Archive for November, 2009

Van Doesburg and the Dutch connection

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Next Sunday (December 6), as part of  the current exhibition Theo van Doesburg And The International Avant-Garde: Constructing A New World at Leiden’s Stedelijk Museum in Lakenhal,  music journalist Jan Vollaard will be investigating the influence of van Doesburg’s work on Barney Bubbles’ designs.

Cover. Exhibition catalogue edited by Gladys Fabre and Doris Wintgens Hotte.

Jan, who has also written this feature about Reasons To Be Cheerful in Dutch daily paper NRC Handelsblad, will be hosting the talk and q&a from 2pm at the Scheltema complex, which is a two-minute walk from the museum at Marktsteeg 1 and Oude Singel.

The exhibition has been mounted in co-operation with London’s Tate Modern, where it will be housed from February 4 to May 10 next year as the UK’s first major show devoted to the Dutch artist who was central to the foundation of the De Stijl movement and magazine. 

Dada At 45rpm by Jan Vollaard, NRC Handelsblad, November 27, 2009

The city of Leiden is appropriate; this is where De Stijl was founded and also where van Doesburg established his short-lived art review Mécano in 1924. Here, as editor, he assumed the name I.K.Bonset, which some have claimed is an anagrammatic pun for the Dutch phrase “Ik ben sot” – “I am drunk”  – or the phonetic joke “I’m crazy”. The pseudonymous Barney would surely have appreciated either. Van Doesburg was in fact born Christian Emil Marie Kupper.

It’s believed that van Doesburg used the Bonset name to distance his more rational work from the Dada-infused content of Mécano, which broke rules in favour of absurdity and spontaneity. The front cover of Mecano 3 was quoted for the sleeve for Nick Lowe’s 1978 single I Love the Sound Of Breaking Glass

Magazine cover, letterpress on paper, 6in x 5in. Mecano no 3 by Theo van Doesburg, 1923.

There are many other examples of Barney’s appreciation and reinterpretation of the work and practices of van Doesburg and his milieu.

Theo van Doesburg, 1883-1931.

As revealed in Reasons To Be Cheerful, a painting for Barney’s friend Diana Fawcett contains an axinometric projection similar to that created by the great modernist Gerrit Reitveld for the Schroder House in Utrecht.

Left: Axinometric projection for Schroder House, Gerrit Reitveld, 1924. Left: Diana Fawcett with Barney Bubbles 1981 painting, 2008.

Diana was instructed to hang the painting at a 45-degree tilt, reproducing the quadrant which recurs in van Doesburg’s work. Around this time it also appeared on sleeves for Blanket Of Secrecy and Elvis Costello & The Attractions.

7in sleeve, paper. Say You Will/Feather In My Hand, Blanket Of Secrecy, FBeat, 1982.

Among Reitveld’s furniture  at the Schroder House is a version of his Red Blue chair of 1917. This informed the “turbo” chair Barney designed  for Jake Riviera in 1981.

Left: Chair from Reitveld Schroder House, 1924. Right: Turbo chair designed by Barney Bubbles, Editions Riveira, 1981.

“Van Doesburg believed that the boundaries between painting, architecture, photography and other disciplines should be abolished and become part of a single, compressed, modernist worldview,” writes Jan. “Bubbles endorsed those principles and combined his work in magazines and record companies, furniture design, painting, advertising work and directing (primitive) video clips.”

7in sleeve. I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass/They Called It Rock, Nick Lowe, Radar, 1978.

With the focus on van Doesburg’s influence on the international avant-garde, there are more than 300 works by 80 artists, including paintings, sculpture, scale-models, furniture, posters, films, typography  and magazines to illustrate what Barney himself exemplified: versatility, tirelessness and the interweaving of various disciplines.

Artists whose works are on view include El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Henryk Berlewi and Piet Mondrian

Full details of the exhibition can be found here; those interested in attending Jan’s presentation should visit this page.

Reasons To Be Cheerful: MOJO’s Book Of The Year!

Friday, November 27th, 2009

We’re proud to announce that MOJO magazine has declared Reasons To Be Cheerful BOOK OF THE YEAR!

Page 50, Mojo magazine, January 2010.

It’s great that the considerable effort which went into the book is being recognised.

A number of high-profile people were there for us when it counted and helped draw attention to what was a pretty left-field idea at the time, among them Billy Bragg, Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville and Paul Smith.

Behind the scenes, those closest to Barney professionally and personally were generous enough to open their hearts, minds and archives. They know who they are but thanks again to you, and also to the lovely people who have emerged since publication, providing support, information and material to ensure that this blog has become a vital online entity.

