|Reasons to be Cheerful
This is a review of the book "Reasons To Be Cheerful: the life
and work of Barney Bubbles", by Paul Gorman
ideas have worked their way into the shared language of graphic design...¦" to quote from yet another
introductory piece (one of five in total), this one by American designer Art Chantry.
The narrative proper finally opens with a chapter called "A1 Good Guy 1942-1968", and here the Art v.
Design thread is woven all the way through the text. There is a natural enough emphasis on this with the
outline of Barney's early years featuring family members recalling how he would always be drawing. But
another way to characterise the central dichotomy is that artists create images and designers manipulate
them: from the very beginning, Bubbles did both, often beginning with manipulation of found motifs and
developing them into stunning original imagery.
This chapter also reveals that he grew up in the same locales as Dave Brock, and must very much have run
in the same circles, going to see bands at the Eel Pie Hotel in the mid-60's, given his lifelong affinity with
music and musicians. However, their paths seem not to have crossed until Barney relocated to Notting Hill
Gate, famously opening his design company Teenburger at 307 Portobello Road. In fact it was Bob Calvert,
who had worked with Barney at Frendz magazine, that introduced him to Hawkwind. They are first
properly mentioned in the book on page 37, in a chapter called "In Search Of Space 1969-1972". Despite
this it's not all Hawkwind, and the narrative makes clear that, having made his name with Teenburger,
Barney was in demand in the music industry and did a lot of work for the bands of the day such as
Quintessence, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, and Chili Willi and the Red Hot Peppers.
The apogee of Bubbles' Hawkwind-related work is covered in a chapter called So It Goes 1973-1976. This
is curiously downbeat, narrating a low period in Barney's life (summarised as an increasing struggle with
depression), which contrasts sharply with the superb work he was doing for Hawkwind, among others.
The Space Ritual Alive album is described at great length (for a record sleeve) and there are a number of
Bubbles' designs for the stage layout on the Space Ritual tour. The accompanying description of the ideas
behind this reads like a load of old hippy bollocks by comparison with the finer points of Art v. Design
scattered throughout the rest of the book! The text also claims a growing distance in his relationship with,
or loss of interest in Hawkwind: "Bubbles'...¦disaffection with the sturm und drang of Norse legends and
space fantasy may be detected in his work for Hawkwind's October 1974 album Hall Of The Mountain
Grill...¦his air-brushed depiction of the band's crash-landed spaceship on the front spoke to the lack of
direction and internal dissent brewing within Hawkwind." However, this came at a time in his life shortly
after an abortive attempt to drop out, moving from London to a dilapidated cottage on the west coast of
Ireland. He lasted there a week, and then returned, separating from his partner and young son. The
crashed spaceship is perhaps as much a metaphor for what was going on in Barney's life as it was a
commentary on Hawkwind - who'd used that motif before, in the Hawkwind Log that accompanied the In
Search of Space album.
For their 1975 album Warrior On The Edge of Time he pretty much sat it out, though some of the inner
sleeve artwork is his. However, he did of course design the wonderful Roadhawks cover (originally
intended as a tour poster, and the actual artwork for the sleeve was redone by another artist), and handled
all the art direction for the Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music album in 1976. The front (showing the
1930's radio) was painted by Tony Hyde and the back cover by Bubbles - although it wasn't what he
originally submitted for this. His design for a futuristic 1920's cityscape over which looms a lupine-eyed
stylization of the Steppenwolf character carries echoes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Georgia O'Keefe's
1927 painting "The Radiator Building". But it wasn't used, and instead "one of Bubbles' most imposing
works", the Eagle painting was utilised. It's ironic that a substituted design for the back cover of an album
should have so overwhelmed the front cover that it subsequently *became* the front cover, and as a piece
of imagery has been far more thoroughly identified with this particular album over the last 35 years.
There is also considerable examination, in this chapter, of Bubbles' growing alignment with Jake Riviera,
later to found Stiff Records, and the pub rock bands with whom Riviera was involved. This can be seen as
a transitional phase between his involvement with the hippy-themed early 70's stuff (some of it for
Hawkwind) and the New Wave-inflected work he was to undertake for Stiff Records and others at the end
of the decade. The next chapter, My Aim Is True 1977-1978, moves the narrative forward into the latter
period. I was very pleased to see my old friend Alan Parsons almost being given a namecheck in Bubbles'
description of the atmosphere of Stiff Records - "Everyone seems committed (even the accountant) and the
energy level is extremely high."
