Archive for July, 2009

Johnny O Rocket: Excellence in search of space

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Sonic Attack (Psychedelic Warlords),Trensmat, 2008.

The talents of Johnny O Rocket came to our attention with his superb Barney Bubbles remixes for the three split 7-inchers released last year by Irish indie label Trensmat Records.

Poster, Rocket Recordings 10th anniversary celebration, 2009.

Like Barney, Johnny studied technical illustration and works closely with a select band of independent labels and groups, incorporating Barney’s legacy in his graphic design, light-shows, photography and concert posters for Trensmat and Rocket Recordings and sonic adventurers such as The HeadsThe Notorious Hi-Fi Killers, Thought Forms and Cripple Black Phoenix Band.

Photography, Thought Forms, 2008.

Based in Bristol, Johnny first encountered Barney’s work via an introduction to Hawkwind as an avid vinyl collector in the late 80s, when acid house, shoe-gazing and grunge reigned in “a heady mix of distorted guitars and expanded oscillations”, to use his phrase.

Poster, The Heads/White Hills split LP, Rocket, 2009.

“Nowadays, investigating the past is handed to you on a plate via the internet,” says Johnny. “Back then, I had to rely on older brothers and their friends.” One, by the name of Simon Healey, championed early 70s Hawkwind and in particular the first album Barney designed for the group, X In Search of Space.

Posters, The Heads/White Hills split LP, 2009.

“Wow, the music was Viva La Trance!, a driving, throbbing freak-out,” exclaims Johnny. “I couldn’t detect the ‘hippiness’ the post-punk period portrayed it as, and the cover was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I sat for hours listening, looking and absorbing. The design and music seemed so intertwined, and I’m not sure Hawkwind would have had quite the same power without Barney’s work.”

Poster, Can You Pass The Rocket Test? 2008.

At the time, Johnny was a student on a technical illustration course, which would have struck a chord with Barney; his father was a precision engineer and the technical drawing he himself had studied at Twickenham art school (now Richmond Upon Thames University) was a major element in his output.

7" sleeve, Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere, The Heads, Sweet Nothing, 2000.

Johnny says he’d been accustomed to “a disciplined and geometrical but black-and-white world. Barney opened infinite doorways to the possibilities of the vinyl LP packaging format in all it’s multi-coloured glory. In Search Of Space’s artwork and log booklet are striking, graphic yet stark. It embodied an escape from the rigid structure of the engineered drawing I was studying, while still encompassing geometrical forms”.

Sonic Attack (Motorheads)/Sonic Attack (Lords Of Light), Trensmat, 2008.

Johnny describes the Trensmat covers – which came in three colour schemes in a nod to Barney’s multi-format approach  –  as a “collage”, bringing together elements from Barney’s covers, posters, inserts and booklets for ISOS, Doremi Fasol Latido, Space Ritual and The Glastonbury Fayre, as well as the die-cut elliptical puzzles contained within the booklet produced with his former Conran colleague John Muggeridge (who has the credit J. Moonman) for Quintessence album In Blissful Company.

Poster, Sun Ra Arkestera, The Croft, Bristol, 2008.

“They are all amazing,” says Johnny, “not least because of the interactivity: the opening, the unfolding, reflective print, puzzles, shapes, allusions, the collage of BB’s influences – all of these reflect the consciousness of that period in music, something that is harder to replicate in CD packaging.”   

The Heads Live @ The Thekla Bristol, Part 4

Johnny’s light show for The Heads live.

In his work for Rocket Recordings, Johnny says he has attempted to incorporate this creative approach “by collaging different influences and techniques; be it for graphic design pieces, photography or light shows. I dabble with the same methods and draw from an ever widening circle of interests”.

Poster featuring 12" sleeve, Which Side Are You On?, The Notorious Hi Fi Killers, 2008.

And he is full of admiration for the way Barney adapted to the post-punk period. “He seemed to fit neatly into the DIY ethic, but simultaneously had the full multicoloured myriad imagination of the 60s,” says Johnny. “Hopefully I try and encompass those values.”

Logo, Rocket Recordings, 2009.

And Johnny has a theory as to why there is such a blossoming of interest in Barney’s work right now: “In the 80s the commercial environment surrounding cheaply manufactured CDs didn’t pay regard to consumer tastes in packaging, so the art-form was forced underground.

Concert poster, Trinity Centre, Bristol, 2005.

“The rise of download culture has enhanced a desire from those who oppose it to own music as part of a well-crafted and considered package which makes an artistic statement.”