John Coulthart deserves special mention; if I hadn’t come across the essential blog he posted in January 2007 so soon after a browse through my record collection with Caz, who knows where we’d all be now? Thanks John.

It’s worth pointing out that the reappraisal of Barney in the scheme of things came from the ground up. It was satisfying that the self-appointed gatekeepers of the graphic arts establishment were evidently wrong-footed by the publication of the book by an avowed team of outsiders, and it’s doubly gratifying to see how all of our efforts have finally elevated Barney into the pantheon (as evinced by this recent Design Week story).

As we all know, it’s a crying shame Barney ain’t around to share in this enjoyment and appreciation of his art. At least we together have done our best to ensure that Barney’s body of work will live forever. So thanks to you as well, the fans, readers, casual online browsers and all-out Barney obsessives: you make it worthwhile.

Enough of that – we have work to do.

Coming soon, the second edition, revised and updated with fresh and never-seen-before info, images and interviews. Keep your eyes out; it’ll blow your socks off.

Also an exhibition at Chelsea Space next autumn.

It’s a cornball pay-off but what the hey! There are many more reasons to be cheerful coming this way, so keep reading and keep in touch,

Your friend,

Paul

When music advertising’s aim was true

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

One of the key factors which accelerated Stiff Records past all-comers in 1977 – whether established majors or the new wave of indies launching in its wake –  was the quality, wit and invention of its music press advertising.

Cut-out-and-keep Elvis Costello poster constructed from Stiff adverts in Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, July 1977.

As explained in Reasons To Be Cheerful, this was a result of the winning combination of Barney Bubbles’ graphic genius and commercial experience (principally with Conran) and Stiff founders Dave Robinson and, in particular, Jake Riviera‘s pithy and provocative promotional nous.

Stiff Records DPS adverts, New Musical Express (top), Sounds (bottom left) and Melody Maker, all published July 23, 1977.

Jake’s progress in London’s hidebound advertising scene on leaving school in the 60s had been stymied by lack of qualifications. Come the 70s his substantial creative capabilities locked in with Barney’s arsenal of references and willingness to play games to provide series after series of individual ads for each of Britain’s music publications: the five weeklies Disc & Music Echo, Melody Maker, NME, Record Mirror and Sounds and the monthlies Let it Rock and ZigZag.

Stiff Records ad detail. Assembly instructions, July 23, 1977.

A fabulous example is the batch of three cut-out-and-keep double-page spreads announcing the release of Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True in the summer of 1977. Pieced together and clipped, these created a poster of Keith Morris‘s image from the front of the album.

12in sleeve. Back and front cover, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello, Stiff, 1977.

“Our credo was that people are more intelligent than politicians or big business gives them credit for,” says Jake. “We wanted to really engage with fans and, since there were so many music papers, why not come up with a collectable series? Better than the same old ad for the latest Genesis album; hold me back, you know?”

Jake Riviera with point-of-sale Elvis Costello cut-out figure, outside Stiff offices, 32 Alexander Street, London W2, 1977. Photo: LIFE.

This and the image on the back had been carefully selected after a photo-session in which Barney and Jake were both involved to ensure that Costello’s transformation from country-rocker DP McManus (at the time holding down a day-job as a computer operator in North Acton with cosmetics manufacturer Elizabeth Arden) was complete.

Meanwhile retailers were provided with in-store cut-outs of the back cover shot; I coveted without success the one which occupied pride of place in my local record shop, Manzi’s in Finchley Road, north London.

Full-page adverts for Bongos Over Balham, Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, Mooncrest, 1974. Left: artwork for Let It Rock. Right, artwork for ZigZag.

Barney and Jake had been finessing this approach for a couple of years; Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers benefited from a wide range of stickers, cut-outs and other promotional ephemera, and, when second album Bongos Over Balham was released in 1974, it was “presented” in the music press ads by a variety of items, including a pig’s trotter and a vibrator.

Contact sheet, My Aim Is True photo-session 1977, Keith Morris. (C) Keith Morris Estate.

And the objective of introducing the then-totally unknown Costello as “Buddy Holly on acid” with a sackful of songs driven by guilt and revenge was achieved in the time-honoured fashion of maintaining tight rein over available imagery while word-of-mouth was built. 

My Aim Is True colour variations, 1977/78.

Morris’s two cover shots were used repeatedly in posters as well as ads, and Barney adopted a Warholian approach by chopping and changing the eye-popping overlaid colours of the album sleeve over the course of several print-runs.

Elvis Costello posters promoting live appearances (left) and his debut album, 1977.

With the initial pressing containing the “Help Us Hype Elvis” leaflet offering free copies for those who could turn their friends on to the album, it’s likely that there were at least 30 different coloured sleeves.

