|Barney Bubbles, Master Of The Universe
|This is from Mojo Classic "The Greatest Albums Covers" special edition
The late Barney Bubbles first fashioned far-out images for Hawkwind, but still thrived in the era of punk.
Mark Paytress tells a tale marked by greatness and tragedy.
Barney Bubbles had a comical name and a beautiful spirit. He came of age during the late '60s, and was
seemingly one of the lucky ones, eking out a living by pursuing the passions that enriched his private life.
Obsessed by art and music, Bubbles designed underground magazines and became Hawkwind's in-house
visualiser, creating the look forever associated with the band. By the end of the '70s, his mischievous
style, which drew freely from high art and the suburban sitting room, had helped define the look of the
British New Wave. His logos graced the NME and labels such as Stiff and Radar. Records by Elvis
Costello, Ian Dury and The Damned danced in the racks thanks to his irreverent, artful style. He
designed books, and moved into video, shooting a remarkable short for The Specials' Ghost Town that
captured the urban night in all its blurry, isolated glory. And then, one day in November 1983, he placed
a bag over his head and suffocated himself.
"Barney was a perfectionist to the point that he didn't actually believe his artwork was any good," says
Doug Smith, who managed Hawkwind and worked closely with Bubbles throughout the '70s. "A genius,
just mind-blowingly clever," adds photographer Brian Griffin, a close friend who also collaborated with
Bubbles on several projects. According to design duo Rebecca and Mike, ongoing researchers of
Barney's life and work, "He was someone who would never compromise." The complete artist.
"I dunno if he'd taken any drugs or not, but when Barney first saw Hawkwind he said everything turned
into flames," says Hawkwind's saxophonist Nik Turner. That was Bubbles' way: total vision, no half
measures, a man whose passions ran high and whose troubles, when they were awakened, ran deep.
Born Colin Fulcher in Whitton, south-west London, in 1942, Barney assumed his alter ego during 1967's
Summer Of Love when he worked the psychedelic light shows. A trained designer who'd cut his teeth
working for the Conran Group, he pilgrimaged to San Francisco before returning to London's hippy
central - Ladbroke Grove. Working from a shared office at 307 Portobello Road, he designed spreads for
OZ and Friends magazines, and by 1971 had become an integral part of Hawkwind, the Grove's
favourite 'people's band'.
"He came up with the ideas for the album covers," says Nik Turner. "The two-dimensional spaceship
for In Search Of Space, the huge fold-out sleeve for Space Ritual. Robert [Calvert, vocalist] usually
came up with the concepts, but Barney's graphics and imagery took it much further."
For their 1972 Space Ritual tour, Bubbles had assumed the role of a psychedelicised Albert Speer,
creating an onstage extravaganza utilising huge flags, customised equipment, strobe lights and symbols
more often associated with the Romans or Nazi Germany. "He was definitely inspired by the power of
that imagery," adds Turner.
While Bubbles' design work for Hawkwind is sometimes regarded as a prequel to his more widely seen
work from the new wave era, Rebecca and Mike regard it as integral to his oeuvre. "With Hawkwind, he
had opportunity to realise what Wagner termed 'Gesamptkunstwerk', a total work of art, something that
unites all forms: poetry, music, painting, dance. That was what interested Barney, doing the whole lot,
right down to the floor you stood on."
His immersion in his work, and the continued pursuit of inspiration through drugs, drink and taking off
on lone hitchhiking expeditions, meant that he often lived an anxious, knife-edge existence. "He worked
incredibly hard," says Griffin. "Barney may have slept, though I never saw him do so."
Though art had given him a purpose, Bubbles habitually ignored the business side of his endeavours.
"You had to fight to get an invoice out of him," recalls Doug Smith, "but when one finally did arrive it
was fabulous, beautifully handwritten. You'd say, 'Is that enough, Barney?' He didn't think he quite
In 1976, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera set up Stiff Records, one of the country's first independent
labels, and a regular outlet for Bubbles' work over the next few years. Drawing on the cleaner lines of
20th-century art movements such as cubism, constructivism and the Bauhaus, kitsch colours and
Dada-inspired deliberate 'mistakes' (the colour strip down the side of Costello's This Year's Model, for
example), Barney helped shape the look of the era.
Inevitably, perhaps, he struck up a friendship with fellow art school renegade Ian Dury, who inspired
one of his best-loved sleeves. "He really loved Ian," says Brian Griffin. "So when Stiff wanted a sleeve
photo of Muffin The Mule, and we ran out of time, Barney did the illustration himself. Pure genius."
Another favourite, according to Doug Smith, is the Jackson Pollock pastiche for rockabilly combo
Whirlwind's Blowin' Up A Storm 1O" LP. But Barney was unsettled by the era's penchant for the
knowing homage. "He was convinced that all he was doing was ripping everybody else off," Smith says.
"I wish he was alive today, because our culture thrives so much on that idea that nobody thinks about it
Insecure about his design work, Barney made
tentative moves into other fields. He shot several
pop videos and made a less celebrated though
illuminating move into recording with the
anonymous Imperial Pompadours. "He wanted to
make an album graphically," remembers Nik
Turner, who worked on Ersatz with Bubbles. "One
side consisted of these impromptu versions of
garage rock covers, with the bass played with
drumsticks and suchlike. The other side was about
the life of Hitler that also worked in Wagner, King
Ludwig II of Bavaria and Eva Braun. He also
devised an elaborate stage show for it. The whole
thing was very militant, very anti-music-biz."
By 1982, when the album slipped quietly into the racks, Barney was struggling. The regular outlets for
his work were drying up. He was underpaid for the work he was still doing, and a love affair crumbled
around him. "I used to do this magazine with him called Y," recalls Brian Griffin. "And one day we had
this argument about the rude words in the text. It was the only argument we ever had. I went round to
see him and patch it up, and he'd lacerated his face with a razorblade."
Nik Turner also witnessed a more desperate Barney around this time. "I got a call from his girlfriend,
who said, 'Come round and help us, Barney's threatening everyone with a knife.' I did and he said, 'Look,
I'll kill you too.' Then he threw the knife on the ground. He was having a nervous breakdown. Soon
afterwards, he committed himself to a hospital."
But Barney never recovered. "He phoned me up on the morning he committed suicide," Griffin
remembers. "He said, 'Beej, I really feel terrible.' I recall him being worried about his VAT. I said, 'Don't
worry, after I've finished shooting this Echo & The Bunnymen video I'll come straight over.' I finished
early, mid-afternoon, and I phoned up. But it was too late. His sister came to the phone and said,
'Barney's killed himself.'"