Today’s TWBITW entry was suggested by a reader named John Collingswood (thanks, John!). Normally we’re not big fans of solo practitioners of so-called “outsider art”—any mildly schizophrenic creative type can hole himself up with an acoustic guitar and some art supplies and crank out all sorts of bizarre stuff that will inevitably find a small but cultish following and eventually score him a documentary and/or tribute album featuring at least one member of Radiohead. But something about Edward Barton and his convoluted backstory really appealed to us. He’s sort of Manchester, England’s answer to Daniel Johnston, complete with random connections to 808 State and the early U.K. rave scene. We had to find out more.
Barton got his start in the ’80s, recording minimalist, almost nursery-rhyme-like songs with his girlfriend at the time, Jane Lancaster. One of these songs, from an LP called Jane and Barton, was an a cappella track called “It’s a Fine Day” that became a minor hit in 1983 (according to Barton’s bio, it has the distinction of being the “highest ever chart placing of an unaccompanied poem” in U.K. history). The success garnered Barton, now a solo artist, a pair of appearances on a popular TV music show called The Tube, as well as opening slots for a number of touring bands from Manchester, although Barton has since said his popularity as an opening act was only because “I made bands look adventurous and/or compassionate for choosing me” and “I was willing to sleep outside the bands hotel in their van with an amplifier on my head.”
Also a visual artist, Barton directed the video for “Sit Down,” a 1989 single from James (the band that would later have that massive hit “Laid,” you know, the one with the yodeling chorus and the line, “She only comes when she’s on top”). He was also arrested for displaying an art installation called “Stolen,” which consisted of things he had shoplifted. In the early ’90s, he ran an exhibition space in Manchester called the Oblong Gallery, which was also eventually shut down—again, by the police, according to Barton’s bio, although it doesn’t go into specifics.
Barton had sort of an odd second career when he got involved in the nascent “Madchester” rave scene in the late ’80s/early ’90s. He co-wrote a very weird acid house track “Born in the North” with A Guy Called Gerald in 1988, and he hosted a popular Manchester club night called Hip Replacement which, according to Graham Massey of 808 State, featured such esoteric entertainments as “Ukrainian folk groups, life drawing classes [and] first aid demos,” as well as a “wardrobe orchestra” in which all the musicians performed inside different wardrobes (i.e. big pieces of furniture roughly the size and shape of a small closet). We’re not quite sure how that last one worked and no one seems to have provided a detailed account of it—so we’re guessing the concept never quite caught on.
His big claim to fame from this era came in 1992 when the house/techno band Opus III remade “It’s a Fine Day” as an uplifting club anthem, complete with a video that’s now so fantastically dated, it seems like a parody of early ’90s house music—but no, early ’90s house music was really just that ridiculous. The Ecstasy must’ve been really, really good back then.
After the success of Opus III’s “It’s a Fine Day” remake, Barton recorded a series of albums under the name Hush that consisted entirely of a cappella songs meant to be sampled by dance music producers. Hush samples did appear on half a dozen hit songs over the next several years, including “Happiness,” an early Norman Cook track released under the name Pizzaman, but none ever repeated the success of “It’s a Fine Day” or did much to boost Barton’s profile.
After the release of the last Hush album in 1995, Barton seems to have dropped off the radar a bit. Supposedly he worked on a project with Mark Day of the Happy Mondays called O.K. Cola, but we couldn’t verify this. He also released a record in 2000 under the name Pudding called “A Little Christmas Thieving,” which is still available on his website. But for the most part, he appears to have kept fairly quiet…until last year, when he finally resurfaced with a brand-new album called And a Panda. Based on the tracks available on his MySpace page, plus this YouTube video for a track called “Ginger Funk,” it’s by far the mostly elaborately arranged and accessible stuff Barton’s ever recorded–but it’s still pretty out there.
Despite his many accomplishments, Barton is probably still best-known in England for his first appearance on The Tube in the early ’80s. There, young fans who were perhaps expecting to see the lady with the pretty voice who sang “It’s a Fine Day” instead got treated to a spastic performance by a solo Barton, playing a battered acoustic guitar with a wooden spoon and declaiming a (for lack of a better term) song called “I’ve Got No Chicken But I’ve Got Five Wooden Chairs.” Here’s a clip of that immortal performance.