Opus III 'It's A Fine Day' and the weird world of Edward Barton [March 1, 1992]
Plus: Pearl Jam, Guns N' Roses, The KLF and M People
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Welcome to the week of March 1, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘My Girl’ — The Temptation (=)
‘I Love Your Smile’ — Shanice (=)
‘November Rain’ — Guns N’ Roses (New)
‘It’s A Fine Day’ — Opus III (↑)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 5: ‘It’s A Fine Day’ — Opus III
A few weeks ago, we talked about the end of Kylie Minogue’s wholesome ingenue era.
Kylie won’t reappear in our story until we get to 1994, at which point she will release her comeback single, ‘Confide in Me’. An unprepared world will be stunned by this new sensual, mature Kylie, singing breathily over a sweeping orchestral arrangement.
Nobody will be more surprised than an obscure English poet called Edward Barton. One morning in 1994, while having breakfast, Barton will hear the song and think, “that’s a nice tune.”
And then he will spit out his tea and say, “Wait a second. That’s my tune.”
‘Confide in Me’ was the third major songwriting credit that Barton earned in the 90s. All three credits arose from a song he had written ten years previously, called, ‘It’s A Fine Day’.
In 1992, a trio of British DJs called Opus III gave us the best-known version of the song. Opus III teamed up with Kirsty Hawkshaw, a New-Age eco-activist and the daughter of the guy who wrote the Countdown theme. Pete Waterman (who was still technically Kylie’s producer in 1992) put the record out and it became a massive smash hit all across Europe.
A few months later, Phil and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital sample Hawkshaw’s vocal from ‘It’s A Fine Day’ as a sample for their high-brow techno masterpiece, ‘Halcyon’. Orbital used enough of ‘Fine Day’ on their track to warrant a co-writer credit for Edward Barton.
Finally, in 1994, Kylie released ‘Confide in Me’, which led to a copyright claim. Kylie’s people agreed that it was a fair cop and added Barton as a co-writer.
Kylie, Orbital, and Pete Waterman. An impressive CV for any songwriter.
Based on this, you might think that Barton is an experienced, hard-grafting music professional who knows his way around the recording industry.
You’d be wrong.
This is Edward Barton:
Hang around on any live scene long enough and you’ll meet people like Edward Barton. They jump onstage at the slightest opportunity, seemingly oblivious to the audience, who are nervously giggling at them. Afterwards, you’re not sure if you’ve witnessed a brilliantly avant-garde experiment or a desperate cry for help.
Personally, I spent many years orbiting the world of stand-up comedy, which is the best place to meet Edward Barton types. The majority of them are ordinary blokes who just like to dick around on stage for the love of it. The older ones often have long-suffering wives that help keep the show on the road.
A few of these weirdo outsider artists transcend into greatness. England produced the cult figure Frank Sidebottom, who inspired the Michael Fassbinder movie Frank. America gave us Wesley Willis, the originator of the “it really whips the llama’s ass” clip that used to play every time you fired up Winamp.
But the overwhelming majority of these guys never get past their local pub’s open mic night. And for the true eccentric artist, that is okay. Some people make art because they just love making art.
There’s a great interview with Edward Barton (which you can check out here, and in which he comes across as an absolutely lovely guy) where he explains his outsider tendencies.
Barton spent a while in his youth as a trainee teacher, and his first job was involved covering a PE class. Here, he found himself responsible for the fat, wheezy and uncoordinated kids that the more qualified PE teachers wanted to get rid of. All of the kids in Barton’s class hated sports, especially football because their experiences to date had been a muddy nightmare.
Barton sympathised. He was of the opinion that the worst thing about football was the ball itself. You were always either chasing after it or—worse—trying to control it while opposing players hacked your legs off.
So he wondered, what if these kids played football without the ball?
He organized them into teams and broke the game up into phases of attacking and defending. During each phase, you didn’t have to run or kick anything. You just had to loudly describe what you imagined you were doing.
