I’m not entirely sure why I decided to buy it that day. I could have heard somewhere about a record label that was right up my street. I may have noted something on the radio that caught my ear. It’s just as likely though that on that warm summer’s Saturday in Reckless Records on Camden High Street I picked up Fountain Island, liked the cover and, with a fiver (£5.25 to be precise) in my pocket, took a chance on it and carried it home.
I was hooked before the tube ride had finished and I’d got it on the stereo. Staring at the sleeve of something you’ve just brought while going home did that sometimes. Fountain Island was one of the classic compilation LP’s Sarah Records put out throughout the labels life, collecting songs otherwise only found on singles. The artwork, benefiting from 12-inch rather than 7-inch size covers, reminded me of back gardens and sun-baked suburban streets. Once on the turntable I was quickly hooked by the mix of gentle and more urgent guitar music, which carried a strong antipodean flavour to go with the more expected Bristol fuzzy noise. I now count some of the bands on that LP as my favourites: the Orchids, the Sugargliders and some that only my brother and I seem to know and cherish: Tramway, take a bow.
Fountain Island got me hooked on Sarah. This record label, I quickly learned, was run by Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, from a PO Box in Bristol. I wrote off to them for some singles and, when they came back I had a hand-written reply with some thoughtful responses to what I’d asked them. Over time, I came to look forward to these notes as much as the music. When I got good enough GCSEs to go to Sixth Form College Matt sent a pat on the back. I still have the note. Record inners came decorated with pictures of branch line services from Bristol. Mini-catalogues backed with hand-cut collages of tight-typed prose about love and loss. Here’s one, in lieu of me being sufficiently organised to scan my own ones. Besides, they’re personal.
Sarah had been going for a few years by the time I had cottoned on to it. Just like every musical movement ever, you should have been here a few years back. I didn’t care. I’d never found anything I liked doing more than going to the football, but rooting round record shops in search of missing Sarah seven-inches came pretty close.
Most other articles about Sarah descend into dullard cliches far too easily, labelling its output fey and winsome. Critics lack the respect and imagination to listen any further. The Field Mice and Heavenly are, to those lazy ears, the sum total of Sarah’s contribution to music, with a caustic nod to Pristine Christine by the Sea Urchins, the very first Sarah single. iTunes will prove the nonsense of this position. By all means have a listen to the Field Mice and Amelia Fletcher’s timelessly sharp lyrics, but also take the time to find Secret Shine, Blueboy, Brighter, Even As We Speak and Tramway. I shall keep mentioning the latter band until anyone reading this buys ‘Maritime City’. I’m not sure there’s ever been a record quite like it. You can hear the b-side here. St Christopher’s blazing rendition of All of a Tremble is another excellent introduction to a wonderful and underrated band.
Matt Haynes went on to produce Smoke: a London Peculiar, a publication as unique and rooted in place as Sarah had been, and I scribbled a few things for that. Thought Clare and Matt have admirably refused to cash in on their cult status you can find lots of Sarah stuff on iTunes. Here’s my top ten in no particular order:
1. All of a Tremble – St Christopher
2. Helmet On – East River Pipe
3. Maritime City – Tramway
4. After Years – Secret Shine (though Loveblind, sometimes known as Spindrifting is wonderful too)
5. You Should All Be Murdered – Another Sunny Day
6. Half-Hearted – Brighter
7. Emma’s House – the Field Mice
8. If I could Shine – the Sweetest Ache
9. Distraction – Boyracer
10. Shadow of a Girl – Gentle Despite
Anyone else have a Sarah favourite to share?