breeze-in-the-hair strings and lifts dialogue from the lesbian-themed drama Desert Hearts, opening with the now famous lines, “Where’d you learn to kiss that way? / I don’t know from where that came.”
The Sweetest Ache – “Tell Me How It Feels”
In continuing with our inspection of the singles’ back covers, “Tell Me How It Feels” contains the passage, “And now, as I’m awoken in the moist dark dregs of the day by wild ecstatic youthful fumbling noises from the flat upstairs, I pine softly for worlds long-gone.” Fitting really, as the Sweetest Ache’s “Tell Me How It Feels” finds the listener yearning for the band’s first single, “If I Could Shine.” Both the title track and the b-side, “Heaven-Scented World,” find the Welsh act coming unhinged aesthetically, abandoning its dream pop textures for sanitized minimalism.
The Springfields – “Wonder”
Remember the Springfields? It’s been two and a half years since their previous release, “Sunflower.” “Wonder” finds the band channeling the same Golden State vibes: effulgent melodies with enough Vitamin C to make one forget these guys were from Prairieland, USA (Illinois). Highlights include the lovely “I wonder why” harmonies on the chorus and how the vocalist confesses, “She will destroy me if I give her time to try,” with such thinly veiled glee—almost like he wants to give the bird the opportunity.
Heavenly – “Our Love Is Heavenly”
The thrilling “Our Love Is Heavenly” showcases all the bounce and kick of a band having the time of its life: from the manic guitars (filled with plenty of space and sweet lethargy before zipping into warp speed, and then back again) to the girlish verve in Fletcher’s voice—two components of the band that interwove so perfectly when everything was clicking. The highlight: A guitar jam that uncoils like a spring, before Fletcher fails to stifle an amused giggle on the lines, “Yes it’s true / Got a new boy who loves me / I love him too / And our love is heavenly.” Released in January of 1991, “Our Love Is Heavenly” ranks as one of the label’s best-ever singles.
The Orchids – Penetration
Mere months after the label’s first 10-inch releases (see Sarah 038), the Sarah puppies get their dander up once again as the Orchids cut the 12-inch EP Penetration. Ignore this break from tradition and one hear the Orchids continuing to expand their palette. “Bemused Confused And Bedraggled” is propelled by a willy-nilly rhythm section and occasional fidgety guitar. It also succinctly displays the anti-backlash, take-or-leave-it attitude of many Sarah bands: “This is my song / It ain’t very hard and it ain’t very long.” The minimal “Tropical Fishbowl,” a b-side highlight, is rich with imagery only a lonely Scot caught in dreich weather could appreciate: “Are you the girl who stands in the rain? / Are you the girl who calls out my name?”
Tramway – “Maritime City”
With its blue-and-grey cover art and seaworthy title, Tramway’s first single for Sarah initially appears to be a homage to the band’s hometown of briny, shambling Bristol. There’s even lyrics alluding to the city’s reputation for lethargy (as members of Portishead put it, a place where “people take a while to get out of bed”): “Watching the hours go by / Like I do all the time.” Get past that full-on dance beat—the work of drummer Jez Butler, previously of the Groove Farm—and one realizes this song is really just a time capsule of past Sarah acts.
The Field Mice – “September’s Not So Far Away”
Released just in time for those doomed spring / summer flings, “September’s Not So Far Away” is certainly a step backwards following the terrific “So Said Kay.” Over a heartbeat snare and a canned melody, Wratten and newcomer Annemari Davies blow kisses to one another, expressing their love with clichéd, greeting card phrases: “I am really missing you so / Wanting to be kissing you so.” Declawed and more insular than usual, the single fails to scratch any sort of pop itch.
Gentle Despite – “Torment to Me”
After almost 18 months of dormancy, Gentle Despite return with May of 1991’s “Torment to Me,” a single that’s a stylistic leap forward from the band’s previous soft-as-cotton pop. Ferocious guitars and strangled vocals give this number a BBC Radio 1 sound. There’s even Sarah’s first genuine guitar solo—gnarly! The two b-side tracks don’t fall prey to mainstream trappings and are more in line with Gentle Despite’s previous, placid work.
St. Christopher – “Say Yes To Everything”
A seventy-five second journey through pealing celestia, including percussion that sounds like a sparrow trapped in a mail box, opens “Say Yes to Everything,” St. Christopher’s way of telling the listener they really have gone through pop puberty since that last release. The band doesn’t pull it off, though, as the song retreats to standard pop machinations rather quickly. Reflecting back on their four singles, one can’t help but think of a phrase commonly associated with Sarah: “There and back again” (a lane in Bristol which served as inspiration for the label’s best-of, final release). Listeners embarked on a sonic journey with St. Christopher, but in the end, really didn’t go anywhere.
The Sweetest Ache – “Sickening”
Not quite the stirring comeback, the chronicled passion of “Sickening” does return the Sweetest Ache from Sarah zealot marginalization. “Maybe then / You’ll understand me when / I react a little strangely to your sickening false promises,” the vocalist intones, his straining voice apt to produce a wince, but with enough unchecked emotion to make up for any deficiencies. A single that suitably captures the “dreary north London in dreary winter drizzle” phrasing featured on its back cover.
The Wake – “Major John”
“Major John” shows the Wake are quite skilled when penning the more honeyed fare, employing sweet (and instantly memorable) melodies here. But the true standout track is the b-side, “Lousy Pop Group,” where McInulty takes a piss on the visages carved into pop’s Mount Rushmore. (Such venom is hardly unfounded; he wrote Altered Images’ first single, the controversial “Dead Pop Stars,” which was released shortly after John Lennon’s death.) “I hate Eric Clapton, I hate Elton John,” he sings, “I hate the guy in Dire Straits / And the list goes on.” The Wake have officially tossed aside their charcoal finery from the Factory days.
Even As We Speak – “One Step Forward”
The star of Even As We Speak’s August of 1991 release is Mary Wyer, notably absent from the first single. On the shimmying title track, her sugar-coated voice perfectly complements the song’s bullfrog bass: “One step forward / two steps back,” she sings, “It’s a tender trap / Or something like that.” Love handles the vocals on “Best Kept Secret” with Wyer chiming in amiably on the choruses, an effort which calls to mind the vibrant work of countrymen like the Go-Betweens and later, the Lucksmiths.
Sarah 050 then followed: A board game entitled “Saropoly,” which Haynes declared, “the purest distillation of the spirit of pop imaginable,” as he felt it genuinely summed up what made his label different from others. The object of this game? “To cake a good old fashioned SARAH 7” EP—complete with free poster, wraparound sleeve, and plastic bag—and to sell it in quantity to young people.” It even came with dice and playing pieces symbolizing the heads of various record companies: Alan McGee as a pair of sunglasses, Richard Brandon as a hot air balloon.