Depeche Mode, crowns, kings and the Kosmische connection

Brian Griffin was Barney Bubbles’ chief collaborator from 1978 onwards, working with him across a dizzying array of projects, from record sleeves, advertising campaigns and promo videos to artzines, books and posters.

Brian Griffin studio ident, 1980.

Barney also designed business cards, letterheads and studio idents for Brian; these two have never been published before. And now, via this site, you can purchase original copies of a number of original items they produced together: an exhibition poster, the newspaper Y and the book Copyright 1978.

Brian Griffin business card, 1982.

More on that at the end of this post. Today we’re focusing on an unexpected project which came about in 1981 when Brian’s agent David Burnham leased premises near Baker Street in central London to young indie record label owner Daniel Miller

Front cover, Speak & Spell, Mute Records, 1981.

Daniel’s Mute Records was making the post-punk runnings having pioneered electro-pop with such great records as the label’s first two singles  - his own T.V.O.D/Warm Leatherette (as The Normal) and Fad Gadget’s Back To Nature (both rarely far from our iPod playlists, record deck or CD player).

Back cover, Speak & Spell, Mute Records, 1981

Back cover, Speak & Spell, Mute Records, 1981

In 1981 Mute was propelled into the pop charts by fresh signing Depeche Mode‘s clutch of singles Dreaming Of Me, New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough (currently a hit again courtesy of squeaky girl band The Saturdays).

When Burnham introduce Brian to Daniel the pair established a lifelong friendship based on the shared love of the extraordinary music made by such peerless German bands as Neu!Kraftwerk and, of course, Can (whose back catalogue Mute has reissued).

Chosen as the photographer for the cover of Depeche Mode’s debut album Speak & Spell, Brian asked Barney to design the sleeve. Barney’s own association with Kosmische music dated back to his days as in-house visual director for Hawkwind. Andrew Lauder at the band’s label United Artists – for whom Barney also worked – was an early champion in Britain and the ‘Wind’s founder Dave Brock wrote the sleevenotes for Neu!’s first UK release.

Front cover, Neu! 2, Neu!, Brain Records, 1973.

Barney’s flouro spray-paint logo for the recently-reissued Hawklords album 25 Years On is, in Brian’s view, a tribute to the one which appeared across Neu!  sleeves and in particular the giant numeral which adorns their second album.

Front cover, 25 years On, Hawklords, Charisma, 1978.

The musical ties were strong;  Opa-Loka, from 1975′s Warrior On the Edge Of Time, is an oft-cited example of Hawkwind’s use of Motorik rhythms, while Brock’s first solo album Earthed To The Ground is rooted in the genre. The original sleeve of this 1984 release was a painting by John Coulthart, who has powered the revival of interest in Barney’s work in recent years.

Barney designed adverts and other promotional material to support Radar ‘s 1978 release of the eponymously-titled album by La Dusseldorf, the group formed by the late multi-instrumentalist  (and one-time Kraftwerk member) Klaus Dinger after Neu! broke up in the mid-70s.

There has been speculation recently that Barney was also responsible for the sleeves for the UK releases of Kraftwerk albums Ralf & Florian and Autobahn (as posited by Colin Buttimer at Hardformat and investigated in a posting on John’s blog). Brian does not believe this to be the case.

“He would have told me, for I was a very big fan of everything German at the time,” says Brian.

Although Barney wasn’t keen on Depeche Mode, Brian persuaded him to handle the design of Speak & Spell, which centres on the doomy image of a swan swathed in a clear plastic and silhouetted on its nest against a radioactive glow.

“I was working on a  personal project about a nuclear attack on London and photographed the swan in my studio to represent the only creature alive after the bomb had dropped,” explains Brian. “Goodness knows what I was thinking. Everybody hated it, including myself actually!”

Barney’s lack of connection with Depeche Mode is reflected in the coolness of his design, though in retrospect this is harmonious with the wilfully alienated stance adopted by the Mode (who describe their music as “synthetics” in the credits).

Speak & Spell label copy, 1981.

Using a serif font with spare application of yellow/gold bars, boxes and constellated dots, Barney grants the band a favourite symbol, the crown (which appears in many of his designs). With the group’s name and the album title providing the headband, the credits are arranged on the back cover in the shape of the King chess piece.

The crown is also repeated on both sides of the record label.

One of the many crown logos Barney created for F-Beat.

Brian says that the project as a whole  provoked little interest in Barney. “That was most unusual for him but I fully understood the reasons, for I also disliked Depeche’s music at that time,” says Brian.

The image of the swan from behind, as used on the back page of Y.

Barney  used another shot from Brian’s swan shoot – a shadowy frame from the rear  - in Y, the duo’s newspaper which was also preoccupied with the prevailing atmosphere of nuclear foreboding in the West at that time.  ”He cleverly saw that the backside of the swan was actually an infinity symbol, which is why it’s on the back page,” says Brian.

End: The title on the back page of Y.

The infinity symbol is most commonly described as the figure 8 on it’s side: this is page 8 of Y. The title spells out END, with the N created by a constellation symbolising an endless road, or infinity. This, it should be noted,  is similar to the motorway design on the front cover of Autobahn.

Barney was to rifle Brian’s collection of “nuclear” images – that of a ship being engulfed in a tsunami as a result of an explosion – for another electro-pop project with which he felt little affinity: Wang Chung’s album Points On The Curve. This was released two months after his death,  in January 1984.

Front cover, Points On The Curve, Wang Chung, 1984.

Front cover, Points On The Curve, Wang Chung, Geffen,. 1984.

This record contained the band’s biggest hit, Dance Hall Days. Depeche Mode, on the other hand, went on to become one of the biggest groups in the world, and the  curious passions they arouse in fans are explored in Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams‘ brilliant The Posters Came From The Walls. After a smash reception at the London Film Festival this documentary is currently  touring the film festivals and will be on general release later this year. We recommend it highly.

Access a podcast featuring Brian at the Format 09 festival here.

SITE EXCLUSIVE To buy original copies of Brian Griffin and Barney Bubbles artwork – the highly collectable Y, the amazing “Scarf/Face” poster for Brian’s first one-man show and their excellent book Copyright 1978 – go here.

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4 Responses to “Depeche Mode, crowns, kings and the Kosmische connection”

  1. John Coulthart Says:

    I should note for anyone foolish enough to click the link that the Brock album mentioned above was originally my crappy painting only. Whether that dreadful CD reissue is an improvement on my amateur effort is debatable.

    A fascinating post, I always wondered what that swan was about! It’s hard to tell from these pictures but the typeface on the label and elsewhere isn’t any version of Times. Looks like a Garamond variant although the M slopes too much. Sabon, maybe?

  2. Paul Gorman Says:

    Hi John

    Have amended the text. Should be clear that you provided the painting for the original sleeve not this CD reissue.

    PJG

  3. Guy Hulse Says:

    Great post. The typeface on the label looks like Plantin.

  4. Paul Gorman Says:

    Glad you like, Guy.

    Kind of figures, Plantin having inspired Times New Roman, whose italic it does resemble in certain – but not all – aspects. And it’s a font in the French style (appropriate to the band’s name?). V BB.

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