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With our Figment Album Cover Design Contest in full swing, we’ve been spending a lot of time at Figment talking about our favorite album cover designers, and one in particular really stands out to us – Barney Bubbles (BB).  Barney, aka Colin Fulcher, was an influential designer, video director and artist who created album covers for such bands as Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Hawkwind, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, Billy Bragg, Graham Parker, and Generation X among others.  In addition, Barney directed videos for bands like Squeeze and The Specials.

I recently picked up a great book on Barney, “Reasons To Be Cheerful:  The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles”, by Paul Gorman (we’re giving away a copy of it to the winner of our album cover design contest).  Paul is a well known English journalist, author, pop historian and owner of the fashion label The Look Presents, and his genuine love and admiration for Barney led him to research and write a book that is the first definitive investigation of Bubbles’ life and work.  I found the book fascinating, and it’s only increased my desire to know more about BB.  So I sought out Paul and he graciously agreed to talk with us about BB’s life, work and the fact that even Barney created imaginary bands!

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Figment:  What inspired you to write a book about Colin Fulcher aka Barney Bubbles?

Paul:  I’m interested in people who fast-track cutting edge ideas into the mainstream, and BB is a fine example and one whose achievements across the broad range of media needed to be recognized.

I’d been aware of his work since the early to mid 70s, when he was fully credited as part of the Hawkwind scene.

I’d go and see them and the Pink Fairies etc at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London; I was brought up a couple of miles away and for £1.25 it was a place where a 14-year-old could have an entire Sunday afternoon of mayhem  with several bands playing.

It wasn’t such a hop skip and jump to go see the Flamin Groovies, Patti Smith and The Ramones there a couple of years later.

By that time I was buying singles weekly from Manzi’s Records in Finchley Road (though I had been given the first Stiff single – Nick Lowe’s So it Goes/Heart Of The City – by a chap I bought records off in Soho). The best sleeves were by BB, and I was a major gig-goer and followed artists he worked with; The Damned, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe. I also  adored the oddballs: Humphrey Ocean, Johnny Moped, etc.

Three years ago my wife – who is a graphic designer, Australian and younger than me – became much enamoured by the BB sleeves, old NMEs and posters I showed her, and asked if there was a book about BB. A light-bulb popped. She saw that this was a representative sample of a body of work which demanded to be collated for broad dissemination.

He was also made a bit of a pet secret in the 90s, with the odd article in rarified design magazines and a couple of mentions in a book or exhibition. I have no time for such elitism and nor, in fact, did BB as far as I can gather from those who knew him well.

BB worked at the commercial sharp-end all of his professional career, as have I for 31 years now, so I was determined to blow the gaff and gain for him the widest possible appreciation.

One critic wrote that my attempts to engage with the broader audience are doomed, because they are “less-demanding [and] less design-aware”.  What a cheerless worldview. I credit people with much more intelligence and know they will be as delighted and intrigued with his work as my wife was. They will also, like me, be allowed an entry point into a world of art and design via his references.

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I must admit that until your book was published I knew very little about Barney Bubbles, but clearly I knew his work because I own a lot of the albums whose covers he designed.  Do you think that is the case with most people?  And if so, why do you think his work flew under the radar for so many years while other designers, like Hipgnosis, became better known?

Because Roger Dean, Hipgnosis and the rest were the visual equivalent of prog-rock, dealing in grandiose concepts to match the overblown music they packaged. So their (to me pretty unattractive) designs steam-roller you, whereas Bubbles was much more subtle and trained to engage the consumer by not blowing his own trumpet.

This wasn’t a period when designers were particularly celebrated; in terms of the popular music scene, after the performers it was the rock critics and music press writers who might receive attention. Still, sufficient numbers of rock fans knew and recognised the work of, say, Duffy, Neon Park, Guy Peellaert, Andy Warhol or Cal Schenkel.

It’s a convenient misconception that Barney Bubbles was a totally hidden figure in this era, created by those who have come late to the party either because they weren’t sufficiently into the music to recognise him as part of the package then, or were simply not there and retrospectively prefer the romantic view.

Sure he avoided credit from the mid-70s on, and was a determinedly background figure in an industry of attention-seekers, but the fact is that Barney Bubbles’ name was broadcast loud and clear to those who wanted to hear it (and fully credited by bands such as Hawkwind) up until the mid-70s, just 9 years before his death.

Even when he was avoiding credit through the frenetic post-punk period, Bubbles was mentioned in reviews of releases on the Stiff, Radar and F-Beat imprints and also in terms of his contribution to the NME (which takes us up to 1978).

