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Paul Gorman

The Wild World of Barney Bubbles - Graphic Design & the Art of Music

(Thames & Hudson)

A new book tells, and more importantly illustrates, the life and times of Barney Bubbles, the most visionary graphic artist to work in the British rock field of the '60s and '70s. And, with a palette that colored no less than three musical art forms throughout that period, he was also among the most inspirational.

Emerging in the dying days of psychedelia; peaking through the early seventies underground; and then re-emerging to highlight punk and the new wave, Bubbles’ career might have ended in tragedy (he committed suicide on November 14, 1983), but he has never been overlooked.

This book was originally published in 2009, but has long been out of print and hard to find, too. This third edition expands the first two with both fresh illustrations and text, new essays and appreciations, and sixteen pages worth of additional ephemera. All told, close to 600 full color illustrations radiate from the pages - early work from his time employed by sundry agencies, dizzying posters and LP art work for the Hawkwind family tree, angular self-reinventions for the Stiff and Radar record labels, and so much more.

It was a 1968 visit to San Francisco, and a meeting with artist Stanley Mouse, that crystalized Bubbles’ insight into the transformative power of art. Already handling light shows for various local, west London, bands and venues, he returned home bursting with ideas, and quickly put them into practise.

He designed his first album sleeve for Quintessence in 1969; further projects included the Edgar Broughton Band, The Sutherland Brothers, Quiver (and, following the two acts’ union, The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver) and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers.

He was also in demand at the now-legendary Vertigo label, where Bubbles’ art graced sleeves by Kraftwerk, Dr Z and others. Several of his cover designs from this time are today regarded even more highly than the music they enclosed.

He was also a familiar, and often controversial presence in a variety of period magazines; it was he who was responsible (with David Wills) for body-painting Nicki the Witch for Curious magazine (issue sixteen) in 1971 - a commission that he later apparently regretted (it is not included in the book). At the time, however, it melded exquisitely with the cultural milieu in which he exalted.

His most lasting early association, however, was with Hawkwind, an association that initially blossomed during Bubbles’ stint as chief designer for the underground magazine Frendz. His first commissions were posters, and the still-astonishing Galactic Tarot that took Hawkwind-inspired drawings and lyrics into a whole new arena.

From the author's wall — a much traveled (and pin-holed) Bubbles poster, plus artwork for Hawkwind and the Adverts.

From the author's wall — a much traveled (and pin-holed) Bubbles poster, plus artwork for Hawkwind and the Adverts.

By the time of the band’s epochal Space Ritual tour in 1972, Bubbles was effectively one of the crew, designing posters, adverts, stage decoration and performance plans. Bubbles was ultimately responsible for artwork for no less than six Hawkwind-and-related albums Doremi Fasol Latido, Space Ritual, Hall of the Mountain Grill, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, 25 Years On and the Roadhawks compilation.

Neither did the arrival of punk rock in 1976 slow him down, as it did so many of his cover art contemporaries. As in- house designer for Stiff Records, his artwork was integral in the promotion of the young Elvis Costello, as well as a host of other Stiffs—the Adverts, veteran comedian Max Wall, and Ian Dury—whose second album arrived in a bewildering variety of different sleeves, all depicting a different wallpaper design, a notion conceived by Bubbles.

When label co-founder Jake Riviera launched his own Radar label in 1978, Bubbles followed (as did Costello and fellow Stiff mainstay Nick Lowe); and there, too, he excelled. Bubbles’ multi-paneled sleeve for Costello’s Armed Forces album (1979) remains a classic of the era, with Costello himself drawing attention to it while promoting the album’s super-deluxe reissue in November, 2020.

1979 also saw Bubbles recruited to oversee the redesign of the weekly New Musical Express. He moved, too, into video production, and into the 1980s, projects included Dr Feelgood, The Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode and MX80 Sound, among others.

This is the story told, but more importantly, illustrated throughout this so aptly-titled book. From ambitious album art work to the tiniest button, from newspaper ads to logos and posters, magazine spreads, portraits, preparatory sketches and so much more, Bubbles’ entire ouvré is spread across 240 pages, with Gorman’s detailed text offering the kind of in-depth background that books such as this often lack.

The paper quality is high, the reproduction is excellent, the design is spot-on And, f you can put the book down without at least glancing at your own collection, to see how many Bubbles covers you already own, you either already know the answer - or you have a very boring collection.

In fact, that’s probably the greatest testament to Bubbles’ art. Though it undoubtedly hurt him financially, Bubbles was never simply a “cover artist for hire” - never (or, at least, very rarely) accepted a commission from an artist who did not at least match the musical parameters of the acts he most enjoyed working with.

The result, as seen here, is one of the most musically coherent collections of LP (and other) artwork you will ever come across. Other artists… and here we can consider even such giants as Roger Dean and Hipgnosis caused their collectors to pick up some truly grisly albums in search of a complete collection. Barney Bubbles’s very name on a jacket guaranteed that you’d probably enjoy the music.

  

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