Between Hello and Goodbye Exhibition Guide

In May 2014, Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery staged an exhibition about the label called Between Hello and Goodbye. The following histories of the label, written for the benefit of anyone who’d wandered in off Narrow Quay and needed a brief explanation of what they’d walked into, appeared in the exhibition guide.

CLARE Looking back now, what strikes me is that we were just so incredibly young. Not just us, though, everybody. Everything seemed possible – everything does at that age – it didn’t matter if you’d never done something before and had no real idea how to go about it. We were burning with passion and excitement and enthusiasm for creating things, doing things, being part of something. To just passively consume was to miss the point: it was only punk if it was DIY, and it was only DIY if you were doing.

I was nineteen when we started Sarah, already a veteran of six fanzines. Most of the bands were around my age. And that was partly why we stopped when we did, we never wanted to be grown-ups running a label with young bands who were still kids, and some weird power dynamic between us and them. It worked because we were all kind of the same, or had been recently enough for us not to feel very different. And if we had a car it was to move records and T-shirts and get to gigs with merchandising and because hitching was just too time-consuming these days, and if we had a house it was because that meant we weren’t renting both a flat and an office and it was cheaper and less hassle and a house in Windmill Hill was £45K then, which is kind of unimaginable now.

Matt and I both moved to Bristol to go to university, he physics, me economics, he from London, me from Yorkshire, me Berkeley Square, he Tyndall Avenue. I wrote to three Bristol fanzine writers before I moved down, hoping to find people to go to gigs with – and he was one of them. In the November, Primal Scream supported Julian Cope at the Bierkeller (there must be people who think of this as a Julian Cope gig, but in all our heads it was Primal Scream, the only time I ever saw them, ever will, most likely); I tried to sell Matt a fanzine, which he didn’t buy because I’d sent him one. It wasn’t love at first sight.

I was sixteen, living in Harrogate, and a huge fan of the Alarm when I wrote my first fanzine. I’d never even heard of fanzines until Kid Jensen mentioned them one night and, even though I’d never even seen one, I knew immediately I wanted to write one. Not unreasonably, I wasn’t allowed to until after my O levels. I tried to rope some friends in at first, but I think I knew they weren’t that bothered, or perhaps they knew it would always be mine, not ours. I wrote off for some, particularly local ones, asked for advice, tried to get it copied at school, got my picture in the Harrogate Advertiser (this hadn’t been part of the plan), learnt about printing, ran up my parents’ phone bill peak-rate after school organising interviews, got into concerts at the Conference Centre for free and saved my Saturday job money for typical teenage-girl things like a long-arm stapler. Fanzines then weren’t just about music, politics featured strongly, and sixteen in Yorkshire in 1984 wasn’t a bad time to become politically aware; then, you were either for the government or you were against them, as frankly you should be now.

In sixth form I made new friends, wrote more fanzines, went to more gigs and abandoned Kid Jensen forever in favour of John Peel. Matthew Eaton (later of Pram) was a year older and had a driving licence, and we went to see the Smiths in Bradford. Matthew went to university in Birmingham and I got my own driving licence and drove us to Manchester to see the Pogues at the Hacienda. We went to gigs in Leeds – Nico, Yeah Yeah Noh, Terry and Gerry, Big Flame, Half Man Half Biscuit, Age of Chance, the Wedding Present. I interviewed New Model Army at Leeds University and Ivor Cutler at the Ilkley Literature Festival. We went to the Warehouse, the Irish Club, the Riley Smith Hall and the Poly. I started knowing people to chat to. At some point I started going to Jumbo in Leeds instead of The Sound of Music in Harrogate or HMV or Virgin. I started going to X Clothes, too, but maybe the less said about that the better. Matthew’s granny lived in Eynsford, which was near enough London apparently for me and him and Andy to have somewhere to stay after the C86 gigs at the ICA; one was sold out, but we got into a couple, just by turning up on the night – two hundred miles and no advance ticket in those days.

