Archive for June, 2009

The power of the pyramid and the mystery of the three circles

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

The application of geometric symbols was an important element of Barney Bubbles’ visual language.

Detail from label, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, FBeat XX1, February 1980.

As pointed out in Reasons To Be Cheerful, Barney’s use of symbolism throughout his career underlines his consistency of approach and undercuts notions of a clear division between his 60s/70s “hippie” work and that produced after joining Stiff Records in March 1977.

The presence of symbols also effected a “signature” for this artist who opted for anonymity and avoided credits in his later years.

A fine example are the three triangulated circles which surfaced in February 1980 as a tiny detail on the label for I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, the hit single by Elvis Costello & The Attractions which inaugurated Jake Riviera’s FBeat Records. Next they appeared on the double A-side promo for the label’s second single, Splash (A Tear Comes Rolling Down) by Clive Langer & The Boxes, though were gone by the official release.

B-side of From Head To Toe, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, FBeat, 1983.

Thereafter, the circles crop up on releases by Costello and Nick Lowe up until Barney’s death in 1983. However, the symbol was not used in the label copy for releases by other acts on FBeat, including Lowe’s collaborative projects with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile such as Seconds of Pleasure or The Attractions’ “solo” effort Mad About The Wrong Boy.

Triple gatefold cover, the Glastonbury Fayre, Revelation, 1972. Advert, Frendz 33, 1972.

So what to make of this repeated, if selective, use?  The pyramid and triangle were sources of fascination in line with Barney’s interest in Egyptology and Norse mythology, as evinced by such projects as The Glastonbury Fayre and in various forms for Hawkwind and band-member Nik Turner’s solo projects.

"Pyramid power": Cut and fold inserts, The Glastonbury Fayre, Revelation, 1972.

The three overlapping circles convey many meanings,  drawing on the potency of Sacred Geometry as well as the work of “The Great Geometer” himself, Appollonius of Perga.

From advert for Xitintoday by Nik Turner's Sphynx, NME, April 22, 1978.

In Christian terms, they represent the Holy Trinity, and in combination with triangles signify alchemy. Intersecting and tangental circles occur in Masonic mathematical calculations – Barney’s father Fred Fulcher was a mason and the compass, used to draw circles, is a key symbol in Freemasonry.

Left: Symbol for the Holy Trinity. Right: The Borromean Rings.

The three interlaced circles are also known as the Borromean Rings (since they  decorate a particular Baroque palazzo on one of the three northern Italian islands owned in the 17th Century by the Borromeo family).  A form of the link was used by the Vikings and is known as Odin’s Triangle.

Left: Alchemical sign. Right: Odin's Triangle.

More recently, three interlinked rings have been employed to define business leadership and corporate management structures.

Contemporary versions used in sociology and management models.

The explicit use of this symbol during the FBeat period comes into focus when one considers Barney’s ongoing preoccupation with power – hence also the variants on crowns and other regal insignia. The strength in the three interlocked circles lies in their unity; if one is broken the potency is lost.

My interpretation is that the three circles – fuelled by the energy of the pyramid and imbued with multiple layers of meaning – represent the powerful interplay between Jake Riviera, Barney himself and the priority artists Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe: this was a time when management, design and music were all reliant on each other and firing on all cylinders.

What’s yours?

Looking back with Langer

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The new Madness album The Liberty Of Norton Folgate is the latest career high for London’s finest band.

It also marks the return of the sympatico producer Clive Langer, who – with his partner Alan Winstanley – has been on hand at various points through Madness’ career (even organising the band’s first recording sessions when they were rambunctious teens).

Clive’s pedigree stretches through production credits on records by such artists as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Morrissey and Elvis Costello (with whom he co-wrote Shipbuilding) to membership of the pre-punk cabaret troupe Deaf School.

Splash, Clive Langer & The Boxes, FBeat, 1980.

And his leadership of post-Deaf School band The Boxes coincided with Barney Bubbles’ boldest and most wide-ranging record label brief: patron Jake Riviera’s formation of FBeat in 1980.

At Stiff, Barney had joined the team seven months in, and the year or so at Radar witnessed contributions from others, including Malcolm Garrett.

Radar singles by Bette Bright and Clive Langer, 1979. Designs: Malcolm Garrett.

Malcolm had been taken on at Radar straight from college to ease the pressure on Barney, and was responsible for sleeves for releases by another Deaf School alum Bette Bright as well as The Boxes’ debut, the 12″ EP I Want The World.  