Then there was the interview in The Face in 1981- a pretty influential and widely disseminated publication by that time – which gave a sound career overview and an insight into his “extra curricular” activities.

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How did Barney begin working with musicians?

He was part of the British art school boom of the late 50s/early 60s, which gave rise to The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, the Pretty Things, dammit, nearly every great band of the era.

Some of his friends characterize him as a frustrated pop star, and, in a way, designing for groups enabled him to at least share in the communication of music to a mass audience. Of course he made his own record, the somewhat alarming and experimental Ersatz as The Imperial Pompadours in 1982.

As a student he played a mean 12-string and was a blues and jazz enthusiast. He was also an enthusiastic and life-long dancer, a sign of someone who really connects with music.

His college was in Twickenham, the crucible of the beat and R&B explosion with a few of the crucial venues. So it was a natural step to design posters for gigs by The Stones and (Small Face) Ian McLagan’s first band The Muleskinners.

In the mid-60s he and his pals produced posters and t-shirts for imaginary bands such as the Image and The Erections and in many ways the launch of the Barney Bubbles psychedelic light show in 1967 gave him an entree to being part of the performance at underground clubs such as UFO and The Arts Lab.

In 1969 Bubbles started allowing his friends in the Notting Hill street-band Quintessence rehearsal time in the basement of his Portobello Road house. Since he’d become disillusioned with “straight” design work, it was a natural step for him to contribute a die-cut booklet to their debut album In Blissful Company and he was off.

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Was there one group in particular for which his work is best known?

There are a few because he stuck at things, working with Hawkwind in various incarnations from 1971 to 1978, and with Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe from 1977 to 1983.

I believe BB worked best when he appreciated the musicians personally: Nik Turner of Hawkwind because they share spiritual and metaphysical concerns, Ian Dury because of his art-school background, Elvis Costello because they both understood suburban alienation and Nick Lowe because they had a magpie tendency to gather together influences and make them their own.

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Barney used a lot of aliases and his work was credited to a variety of pseudonyms.  Why did he do this and how did the name Barney Bubbles stick?

One person says in the book that there is a thin line between arrogance and humility. Barney was shy but uncompromising and sure of his skill-set. So maybe if you didn’t get that it was a Barney Bubbles then you weren’t hip. His explanation was that you don’t see the name of the designer of the Heinz baked beans label on the can so why should you see his on a Nick Lowe album? I’m not sure, but think there were a number of reasons, one of which was avoidance of the taxman. Overall this was a truly alternative artist, a radical thinker who did not, or could not, conform to even the staple artistic stance of signature and recognition.

The name came about because he had chosen the nickname Barney – or sometimes Barnstaple – in the mid -60s as part of his art gang A1 Good Guyz. When he started heating up oils, coloured ink and water to create a bubbling effect via a projector in underground clubs that became the Barney Bubbles Light Show.

I think he did have issues of identity and his early notes and letters talk constantly of escaping humdrum suburbia so believe the name-change was a necessary part of his reinvention.

I also understand he thought his name was ugly so maybe it’s as simple as that.

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Designer Peter Saville was quoted in your book as saying “Barney Bubbles is the missing link between pop and culture.”  Do you agree, and if so why?

Peter has cleverly encapsulated in a few words what he discusses in his essay in my book, which is: in grey mid-70s Britain BB communicated aspects of “culture” – Art Deco, Constructivism, concrete poetry, Expressionism, Modernism, whatever – via the mass medium of the record sleeve.

Barney Bubbles designed more than just album covers, can you tell us a little about some of other design and visual art projects he created over the years?

[Takes deep breath…]

BB constantly chafed against his chosen professional course so often ventured into other media such as laying-out, art-directing or redesigning magazines (Nova, Town, Frendz, Oz, Let It Rock and the NME); designing books including Brian Griffin’s Copyright 1978 and Power, The Ian Dury Songbook and the John Cooper Clarke Directory; providing the catalogue and poster for the important group exhibition Lives at the Hayward gallery in 1979; and over the years dozens of logos, idents and letterheads from HP Bulmer’s Strongbow cider and Justin de Blank Provisions to Stiff, Radar, F-Beat and Go! Discs Records.

BB also designed hundreds of music press adverts and came up with stage sets for many Hawkwind gigs, plays by Robert Calvert and the Hawklords 25 Years On Tour.

