These two stunning Barney Bubbles posters will be taking centre stage in the graphics section of the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition British Design: 1948-2012.
These two stunning Barney Bubbles posters will be taking centre stage in the graphics section of the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition British Design: 1948-2012.
As highlighted in Will Birch’s tremendous Ian Dury biography, the creative relationship between the late singer and Barney Bubbles was one of the most fruitful in the history of pop.
Of similar ages with deep art school roots, Barney and Dury commenced their partnership in the spring of 1977 just as both were heading for the top of their game, with Barney installed at Stiff after a hiatus of more than a year and Dury preparing to unleash the career-defining records and performances which brought him enduring national treasure status.
Unlike his treatment of others, Dury was never-less-than respectful of Barney. “Barney was easily the most incredible designer I’d ever come across,” Dury told Birch.
Dury said Barney “scared the shit out of me. He was righteous. He didn’t have the faults or the ego and he made me feel second class. I wanted his approval in a strange kind of way”.
And, as Birch details, when Jake Riviera departed Stiff with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello at the end of 1977, remaining partner Dave Robinson was left with Dury’s recently released New Boots & Panties!! as his main chance for commercial survival.
The decision was made to throw all resources behind the polio-stricken performer and his band The Blockheads. Barney art-directed a sustained marketing and promotional campaign made up of several elements: his Blockhead logo, numerous press ads, several posters, a songbook and a tour programme. Together these helped maintain the album’s presence in the charts for more than a year and set up hits What A Waste and number one smash Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.
These are littered with Dury’s skewiff humour and guttersnipe poetry and feature some of the possible titles he had drawn up for his debut solo album.
Gabrin’s monochromatic clarity and his strong working relationship with both parties was an important element in the Dury/Bubbles dialogue. “We were working full-pelt at the time,” said Gabrin the other night. “There was so much to do to keep up with press ads and tours.”
Gabrin’s band portraits of Dury and The Blockheads (and minder Fred “Spider” Rowe) hit the UK’s music weeklies in February 1978.
A Gabrin photograph from an earlier session (which Barney had overlaid with a lurid orange screen for one of five giant posters for the Stiff tour) was used for a standard sized poster to hammer home the album’s availabiity. The year ended with more band shots in the incredible fold-out programme for the December 1978 Hanky Pantie tour.
The matchstick portrait cover was even used for the manufacture of hankies (to be knotted and worn on the head). A couple of Stiff employees – maybe Paul Conroy or Andy Murray can identify them? – sport these in the Top Of The Pops audience for Dury and The Blockheads’ triumphant performance of Hit Me.
By 1983, when Dury was filmed by director Franco Rosso for a Channel 4 documentary, the wordsmith was in a very different place.
On one of his regular separations from The Blockheads and main writing partner Chaz Jankel, Dury’s career was about to hit the skids as he recorded the half-baked 4000 Weeks Holiday. During the making of the film, management company Blackhill collapsed, but there are some sequences where it’s office can be seen decorated with Barney’s designs.
As well as Blockhead logo stickers there are posters for Do It Yourself and also the spoken-word album Blackhill’s Peter Jenner released on Charisma by cricket commentating legend John Arlott.
This was cooked up with Charisma publicist and Barney’s friend Glen Colson, who recalls how he came up with such faux cricket positions as “Wayward Short Leg”.
By the time the documentary was screened in 1984, Barney had died at his own hand.
“Barney Bubbles told me a few straighteners towards the end of his life,” said Dury, towards the end of his own. “Barney told me: ‘You were a horrible piece of work in those days Ian.’ I said: ‘Barney, I didn’t want to be’.”
Gone is the affection of the New Boots & Panties!! era. In it’s place, with stark contrasts, the bleached-out image renders Dury as Frankenstein’s monster, while the jaunty razor-blade earring is now used for chopping out coke, lobotomising the artist.
Will Birch’s book is a fully rounded portrait of this extraordinary man, and is heartily recommended.
Here’s a chance for you to get your hands on a FREE copy SIGNED by the author.
Send your answer to the question below to firstname.lastname@example.org – we’ll be announcing the winner’s name on February 14 .
Q: What is the title of the B-side of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick?
If proof were needed that Barney Bubbles continues to inspire contemporary designers more than a quarter of a century after his death, look no further than London’s own Kate Moross, the 23-year-old making waves around the world with a remarkable body of work which first started to attract attention while she was still at Camberwell College of Arts.
Moross shares Barney’s deft use of colour, concerns for isometry, geometry and architectural form and his appetite for music (operating vinyl-only label Isomorph). She is similarly fascinated by symbols – not least the repeated representation of her trademark three triangles – and applies a serious work ethic across a range of media and disciplines.
Moross determinedly creates at the cross-hatches of fine art and graphic design but, in a similar fashion to Barney, refuses to be pinned down stylistically.
Her flyers, posters, stickers, record sleeves, t-shirts, art direction, lighting design, stage sets and videos for the likes of La Roux, Simian Mobile Disco, heartsrevolution and Telepathe exemplify a dedication to detail and a ready wit.