I stayed with Matthew in Birmingham the night before my first term started in Bristol. I can’t remember what the gig was, but he’d started talking about the local scene – Hugh from Mighty Mighty and a band called the Sea Urchins whose members were pictured on Mighty Mighty’s record sleeves. I still have Jamie Sea Urchin’s university address written in pencil on a 1986 scrap of paper. That November I went to a Christmas party in aid of Greenpeace at the Founder’s Bar (£1 advance, £1.25 on the door) to see the Sea Urchins and Matthew’s band Friends of the Family, originally from Harrogate but by now all in Birmingham, I think. If you saw the Sea Urchins live back then, you’ll know they weren’t always outstanding – but, when they were, they really were, and I was smitten, and then surprised that nobody in Bristol seemed to like them after their by then infamous Thekla striptease debacle. So the following spring, when someone in my halls of residence suggested I did a flexi with my next fanzine, the Sea Urchins were an obvious choice – and luckily Sha-la-la and I chose different songs. The Groove Farm were equally obvious – they’d just released Sore Heads and Happy Hearts, which was one of my favourite records at the time, and they were just stunning live.

That summer of 1987 we took the train to Severn Beach for the day for what turned out to be our first date – 6th June, the Saturday after my first-year exams finished. We both fell in love with Bristol, or Matt showed me Bristol and I fell in love with it and him. We’ll gloss over the fact we both live in London now. We walked round Clifton Village – the Paragon, Royal York Crescent, Princess Victoria Street, the Bridge, the Zigzag – making plans, deciding what our record label would be called, would be like, why. We would have claimed not to be influenced by anyone locally, but how could we not have been inspired by the likes of Subway and Raving Pop Blast as much as Creation and Factory? We knew we could just set up a record label because we knew other people who had. But, whoever inspired us, we wanted to do it our way, and we really did live in our own secret world.

I don’t remember consciously thinking that calling it Sarah (in our heads it was always Sarah, never Sarah Records) and having a flowers logo meant we were challenging macho norms to the extent it turned out we were – it just seemed like a nice name and I’d been reading Emma and liked gardening. C86 was just a cassette back then, ankle socks made sense with skirts in summer, anoraks kept out the Bristol (or Glasgow) rain, and I could like Pop Will Eat Itself and Talulah Gosh without raising any eyebrows. We never expected to be patronised and put down so much; I think we thought people would judge the music first and foremost. We didn’t know quite how sexist the real world really was (and I’m still shocked by how sexist it still is).

In my head the sun shone all that summer. We spent time with Margaret and Amanda, who wrote 373 Miles Is A Very Long Way fanzine (the distance from Bristol to Glasgow, home of pop), and with Rob from the Poppyheads over the other side of the Downs. I went to Glastonbury on the local bus (Rob got his trousers stolen) and back to Yorkshire for a month’s unwelcome decorating work in Bradford. We went to London, stayed with Matt’s parents, and went on the exciting new Docklands Light Railway. We wrote letters to the Sea Urchins and the Orchids and made plans for recordings and sleeves. The Visitors (from Devon) let us spend a day in the recording studio with them somewhere near the SS Great Britain because we’d never been in one before. We collated copies of Matt’s last Are You Scared To Get Happy? fanzine and I sold the remainder of my last Kvatch. In September, we hitched to Birmingham for the mixing of Pristine Christine.

We somehow wrote to Revolver asking for a manufacturing and distribution deal and they somehow said yes – which meant they would not only distribute our records for us, but would pay for them to be cut and pressed, and we would pay the money back from the sales. Revolver were our first choice of distributor from the Cartel, not just because they were local, but because they were slightly bland (but not Pinnacle bland) – not being run by anyone you’d heard of, not having a label connected, not being cool (we always knew we weren’t cool). They patiently, if slightly wearily, explained what an invoice was, that records had a weekly release date, accepted delays (“I’m doing my finals”), and put up with us not having a phone (for a while).

It’s hard now to think back to a time when we wrote letters. And yet it was like we had our own slow social network. You wrote off for fanzines, you wrote off for records, fanzine writers wrote each other letters, got to know each other, met at gigs, and made friends across the country. It’s hard to remember what it was like when we didn’t have a phone, computers, the internet, mobiles. We spent time in phone boxes. We spent fortunes on typesetting. We did artwork by hand with Letraset and poster paint to get rid of the shadow marks on the paste-ups (James Brown of Leeds fanzine Attack on Bzag, and later Loaded, showed me how). We learnt by trial and error, we figured it out as we went along.