Artwork. Tribute to Can.

Found! Psychedelic Furs tribute AND rare artwork

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Signed promotional poster for Danger, 1982. (c) H. Thompson/Reasons 2009.

Credits, Mirror Moves, The Psychedelic Furs, CBS, 1984.

Barney Bubbles’ association with the great British post-punk band The Psychedelic Furs may not have lasted all that long yet it proved to be fertile, particularly when  it came to his friendship and working relationship with the group’s driving force and frontman Richard Butler.

Front cover, Forever Now, The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

These days an exhibiting painter, Butler attended Epsom School of Art & Design and handled the group’s visuals, receiving a credit for the artwork for the group’s second album Talk Talk Talk along with the phrase “After Andy Warhol”. As noted in the comment below, the design was created by Julian Balme, who had started his career at Stiff Records in 1979.

The collusion with Barney on the band’s 1982 release Forever Now and it’s attendant singles paid dividends in the form of excellent and typographically challenging artwork which may have bamboozled the US record company but impressed and endeared Barney to the group: at that time Richard and his bass-playing brother Tim, guitarist John Ashton and ex-Birthday Party drummer Phil Calvert.

On 1984 album Mirror Moves, their first release after Barney’s death, the Furs – and young designer Al McDowell – tipped their hat to his memory in the credits with the words “After Barney Bubbles”.

Back and front, Forever Now, CBS Netherlands, 1982. Note hand-written band name and title added to front cover.

We’re indebted to A&R legend Howard Thompson – rightly lauded these days for his digital radio station North Fork Sound – for the back-story and some of these images, including the rare and never previously published promotional poster for the single Danger.

Barney Bubbles painting his portrait of Richard Butler 1983. (c) Reasons 2009.

“I met Barney four or five times; he seemed like a lovely, if some times troubled fellow,” says Howard. “When I was at Island Records in the mid 70s, I instigated the distribution deal for Stiff so I think that must be where we first came across each other.”

Back and front cover, Love My Way 7", The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

Moving to CBS, Howard worked with the Furs on their first two albums, and then transferred to the US in early  1982.

Inner gatefold, Love My Way 7", The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

Commissioned by Butler, Barney’s design for the front of Forever Now applied a greater sense of form to the Warhol-esque screens used on earlier Furs’ releases with an organised mosaic of tiles in flourescent green and pink.

Photgrapher Graeme Attwood’s dramatic monochrome band portrait is filtered through this prism and framed by Barney’s circular logo created from yellow stars.

On the back the song titles run into each other in imposing capitals decorated with tessellated pink rectangles.

Back and front cover, Love My Way 12", The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

CBS’ enhanced budget, and the industry trend towards multi-format releases, enabled Barney to go to town on the singles.

Love My Way appeared with two 7″ sleeves – one a gatefold – and a 12″. The latter compiled Attwood’s head and shoulder shots on the front.

The B-side song is Aeroplane.”On the back is a ‘xerox’ of the parts to a model aeroplane kit; so Barney, isn’t it?” says Howard.

The Love My Way sleeves were subjected to a gelatin-silver process (which embeds metallic silver in the coating). These scans aren’t the best, but silver dots can be indentified as an element of the five tangent circle motifs which appear enlarged on the gatefold inner.

Motifs, Love My Way 7" gatefold, The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

The decorations – see also  the three interlocked circles which Barney added to certain FBeat releases – are also arranged in repeat as quasi-chemical structures which convey the more user-friendly name “The Furs” as well as accommodating lettering which spells out the band’s full name and the song titles.

The front cover of second single Danger is one of Barney’s paintings. Typical of his private work of this period, apparently random squiggles and abstract shapes deliver the physiognomy of the four musicians. Earlier covers are evoked – 1977’s Music For Pleasure by The Damned, 1981’s Me & The Boys by The Inmates – and references are made; for example the “paint-pot” ring also appeared on artwork and badges for Do it Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.

Back and front cover, Danger 12", The Psychedelic Furs, CBS UK, 1982.

The Danger cover was printed as a poster for circulation to the media in an edition of just 90.  ‘I have number 18,” says Howard. “The signatures read: ‘Love Love Love Richard Butler (with a drawing of a heart) T. Butler Phillip Calvert xx John A$hton‘.”

Left: Front cover, US release of Forever Now, Columbia, 1982. Left: Inner, Mirror Moves, CBS, 1984.

Barney’s intricate artwork appears to have been too much for the US record label Columbia. “In their infinite wisdom, ‘marketing’ chose to use a different, non-BB cover for the album and, of course, they released the singles in generic bags,” says Howard. “Twats.”

