Barney Bubbles – A true pop hero

Thanks to a new book, Barney Bubbles may finally get the recognition his work deserves.

During the seventies and early eighties he created some of the most iconographic record sleeves, label logos, and music-related visuals of that or any other era, for the likes of Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Hawkwind, Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg, Stiff Records, nme and many more.

His work includes some of the cleverest, wittiest examples of sleeve design ever – all of which comple­mented the music, and greatly enhanced the pleasure of the record buyer. His talents in typography and art direction also found expression in magazine and book design – and he managed to find time to direct innovative music videos, including one for The Specials’ Ghost Town.

But working entirely independently, and believing the work should speak for itself, his contribution to the fabric of British pop culture went almost entirely uncredited. When the brilliant Bubbles committed suicide in 1983, he was still a marginal figure on the early-eighties design and art direction map.

“We had these design groups – Wolff Olins, Pentagram, The Partners – and a few decent art directors. It was all pretty threadbare and unadventurous,” reflects Bubbles’ friend and collaborator, the photo­grapher Brian Griffin. “None of them knew Barney. Only his friends did – and they loved him, worship­ped him really.”

Together with Griffin himself, those friends included Jake Riviera, Elvis Costello’s manager and co-founder of Stiff Records, Hawkwind founder Nik Turner and Ian Dury, who knew all about graphic design: Dury studied under painter Peter Blake and became an art school teacher himself.

Bubbles created some of his best work of all with Dury, including the Russian Constructivist-influenced cover for 1978 smash hit single Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, the design for his album Do It Yourself, which used real patterns of Crown wallpaper, and the Bauhaus-influenced logo for Dury’s group The Blockheads.

“Barney died just at the wrong moment – when he might have begun to be adopted as a figurehead by younger British designers,” argues designer John Coulthard, who himself created three Hawk­wind covers. “His self-effacement didn’t help. His contem­poraries in the album cover world – Hipgnosis and Roger Dean – were all more successful and more visible.”

But over the next quarter century Barney Bubbles’ cult status has endured, more recently finding expression in the blogosphere. Now a new book by Paul Gorman, Reasons To Be Cheerful, offers the first comprehensive overview of Barney Bubbles’ life and work, and a chance to fully appreciate his remarkable legacy.

Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett, leading designers who made their own names in sleeve design in the late seventies and early eighties, write in the book about Bubbles’ influence on their careers. Saville calls him “the missing link between pop and culture”.

Garrett was inspired, as a Manchester teenager, by Bubbles’ work with Hawkwind. “It was fantastic, otherworldly – and not manufactured,” he explains. “It was part of the Hawkwind manifesto – inextric­ably linked with what they were doing. It was clear this wasn’t just a job, it was a calling. A lot of designers empathise with that.”

“It was very cosmic, but more graphic design than the likes of Roger Dean – and it was all integrated,” notes Bubbles fan Julian House, lead designer at Intro, which applies that integrated approach, from sleeve to ads to live visuals, for music clients like Oasis and Primal Scream today.

Involved in every level of visual expression with Hawkwind – including posters, booklets, stickers and even live show set design – Bubbles essentially pioneered the template of a sophisticated integrated marketing strategy. He would later apply the same holistic approach as house designer at Stiff and then Radar Records.

But then Bubbles had good grounding. He started life as Colin Fulcher and, having made waves at Twickenham Art College in the early sixties, by mid-decade he was a designer at Terence Conran’s new, groundbreaking design consultancy, incorporating graphics, product and furniture design in one place for the first time in London.

“He was a brilliant graphic designer,” says Stafford Cliff, who joined him at Conran and went on to become the company’s design director. “He was my mentor – and he had enormous passion for doing other things.” In downtime from Conran – and aided by Cliff – Fulcher created an innovative light show for bands performing live, involving projecting glass slides containing bubbling coloured ink: the Barney Bubbles light show. At Conran he created the classic Strongbow icon – but he loathed the conservatism of the corporate clientele. “Clearly, when the music thing kicked in he found clients that were more sympathetic,” says Cliff.

Fulcher became Barney Bubbles and embraced the counter-culture – but remained the consum­mate professional. He produced layouts and posters for oz magazine (including Existence Is Unhappiness, above right, exhibited at the Communicate show at The Barbican in 2004), and he began his career in sleeve design.

“He had a great flair for bold imagery and breaking down pictures to their simplest elements,” says Coulthard. “That’s why he was so successful as a sleeve designer. Another consistent thing is humour – wit is a rare element in graphic design.”

And in the era of the gatefold sleeve, Bubbles realised the potential of the medium itself. “Before Barney all record sleeves were a twelve-inch square gallery space,” says Garrett. “What Barney did was say: ‘this is a box, and the way it’s constructed is as important as what you see on the front’. The physi­cality of the sleeve was part of the experience and his best work has that element.”

His early work included the cover for Glastonbury Fayre, which opens out from gatefold to a huge six-panel poster (shown, above right). With what many regard as his tour de force – the fantastic sleeve for Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces – Bubbles incorporated different art styles and photography, all contained within a sophisticated interlocking sleeve that was bound to keep the punters busy, and intrigued.

He also manipulated the production process itself, infuriating printers by deliberately misaligning the cover photo of Costello’s This Year’s Model, and making the sleeve for the single Accidents Will Happen inside out. And he was producing all this creativity outside a recognised design studio, virtually single-handed.

This maverick spirit has appealed to successive generations of designers since his death. “It’s unusual that someone in the counter-culture made it to punk,” says Julian House, “But it’s still coming from the same place – a subversiveness about how he uses graphic languages. There’s a level of wit about what’s in oz that is punk before its time.”

Malcolm Garrett reflects that the subversive­ness is connected to the fact he refused to take credit for the work. “He celebrated anonymous design ephemera – tickets, flyers … throwaway design.” And as design culture has permeated British life, Garrett adds, Bubbles’ influence has passed “by proxy” through to others.

Scot Bendall of design studio La Boca – based in Portobello Road in West London, a few doors away from Bubbles’ own seventies studio, and modern-day specialists in graphics for independent record labels – confirms this. “Many of my generation who started in the early nineties were into Neville Brody – he talked about Barney Bubbles a lot,” says Bendall. “Barney wasn’t afraid to take influences from many different places. I love that free spirit about his work.”

With restless energy Bubbles latterly also turned to bespoke furniture design and started to paint – a Picasso pastiche became the cover to Elvis Costello’s album Imperial Bedroom (character­istically credited to a pseudonym). His fans consider his design work to be Pop Art anyway: “Taking from contemporary visual culture – he did that all the time. It wasn’t stealing, he was moving things forward,” says Garrett.

“Barney Bubbles and a handful of others turned vinyl packaging into a real artform,” says John Couthard. “The windows of record shops then were like a street-level art gallery, constantly delivering new surprises. Barney was at the forefront throughout, even if we didn’t always know it – a true Pop Artist.”

“In a sense, that would’ve been a solution – if he’d been a painter who just put it out there,” reflects Stafford Cliff. “But his skill was in working to a brief. He was energised and engaged by solving a problem – he saw them as opportunities.”

Reasons To Be Cheerful: The life and work of Barney Bubbles by Paul Gorman is out now, published by Adelita books; £24.99. More at the Reasons to be Cheerful site


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