Full page adverts: (left) NME August 6, 1977, Melody Maker, August 13, 1977.

Of course it’s impossible to calculate what would have happened had Elvis Presley not died on August 16 1977 just as the My Aim Is True campaign got underway; the album’s prospects certainly weren’t hurt by the public attention directed to such elements as the near-sacriligeous phrase “Elvis Is King” Letraset-ed into the cover’s two-tone boxes by Barney.

By the autumn Costello was proving he was not only one of the greatest songwriters of his generation but also a fearsome live prospect, having hooked up with The Attractions and started to perform some of the stunning tracks to appear on follow-up This Year’s Model.

Once again, this was heralded by a campaign based on more spectacular advertising, including a music press series  of three ads (NB: we’re advised there were at least six – see note below) featuring various headings including “Drugs”, “Fads” and “Commodities”.

Barney chose not to lay the titles across the gutter (the central margin separating type and images) to increase legibility for the reader holding the paper open. Laid out flat this would be nearly 2ft wide and was often a source of discomfort for those trying to read the “inkies” on cramped public transport.

DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 25, 1978.

These ads are packed with puns and inside jokes: Patti Smith is miscaptioned as Patty Hearst, Chilli Willi as “saccharine”, Troggs’ singer Reg Presley as Elvis Presley, The Attractions as much-maligned budget label K-Tel and the recently arrested Roman Polanski as Charles Manson (the man, of course, responsible for the death of his wife Sharon Tate).

DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 18, 1978.

And Costello was not spared: a photograph of Buddy Holly was placed next to his name. And a banjo lying on the ground lays the ghost of DP MacManus to rest with the caption: “Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass”.

Get Happy!! Forget The Massage!

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Among the items which didn’t make it into the first edition of the book (even though it has 600 images) is this lovely rarity photographed for us by careful owner Billy Bragg: a huge paperboard in-store display poster for Get Happy!!.

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Paperboard poster, 60in x 40in, 1980. Photo: Billy Bragg. (C) Billy Bragg Collection.

Barney tropes abound: the poster is to his favoured scale of 60″ x 40″, the throway 50s/60s image has been enlarged to the point of degradation (he once told Jake Riviera he preferred photographic dots “the size of golf balls!”) and important retail information is imparted decoratively –  the record’s catalogue number FBEATXXLP1 is placed underneath the toe of one of the “masseuse”’s high heels.

60" x 40" poster, Get Happy!!, 1980. "A great record to dance to but you wouldn't want to live there".

The graphic theme of the more common “light-bulb” poster design is developed, as is the restrained yet impactful palette of colours set out by the album sleeve.

12in sleeve. Back and front cover, Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, FBeat Records, 1980.

As detailed in Reasons To Be Cheerful, the Get Happy!! sleeve saw Barney scale back on the kaleidoscopic approach to Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ previous album Armed Forces with a co-ordinated, muted and retro feel, chiming with the singer-songwriter’s often contemplative channelling of 60s soul music as he reached an early career peak.

Both sides, 12in inner sleeve, Get Happy!!, 1980.

At the time the designed “scuffing” of the outer sleeve (deemed unacceptable by Costello’s US record company Columbia which insisted on cleaning up the artwork) overshadowed the package’s deceptive geometric complexity and textural depth (which naturally matched the music contained within).

The atomic art ellipses on the inner sleeve offered the dualities Barney delighted in delivering for Costello (the inner of Armed Forces provided contrasting images headed “Our place…”/”…Or Yours” and that of it’s predecessor This Year’s Model lined up dummy torsos on one side and a rubber mechanical hand holding a state of the art mini-TV on the other.

Get Happy!! detail: Nick Lowe's production note and Barney's credit - his VAT number.

Unlike those albums, there was no free 7in with Get Happy!! since the vinyl was packed with 10 tracks per side, necessitating another 60s touch: an assurance from producer Nick Lowe that sound quality had not been compromised.

Left: Artwork, Get Happy!! poster. (C) Riviera Global. Right: 30in x 20in Get Happy !! poster, 1980. Note "Vote Labour" sticker added by the author.

Instead there was a poster of silhouetted 50s diner lampshades with imposed commands riffing on the album title and the names of the individual songs. On purchase in 1980 I decorated mine with a”Vote Labour” sticker; I and a lot of others were still smarting from Margaret Thatcher’s ascendence just eight months before in the first election in which I had voted .

Label, Get Happy!!, FBeat, 1980.

In Barney’s original artwork, there were elements which did not make the final poster:  the question “Get it?” and graphics which popped up elsewhere: groupings of single bars and lines and a rendition of the interleavened quadrants which are tinted and overlaid on the band member photographs on the cover and depicted in outline in the label design.

