Prior to setting up the interview that provided the following article, I had been warned that Barney Bubbles was, variously and enigmatically, "a strange bloke," "a bit odd" and "very hard to pin down"—all this from people who had worked with him or known him for some time. So, it was with some degree of apprehension that I encountered a slightly built, nervously energetic individual with a gently anarchic dress-sense, an exceedingly friendly manner and a spontaneous and self-deprecating sense of humour that erupts in bursts of almost maniacal giggles.
Not at all the loony I'd been led to expect.
A bit wary of doing something as formal as an interview, Barney suggested that instead we just had a chat to see if it was really worth doing anything at all.
He'd never given an interview before and stressed that he was certainly not seeking publicity (he even shuns a credit on the books and record sleeves he designs—a practice that some suspicious persons have interpreted as the ultimate conceit instead of simply the result of a genuine and disarmingly straightforward belief that the designer's role is greatly subsidiary to that of the subject of the book or record).
In keeping with his professional anonymity, Mr Bubbles wouldn't succumb to the photographic lens, but willingly supplied the accompanying self-portrait.
Considering how rapidly styles of record sleeve design go out of favour, Barney Bubbles as a designer whose talents have done better than keep pace with the changes of the past decade is in a minority of one Although Barney s most well-known piece of work is probably the BLOCKHEAD logo that accompanied Ian Duty's early Stiff releases he made his rock graphics debut whilst still at art school, in the early Sixties, with a poster for an up and coming R&B group called the Rolling Stones.
He was born in 1942, in the West London suburb of Whitton, the son of a precision machine engineer. As a schoolboy, the exacting nature of the working drawings of his father's craft and his elder sister's collection of Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley records were to have a lasting influence that directed him, upon leaving school, to an art education.
Art schools in those days, if you weren't a fine artist, were more often than not just places to learn a trade—nothing like the sophisticated places where aesthetics and technology meet today.
Barney: "When I went to art school, we were trained to be designers — if you could draw you became an illustrator; if you could just about draw, you became a designer; if you were just hopeless they would put you into exhibition display."
Barney, who could just about draw, used to cycle from his home to study graphic design at a trade school — The Twickenham Department of Printing & Graphic Design — where his 'beatnik' lifestyle brought him into contact with the jazz, blues and R&B scene of Richmond, Ealing and Eel Pie Island. There he encountered the Stones, the Muleskinners and other young groups whose gigs his graphics helped advertise.
When Barney left Twickenham he had the good fortune to get the job as assistant to a successful 'straight' typographic designer: "Very Swiss; very hard; unjustified, very grey; and he taught me everything about typography. It was a great apprenticeship!"
His next move (in 1965) was to the prestigious (and then very trendy) Conran Design Group, who are the organisation behind the Habitat chain of stores and a number of other extremely exclusive enterprises.
At this time the young man from Whitton was in fact getting the reputation for being a bit of a whizz kid.
"I was a pretty famous straight designer, I got lots of awards. I left art school just when Pop Art got really big — I went to the Royal College exhibition then: Hockney, Blake, all those painters, it was so right! — it was what everybody wanted, it was just one of those times.
"The swinging Sixties was the perfect time to be a designer — it was even cooler than being a photographer."
One of the biggest names of this Golden Age For The Graphic Artist was Alan Aldridge, whose bold, colourful, slightly surreal fantasies Barney loathed.
"He was the Big Boy then but I used to hate his stuff. I hate all that airbrush work — it's ugly. I think The Butterfly Ball, all that stuff, is out the window. It's gross!"
It was at that time (1966/67), as Mod and Swinging London were giving way to merging psychedelia, that Barney started engaging in what earned him the 'Bubbles' appendage that he later officially adopted by deed poll (no, not designing detergent packets). He operated a liquid slide light show for hippy gatherings at The Roundhouse, UFO, Middle Earth and other focal points for the consciousness expandingly inclined.
What started out as extra-curricular to his designing day job soon became Barney's overwhelming passion and he dropped out to become a full-time light-showing hippy. Living on the proceeds of his award-winning career, he swiftly graduated from providing modest visual accompaniment to a dubious trio of rock hairdressers called The Gun at London's Speakeasy club, to helping out with the epic projection spectacles at Flower Power's ultimate shrine — San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom.
Returning to England in 1968, following a six-month Haight Ashbury pilgrimage, Barney Bubbles moved into the heart of the British hippy hinterland and a house at 307 Portobello Road, London W11. Via a short chain of introductions Barney had encountered Dave Robinson (now boss of Stiff Records — then part of a mysterious mafia of roadies, managers and musicians) who joined the W11 residents. According to Mr B the inhabitants of 307 Portobello Road "used to sit around getting stoned and speculating on what mischief could be done with beat groups."
Robinson was managing a beat group named Kippington Lodge that featured a lanky bass player called Nick Lowe — Kippington Lodge later became Brinsley Schwarz and secured themselves a record deal that resulted in Barney's first LP sleeve (he was still occasionally doing more orthodox jobs like designing packaging for Jacksons, the prestigious tea traders of Piccadilly).
Ultimately the Brinsleys circus left town, to get its communal head together in the country (man). Barney stayed on at Portobello Road using the back room as a studio while Pearce Marchbank (former Time Out designer and now co-editor of Event magazine) used to paste up the underground paper Frendz (a UK off-shoot of Rolling Stone) in the front of the house.
