Thanks are due to the indefatigable Brian McCloskey for turning up this little-known interview given by Barney Bubbles to journalist Johnny Black for an early 80s Smash Hits feature on the fledgling promo video industry.
The quotes from Bubbles appeared exactly 30 years ago in the issue of the teen mag dated Jan 21- Feb 3, 1982.
Over the coming weeks, the considerable fruits of his partnership with US singer-songwriter Amy Rigby can be witnessed first-hand on a series of European live dates.
In comparison with his former stablemates, Eric Goulden benefited fleetingly from the design work of Barney Bubbles, though they maintained a friendship from introduction early in 1977 to Barney’s death late in 1983; they shared common ground in having attended art schools (Goulden studied sculpture at Hull).
On the line from his home in France, Goulden confirms that Barney wasn’t at Stiff for the first six months of the label’s existence, when the design direction was handled by Chris Moreton.
“Then Barney swam into the picture,” says Goulden. “I liked him a lot. Barney was easygoing and looked kind of normal; short-ish hair and always wearing some kind of anorak. To look at him, you wouldn’t have thought this bloke had any history.
“He was a strange man, an acid casualty on some levels. It was unusual for someone who’d been such a part of the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill hippie scene to cross over and working with people like The Damned.”
Barney created an ident (which, like those produced for other Stiff artists, appeared on the record label). “He used the guillotine to cut jagged strips of paper which he put together to make up my name,” says Goulden. This logo was paired on the front cover of Whole Wide World with a crop from the Chris Gabrin portrait from A Bunch Of Stiffs.
From the inner to A Bunch Of Stiffs, April 1977. Photo: Chris Gabrin.
For the back, Goulden was despatched to a photo-booth and ordered to improvise semaphore signals. Barney then cropped and bleached out one of the frames. “I’d never seen anything like it; he made it look incredible,” Goulden adds.
“To me Barney was like The Beatles. When I was a kid you wouldn’t be quite sure of how they sounded when you first heard one of their new records. Sometimes you’d think: ‘They’ve lost it,’ because it was so unexpected, and Barney was a bit like that. Every time he did something new, it was so over-the-top you were taken aback.”
A clutch of 1977 Stiffs with personalised labels.
One of the five subjects of the 60in x 40in day-glo posters Barney and Gabrin created for the Stiffs Live Stiffs tour of late 77, Goulden was around when the pair collaborated on the sleeve for Music For Pleasure.
12in sleeves. Back cover and inner "lino" shots, Music For Pleasure, The Damned, Stiff, 1977.
“I went with him to a lino shop in Westbourne Grove where he bought the roll which is on the inner sleeve,” says Eric. “The Damned were made to lie on it at Chris’s studio and shot from above, so it looked like they were standing up. Very odd, but it worked brilliantly.”
One of Barney’s great lost designs was the sleeve for Goulden’s unreleased 1977 Stiff EP, Piccadilly Menial. With the catalogue number LAST3, this was to comprise the title track, Excuse Me, Personal Hygiene and Rags & Tatters .
“It was on graph paper and in the style of an architectural drawing,” says Goulden, who recalls it was akin to the axinometric lettering Barney created for The Soft Boys. The EP was replaced in the schedule with Reconnez Cherie, the B-side of which was the Benny Hill theme tune-quoting Rags & Tatters.
Music press half-page advert, The Soft Boys tour, 1978.
“Barney had angles to him,” says Eric. “People would say ‘Oh it’s just Barney, a bit of a wacky image with some splashes and other esoteric stuff’ but in fact he thought things through and was way better than his imitators, of course. Unfortunately, in that way, he inadvertently created the look of the 80s, which was horrible and gaudy.”
Dansette, detail, front cover Musical Shapes, Carlene Carter, F-beat, 1980
Poignantly, Goulden saw Barney not long before his death in November 1983. ”I visited him at his house off the Balls Pond Road,” says Eric. “He got Nuggets out and played it really loud on this Dansette on legs in the basement.”
As detailed in REASONS, Barney Bubbles’ 1977 sleeve for punk band Generation X’s debut single Your Generation was a key inspiration for a new wave of young designers applying the principles of the early 20th century art movement Constructivism to their work.
In March 1977 John and fellow manager Stewart Joseph were actively searching for distinctive art direction for the upcoming record deal with Chrysalis (the group’s founder/guitarist Tony James and singer Billy Idol were all the while designing their own t-shirts in a pop and op-art style).
El Lissitzky: The Constructor 1924; Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge 1919
The managers paid a visit to Joseph’s friend, the art historian, exhibition curator and author Michael Collins. “Michael gave us a crash-course in Constructivism,” says John. “He talked about Rodchenko, Malevich and, of course, El Lissitzky, who really nailed us because his work is so geometric. We were particular struck by Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge.”
Cover, The First Kestner Portfolio, 1923; Design for Mayakovsky's For The Voice, 1923.