We printed in two colours because we couldn’t afford the four that full-colour printing uses, never mind the full-colour scans for photos. We learnt what Pantone colours are, and process colours, and why they’re cheaper. We spent time not money. Everything by hand, on foot, the long way round, hitching, coaches, never buying the multitrack.

Matt had a manual typewriter, I had an ultramodern golfball – you could change the font! (At a price, so I only ever had two.) And then we got an electronic, and we could preview a whole line of text on a little display before it printed and catch typos before they hit the page. The future was here. We spent £1 a page sending faxes from a bureau, £3 for international. We got a phone, we got an answerphone – and, by some complicated system of speaking and not speaking between beeps, you could get your messages remotely; we celebrated by going to Ilfracombe for a week on our first holiday. Later, you could charge calls from a phone box to your home account, and we got an Amstrad word processor and a dot-matrix printer.

Garden Flat, 46 Upper Belgrave had been Matt’s, and I moved in. It was £80 a month. Basement at the front, second floor at the back (this being Clifton). Small kitchen with no natural light. Long corridor, vinyl floor – all the Sea Urchins slept on it one night, poor souls, eleven of them and their friends. Then it opened out with a built-in single bed, and through to what was meant to be the living room, mattress on the floor, small desk in the corner, the only window. Hot in summer, cold in winter. No heating, but if you left the cooker on the kitchen stayed kind of warm. Days and nights collating fanzines and sleeving records on the floor, it makes me (lower back disc-injury) wince just to think of it now. Another 50p for the electric meter when the lights went out.

I carried on with my degree, wrestling with unemployment figures and Kant while Matt was at home wrestling with Letraset, only skipping a class once for an NME interview in London. A civil service summer job in The Pithay paid for the next batch of singles, and I walked home with Matthew Evans, later of Tramway. I remember working on the sleeve design for Sunflower in a lecture, writing an essay at a Field Mice soundcheck, and putting release dates back so I could study for finals; I was probably a bit disappointed only to get a 2i. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to apply for jobs, but really Sarah needed us both full-time by the time I graduated, and could just about support two people used to living off income support and grants, prepared to eat rice with brown sauce for lunch, and home enough to fast boil chickpeas and soak them overnight. It was our very own basement garret.

In 1990 we moved next door and the Visitors’ friend Pete moved into number 46. Garden Flat, 45 Upper Belgrave Road was bigger, lighter, and had a side window with a view across the city. A Venue magazine journalist had been living there and, before we realised, we’d once been quite thrown to hear Shadow Factory through the walls. The two flats connected inside – out of the kitchen of one, to a sort of subterranean tunnel with the meters, then a door into the bathroom of the other. We moved without going outside; Bristol is a rainy city.

We got a washing machine. We got an office. The landlord took the roof off one summer when the students moved out, and kindly let us be, but didn’t tell us what he was doing. It rained inside. We got a car, bored and tired of hitching – the time, the stress, the fear of strangers and conversation, the multiple taxis back and forth from Revolver’s warehouse with boxes of records to sleeve. We released a board game about running a record label based on a map of the city. We had our poor cutting engineer cram “Sarah Records unequivocally supports a fully integrated light rail rapid transit system for the Greater Bristol area” in the run-off groove of Glass Arcade.

We always wanted to create something that would stand the test of time. We were arrogant (if quiet and shy), so always had an eye on a legacy. We wanted to be able to look back and be proud, for it to be obvious that everything was deliberate and thought-through. We were careful to make everything special and important, which is why the 7”s were in series of ten, and the label ten series of ten: we always rather thought we might stop at 100. And probably we always hoped we might, one day, have an exhibition somewhere in Bristol, maybe somewhere like the Arnolfini…

MATT It was after punk that things got interesting. Realising that there was no great mystique to making a record – with a 4-track and a bit of photocopied A4 folded into a 7” square, anyone could do it – bands you’ve never heard of, from towns you’ve never been to, sold five thousand 7”s on the back of one Peel play. And it wasn’t just bands: out of the primordial indie soup crawled Liverpool’s Zoo Records, Manchester’s Factory, Glasgow’s Postcard and a thousand others. In 1979, Heartbeat Records, founded in Tony’s on Park Street, released Avon Calling, a showcase for fifteen Bristol bands, and most cities had something similar. Distribution, localised at first, became national, as Bristol’s Revolver, originally based in the back of a shop on The Triangle, linked with London’s Rough Trade and shops in Liverpool, York, Edinburgh, Norwich and – curiously – Leamington Spa to form the Cartel. The first Indie Charts appeared.