Music video, directed by Jo Apps and Kate Moross. Audacity Of Huge, Simian Mobile Disco, 2009.
Moross – who has designed for record labels including Allido and Merok Records, created campaigns for such companies as Cadbury’s and a clothing range for Top Shop – was introduced to Barney’s work via his 1977 sleeve for The Damned’s album Music For Pleasure.
“It was old and new and confusing,” Moross told us while on the road this summer: last month she took part in Semi Permanent, the international design event in New Zealand, lining up with fellow Brits Harry Pearce (of Pentagram), Sanky (AllofUs) and Tim Beard (Bibliotheque), as well as such design legends as David Carson.
“I love confusing,” declares Moross. “I love codes and symbols, so Music For Pleasure has everything; graphic and illustrative, pattern and block colours, everything mixed together perfectly.”
Moross says that the coherence within Barney’s disparate methods and styles lies in his ability to “fit the brief, and that’s what every artist or designer’s goal should be. Not everything needs to be the same, but it should always be brilliant, and Barney was brilliant”.
Moross’s rise coincided with the reawakening of interest in illustration, packaging and graphics in music circles in the Noughties.
“I think that the Sixties and Seventies did wonders, but then the Eighties and Nineties kind of stopped caring; it was the artists that sold the music, not the art,” she believes.
“But it came back round. Packaging and design were back, labels and bands started employing illustrators and designers to make something special again.”
“I love the way the fractured isometric shapes are broken apart in a bold three-colour composition and then beautifully reconstructed on the reverse,” she said.
“To be honest, I didn’t know Barney’s work until recently,” Moross added. “But when I found it, I wished I could have been around at a time of such awesome creativity within musical ephemera. I feel like, with my enthusiasm, I would have fitted in well.”
That may be true. But their loss in the Seventies and Eighties is definitely our gain today.
Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Do It Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads with a visual feast including previously unpublished images.
When the album came out on May 18, 1979, much was made of the fact that the wallpaper cover was available in a number of variations. There have been claims that as many as 56 were printed in stock from the Crown range. We found 27 in the course of researching Reasons To Be Cheerful, most of which are reproduced here.
The inspiration for the cover came from a book of wallpaper samples; as ever Barney Bubbles delighted in elevating the mundane and everyday, though his initial proposal was for four covers.
When Stiff Records‘ boss Dave Robinson persuaded Crown to provide the materials for free in exchange for featuring the order number on the front of the album, Stiff swiftly escalated the plans with 10 alone for the UK and many others for their licensees around the world.
With screw-hole lettering embossed onto the surface of the wallpaper, the front cover carries the tracklisting and also a Barney classic; an illustration entitled “Tommy The Talking Toolbox says it’s…for all the family to enjoy!”
One piece of original artwork unearthed for the book contains part of the lyric from the album’s lead-track Inbetweenies, which was released as a single in some countries.
The back cover carries a Chris Gabrin photograph of Dury and the Blockheads lined up outside a wig shop; this is mirrored in abstract form in a painting by Barney on one side of the inner, entitled “Better Being Mugs Than Being Smug”.
The other side of the inner – headed “Ultramine” with Gabrin billed as “Gabrinovsky” – features the musicians and their team hand-triggering portrait shots of themselves.
A lot was riding on the album’s release. It’s predecessor – New Boots & Panties!! – had established Ian Dury as a new wave star, remaining in the charts for 90 weeks and setting up hits such as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.
When Dury refused to allow Hit Me to appear on the album, the Stiff staff, including marketing men Alan Cowderoy and Paul Conroy (who went on to work with hit acts from Madness to the Spice Girls), pulled out all the stops with an advertising and promotional campaign which integrated Barney’s design work centred around the theme of home improvement.
Barney’s paintbrush and paint logo for the record label was extended across posters, in-store banners and music press ads, as were his graphics representing paint splashes and stains.
Famously, Stiff sent teams of wallpaper hangers to decorate music press offices before journalists arrived while the exterior of record label’s offices received similar treatment.
A photo-shoot took place at Barney’s Shoreditch studio with Ian Dury – complete with knotted hankie on his head – as a housepainter.
Barney created point of display artwork on clear vinyl to be posted in record shop windows, and press ads and many badges (including an adapted Blockheads logo) continued the theme.
Promotional items even included “Blockhead” tins of paint while posters such as the one on the right below (which belongs to designer Alan Aboud) were printed on wallpaper and pasted onto exterior walls.
Typical of his approach to advertising in this period, Barney exploited the presence of five weekly music papers with different ads using spot-colour to “paint” and decorate full pages. Several incorporated his Blockhead ideogram (which has been identified on John Coulthart’s Barney post by Paul Murphy as stemming from British political imprint of the 30s, the Left Book Club).
One is a cut-out-and-keep face mask (so that the reader could, er, do it themselves…), while another features a splash of paint over one “eye”. The Watchmen ident has always put me in mind of this image.
The volume and sustained quality of the work is impressive, particularly since Barney also delivered sleeves and promotional, advertising and marketing designs for other projects in this period, including Labour Of Lust by Nick Lowe and Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs And Krauts by The Rumour and their attendant singles.