All of these kids strolled around the pitch for an hour, shouting things like, “I’m making an amazing pass down the wing”, “I’ve nutmegged the defender”, “I’ve lobbed the keeper from the halfway line!” And when it was time for the defenders to shine, they’d yell things like, “I’ve made an amazing interception”, “what a beautiful tackle”, “I’ve saved the penalty!” And so on.
For the first time ever, these kids had a great time on a football pitch.
The qualified PE teachers soon shut him down. They were adamant that there is only one correct way to enjoy football.
Barton didn’t get into music for a long time. As a child, he had joined the school choir, but the choir teacher told him he sounded like a donkey and ordered him to mime.
Barton spent a lot of time in the North trying and failing to build a career as a poet. While there and trying to get on telly, he struck up a friendship with a nice German woman.
It was only years later that he realised that his German friend was Nico, of The Velvet Underground fame.
One day, while gazing out over a balcony in Manchester, the words for ‘It’s a Fine Day’ popped into his head. Barton then decided to have a crack at writing a song, so he whistled a melody and was pleased with it.
The whole process took about two minutes, which means that ‘It’s A Fine Day’ was written in less time than it takes to listen to it.
The final recorded version is a haunting a cappella, simply because Barton didn’t know any musicians who could provide backing music. At this point, he was still oblivious to the fact that he had befriended Nico (also, Nico was battling a terrible heroin addiction.)
A friend of a friend of a friend introduced Barton to vocalist Jane Lancaster. Jane and Barton recorded the song at a friend’s studio, with the entire production costing £4.
The melody of ‘It’s A Fine Day’ feels genuinely timeless. If someone said that it was written in 1683, you’d believe them. The lyrics feel kind of early 20th-century modernism, like something someone would write on their way home from The Great War.
Although it feels like a classic, the song didn’t get much attention at the time. It probably would have vanished if it hadn’t been for the Patron Saint of DIY Outsider Art, BBC’s John Peel, who gave it just enough airplay to keep it alive in public memory.
Barton became a cult figure on the music scene. In 1988, he organized his own tribute album, with people like Inspiral Carpets, Fatima Mansions, A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State covering his songs (although none of them tackled ‘It’s A Fine Day’.) For some reason, he also appeared on Wogan by pretending to be in Tears For Fears.
The move from obscure cult hero to hit songwriter appears to have been an accident. Opus III, Orbital and Kylie all failed to check with Barton before releasing their tracks. But the royalties were enough to buy him a nice house, and now he seems to be moving into the B&B business.
He’s also still making weird outsider music, and even got together with Jane Lancaster last year to make their belated follow-up album. Barton is still playing football without the ball, making up his own rules so he can enjoy the game.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 4 (New Entry): ‘November Rain’ — Guns N’ Roses
And now, we go to the polar opposite of an Edward Barton song, the bloated, self-indulgent, 9-minute, cocaine-fuelled extravaganza that is ‘November Rain’.
‘November Rain’ was floating around as a demo for years before the Use Your Illusion. The demo (which you can find here) is a simple piano ballad that’s quite raw and emotional. At no point does it summon an image of someone diving through a wedding cake.
The final version of ‘November Rain’ is… well, it’s a blatant attempt to ensure that the G’n’R legacy includes a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
It doesn’t really come off because the song only has two main sections, the main part and the “everybody needs someone” coda. Not so much an epic as just a very long song.
And that video. What is going on? Is the rain acidic? Why did she die? Why did that guy jump through the cake? So many questions still unanswered.
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘America: What Time Is Love?’ — The KLF
Number 22 (New Entry): ‘Fait Accompli’ — Curve
I feel like it’s a little reductive to compare Curve to Garbage. Yes, they both did this spiky, angular indie pop. Yes, they both had amazing front-women upon whom it was easy to develop a crush.
