It was a record label that only you knew about. It signed the acts no major label would touch but who you wanted to hear. It put out a board game, produced cut’n’paste fanzines and issued more button badges than you had room on your lapel to wear. It was your secret world of Sarah Records and it was located in a flat overlooking Bedminster train station.
In 1993, the NME reviewed a Sarah record by Secret Shine crowing: “This isn’t music, it’s cancer”. So it was quite a turnaround for the same paper in 2015 to admit: “Now we understand that Sarah Records were pioneers and quiet revolutionaries.”
But this was par for the course from a music press that universally despised Sarah with more venom than seemed necessary for a tiny indie label led by two music fans. Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes ran Sarah Records from 1987 to 1995, released precisely 100 7” singles and a few long players – the bulk of which were mailed out with handwritten letters to the bedrooms of fans all around the globe.
I was one of those fans. Tucked away in a Somerset village, I was a shy 13-year-old in 1991 when I first discovered some Sarah records lurking in my older brother’s record collection. I loved the hand-folded wraparound sleeves, the 7” paper inserts with romantic-seeming prose cut-n-pasted on, and the unpolished rawness of the music – particularly bands such as Heavenly, Even As We Speak, Ivy and The Orchids, and the joy of discovering that The Springfields was really Paulie Chastain from the Velvet Crush under another name.
In 1994, when a boy called Theo gave me his copy of the long-deleted Sea Urchins’ Pristine Christine (Sarah 1), Matt was flabbergasted that I’d received this as a gift considering copies were changing hands for up to £50 (in 2015, they’re on eBay for upwards of £250).
Through Sarah Records, I learned about things like Calvin Johnson and K Records in Seattle, Jean Cocteau (as it turned out, he was not one of the three twins), and how Huggy Bear corrupted The Word on Channel 4 with the help of Amelia-Fletcher-from-Heavenly’s amp and bass. Matt would send gossipy letters telling me how Amelia had seen Bobby-Gillespie-from-Primal-Scream on a bus in London, or he mailed me a 12” promo of the new Stephen Duffy single because he knew I was a fan but Matt thought he was rubbish. All of this information was in an age before email, the internet or mobile phones. If you sought knowledge it was there… but you had to want it. There was a huge network of people wanting to chat to you through fanzines, flexi discs, handwritten letters and handmade tapes. This was the spirit of Sarah Records.
There was something rebellious about being a Sarah fan because the music press despised the label so vehemently. “Getting stuff together for Lucy’s film meant re-reading old reviews and sometimes I’m amazed we actually kept going,” Matt says to me. “People often say the internet has made the world a nastier place, but no one now would have to cope with the sort of vicious bullying we received from the weekly press, and the weekly press was all we had. We were almost the last generation to be sneered at and told to know our place.”
When I was 15 in 1993 and writing a fanzine, Matt wrote me a letter advising: “If you don’t think you can be the best at what you are doing, quite honestly you should not be doing it.” Now that I am 37 in 2015, Matt might be horrified to know this is one of the few pieces of advice I’ve tried to follow in everything that I’ve done for the past 22 years. And that I’ve shared this pearl of wisdom with many others. The influence!
This sense of ethics and passion was what drove Matt and Clare to spearhead the most independent of indie labels. Lucy’s documentary shows how their principles were just as important as the music, and My Secret World reminds us that music doesn’t need to be about money to be a success.
“Inspired by Sarah’s DIY ethic, My Secret World has been made over four years on a limited budget,” says Lucy. “I was helped by Sarah fans from around the world who contributed their archive photos, footage and memorabilia. I’ve been surprised by the number of young people that have been in touch, many of whom weren’t even born in Sarah’s lifetime.”
All this hard work has paid off. In February, My Secret World won Best Film in the Royal Television Society West of England Awards. And the film has been distributed to Chile, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Brighton, New York, Glasgow, Greece, London, LA, Manchester and, of course, Bristol.