Posts Tagged ‘Friends’

Update: Signed copies of the Barney Bubbles book available now for just £20 worldwide!

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

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Signed copies of Reasons To Be Cheerful, my acclaimed monograph of the radical British graphic artist Barney Bubbles, are now available from my eBay page for just £20 including shipping worldwide, as long as you order through their Global Shipping programme if you are outside the UK.

Buy your copies here.

As well as a celebration of a pop culture great, Reasons To Be Cheerful is recognised as a significant design history, praised by leading magazines and newspapers around the world and voted MOJO’s book of the year . It is also a recommended reference source for graphics communications courses at leading educational institutions.

Reasons To Be Cheerful includes contributions from some of the most important graphic practitioners operating today, such as Art Chantry, Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville.

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From Twickenham to Tuscany: the George Snow connection

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

There are a number of parallels between the early careers of Barney Bubbles and video-maker/computer animator George Snow.

Both studied art and design at Twickenham College Of Technology (now Richmond Upon Thames College), though George was there a couple of years after Barney. George also worked for the underground press, designed record sleeves, was stimulated rather than stymied by the punk upheaval of the mid-70s, and went on to direct pop videos (such as Jack ‘n’ Chill’s The House That Jack Built).

By the time Barney took his own life in 1983, George had investigated collage and social comment, as editor of Radical Illustration and as a photo-journalist in strife-torn Northern Ireland for such publications as the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Black Dwarf.

He also embraced new technology in the form of computer animation and multimedia, and today his establishment 3D3 World leads the way in the training of 3D animation.

George first encountered Barney personally at the offices of Friends in Portobello Road when he art-directed a single issue of the underground paper in 1970.

“I remember Barney as soft-spoken, friendly and somewhat shambolic in appearance,” says George. “I had never heard of him when we first met, but following the decline of the underground press we were all aware of his growing fame as we struggled with Bay City Rollers magazines and other junk.”

Band logo, George Snow, 1977.

George’s music business work included sleeves for UA-signed acts such as The Stranglers and 999, for whom he created the familiar raffle-ticket logo. When the punk act moved to Radar, where Barney was design head, their sleeves were created by another UA alum, Paul Henry.

Back and front cover, 7" single sleeve, Nasty Nasty/No Pity, 999, UA Records, 1977. Design: George Snow.

In the 80s George directed videos for such acts as London Beat and The Art Of Noise, designed book jackets and taught at a number of leading colleges, all the while developing his computer-generated artistry via projects such as his 1988 Channel 4 film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Assignation. His 1996 film Tall Story – about a building which comes life when struck by lightning – was nominated in the British Animation Awards.

George believes he, Barney and many others benefited from the traditional and multi-disciplinary approach to teaching at their alma mater Twickenham.

“The foundation course was probably the best in the country at the time,” he says. “Observation through drawing and painting were central to it. And it is important to bear in mind that the art school was a part of a larger organisation teaching crafts such as bricklaying and plumbing among other trades. That meant we had access to oxy-acetylene welding gear, a complete chemistry lab (we made tear gas for our closing party) and all the other equipment that had a common purpose for tradesmen and artists.”

George  recalls in particular a visit from Bob Gill, co-founder of Fletcher Forbes Gill (which became design behemoth Pentagram) and author with his partners of one of Barney’s favourite books.

Front cover of Barney's own copy of Graphic Design.

“Bob Gill was a major influence on me,” says George. “He gave us one lecture and a crit and knocked me out. His approach to idea creation was what really hit home. Basically by taking two elements of a situation and combining them he showed how we could get an original ‘idea’: a classic example being his illustration on divorce – a wedding photograph torn in two with the bride on one side and the groom on the other.”

Back cover, 7" single sleeve, Welcome To The Working Week/Alison, Elvis Costello, Stiff Records, 1977. Design: Barney Bubbles.