Until the 80s, Radio 1 shared Radio 2’s output between drivetime and ten. At ten, though, Radio 1 returned for a final two hours in the hands of John Peel, and we’d retreat to our bedrooms for the nightly communion; because, for those of us too young, unconfident or isolated – geographically or socially – to go to gigs, Peel’s show was the only place to hear this music. It was an intensely private, secret world. Tape recorders would be placed in front of transistors and trembling fingers poised over pause buttons as we waited for the all-too-familiar sound of a Woolworth’s ferric-oxide C60 being chewed to bits.

Luckily for me, Mark Carnell shared not just my corridor in Bristol University’s Hiatt Baker Hall, but also my love of the Chameleons’ In Shreds and the Farmer’s Boys. He also owned Bouquet of Steel, his home city Sheffield’s equivalent of Avon Calling; its sleeve notes spoke of the Human League, Pulp, Comsat Angels and Vena Cava, whose single I’d heard on Peel and loved and who’d later rename themselves St Christopher. Mark was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s in his third year at Bristol and never got to see the first St Christopher 7” on Sarah; we scratched his name in the run-off groove.

From a shared house off Ashley Hill, we took our first awkward step into Bristol’s live scene: a Blue Aeroplanes gig at the Western Star Domino Club (now buried under Cabot Circus). Arriving at eight with housemates Elaine and John, we had to ring a bell to gain entry; in the brightly lit room upstairs, grumpy middle-aged West Indian gentlemen stared at us resentfully. Next time, to see the Brilliant Corners, we got there at eleven, like everyone else.

We scoured the singles reviews, trying to guess how the bands Peel didn’t play might sound, and from Revolver bought Biff Bang Pow! and Jasmine Minks 7”s, mysterious discs in handfolded sleeves from a label called Creation. We began buying each Creation release on spec, unheard. Another secret world: the Pastels, the Loft, the Jesus and Marychain…

Then one week NME reviewed a fanzine named Hungrybeat, the cover of which listed bands like these and others we knew we loved too. 30p (+SAE) to editor Kevin Pearce got us a double-spaced typewritten roar of rage and righteousness, and the phrase “punk rock” reclaimed from the spiky heads in leather jackets cadging 10p for cider and glue outside the old Volkswagen showroom on Stokes Croft. It was our epiphany: we might not have the guts to stand on a stage, but we could damn well write about those who did. The first Are You Scared To Get Happy? was a loving homage to total ripoff of Hungrybeat. The second was more our own. We took 500 copies to gigs, getting drunk and accosting strangers with demands for 35p.

And we went to the Living Room, the London club where Creation boss Alan McGee put on bands and sold his own fanzine, Communication Blur, and where Everett True, then styling himself The Legend!, read angry poems and hit a guitar. They weren’t alone. We weren’t alone. Across the UK, a self-supporting ecosystem was developing that, retrospectively, was labelled C86, the name of an NME cassette. Curiously, most of the bands associated with C86 aren’t on the cassette, and most of those that are don’t sound like C86 bands; people hear what they want to hear. In Bristol, ten of us got together to create the EEC Punk Rock Mountain at the George and Railway, a pub in the middle of the road by Temple Meads station. Not too many people came to see Razorcuts for £1.89, or Talulah Gosh for £1.93; to be fair, though, it was a very difficult road to cross.

