Posts Tagged ‘Rockpile’

The power of the pyramid and the mystery of the three circles

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

The application of geometric symbols was an important element of Barney Bubbles’ visual language.

Detail from label, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, FBeat XX1, February 1980.

As pointed out in Reasons To Be Cheerful, Barney’s use of symbolism throughout his career underlines his consistency of approach and undercuts notions of a clear division between his 60s/70s “hippie” work and that produced after joining Stiff Records in March 1977.

The presence of symbols also effected a “signature” for this artist who opted for anonymity and avoided credits in his later years.

A fine example are the three triangulated circles which surfaced in February 1980 as a tiny detail on the label for I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, the hit single by Elvis Costello & The Attractions which inaugurated Jake Riviera’s FBeat Records. Next they appeared on the double A-side promo for the label’s second single, Splash (A Tear Comes Rolling Down) by Clive Langer & The Boxes, though were gone by the official release.

B-side of From Head To Toe, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, FBeat, 1983.

Thereafter, the circles crop up on releases by Costello and Nick Lowe up until Barney’s death in 1983. However, the symbol was not used in the label copy for releases by other acts on FBeat, including Lowe’s collaborative projects with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile such as Seconds of Pleasure or The Attractions’ “solo” effort Mad About The Wrong Boy.

Triple gatefold cover, the Glastonbury Fayre, Revelation, 1972. Advert, Frendz 33, 1972.

So what to make of this repeated, if selective, use?  The pyramid and triangle were sources of fascination in line with Barney’s interest in Egyptology and Norse mythology, as evinced by such projects as The Glastonbury Fayre and in various forms for Hawkwind and band-member Nik Turner’s solo projects.

"Pyramid power": Cut and fold inserts, The Glastonbury Fayre, Revelation, 1972.

The three overlapping circles convey many meanings,  drawing on the potency of Sacred Geometry as well as the work of “The Great Geometer” himself, Appollonius of Perga.

From advert for Xitintoday by Nik Turner's Sphynx, NME, April 22, 1978.

In Christian terms, they represent the Holy Trinity, and in combination with triangles signify alchemy. Intersecting and tangental circles occur in Masonic mathematical calculations – Barney’s father Fred Fulcher was a mason and the compass, used to draw circles, is a key symbol in Freemasonry.

Left: Symbol for the Holy Trinity. Right: The Borromean Rings.

The three interlaced circles are also known as the Borromean Rings (since they  decorate a particular Baroque palazzo on one of the three northern Italian islands owned in the 17th Century by the Borromeo family).  A form of the link was used by the Vikings and is known as Odin’s Triangle.

Left: Alchemical sign. Right: Odin's Triangle.

More recently, three interlinked rings have been employed to define business leadership and corporate management structures.

Contemporary versions used in sociology and management models.

The explicit use of this symbol during the FBeat period comes into focus when one considers Barney’s ongoing preoccupation with power – hence also the variants on crowns and other regal insignia. The strength in the three interlocked circles lies in their unity; if one is broken the potency is lost.

My interpretation is that the three circles – fuelled by the energy of the pyramid and imbued with multiple layers of meaning – represent the powerful interplay between Jake Riviera, Barney himself and the priority artists Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe: this was a time when management, design and music were all reliant on each other and firing on all cylinders.

What’s yours?

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 artistry of Antoinette

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

From time to time we examine the work of those who collaborated professionally with Barney Bubbles; there are few who fulfilled as wide a range of roles as Antoinette Sales.

Back cover, Pure Pop For Now People, Columbia Records, 1978.

Not only was she the creator of clothes which appeared on Barney’s record sleeves, including the iconic “Riddler suit” sported by Nick Lowe on the back of Pure Pop For Now People (the US issue of Jesus Of Cool), but Tony was also his sometime model. It is she who is adorned with curlers, a face mask and bisected ping-pong balls for eyes appearing alongside a child’s doll in Barney’s disturbing Stiff Records music press adverts for Devo’s spring 1978  single (I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction.

Music press ad board, (I Can't Get Me No) Satisfaction, 1978. Antoinette Sales Collection.

Music press ad board, (I Can't Get Me No) Satisfaction, 1978. Antoinette Sales Collection.

Music press ad board, (I Can't Get Me No) Satisfaction, 1978. Antoinette Sales Collection.

And, in 1980, Tony received a six-week crash course in graphics from Barney at his studio in Paul Street in London’s East End, enabling her to become a fully fledged record sleeve designer in her own right.

