The radical redesign of the NME

One of the greatest examples of Barney Bubbles’ ability to fast-track cutting-edge ideas into the mainstream occurred in 1978 with his redesign of best-selling weekly paper the New Musical Express.

As detailed in Chapter 4 of REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL, at this time the NME’s sales regularly surpassed 200,000 copies.

NME Alphabet

Artwork for The NME Book Of Modern Music alphabet. (c) Neil Spencer/Reasons 2009

And the recently-appointed editor Neil Spencer was an ardent Barney fan. “I loved the way Barney quoted Lissitzky for Generation X and Kandinsky for The Damned,” he says. “At the same time he sculpted the images of  unique characters like Ian Dury and Elvis Costello.

“Barney was head-and-shoulders above everyone else, and perfect for the job because he’d worked at Oz, Friends, Town and Nova.”

Barney’s first move was to de-clutter the layout. “There was so much going on in terms of images and info,” says Neil. “He also sorted out the presentation of the charts. I don’t think they’ve changed materially since then.”

Spread from The NME Book of Modern Music

Spread from The NME Book of Modern Music

Part of the brief was production of a free supplement to mark the relaunch: The NME Book Of Modern Music, which was compiled by readers from a series of collect-and-keep inserts.

With his assistant Diana Fawcett and contributions from freelancers such as Andy Martin, Barney whipped art and design references into a mélange evoking the inventive chaos of the immediate post-punk period.

The NME Book of Modern Music

Front cover of The NME Book of Modern Music

Barney’s alphabet for the Book Of Modern Music “borrowed from 20s Russia, 60s Britain and beyond”, says Neil. “He was so wily technically, and yet he always conjured unexpected colours and effects.”

The redesign was unveiled with the issue of October 14, 1978, though the NME’s owners IPC refused to allow the new masthead for another six weeks, when sales confirmed that readers were content with the new visual direction.

NME launch issue

Redesign launch issue. The new masthead was introduced six weeks later.

And so it was the December 2 issue which introduced Barney’s stencil block NME logo (promoted via a campaign shot by Barney’s collaborator Brian Griffin).

NME logo

NME logo campaign shot by Brian Griffin

The inspiration for the font was a company name on industrial premises in City Road, just around the corner from the site of Barney’s warehouse studio in Paul Street (he was two decades ahead of his time by occupying the western edge of what is now London’s achingly trendy Shoreditch area).

And Barney’s legacy at the paper lingers; despite the management’s worries, his NME logo is still used in adapted form more than 30 years later.

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4 Responses to “The radical redesign of the NME”

  1. books Says:

    this is some history right here. that cover with the slits on is amazing! especially in that era.

  2. Rock's Backpages: Writers Blogs Says:

    […] It was all very different when Barney was brought on board in the late summer of 1978. The music press was booming on the back of post-punk, with the NME’s sales sometimes approaching 200,000 copies a week. Barney’s layout harmonisation, decluttering of the chart and cleaning up of the house style is detailed in Reasons To Be Cheerful and expanded upon here. […]

  3. Rock's Backpages: Writers Blogs Says:

    […] had been an avid reader of Friends and NME, grew up in north-west London when seeing Hawkwind was no big deal, and was at the first […]

  4. Rock's Backpages: Writers Blogs Says:

    […] artwork, excepting a copy of Damned Damned Damned with it’s deliberate printing error, and an NME Book Of Modern Music to demonstrate from whence Bubbles was taking his design leads at the time of […]

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