Then things shifted. Bands disowned their roots: they weren’t “indie”, they weren’t “C86”, they were… rock’n’roll. Primal Scream ditched the fey jangle and paisley shirts for leather trousers and the chance to tonight, Matthew, be the Rolling Stones. They talked about chicks and drugs, and the press lapped it up, because that meant they got invited to the parties. And 12” singles, originally introduced by dance labels to maximise the bass, were co-opted by indie labels to maximise the profit. And we looked from Creation to EMI, and from EMI to Creation, and from Creation to EMI again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

When Are You Scared To Get Happy? got together with Jim Kavanagh’s Simply Thrilled and Pete Williams’ Baby Honey and David Payne’s Trout Fishing In Leytonstone to create Sha-la-la, the basic idea was to show everyone up. It was a record label, but the records were only 6½” across. And they were flexidiscs. They came in proper sleeves, though, and 2,500 of each were distributed via our fanzines (and others). For 50p, you got something to read and something to hear; and you weren’t paying £3.49 for a 12” with three songs on. It was possibly the most political label ever. The Poppyheads flexi had four songs, and the catalogue number was ba ba ba-ba ba 004, because that was funny. A copy was posted back to me with human excrement inside its plastic bag: we’d learnt how to annoy.

Of course it’s silly to use 12” singles as a metaphor for capitalism. Or to mock the capitalist mindset of record collectors by putting postcards that form a jigsaw of Temple Meads station in the sleeves of ten 7”s whose labels feature photos of consecutive stations on the Severn Beach line. But that’s the joy of it. POLITICS, as something encaptured in everyday life… to quote the sleevenotes of Shadow Factory, a compilation named and numbered after a bus to Patchway.

In 1987, Clare had moved to Bristol, and to Hiatt Baker Hall, and the new issue of her Kvatch fanzine was to include a flexidisc featuring the Sea Urchins and Bristol’s own Groove Farm. One afternoon she came to my Upper Belgrave Road basement to ask how carryable 1000 flexidiscs were. She never really left. We wrote to Revolver Distribution – now operating from a warehouse behind Old Market – to see if they’d give us a deal for a “proper” label. We drew up what we thought might be a business plan. “You’re not going to put them in stupid plastic bags like Subway, are you?” said MD Mike Chadwick. Martin Whitehead’s Subway Organization, based in Stoke Bishop, just across the road from Hiatt Baker, had already had success with the Shop Assistants and Soup Dragons, and Martin had been behind the Bunker Club, putting on bands at the Tropic on Stokes Croft and before that the Thekla, which is where I first encountered the Sea Urchins (ridiculously young, they had a friend from Brum who performed a slow striptease as they played; and then, at a loss for what else to do, slowly put his clothes back on).

Mike later told us what an invoice was, and why we should register for VAT. And that we should get a bloody phone. Sadly, he didn’t tell us what a process colour was, which is why we spent more on printing the labels for the first ten 7”s than on recording the songs. And why the next ninety labels are black, magenta or cyan. In fairness, though, he did insist we put the catalogue number on Shadow Factory’s sleeve. A friend from a posh PR firm loved the typesetting on the sleevenotes; how much, he wondered, had it cost to get each letter randomly orientated and offset? The answer – £4.99, aka the price of a sheet of Letraset – seemed to confuse him. But typesetting a paragraph of text meant sending it to a bureau, who’d charge £45. The first forty-eight singles were typeset by hand – it’s amazing what you can do with a ruler, a calculator (for justified type), a long weekend and a box of aspirin.

Photos too had to be sent away to be scanned, at a cost. So most of our artwork was done on the photocopier in Charles Hatcher’s tobacconist’s in Clifton. This was also how we got different sized text: type it, cycle over to Hatcher’s, resize it on the copier, then Pritt Stick it down, sealing the edges with white paint. Sleeves were printed just round the corner by Cliftonprint. Compliments slips and wedding invitations were their mainstay; they found us rather exotic, I think, but were so tickled by how the first Wake sleeve turned out they stuck it in their window.

The press in those Thatcherite days delighted in mocking our low budgets. NME’s James Brown harangued us for not buying our own photocopier – proof of our lack of ambition. But what can we say? We never went bust, we never asked a big label to bail us out; and, when we had two grand to spare, we took out ads attacking capitalism. Yes, we waited outside Clifton Down Sainsbury’s at 8.30 a.m. for yesterday’s half-price bread, I did paste-ups wearing fingerless gloves because of the cold, and we once slept on a hillside above Rawtenstall after a Field Mice gig and woke up covered in slugs, but it wasn’t just us: when the Orchids played two nights in Stoke, and onstage appeals for a place to stay were ignored, they camped in a field.