But I think both bands deserve more than that. Curve rule. Doppelganger is a great record. ‘Fait Accompli’ is a joy.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Rave Generator’ — Toxic Two
So, the story goes that DJs Damon Wild and Frank DeWulf were intending to collaborate on a single. But they had a falling out and instead agreed that they would release their own versions of the thing they’d been working on.
DeWulf put out ‘Pure Pleasure’ under the name Digital Excitation, and that’s a slightly more hardcore techno track. It peaked in the charts at Number 37.
Wild and Ray Love issued this one under the name Toxic Two, which was a little poppier and made it into the Top 20. Technically, Damon Wild is the winner of this fight.
But I think that if you played both songs to an early 90s raver at 2am on a Sunday morning, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Number 37 (New Entry): ‘Colour My Life’ — M People
Heather Small is famous as someone who can belt a tune. Before M People, she appeared as an uncredited vocalist on Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ (complicated story behind that one, explained here). With M People, she hit some big notes on tracks like ‘Movin On Up’.
‘Colour My Life’ shows the other side of Heather’s voice. There’s no belting here, just a slow-burn, precise performance that’s all about building a mood. One of M People’s most underappreciated tracks.
Album of the Week
Ten — Pearl Jam
“Dude; I’m old, I know this, a fact: if you mentioned grunge to Soundgarden or Pearl Jam, they got physically violent with you. They were just a rock band!” — Dee Snider talking to Ultimate Guitar magazine in 2020
Ten is one of those records that’s almost impossible to discuss out of context.
Seattle; flannel; Nevermind; Singles; Bill Clinton; the end of the Cold War; ‘Jeremy’. Ten feels like an inseparable part of early 90s discourse. Ten is not an album. Ten is a referendum on Grunge.
That used to be the case, anyway. We’re in 2022 now. The Cold War is back and it’s hotter than ever, so we can listen to Ten without comparing it to Nevermind.
Which is a good thing because Ten is not a Grunge record. It’s a classic 70s rock album with post-heavy metal production. Come on, just look at the full cover image and tell me this doesn’t scream “jam band who’ve been on the road together for 20 years”
The track on Ten that really gives the game away is ‘Porch’, the excellent groove track early on side 2. It’s easily the most upbeat song on the album, and it’s the one where you can hear that these guys enjoy playing together.
Everyone gets a moment to shine on ‘Porch’: Jeff’s bass sits out in front during the verses, Mike gets a big solo at the bridge, Stone’s guitar links everything together while Dave’s snare drums sit high in the mix. And Eddie gets to do some rock’n’roll “yeah”s while also bellowing out elongated vowels.
Nobody announciates a vowel like Eddie. He really gets his boot under each one. When Eddie sings a word like “away”, it feels like listening to a lumberjack chainsaw down a sequoia, such as the one at the 2:42 mark in ‘Black’.
As coherent as they sound here, the fact is that Pearl Jam barely knew each other when they recorded Ten. Half of them were ex-members of Mother Love Bone, the iconic band that had collapsed after the death of singer Andrew Wood.
They laid down some demos and put out the word that they were looking for a new singer. Vedder heard the demos, which inspired him to write and record some lyrics based on his complicated parental relationships.
The first of those songs became the album’s opener, the big loud rocker ‘Once’.
Ten was recorded barely six months after the band’s first gig, which makes the album’s coherence kind of miraculous. There’s a strong sense of professionalism and musicianship at the heart of each of the eleven songs of Ten.
(Why are there eleven songs on Ten? Because Pearl Jam always give 110%.)
A track like ‘Alive’ has the confidence of a much older band:
And that’s perhaps why they got angry when they were slapped with the Grunge label.
Nevermind sounds scuzzy and fuzzy and… grungey. Nirvana were technically excellent musicians of course, but they were going for that lo-fi, underground DIY sound.
Ten is very polished, so it’s kind of bizarre to see it as part of the Grunge bandwagon. Out of context, away from Seattle and Nirvana, it makes a lot more sense. It’s just a really good rock album.
U2 make a play for rock immortality with ‘One’. Plus, the most controversial album of the 90s, if not of all time.
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