The artist born Lazor Markovich Lissitzky in 1890 revolutionised graphic design during its formative stages. Critic Max Bill’s famous summation of Lissitzky’s book About 2 Squares – “Typography is a game that leads to communication, and it all began with Lissitzky’s tale of two squares” – had long struck a chord with Barney.
Globetrotter In Time 1923; Flying From Far Away, About 2 Squares 1922.
A couple of days after their encounter with Collins, John called his girlfriend Suzanne Spiro, then workingat Stiff Records, where Barney had taken up residence as art director just two weeks previously.
Stiff in Melody Maker 1976 (note Barney-designed Naughty Rhythms tour poster): Jake Riviera, Suzanne Spiro, Dave Robinson.
“I was telling her about our conversation with Michael and these books I’d bought on the subject,” says John. “Suzanne repeated the name El Lissiztsky out loud. The next thing I heard was Barney’s voice shouting from the back room: ‘What’s going on? Why are you talking about El Lissitzky?’”
As detailed in a letter to his friend Lorry Sartorio, March 1977 marked Barney’s return to the fray of the music business. He struck a deal with his pal, Stiff co-founder Jake Riviera, whereby he lived at 32 Alexander Street in Paddington (which housed the label’s offices) in return for designs.
(c) Lorry Sartorio/Reasons 2009
The letter refers to Riviera looking “like a public school-boy”. Riviera laughs: “That was down to a ‘Man From British Steel’ haircut I had at the time.”
“Barney grabbed the phone out of Suzanne’s hand and demanded to know about my interest in the Constructivists,” recalls John Ingham. “I explained what was going on with Generation X and off we went; we had our art director.”
Within a few days Stewart, John and Barney were sat on the stoop outside Stiff discussing options for Your Generation. ”We talked about the music we liked, “says John. ” Barney was a big Who fanatic and he told a story I’ve never heard from anybody else. He was a regular at their ’64 residency at The Marquee and talked about this bit when they went into a noise sequence with feedback sounding like bombs dropping.
“Somewhere in the middle of it Townshend would inevitably hit a member of the audience over the head with his guitar, and we laughed about how people used to fight for that particular spot. I’d heard that story but Barney was the first and only person to reveal that the ‘song’ was called World War II.”
Once they had established common ground, Barney produced an idea for the sleeve: the numerals 45 in direct reference to the rpm of a 7in single. ” We had another session sitting on the stoop on a sunny mid-day and out came the spiral-bound notebook with these precise 2in sq ideas,” says John. “One of them was exactly the front and back cover of Your Generation, down to the last detail.”
Quarter-page advert in NME, September 10, 1977.
For the advert for trade paper Music Week, Barney urged the band and their managers to keep it simple: “He said that it was a waste of time trying to be clever, that we should just say: ‘Buy this record’.”
In the event they settled on “Our record in your record shops on Saturday” placed in the white space left by a trompe l’oeil rip Billy Idol appears to have torn in the photograph by Ray Stevenson. Signifying the amount of time the band had taken to reach their first release – rivals the Pistols, the Clash and The Damned had knocked out at least a couple of singles each by this stage – the ad featured a typical Barney pun: “Worth it’s wait”.
Barney adopted the more blunt approach for the August 1977 music press campaign for Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, with its exhortation “Buy It.”
Chrysalis half-page advert, Sounds, September 10, 1977.
Barney’s ad also appeared in the NME but Chrysalis replaced it in other music press titles with a spot-colour one generated by their own art department, bowdlerising Barney’s graphic and utilising corny lettering for the band name.
Two of four matching posters for Marquee residency, September 1977.
On the single’s release in September 1977, Generation X played a series of four gigs at The Marquee promoted by monochrome Barney-designed posters. These were based on stills from a performance clip made for a pilot music TV show directed by the veteran Mike Mansfield (who also helmed the clip for the Pistols’ God Save The Queen that summer).
“Barney and I spent a morning in an edit suite running the video,” says John. “Every so often he would freeze the frame and take a photograph. What delighted me about the final design was that he incorporated the lines of static as graphics. When all four were posted together, the lines matched.”
In December 1977 John exited the UK punk scene for the balmier climes of Los Angeles. Stewart remained as manager of Generation X. In a future post we shall explore how Barney and the band hooked up once again.
Neville Brody's Red Wedge logo, 1985.
Interest in Lissitzky and early 20th century Russian design burgeoned, via the likes of Neville Brody. He was at the forefront of 80s designers channeling the movement, notably in The Face and also for his logo for music/political movement Red Wedge ( the name of which resulted from a conversation between Barney and founder Billy Bragg).
Curiously online images of the logo are currently extremely rare; we’ve scanned the one above from our archive.
A Proun, El Lissitzky, 1925; Front cover, Michael, Franz Ferdinand, Domino 2004.
Saks Fifth Avenue campaign, Shephard Fairey, spring 2009.
As Patrick Burgoyne has pointed out, Constructivism is “the ism that just keeps on giving”. However, it’s interesting to speculate on the look of music through graphic design had Barney Bubbles not overheard a phone conversation between a young manager and his girlfriend in a mouldy Paddington basement 32 years ago.