Clare Wadd returns to the Bristol Streets which shaped her and her record label in the 1980s
I’m back in Bristol in the early autumn, the time of year I moved here as a student thirty one years ago. I’ve lived in London twice as long and grew up in Yorkshire, but Bristol is the place that made me, the place where I became the adult I still am.
I’m in Bristol this weekend to see one of the bands who made my first years in the city so exciting – because Bristol was an exciting place back then if you liked indie music. The Groove Farm are not a band many people noticed reform this summer, and aren’t the kind of band many take a 250-mile round trip to see (though I’m not the only one who has). I’m a bit unsure: I don’t much like nostalgia, but now and then it’s enjoyable to go back — and it’s always good to have an excuse for a weekend in Bristol. I think their set is tremendous, they’re as charming as ever, and all the energy and excitement of seeing them thirty years ago is still there. I’m pleased I’ve come.
I spend most of the weekend just walking around though; it’s pretty much what I do anywhere I go, but Bristol is especially lovely to walk in because the hills mean there are views from everywhere to everywhere. Having lived in London for twenty years, I love the fact you can see where it stops, and then the green beyond its edges. In the summer of 1987, two of us set up a record label here. We called it Sarah Records and, among other things, it was a love letter to Bristol. The music, some combination of timeless and out of time, was rarely anywhere near the zeitgeist. Our compilation albums were named after places in and around Bristol and numbered for the bus to get there. Air Balloon Road celebrated Bristol as the ballooning capital of Europe and its gorgeous summer evening skies, all hills and views and balloons wafting by. The annual Balloon Fiesta, with its evening night-glow, is wondrous thing you just take for granted if you live here.
Over the weekend I cover twenty miles in two big loops, one around south Bristol and the other around the north. One includes places I’ve never been before, and the other places I haven’t been in a very long time. Saturday takes me on and around Spike Island, redeveloped in the last decade. From there I follow the water to the stylish curvy new footbridge linking Welsh Back to Castle Park, then to Temple Meads where, in the deserted industrial backstreets behind the station, I can get an MOT or new tyres, but nobody else is on foot.
I emerge out onto Bath Road, and then climb up into Totterdown, where pretty coloured terraces cling to the slopes. It’s home to the steepest residential street in the UK: Gold Hill in Shaftesbury has nothing on this. When I’ve got my breath back, I drop down into the precipitous Perrett’s Park, then swing over to Victoria Park, perched on top of the next hill. When we lived nearby there were burnt out cars, but now it’s full of families enjoying the sun and the first fallen autumn leaves. I loop through Bedminster, over Gaol Ferry Bridge, Bristol’s less famous suspension bridge, our old route into town, and the name of another of our compilations.
Sunday takes me north, up Christmas Steps to Park Row, then up to There And Back Again Lane just before The Triangle (I overshoot, it’s not quite where I remembered). Long before we stopped Sarah, we knew that this would be the name of our final release, a retrospective compilation. It’s a little dead-end alley full of bins, the street-sign nearly as long as the street; Jamie’s Italian backs onto it and the waiters huddle round the doorway smoking. We knew too that this would be our first and only record to feature a picture of Bristol’s best known landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge, for so many the only thing they know of this wonderful city.
Into Clifton, then onto and over The Downs, where I get wet feet and lose my sense of direction trying to cross to Stoke Bishop and Sneyd Park as the crow flies, whilst staying out of the brambles. I used to walk these roads when I first moved to Bristol, past wonderful old-money houses with mature gardens and villagey churches not three miles from Stokes Croft in St Pauls. Sneyd Park gives way to Sea Mills, an old Roman harbour and place of thirties semis, all Avon mud, though the river Trym’s a tributary.
