At the tail end of 1982, Cherry Red Records released ‘Pillows & Prayers,’ an eclectic 17 track label sampler album of musical fare, far, far away from the novelty gloop and synthesized fizz that made up the official hit parade. A fixed retail price of only 99p undoubtedly helped the record enter the UK Independent Chart at Number 1 and buoyed it around there for over a year, selling 120,000 plus copies. The stuff of indie legend, ‘P&P’ inadvertently established Cherry Red among the upper echelon of the new indies, Mute, Rough Trade and 4AD, though carving out a unique, contrasting reputation for thoughtful, literary, outsider art pop.
There are fewer artists further outside than Edward Barton. An eccentric Manchester artist, musician and poet even now, his journey begins with a hastily written poem.
“In the book I wrote in, I wrote, “It’s a nice day” and then, almost thoughtlessly, the next eleven lines. A few years later I thought, “They could be the words to a song. But you don’t write songs….Some humming stretched it to an ordinary song length and also kept the patches of words apart. I swapped “nice” for “fine.” A day or so later, I wondered what it would sound like sung by a girl.” – from the Optic Nerve re-issue sleeve notes
Originally, Barton asked his friend, Louise, to try singing it (“She said she couldn’t sing for toffee but would have a go”) though on the recommendation of another friend, Gabriel Gawin, ultimately recorded it with one Jane Lancaster “for £5” in Out Of The Blue studios on Blossom Street in the former textile district of Ancoats, Manchester (the likes of The Fall, the Distractions and 808 State also rehearsed and recorded there).
‘It’s A Fine Day,’ is an anomaly in early 80’s post-punk, not least because it’s not only a poem but accapella. It has a childlike, lulling quality to it, much down to Jane’s soft, infectious, melodic delivery and yet there’s also a unnerving ghostliness – the words seem to simply float around (and away) on the ether. The melody and pace of the song also suggest that there was, surely, some form of skeletal instrumentation once but it has been covered up, as if by a dust sheet.
“Sitting in this field
I remember how we were going to sit in this field but never quite did
Rain or appointments or something”
Though originally recorded and pressed up independently solely as ‘Jane,’ after hearing it on John Peel’s show, the enterprising Iain McNay of Cherry Red obtained the rights to the record and re-issued it as a single on the label in 1983. It reached number 5 in the UK indie chart and that September, the song appeared on the eponymous mini-album, ‘Jane & Barton.’
Bewildering, bemusing, silly, surreal, pastoral, beautiful, minimal, ‘Jane & Barton’ doesn’t quite fit in comfortably with other albums of the time or since. Opener, ‘There Is A Man,’ with A Certain Ratio’s Andrew Connell’s beautiful meandering piano underpinning Jane’s mellifluous voice (not unlike Virginia Astley’s) places you somewhere in a perfect English pastoral idyll. And yet, those words, ever so slightly awry.
He fell down,
But knew he was falling up.
Everything was sky…
At his highest,
He hit ground.”
It’s followed by ‘It’s A Fine Day,’ and if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the sound of a gentle breeze in the rushes as you laze on a soft picnic blanket, staring up into the blissful blue.
Gabriel Gawin’s sparse, piano improvisation on ‘You Are Over There’ brings us back indoors as Jane, reed-like, intones,
“You are over there and I am here
However close or touching
However often or intensely we say ‘I love you'”
There’s a great deal of space (or “patches”) in these songs which suggest loneliness, perhaps even isolation and thus, they’re as indicative of now as they are of then.
‘Mmmm’ is literally Jane mmming a tune, unaccompanied, as one might when alone, without inhibition, knowing that no-one will ever hear it. The lovelorn, ‘I Want To Be With You,’ with its junior school music class percussion (again by Connell and Martin Mascropp) is as weighty as the album’s tone gets; Conrad Marshall’s sylvan flute slipping through the claves, sleighbells and shakers.
Barton finally surfaces from behind the mixing desk with his own take on ‘You Are Over There.’ Initially, a navel-gazing rendition of Jane’s aforementioned version, sung sweetly, perhaps in a cupboard, quickly degenerates into a tortured, guttural mantra of, “You are over there and I am here!!!” – the troubled ogre to Jane’s equable sylph.
The album’s closer, ‘Ha Bloody Ha,’ is similarly perverse – a succession of sick schoolboy jokes dissected (“What is red and screams?”) and permeated with Connell’s beautiful, pensive piano; the punchlines (“A peeled baby in a bag of salt”) mockingly held back until late in the song. Throughout this album, ivy grows among the roses, always threatening to choke any naive notion of idyllicism.
‘Jane And Barton’ was re-issued as a lovely white vinyl 10″ on Optic Nerve Recordings in 2016. An accompanying CD includes two bonus tracks, ‘Of All’ and ‘Leaves Were Falling’ and informative sleeve notes by Barton – some of which are quoted here.
“They (Cherry Red) wondered why I put a photograph of my spunk on the back; I’m sure I had a splendid reason but it’s gone now.”
Perversely, in 1992, ‘It’s A Fine Day’ was reworked into a charmless, thumping chart dance hit by Opus III and its melody formed the basis of Kylie Minogue’s seductive, ‘Confide In Me’ (No 2 in the UK chart) in 1994. There’ve been countless other reworkings – undoubtedly a testament to the infectious simplicity of the melody that, once in your head, haunts. Indeed, its inclusion in a 1986 Japanese Kleenex tissue tv ad has become the thing of urban legend, with viewers lodging complaints over the promo’s sinister undertones, suggesting that it might inspire suicidal thoughts or even be cursed. Since the ad was loaded up to Youtube in 2013, it’s had millions of views. And all this from 12 lines in a notebook.
Barton continues to make music. The best examples of which are visualised on his Wooden Records Youtube channel here : https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC56Ft2G8H4hfjcPj271E_2g/videos
In 2018, he unveiled new music with Jane. Accapella of course : https://youtu.be/PwLBsbQZEx0