Get Happy details!!. Nine blue lines placed top right-hand corner, back cover, and 22 green lines grouped in the top left hand corner, front cover.

What is one to make of these? Graphic tics to enrich and engage or symbols denoting deeper meaning?

These vie for speculation with the front-cover  motif which is inverted on the back and intrigued fans such as Billy Bragg, who describes it in Reasons To Be Cheerful as one of Barney’s “discernible signatures”.

3D motif artwork. (C) Reasons 2009/Riviera Global.

It could be that on the front this is yet another representation of Costello’s bespectacled visage, though Barney fan Paul Murphy has pointed out on feuilleton that it is a reference to 3D glasses, relating to the out-of-register images on the inner sleeve and the overall retro tone of the album’s design.

It can also be seen as an early version of  the symbol comprising three intertwined circles and a triangle which started to appear on the labels of certain FBeat releases.

Left: Artwork for music press ad, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down. Left: Artwork for FBeat singles bag. Both (C) Reasons 2009/Riviera Global.

The Get Happy!! quadrants were present in Barney’s designs for the sleeve of the album’s first single, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, and adorned music press adverts and FBeat’s in-house singles sleeves.

The design for the cassette issue used Bob “Bromide” Hall’s single cover photograph, and the sleeves for the subsequent three singles were integrated  in terms of colour, graphics and typography.

Here’s Elvis having fun giving Get Happy!! the hard sell on US TV back in 1980. These days he’s a bigger name than ever, particularly in the US where the second series of his Sundance Channel music/chat show Spectacle starts on December 9, as he announced earlier this week:

Barney’s t-shirts from Alfalpha to Hawklords to Wangford

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Prompted by the forthcoming regrouping of Hawklords at Nik Turner’s Barney Bubbles Memorial Concert on Sunday November 29, here’s yet another exclusive: Barney Bubbles’ sketches for a front-and-back-printed t-shirt for the Hawkwind splinter group’s 1978 dystopian project 25 Years On.

Hawklord t-shirt design Barney Bubbles, 1978. (C) Reasons 2009.

These were drawn in the bottom right-hand corner of an otherwise blank sheet of one of his pads, and feature the heraldic/masonic symbols Barney  incorporated in the concept album’s design.

Hawklords booklet 1978. Design/Concept: Barney Bubbles. Photography/Concept: Chris Gabrin.

As detailed in Reasons To Be Cheerful, years before merchandise became an ancillary money-spinner for the music biz, Barney was integrating his Hawkwind approach by providing tees for the band and gig-goers based on his designs for X In Search Of Space, Space Ritual and Doremi Fasol Latido and the Hawkwind/Man 1999 Party US tour poster.

Lorry Sartorio 1964. Design/Concept/Photography: Barney Bubbles. (C) L. Sartorio/Reasons 2009.

As we’ve noted here, Barney first designed t-shirts in 1964, creating one worn by his girlfriend Lorry Sartorio for a poster he made for college band The Muleskinners (featuring his pal and Face Ian McLagan).

Alfalpha t-shirt detail, 1976. (C) Jeff Dexter.

In 1976 he supplied an amazing logo design for his friend Jeff Dexter, then co-managing Hawkwind with Tony Howard and also looking after an ill-fated combo Alfalpha. This logo appeared on badges Barney created in conjunction with his friend Joly McFie of Better Badges and t-shirts in fluorescent pink on black with a diamante in the text. “They were very kool – made by his other mate Alan Holden from Sunrise Studios,” says Jeff.  

Ian Dury t-shirt, 1978. (C) Ian Dury Family Estate/Reasons 2009.

And when punk and new wave took off, Barney provided many t-shirt designs for his friends, such as this Lissitzky-informed Ian Dury tee from 1978.

Back, Imperial Bedroom US tour t-shirt, 1982. (C) Reasons 2009.

By 1982 Barney was contributing not only his album covers but also detail from the artwork to t-shirts, such as the “bedbug”  which appeared on the back of the top fronted by his Imperial Bedroom painting for a US tour by Elvis Costello & The Attractions.

Front, Hank Wangford Band sweatshirt, 1983. (C) Reasons 2009.

When his friend from the 60s counterculture days Sam Hutt – aka Hank Wangford – started to make waves on the UK music scene around the same time, Barney not only supplied album artwork but also came up with a wonderful range of t-shirt designs which mixed Argyll knitwear and grey marl with cowpoke.

Back, Hank Wangford Jogging With Jesus t-shirt 1983. (C) Reasons 2009.

Tickets for the Barney Bubbles Memorial Concert at the 229 Club, London on Sunday November 29 are available here.