You have to be realistic, though. When we started, Clare was a second-year student – I remember her finishing an essay before the Field Mice played to four people in Cardiff’s Square Club – and, having left my job at the NCP multistorey behind Colston Hall, I was unemployed.

SARAH 31 was the first single we didn’t sleeve ourselves. I think it was the simultaneous release of SARAHs 26-29, each an initial pressing of 4,000, that tipped us over. 16,000 sleeves to be folded, 16,000 inserts inserted, 16,000 records put into 16,000 plastic bags – it’s a lot for two people working from a glorified bedsit in a basement; especially one they’ve nearly set on fire by leaving the grill on (we had no heating, the cooker was all there was…) while collecting 16,000 unsleeved records from Old Market in taxis. Arriving home, we found smoke pouring from the door and the landlord’s agent outside with two fire engines, and tried to unload the boxes as surreptitiously as we could – running a business was against the terms of the tenancy.

We stopped putting our address on sleeves once people began turning up expecting a bed for the night and an afternoon’s entertainment just because they’d once bought a 7”. They were mostly very nice, but… we had a business to run. So we rented a PO Box down by Castle Park and sometimes, if we left it a few days, we’d simply be handed a sack. But this was before email, before blogs, before Twitter – if you wanted to know what was going on, you wrote letters and sent off for fanzines. You got to know people through their handwriting, then you slept on their floor when a band played their town. Kids nowadays can’t imagine a music scene without Bandcamp and Soundcloud; we couldn’t imagine one without National Express. But three grim hours with a cardboard sign in the rain by the A3 failing to get out of Portsmouth after recording Action Painting!’s first 7” (the one where Andy had to borrow a guitar because he didn’t have one, and then, panicking, put the strings on in the wrong order) made us think a car might be a lovely thing; so with the money we’d saved from buying stale bread and not having full-colour sleeves, we bought a little red Fiesta.

And then, later on, a house on Gwilliam Street in Windmill Hill, with a view over the entire city.

Re-reading our reviews, I’m stunned by the vitriol. At the time, we shrugged it off, but – I don’t know how. The abuse was just so personal, from people we’d never met. Was that why they did it? Because the length of the M4 lay between us? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain why they wanted to: why the loathing, the contempt, the relentless, knee-jerk misogyny; unless being called Sarah is enough with a press that’s 90% male and scared that approval of something un-macho might lead to accusations of – whisper it – effeminacy?

Few people spotted that our sleeves didn’t use the female image as decoration, that singles didn’t appear on albums (except compilations), and that compilations didn’t include “previously unreleased” tracks, so maybe our politics was too subtle. Defy The Law was fairly unequivocal; even the NME noted that it was “Scottish chaps with one thing on their minds – how to stop that Poll Tax, and quick”. If we’d waited a couple of years till London was rioting, maybe they’d have been less patronising.

These days, the press matters less: these days, bands have the internet. Back then, if you had no support from Peel or the three weeklies, you had nothing. A flippant review could wreck a band’s career. We worried about this; felt guilty, sometimes.

Abroad, minds were more open. Big crowds saw Heavenly in Japan and when, in Paris, John Scally leapt from a monitor to send the first chord of Something For The Longing reverberating around La Locomotive, I remember thinking: this is how it should always be. But music wasn’t so international. How could it be? Posting a fanzine across the ocean cost a fortune, and sending money abroad meant a banker’s draft. But we watched Akiko, who photographed the cherries we used as our logo, create the Japanese scene almost single-handed; and Luis put out the first Elefant releases in Spain; and Marcus in Sweden, and Marianthi in Greece, and… just a handful of people in each place, but they all seemed to write to us, and each other; it was all coming together.

Our reviews acquired a surreal tinge; the good ones all began “unlike most Sarah releases…” – and the exception was always a different band. But then most of the typical Sarah bands weren’t on Sarah. People hear what they want to hear.

All you can really do is sigh and hope that, even if it takes twenty years, they’ll eventually come round.