Back and front, 4Star EP, Columbia, 1982.

Chasing the youth market (which picked up on the group when they re-recorded early track Pretty In Pink for the John Hughes movie of the same name) CBS appropriated and bowdlerised Barney’s artwork for the grab-bag 4 Star EP.

Butler was responsible for the design for 1984’s Mirror Moves in conjunction with Al McDowell, who has long proclaimed a debt to Barney’s work – his design company Rocking Russian was in part named after Barney’s demonstrations that contemporary design could be invigorated by engaging with the work of the Constructivists.

Back and front, Mirror Moves, Columbia, 1984.

McDowell formed offshoot record sleeve design company Da Gama with Tomato‘s John Warwicker and, with Butler, produced a sleeve which drew on the elements created by Barney: the circular album title logo and arrangements of stars which are overlaid with tiled portraits, again by Griffin.

The layout of the song titles and credits follows Barney’s back cover of Forever Now and, right at the end, there is the special tribute to their departed friend and design hero.

Study 2009, Richard Butler. Oil on canvas, 16in x 12in.

Richard Butler went on to greater success with the Furs before forming Love Spit Love in the 90s. The Psychedelic Furs reunited for a tour in 2000. Butler now concentrates on painting and recently held an exhibition of new work at Miami’s Kevin Bruk Gallery.

The single sleeves: the embodiment of pop art

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Today we unveil the first public exhibition of the collected single sleeves created by Barney Bubbles; a stunning virtual presentation featuring a host of rarely seen images.

England's Glory/Dream Tobacco, Max Wall, Stiff BUY 12. Released April 1, 1977.

The single sleeves are important since they – more than any other area of Barney’s work – embody the characteristics of pop art as defined by Richard Hamilton in 1957:

Pop Art is:
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (easily forgotten)
Low cost
Mass produced
Young (aimed at youth)
Big business

Barney’s single sleeves comply, though, of course, he added the particular characteristic of anonymity. Only one sleeve carries a credit – for the lettering above Humphrey Ocean’s portrait on England’s Glory/Dream Tobacco by Max Wall (apparently at the insistence of the late comic genius).

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll/Razzle In My Pocket, Ian Dury, Stiff BUY17. Released August 26, 1977.

More will be added over the coming months; just last night at the Nick Lowe/Ry Cooder aftershow, Soft Boys’ leader Robyn Hitchcock confirmed what had long been posited: Barney was responsible for his band’s 1978 Radar single (I Want To Be An) Anglepoise Lamp/Fat Man’s Son.

(I Wanna Be An) Anglepoise Lamp/Fat Man's Son, The Soft Boys, Radar ADA8. Released: April 1978.

Collectively this represents an inspired body of commercial work, much of it concentrated in the post-punk period after Barney returned to the music business in March 1977.

From Head To Toe/The World Of Broken Hearts, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, FBeat XX30. Released September 1982.

In the days when hit singles sold in their hundreds of thousands, Barney (who majored in cardboard design for retail purposes at college) almost single-handedly ignited the explosion of 45rpm packaging as it came back into vogue.

Darling Let's Have Another Baby/It Really Digs/Something Else (Chiswick NS27). Released January 1978.

Eager to address the problem-solving possibilities offered by multiple releases and coloured vinyl, Barney produced at an impressive rate, with few, if any, falling below the high quality threshold.

Accidents Will Happen/Talking In The Dark, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Radar ADA38. Released May 1979.

The mask of anonymity eased adoption of a dizzying array of styles and approaches. Yet themes, symbols, fonts and techniques recur and develop: hearts, arrows, stars, tears, physiognomy, dynamic use of colour, art history references, industry in-jokes, photographic treatments and so on.

Some contain elements contributed by others; obviously the images of the photographers with whom he worked, and also releases such as Accidents Will Happen, where Barney applied the concept of inverting the sleeve.  The stills which ended up on the inside came from the promo for the song made by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. Designs for earlier releases, such as The Pie and Silver Machine, were completed by record companies out of artwork he had already created for albums or posters.

Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick /There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Stiff BUY38. Released: November 23 1978.

We start with the folded paper sleeve for the Christmas message of 1966 Barney recorded in a railway station auto recording booth for family and a few friends and move on to big sellers such as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, which reached number one and spent 15 weeks in the UK chart.

Visit the exhibition here; download tracks by clicking on individual sleeves. These days music arrives naked, so come celebrate a time when it paraded all gussied up and garbed in finery.