A fashion illustrator and Stiff/Radar/F-Beat label boss Jake Riviera’s first wife, Tony had already  produced a number of sleeves, among them Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ biggest hits Oliver’s Army,  Radio Radio and Accidents Will Happen and Lowe’s American Squirm and Cruel To Be Kind.

Billboard, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, 1979

Billboard, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, 1979

Tony came up with the title of Lowe’s 1979 album Labour Of Lust, and designed the billboard promoting its US release on Sunset Strip. But she characterises the  month-and-a-half she spent learning the craft from Barney as  “an apprenticeship”.

Front Cover, Radio Radio, Radar, 1978.

Front Cover, Radio Radio, Radar, 1978.

Tony fondly recalls how she would catch the Underground from her home in west London across the city. “As soon as I arrived we’d get going,” she says.

Reversed out freehand drawing; Art center school assignment, Tony Sales. Note F-Beat style crown logo.
“I loved Barney and we were great friends, but when there was work to be done, you got on with it,” she says. “He basically instructed me in the mechanics of sleeve design and packaging.”
Hand-drawn label by Antoinette Sales, 1979.

Hand-drawn label by Antoinette Sales, 1979.

And this is evident from Tony’s subsequent output. She created a series of photo-driven sleeves for her friend (and Lowe’s wife) Carlene Carter, for whom she also designed stagewear. These included Baby Ride Easy and Do It In A Heartbeat. “I have an aversion to copying anybody else but the choice and arrangement of the typefaces was definitely influenced by Barney,” she says.   Tony also handled the sleeve design for Carter’s album Musical Shapes. The front cover shoot was art-directed by Barney, who created a set out of F-Beat singles and sleeves and constructed the wire sculpture communicating the album title.

Front cover, Musical Shapes, F-Beat, 1981.

Front cover, Musical Shapes, F-Beat, 1980.

“Barney set that up in the dining room of our house in Chiswick,” says Tony. “I designed and set the graphics on the back. He’d taught me how to lay down Letraset and make the placement and spacing impeccable. I had fun with the “N” for Notes, “S” for Selections and “P” for Personnel. In the self-effacing Bubbles tradition, there is no artwork credit.”

Retail info sheet, Teacher Teacher, 1980.

Front cover, Everly Brothers EP, F-Beat, 1980.
Back cover, Everly Brothers EP, F-Beat, 1980.

Tony was responsible for the sleeves for Rockpile singles Teacher Teacher and Wrong Way, as well as Edmunds’ singles Crawling From the Wreckage, Girl’s Talk and Queen Of Hearts. And she came up with the title for Carlene Carter’s 1983 album C’est C Bon, though the sleeve for that was produced by Barney.

Back Cover, Teacher Teacher, Rockpile, F-Beat 1980.

Back Cover, Teacher Teacher, Rockpile, F-Beat 1980

During this hectic period, Tony also created a welter of point-of-sale and retail promotional material, backstage passes, badges, letterheads (for holding company Riviera Global, publisher Plangent Visions Music and studios UK Pro) and the label for reissue imprint Edsel.

Backstage passes, 1980.

Backstage passes, 1980.

Tony also produced music press ads; she recalls working at Barney’s studio on one for the NME to promote The Attractions’ “solo” album Mad About The Wrong Boy (to which we’ll be returning in the near future).

Double page spread ad for The Attractions, NME, August 30, 1980.

Double page spread ad for The Attractions, NME, August 30, 1980.

These days a film and TV costume designer , Tony lives in Austin, Texas and is extra busy supplying musicians (Paul McCartney’s guitarist  Brian Ray wore one of her shirts to the recent Grammy’s) as well as working with such fashionistas as Boudoir Queen’s Dawn Denton and South Paradiso Leather’s Romulus Von Stezelberger.

Peter York’s Grey Hopes

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

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.”

Extract from letter to Diane Fawcett, late 1978.

Extract from letter to Diana Fawcett, late 1979.

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”.

Reasons author Paul Gorman and Peter York, July 2008

Reasons author Paul Gorman and Peter York, July 2008.

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).

Tony James: Barney took our ideas an inspired step further.

Tony James: "Barney took our ideas an inspired step further."

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”.

 

Inner sleeve, labour Of Lust, 1979

Inner sleeve, Labour Of Lust, 1979. (c) Riviera Global

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.

Artwork for advert for Splash by Clive Langer & The Boxes 1980. (c) Riviera Global

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.