In the event, Do It Yourself didn’t achieve the hoped-for sales levels. The absence of Hit Me was compounded by the mercurial Dury’s decision to hastily release a new track as the next single.
Reasons To be Cheerful Part 3 was recorded while on the road in Europe, and released a month or so after Do It Yourself (and effectively eclipsing it). The artwork was not designed by Barney but Dury’s friend and former art-school teacher Peter Blake. But that’s another story…
Tommy The Talking Toolbox would have been proud.
With the invaluable support and assistance of Howies mainmen Nick Hand (who also took these photos) and Tim March, we mounted a mini-display in a hitherto unused upstairs room as the first in a series of monthly events the guys are organising.
The core of our little taster was a collection of 24 of the 27 variations to the cover of Do It Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
This seemed particularly appropriate since the site was once occupied by a Laura Ashley branch; some of the walls in the until-now disused upstairs space are still covered in her divinely daft and dated flowery wallpaper.
To keep the ID/BB theme going, we also displayed original artefacts and artwork, including the paste-up for what later became the cover of Ian’s 1984 album 4000 Weeks Holiday.
Thought to be among the very last projects Barney worked on, this has been contributed to the Reasons archive by our friend Pauline Kennedy. In her previous incarnation as Caramel Crunch, Pauline was Barney’s assistant and continued his work at such labels as Go! Discs.
With a book signing and talk about Barney, complete with power-point presentation of images from the book, the evening was capped by Paul and Caz mixing up the aural medicine with DJ sets of Barney-related sounds. These, we’re happy to tell you, went down a storm.
BARNEY BUBBLES SOUND SELECTION:
Here’s a selection of 10 of the Barney best to warm the cockles (click on the links to download/buy):
Eastbourne Ladies – Kevin Coyne (Marjory Razorblade 1973)
Inbetweenies – Ian Dury & The Blockheads (Do It Yourself 1979)
Lipstick Vogue – Elvis Costello & The Attractions (This Year’s Model 1978)
Fung Kee Laundry – Quiver (Gone In the Morning 1972)
Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs (Forever Now 1982)
Opa-Loka – Hawkwind (Warrior On The Edge Of Time 1975)
Post-War Glamour Girl – John Cooper Clarke (Disguise In Love (1978)
Darling Let’s Have Another Baby – Johnny Moped (Cycledelic 1978)
Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode (Speak & Spell 1981)
Ghost Town – The Specials (single 1981)
These are just a few examples of how the BBSS can get the joint jumping. For a playlist from Caz’s set see Howies’ blog Brainfood.
Barney Bubbles credited one of the most creatively satisfying phases of his career to a prescient feature by marketing guru and cultural commentator Peter York published in the September 1978 issue of Harpers & Queen magazine.
York’s piece, headlined Grey Hopes, investigated the ageing demographic of the rock consumer and the concurrent wave of post-modernism pervading popular music. “The paradox of rock is that at precisely the time that a new rock sensibility is starting to invade the commercial heartland, the whole rock thing is uncomfortably coming of age,” wrote York, who also declared: “Rock & roll is the hamburger which ate the world.”
Presenting research which showed that 25- to 44-year-olds, not teens, had become the largest single group of record buyers, York pointed to the likes of Roxy Music as examples of art rockers who “consciously saw rock as a medium like any other”.
York cites the highly referential example of Generation X, which was apposite; Barney designed two of the group’s single sleeves, the El Lissitzy-quoting Your Generation and the symbol-strewn King Rocker (available in four variations denoting vinyl colours).
Guitarist Tony James says that, during the planning stages of the sleeves, he and Gen X singer Billy Idol talked to Barney about t-shirts they had designed in a Constructivist style. “Barney looked at our original ideas and took them a very inspired step further,” he adds.
In a letter to his assistant and friend Diana Fawcett late in 1979, Barney says that York’s article “gave me my orders for the year” regarding “technology, urban environment, rock, etc”. He also says that he had carried out “everything I wanted to. It was a great, successful year”.
This is true; the previous 12 months had been an extraordinarily fruitful period. Notwithstanding the advertising and promotional material which formed the bedrock of his business, Barney had also executed such triumphs as the redesign of the NME and creation of the paper’s Book Of Modern Music as well as sleeves for albums such as Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, 25 Years On by Hawklords (including the integrated stage show set), Do It Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Labour Of Lust by Nick Lowe and Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs And Krauts by The Rumour.
In addition Barney completed the catalogue for the Lives exhibition at The Hayward (in which he also participated) as well as Brian Griffin’s Copyright, The Ian Dury Songbook and The John Cooper Clarke Directory. We shall be exploring all of these and more over the coming months.
Barney also tells Diana he has “had his orders” for 1980, the coming year. Since this was to witness advances into video-direction, painting, the realisation of the ambitious visual identity for the new F-Beat label AND a slew of releases by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Carlene Carter, Clive Langer & The Boxes, Rockpile, Inner City Unit, Dirty Looks and many more, it can safely be assumed the instructions came from as rich a source as York’s Grey Hopes.