Our 100 7″s were in groups of ten, each label featuring somewhere in Bristol, often fanzine style in one or two colour high-contrast. The first twenty were locations in Clifton and north Bristol, but the subsequent series were more specific and often more obscure. One series celebrated the Severn Beach Line, which winds its way through Bristol’s suburbs and out to the estuary, and once we got to the seventies we found we could do a whole series of bus routes with the catalogue number being the bus number and the label a picture of the bus. The label photograph of Sarah 1, The Sea Urchins’ Pristine Christine, which came out thirty years ago, was Sea Mills Harbour in the snow; Sarah 25, The Field Mice’s The Autumn Store Part 2 was the station here.
I follow the main road, Parry’s Lane, back; this is where I lived my first year in the city, and I pass my old university halls, from where I’d walk to Sea Mills Harbour on my own and lonely. The famous Bristol rain starts when I’m in the open on the Downs, and I duck into a bus shelter until it eases. When I moved here I thought it didn’t rain much down south. Straight across takes me to the two flats from where we ran Sarah for its first five years. Numbers 46 and 45 Upper Belgrave Road were next to each other and connected through the kitchen of 46 to the bathroom of 45, so when we moved we did it without going outside. Both are built into the cliff, basements at the front but second or third floor at the back, and were heatingless; 46 was especially dingy with its single window. Shadow Factory, our first singles compilation, was the early-mornings-only bus that loomed up out of the mist round the corner before winding its mysterious way off into the gloom of The Downs and on to Filton; it was always empty, and we never caught it, but we loved that the wartime name lingered on into the ‘80s. For a label that was already getting typecast as cutesy, the hint of gloomy industrialism appealed, and we matched it with solid black labels on black vinyl (until we thought better of it on later pressings and did some proper labels saying which side was which). Fountain Island, another album title, might evoke beauty and isolation, but it’s actually a triangular traffic island here at the busy top of Blackboy Hill.
I drop down the hill at the next corner, Sutherland Place, this view Sarah 2, The Orchids’ I’ve Got A Habit, into the quirky backstreets by the old quarry. Then I follow Whiteladies Road downhill, walk up and over St Michael’s Hill, and back down yet more steps into town. By Bristol Bridge another compilation name, Glass Arcade, part of St Nicholas’ covered market, seems to sum up both the fragility and pompousness of some of our music.
Over eight years we released, in short-hand, 100 perfect 7″ pop records. In messy real-life the 100 were 83 7″ singles, and an assortment of 10″ and 12” singles, flexi-discs, fanzines, and a board-game. When we reached catalogue number 100, we threw a big party on the Thekla, a former cargo ship moored at Mud Dock in the harbour, and that was that. This is Bristol remember, so running a record label was always meant to be a pop art-statement, not a business, a career. A read of Richard King’s Original Rockers about the city’s Revolver shop will tell you all you need to know about how little business sense people in the ‘80s Bristol music scene had.
The music press of the ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t like us and didn’t understand us. When we started, in the wake of C86, you had to pick a side between anorak and grebo, girlie pop or lad-rock. We were literally girlie – called Sarah and with a woman an equal partner – and I was only 19 when we started the label. For all the right-on left-wingness of the ‘80s music press, it was sexist and homophobic, and we were roundly and repeatedly patronised and abused as “effeminate”, “limp-wristed”, ”girlie” and “twee”. We like to think that we were ahead of our time, and that the world has caught up with us.
What a wonderful weekend I’ve had in Bristol – music, old friends, and walking through the streets and alleys and parks that made me. Walking through memories of youth and creativity, of good times and bad. Some people love what we did thirty years ago – and who knows, there may be some who still bother hating it – but here’s the thing: inspired by both this wonderful city and by the independent record labels that preceded us, we did something, not nothing, back when we were young in this place.
Clare Wadd has lived in London for 20 years, where she is an active rambler, and a regular contributor to South East Walker magazine. Prior to moving to London, from 1987-1995, she co-ran Sarah Records, recently the subject of a book and an award-winning film. She was also a contributor to Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers’ Smoke magazine.