Photos of a now short-haired and clean-shaven Barney during this period complement the development of
his design work, from flowing Art Nouveau-inspired psychedelia to the brutal, cropped layouts he delivered
for Stiff. Here is a man, you might think, that moved with the zeitgeist. The difference with Barney
Bubbles was that he was inventing the zeitgeist, and it was left to others to follow in his wake. The text
credits him with reviving the picture sleeve 7" single in Britain, and one prominent example is the "Your
Generation" single by Generation X, which used the Russian Constructivist style as the basis of the design.
If artists create images and designers manipulate them, here is a perfect example of the output being so
startling as to qualify it as something new, i,e, it becomes art in its' own right. And on a more mundane
note, this book is full of such delightful surprises. I've owned this picture sleeve single for a third of
century, and had no idea it was a Barney Bubbles design until now. Likewise the Elvis Costello album
Armed Forces, or Ian Dury's New Boots and Panties: his work is everywhere.
As punk rock and the new wave exploded in the late 70's, Barney's output peaked. Most of the bands for
whom he designed weren't top tier (apart from Costello, Lowe and Dury) but the sheer amount of stuff he
did is mind-boggling. His then assistant, Diana Fawcett recalls that "Everything was done with absolute
discipline ...¦we had absolute order in our work, whereas our personal lives were chaotic." As a result,
Bubbles was starting to be noticed and was approached to design the cover for the Who's latest album
(Who Are You). They didn't plump for his ideas, but the NME did, and it was Barney Bubbles who
designed the revamped NME logo, that debuted on 14th October 1978 and stayed in use as their branding
And in the midst of all this frenetic activity, along came the Hawklords. The catalyst for Hawkwind's
renewed association with Bubbles was Nik Turner's Bohemian Love-In at the Roundhouse, in June 1978.
This was always going to be a tough sell, but Barney designed the stage set, costumes and publicity
materials, and of course was there for the occasion, as were paying punters Dave Brock and Bob Calvert.
They were impressed with what they'd seen, and asked Barney to design for their new concept (the
Hawklords) which was far more in tune with the zeitgeist than Hawkwind had become. Bubbles' work for
new wave artists is reflected in his design, with the bright pink spray-painted Hawklords logo resembling a
piece of street graffiti. All the superb imagery on the albums's rear and picture inner sleeves was also by
Bubbles, as was the willfully obscure 'Pan-Transcendental Industries' tour programme. This was sold on
the Hawklords' 40-date UK tour, which of course also featured an elaborate stage show. Bubbles had
designed the set, lighting, dancer's costumes and elements of the choreography, but the running costs
torpedoed this set up pretty rapidly: three of the six dancers were fired almost immediately. Disillusioned,
this was the last time that Barney Bubbles would produce work with Hawkwind / Hawklords.
Not that this left him idle. "Post-punk reinvigorated Barney", Nik Turner is quoted as saying, and his next
major project seems to be regarded as his creative zenith, although I have to say the brilliance of it is
somewhat lost on me. Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" album is nowadays hailed as a groundbreaking piece
of graphic design, with the kitschy elephants on the front being an arch, knowing device in contrast to the
arresting multicoloured agitprop panels that make up the back cover. There is much description in the book
of how the original vinyl album cover folded out, turning traditionally two dimensional media into
three-dimensional. My copy of the album is some cheapie reissue which conveys this not...¦in much the
same way that no reissues of the 1971 Hawkwind album In Search Of Space have ever communicated the
sheer cleverness of Bubbles' intricately folded sleeve design for the original album. By all accounts,
Barney's design for the 1979 Elvis Costello album definitively represents almost a decade of Bubbles'
subsequent development and progression as a designer.