Many of the era's bands called at the Frenz office to pick up copies of the mag, to give away or sell at their concerts. Most prominent amongst these visitors was Hawkwind, whose leader, Nik Turner, invited Barney to design the sleeve for their In Search Of Space album. The strong lines and hard edge of Bubbles' work quickly earned him the role of Hawkwind's house visuals perpetrator, adorning their equipment and communications with the mystical and mock teutonic insignia that were to become the group's totems, and the staple style for subsequent hordes of heavy metal bands.
The relationship lasted for two years: "I thought they were fantastic — I thought they were THE band in those days. Then it just sort of got into a heavy metal form and got boring."
Through Hawkwind Barney got involved with an organisation called Revelation Enterprises, who took over the Portobello Road operation. Revelation organised a hippy festival called The Glastonbury Fayre which featured the likes of Hawkwind and David Bowie, and further down the bill, a band managed by the festival organisers called Mighty Baby.
Following Glastonbury (for which our hero designed the accompanying LP packaging) Mighty Baby evolved into a prototype pub-rock band called Chilli Willi and enlisted the services of a roadie named Andrew Jakeman (these days known as Jake Riviera). Jake took over the management of Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers (as they became ) when the group were fired by Revelation.
The Peppers had their fifteen minutes and an LP sleeve designed by Barney (in the guise of Big Jobs Inc.) and then they disbanded. Jake went on to become Riviera Global and the mastermind of various coups including Stiff Records, Radar Records, F-Beat, Demon Records and the management of another talent from Whitton — Elvis Costello.
Barney disappeared to Ireland for a year to recover from the end of a long term personal relationship. He interrupted his time spent reading and raising chickens for a holiday in England, where he found Jake had formed Stiff Records.
Jake employed Bubbles' well-rested talents on the paste-up of a record sleeve for Plummet Airlines, and the Stiff boss, feeling that Barney was perhaps a little out of touch with the emerging punk scene that Stiff was aiming to be a part of, took him down to the Roxy to see Stiff signings The Damned. This event was to have a devestating effect:
"So we went down the Roxy and I've never been back to Ireland. I just phoned up and sold the cottage. I've worked for Jake ever since and I've never looked back."
Barney's sojourn in Ireland had been utilised to fill in the gaps in his Art History education — finding out what happened between Impressionism and Pop Art. Hence, upon his return to graphic design, he was fully primed up with the theories of Constructivism, Minimalism, Cubism, Dada and any of the other movements his humour could accommodate.
In tandem with the exploits of his mentor Jake Riviera, Barney's unique visual jokes and strokes have accompanied the records of the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, The Damned, The Soft Boys, Clover, Lene Lovich, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, The Rumour and all the early exponents of the Stiff and Radar labels.
"It's just fun working with Jake, we'd just walk around the block — 'cause he was so busy — it would all be done in five minutes. I could actually do what I wanted to do without being told off by record companies that say: 'Fantastic, but don't you think…?' and then they fuck it up!"
Barney is currently setting up a new studio in North London and trying to withdraw from record work. He has started painting, and inspired by a chair and table he designed for Jake, he is now designing furniture and fabrics. He hopes to only remain doing record sleeves for his pals.
"I feel really strongly about what I do, that it is for other people, that's why I don't really like crediting myself on people's albums — like you've got a Nick Lowe album, it's NICK LOWE's album not a Barney Bubbles' album!"
He is also experiencing a great deal of disillusionment with other aspects of the graphic artist's role in the record business.
"I find it's a big racket. I think everybody should own up, first of all they're doing it for money and the art definitely comes second. All it is is rock and roll and it's no big shakes. But at the same time I think commercial design is the highest art form. Painting's not dead, but it's struggling to make a comeback.
"I love rock and roll… I can't get enough of it! But I'm really sad the way it's gone. I find all the young designers… and I've talked to a lot of them… they think they're doing Art, and they talk about record covers as Art. They do one sleeve and they are already talking about what they are going to do for the next album cover.
"All that to me is highly suspect because you've got to wait, hear the music and meet the guys, and they tell you what they want and then it's up to you to deliver that."
Other than the grand posing of the arrogant young sleeve designers that Barney hates, he is genuinely affected by the adventurous nature of the small independent singles labels.
"They're so creative — the kids that do the sleeves — it makes me feel so staid and boring, and I think: I've got to get out, it's time for me to go."
And so, apart from the new artwork for Ian Dury's "Spasticus Autisticus" package, Barney has been designing a new office desk for Jake (in the shape of a bricklayer's trowel — below) and has turned his hand to painting.
"I spent two years wondering 'Should I paint?' instead of just painting, and I suddenly realised that what I am doing is painting! It's only bits of Letraset, but it's still shapes and things — so, I'm a painter! Great!"
Barney wouldn't be goaded into anything as mundane as bracketting "the secrets of his success" or offering any paternalistic "advice to up-and-coming designers," and he is very reluctant to assume any particular importance for his techniques. The only clues about the method behind his madness, apart from his plainly unique sense of fun, may be gleaned from his closing statement on the subject of his influences.
"It sounds very pretentious, I know, but just walking around the street is number one; and watching the News is number two — but artists? Which artists do I like? Anyone. The lot!"