George believes that Barney’s work was similarly special “because it was subject to his personal whims. We were allowed a great deal of free expression in those distant days; there were no marketing men to tell us what was required. Often enough impoverished record labels let us do what our egos dictated simply because it allowed them to pay us so little”.

As to the creative course Barney would have pursued had he lived beyond 1983, George says: “I feel sure Barney would have continued to develop; that is to say he would have stopped following those roads that bored him or threatened him with repetition.

“Multimedia and computer animation would have attracted him, probably because they were new. He would have picked up on audio software such as Pro Tools and probably composed music himself.”

Among George’s current projects is the virtual world he is creating for an exhibit entitled APES at Den Haag’s Gemeentemuseum next year. This is made up of 10 projections displaying a 360deg panorama of architectural space which draws on Alberti, Piranesi, Escher as well as his own work (hence the acronym).

Such projects underline George’s acceptance that if there is an similarity between Barney and himself, “it would have been a certain restlessness and a desire to prove oneself in another field. Doubtless he would have been into video, web design and multi-media in general. How those areas would have benefited from his sense of humour.”

Front cover, 12" album sleeve, Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, F-Beat Records, 1982. Credit: Sal Forlenza, 1942.

If his hand is forced, George selects the geometric Hawkwind covers,  The Glastonbury Fayre and Imperial Bedroom as his Barney favourites.

“But I don’t think Barney was a man of one work or one particular work of genius,” he emphasises. “Like a colony of ants his work was one single being – with many legs.”

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.”

The radical redesign of the NME

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

One of the greatest examples of Barney Bubbles’ ability to fast-track cutting-edge ideas into the mainstream occurred in 1978 with his redesign of best-selling weekly paper the New Musical Express.

As detailed in Chapter 4 of REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL, at this time the NME’s sales regularly surpassed 200,000 copies.

NME Alphabet

Artwork for The NME Book Of Modern Music alphabet. (c) Neil Spencer/Reasons 2009

And the recently-appointed editor Neil Spencer was an ardent Barney fan. “I loved the way Barney quoted Lissitzky for Generation X and Kandinsky for The Damned,” he says. “At the same time he sculpted the images of  unique characters like Ian Dury and Elvis Costello.

“Barney was head-and-shoulders above everyone else, and perfect for the job because he’d worked at Oz, Friends, Town and Nova.”

Barney’s first move was to de-clutter the layout. “There was so much going on in terms of images and info,” says Neil. “He also sorted out the presentation of the charts. I don’t think they’ve changed materially since then.”

Spread from The NME Book of Modern Music

Spread from The NME Book of Modern Music

Part of the brief was production of a free supplement to mark the relaunch: The NME Book Of Modern Music, which was compiled by readers from a series of collect-and-keep inserts.

With his assistant Diana Fawcett and contributions from freelancers such as Andy Martin, Barney whipped art and design references into a mélange evoking the inventive chaos of the immediate post-punk period.

The NME Book of Modern Music

Front cover of The NME Book of Modern Music

Barney’s alphabet for the Book Of Modern Music “borrowed from 20s Russia, 60s Britain and beyond”, says Neil. “He was so wily technically, and yet he always conjured unexpected colours and effects.”

The redesign was unveiled with the issue of October 14, 1978, though the NME’s owners IPC refused to allow the new masthead for another six weeks, when sales confirmed that readers were content with the new visual direction.

NME launch issue

Redesign launch issue. The new masthead was introduced six weeks later.

And so it was the December 2 issue which introduced Barney’s stencil block NME logo (promoted via a campaign shot by Barney’s collaborator Brian Griffin).

NME logo

NME logo campaign shot by Brian Griffin

The inspiration for the font was a company name on industrial premises in City Road, just around the corner from the site of Barney’s warehouse studio in Paul Street (he was two decades ahead of his time by occupying the western edge of what is now London’s achingly trendy Shoreditch area).

And Barney’s legacy at the paper lingers; despite the management’s worries, his NME logo is still used in adapted form more than 30 years later.