Done with Hawkwind he may have been, but Barney Bubbles continued to work with Nik Turner, who was
undergoing a parallel post-punk self-reinvention, with his band Inner City Unit as the vehicle. Barney it was
who coined the name of the band, and he was in on the design of the Passout, Punkadelic and Maximum
Effect albums, as well (of course) as being the musical director of another Nik Turner-associated band, the
Imperial Pompadours. Though this would perhaps be better termed as a Barney Bubbles-associated band,
so great an influence did he have on the Ersatz album that they made. This was conceived, designed,
arranged and played on by Bubbles himself, along with Nik and the members of Inner City Unit. Barney's
own description of it was "inspired rubbish, loud and in extremely bad taste", and it apparently fulfilled his
life-long dream of making an album...¦
But that was just one of a number of new directions he was exploring. Work for Elvis Costello, Nick
Lowe and Ian Dury were the highest profile projects, but furniture design and video production were added
to his portfolio, as Bubbles became progressively more disenchanted with record sleeve design and its'
attendant artefacts. The most impressive amongst his video work is his direction of the Ghost Town video
for The Specials. The text claims it is still often excerpted for narratives about the grimness of Britain in the
early 80's. It seems to have mirrored what was going on in Barney's inner life. He had perpetual financial
problems, with an unpaid tax bill that had been outstanding for some years, and his depressive propensities
were furthered by the passing of both his parents over the Christmas / New Year period of 1982-83. Not
even the renewed association with his old friends in Hawkwind (he drew up unfulfilled plans for the Earth
Ritual project in the autumn of 1983) did anything to lift his spirits. The narrative doesn't indicate how
much any of Barney's friends and family knew of what he was going through at the time, but it must have
been a shock to many people that he committed suicide on 14th November 1983, aged just 41.
The book ends abruptly, almost stopping entirely at this point. A few subsequent lines of text don't
adequately convey the reaction that so many people, who've recalled their great love and admiration of
Bubbles throughout the text, must have experienced. However: this book celebrates what he achieved
during his life, rather than performing an analysis of his death. And there is a postscript which redresses
the balance somewhat by earmarking Bubbles' gathering reputation as the years went by. It's particularly
pleasing to see a mention of Rebecca Brown & Mike Heath's Barney Bubbles exhibition at Artomatic in
Hoxton, 2001. I and many other Hawkwind fans attended this, at a time when Barney Bubbles' name still
languished in obscurity. Thanks to people like Rebecca & Mike, John Coultart and the author of this book,
Paul Gorman, all that has changed and is still changing.
I have said a lot about the text of this book and nothing about the illustrations. These are lavish, with an
average of 4 or 5 photos, press clippings, and reproductions of Barney's imagery on every page of the
book. At the end of each chapter there is a solid 15 - 20 pages of nothing but representations of his work.
While it would have been nice to see particular album sleeves (say) portrayed alongside the text that
describes them, the constraints imposed by that kind of layout would not do justice to Bubbles' designs.
Having to flip back and forth between text and image is a price well worth paying, considering the superb
invention of Barney's work.
With a new edition having just come out, the time to this book buy is now, given that it has been hitherto
difficult to locate. It's available from Amazon UK, and Amazon USA - and there's even the author's
website of the book, at http://www.barneybubbles.com . Thoroughly recommended to any Hawkwind fan
with an interest in the visuals, in graphic design, or indeed in the life and work of Barney himself.
Renowned for his designs for Hawkwind -their best
album sleeves, posters etc were by him- there is
much more to Barney Bubbles' work than this. In
fact, his reputation seems to be burgeoning on
account of what he did in his later years (spaceships
and goddesses are never likely to be so lauded). But
this book doesn't take the easy way out of only
stressing Bubbles' work for Stiff Records, and his
other New Wave endeavours. Instead, it
encompasses a look at his entire career, if you can
use that word to describe this most uncareerist of
One (endlessly debatable) point that's made early on
is that Barney was a Designer rather than an Artist.
To paraphrase Peter Saville, whose essay appears
between the author's introduction and Billy Bragg's
foreword, Art asks questions; Design provides
answers. But he goes on to argue, in a way as
subversive as Barney's work, that Bubbles in fact
was an artist. During his lifetime, his work was
barely even acknowledged as Design, but now "...¦his