He directed around a dozen promo videos – including Ghost Town by The Specials – and designed one-off pieces of furniture and rugs as commissioned by his music business friends.

In later years he painted privately, mainly in oils and mixed-media. These were not exhibited, but given away to friends.

Barney designed light shows for a variety of bands, including Pink Floyd, at legendary venues like The Roundhouse in London and the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.  How did he get involved in creating light shows and how do you think he was able to bridge the gap between the counter-culture bands of the 70s and the punk/new wave scene of the late 70s and early 80s??

The scene in London in 1966 and 1967 was abuzz with new groups, clubs, venues, underground papers and boutiques so I think he showed a natural urge to be part of where it was at. This is another key element to understanding BB; he rode the Zeitgeist with ease and would be at the centre of things: Eel Pie Island in 1963, Haight-Ashbury in 1968, Portobello Road in 1970, and punk-rock central (Stiff)  in 1977. He time-slipped but many of his pre-77 compadres just fell by the wayside.

In as much as they were experimental, free-form and multi-media (30s movies would be mixed in with the slide projections) the light show was typically BB. And here’s the key: yet again he was providing contemporary music with a visual identity

Is there one album design that you think best sums up Barney’s design style?

To be honest, no. Although there are qualities which are constant – precision, use of reference, typographic clarity, excellent use of colour, wit, surprising juxtapositions, geometry, cryptography – his work was largely unstylised. This enabled him to problem solve for his variety of clients.

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My current favourite is Get Happy!! By Elvis Costello & The Attractions, but last week it was Gracious! by Gracious and next week it will be King Rocker by Generation X because I had a nice chat about Barney with Tony James the other day. The week after that it will be Labour Of Lust by Nick Lowe because I’ve just learnt I’m going to DJ for Nick at the Royal Albert Hall in May!

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Barney suffered from bouts of depression and unfortunately committed suicide in November of 1983.  Where do you think his work would have gone had he lived longer?  Would he have continued to design album covers or do you think he would have moved into other forms of design?

He was certainly becoming frustrated with the grind of single/album/music press advert/tour poster and, in his final year, work was rejected as substandard which indicates a distinct lack of interest.

To me it seems his excursions into painting hadn’t been sufficiently satisfying and that his video direction was too way-out to get any more commissions. If successful, his contemporaries were by this time firmly ensconced in advertising and design companies but he was somewhat out on a limb having worked for harum-scarum indie record labels for so long.

It’s extraordinary to consider the timing to his death. In 1983 the CD had really started to kick in. Even though this was an unsatisfactory size for a designer used to the 12″ or 7″ canvas I’m sure that, since he liked to work with scale, the packaging possibilities would have appealed.

1983 also witnessed the first publicly noted redesign of The Face which brought Neville Brody – a BB admirer – to everyone’s attention. 1983 saw the beginning of the lionisation of pop culture designers in the UK.

Peter Saville came up with the seemingly abstruse quote to Fantin-Latour on the cover of New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies, which also featured a colour code to indicate the band names. These have a direct line to Barney’s use of the David Shepherd parody on the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and the inclusion of the proof colour code on the front of Costello’s This Year’s Model.

That same year Malcolm Garrett, who worked for Barney at Radar Records, came through to the mainstream as the in-house designer of Duran Duran. All three of these heralded an era of star designers, and were part of the new generation overshadowing his achievements as the decade got underway. But what did BB expect, having refused to sign his work in the first place?

It should also be remembered that the music scene was pretty dire – all high-gloss production, endless 12″ remixes and that awful drum sound – so BB must have seemed as out-of-sync as Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, who all released career-low records around that time.

I’m told that he shied away from new technologies such as video-edit suites, preferring to oversee manual edits of his promos, so who’s to know what he’d have made of the Apple Mac which was launched, of course, in 1983.

You’ve got a blog “Reasons to be Cheerful” that further expands on the book and Barney’s career.  What do you hope to accomplish with the blog that haven’t already done with the book?

I see the book as the bedrock on which we can base a range of BB-related and music design activity, starting online. The book is out in the US in the autumn, so the second edition is looking like a reality. That will be even better with added info and images.

We had at least 150 images we couldn’t get into the first edition because it would have become unwieldy so the prospect of getting tucked into these – which range from sketches and notes to albums posters and magazines from 1960 to 1983 – was too tempting to resist.

Also I have interviewed more people who have come out of the woodwork and been given a great deal more archive material. Where it is not personal and speaks to the work, all of this will be made public over time.

If you had a fake band what would its name be?

Highly Flammable Boots

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