FBeat was different; here Barney grew the identity of the company from the ground up, producing sleeves and posters as well as a slew of logos for label copy, headed paper, advertising and promotional purposes.

Inspired by the design detail of Jake’s early 60s jukebox, kitsch-y crowns and other regal imagery, as well as precisely arranged chevrons, stars, ellipses and other insignia dominated this period. Barney even designed Jake’s furniture for his office at the company’s Acton offices, as well as an FBeat rug (which appeared on the inner of Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes).

Of course the priority act was Elvis Costello, responsible with his band The Attractions for FBeat’s first single I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down) and album Get Happy!!.

But Clive and the Boxes were hot on their heels; FBeat’s second 7″ was Splash (A Tear Goes Rolling Down), which arrived in Barney’s bespoke single bags, and the second album was the band’s Splash.

Left: Photo album. Right: NME ad for Splash (A Tear Goes Rolling Down), 1980. Carol Fawcett Collection/Reasons 2009.

For the album sleeve the Boxes were dispatched to Putney swimming baths in south-west London, where Barney’s friend, the photographer Keith Morris, shot them diving, floating and generally splashing around.

But Clive wasn’t happy with Barney’s first draft for the cover. “I knew of and admired Barney; he had a notoriety in punk circles,” says Clive. “But the first idea for the cover just didn’t work for me.

“I got the distinct impression that he wasn’t too pleased, because people rarely rejected what he came up with. But on the second go the sleeve looked fantastic – there’s a great turquoise variation which came out in Germany.”

Barney’s advertising campaigns for the single and album played with a variety of visual puns. Ads for the music press used a close up of his friend Carol Fawcett’s right eye – not only does he create a face out of the typographic arrangement but the graphic “tears” splash into the shape of a crown.

Double A-side promo copies were sent to retailers wrapped in an 12″ x 8″ poster in which the droplets are stylised as lozenges set against swimming pool blue.

The standard single label features the ident for Liverpool label Korova, from whom the track was licensed. Interestingly, the promo label also bears an arcane symbol with which Barney peppered his work at the time: three triangulated circles.

Left: Music press ad artwork (c) Riviera Global/Reasons 2009. Right: It's All Over Now, Clive Langer & The Boxes, FBeat, 1980.

The five-pointed crowns of the album cover are set atop boxes in the music press ads which trailed the tour dates while a single large one dominates the cover of follow-up single It’s All Over Now.

Coincidental aside: these days the Madness “M” logo – created by member Chrissy Boy Foreman – is sporting a five-pointed crown rather than a bluebeat hat.

As 1980 wore on, the Boxes waned, and Langer became fully engaged in production chores for Madness’ smash debut One Step Beyond, making the first steps in his career with Winstanley as part of one of Britain’s most highly rated record production teams.

Stylorouge: The joys of misappropriation

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

“Barney was a grand master of design irreverence and visual mischief” Rob O’Connor

Stylorouge is one of the lesser celebrated though most successful design houses to have taken its cue from Barney Bubbles’ artistic approach to the music business.

Launched in 1981 by mainman Rob O’Connor, Stylorouge flourishes as a major force in commercial art and design; the current packed workload includes Island Records’ high-profile 50th anniversary celebrations.

Left: Poster. Island Life concerts, Shepherds Bush Empire. Right: Book design. Keep On Running: 50 Years Of Island Records, edited by Chris Salewicz.

 Back in 1995, the company’s philosophy was neatly summarised on its first website:

“We try to balance the analytical approach to visual ‘problem solving’ (some folk refer to this as having ideas) with a forward-looking intuitive flair (except on Monday mornings). We hold all kinds of creativity in high esteem. Nothing puts a bigger smile on our faces than driving a job from bottom to top: Concept, Art Direction, Design, Typography, Artwork, Repro, Pub; and in that order.”

Stylorouge covers (clockwise from top right): Wild Things-Creatures (1981); Music For A New Society-John Cale (1982); Parklife-Blur (1994); Ringleader Of The Tormentors-Morrissey (2006).
Stylorouge sleeves (clockwise from top left): Wild Things, The Creatures, Polydor, 1981; Music For A New Society, John Cale, Ze, 1982; Ringleader Of The Tormentors, Morrissey, Attack, 2006); Parklife, Blur, Food, 1994.

This approach is evident through Stylorouge’s work, from Blur and new 4AD band Broken Records to Morrissey and Wham! (the exclamation mark came from a stray sheet of Letraset).

In this exclusive interview, Rob discusses Barney’s influence, and also reveals that he once came tantalisingly close to meeting his hero.

 

Credit in Oz 38, November 1971.
Credits, Oz 38, November 1971.

“I first encountered Barney’s name via his layouts for the underground press (Barney was art director of Friends and a contributor to Oz) and then with Hawkwind when he was billed alongside people like Liquid Len,” he says.

Rob – whose influences also include Barney’s one-time employer Terence Conran and 70s art collective Grapus – also checked for Barney as a fan of  Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers and an attendee of the London date of the Naughty Rhythms tour.

“Barney was so totally original in his approach I couldn’t help but be influenced – he was the complete package: illustrator, designer, typographer and creative director,” says Rob, who joined Polydor Records’ art department on leaving Brighton Art College in 1977.

“He was one of the people who made the music industry seem like a huge amount of fun. In Barney’s work there was always an area of experimentation as well as heaps of humour and self-deprecation. That spread to the musicians he worked with.”

Rob cites the campaign behind Stiff’s 1977 release of Elvis Costello’s debut My Aim Is True. “Of course people like Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera were driving it, but Barney delivered the attitude,” says Rob. 

“Hopefully we do the same at Stylorouge. Our work rests on ideas, attitude and stance rather than preciousness about design.

From The Ian Dury Songbook, Music Sales, 1979.

“I’ll throw a piece of Meccano into the mix and then realise that it is in line with Barney’s fascination for using ordinary objects as the building bricks of his art.”

A particular favourite is the cover for Billy Bragg’s 1983 debut Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy

“The notion of taking utilitarian design which was not created for aesthetic purposes and combining it with such a fundamentally working-class object as a clamp-on lamp was extraordinary,” says Rob. “He was basically saying that these objects were important and worthy of elevation.

Left: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, Billy Bragg, Utility, 1983. Right: Modern Life Is Rubbish, Blur, Food Records, 1993.

“The work we did with Blur came from the same place. We appropriated mundane items like the greetings card illustration of an old steam train which shouldn’t really be used to sell groovy pop music, or the greyhound track for Parklife.”

Rob also admires Barney’s willingness to revisit successful designs: “Rather like Peter Saville he was quite shameless about re-using ideas because he knew they were good enough and stood the test of time. Similarly, he wasn’t ashamed of plundering classic design motifs from the recent past like Blue Note or other 50s sleeves.”

Left: Rock Around The Clock, Bill Haley And The Comets, Decca US, 1955. Right: Seconds Of Pleasure, Rockpile, F Beat, 1980.

As a result of his parlous financial circumstances, towards the end of his life Barney took his portfolio to a number of major record labels in search of freelance commissions.  

“I can’t remember what happened but he was supposed to come in to Polydor,” says Rob.”I found it extraordinary that he would have to do such a thing because he was so brilliant. It was a real disappointment I never met him.”

Left: Full-page ad, Music Week, July 1977. Right: Poster. Lives exhibition, Hayward Gallery, 1979.

Rob continues to reel from the scale of Barney’s output. “One of my favourite pieces is the poster he did for the Lives exhibition, which I bought in a second-hand shop many years ago and have had on my wall ever since,” he says. “I only found out it was a Barney when I read your book!”

Rob also enthuses about the sleeve for Ian Dury’s 1981 single Spasticus Autisticus, released as a statement about the ghetto-isation of  the less abled by the official declaration in the UK that 1981 was “The Year Of The Disabled”.

Left: Almost Blue, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, F Beat, 1981. Right: Spasticus Autisticus, Ian Dury, Polydor, 1981.

“There is something subtle and poetic about his very simple idea of changing the colours of the stuff on the plate,” says Rob. “That spoke quietly and effectively about discrimination.”

So does Rob detect Barney’s influence among the current generation of commercial artists?

“It is difficult to make the shift back in time and understand how the work was created in the context of no computers,” accepts Rob. “But I work with young people a lot and know that there is a clear understanding and appetite for good ideas, and there is no doubt Barney’s have stood the test of time.

“Because he was never fashionable, his work hasn’t dated. It can only work in favour of his memory that there is a huge amount of retrospective design around at the moment.

“Hopefully contemporary designers understand why they are doing this, rather than opting for a cheap rip-off. Barney did what later became commonly known as ‘irony’: taking design meant for one purpose and showing how it can work in a different context.

“I’ve used the word ‘misappropriation’ in the context of what we do at Stylorouge ,and it’s really one of the things I most enjoy in Barney’s work.”