The Wild World of Barney Bubbles

Barney Bubbles’ Labours of Love

The brilliant and troubled Barney Bubbles wanted to inspire and did so through his remarkable litany of album covers. A new retrospective tells his tale.

The Wild World of Barney Bubbles
Paul Gorman
Thames & Hudson
26 July 2022

Barney Bubbles, the enigmatic English graphic designer who crafted now-iconic images for a slew of bands from the late 1960s through to his untimely death in 1983 at the age of only 41, is not well-known. Still, it’s hard to imagine how the record-buying public might have received a whole generation of musicians without him.

His canvas was not just the cardboard record packaging he enlivened with artwork that still manages to emit a restless joy, but the tour posters, buttons, backstage passes, newspaper advertisements, and seven-inch single sleeves that accompanied any proper release. His work propels you into space and sends you back to ancient civilizations. It challenges the status quo while delighting in the everyday. It embraces high art and junk culture equally. It honors old myths while slyly crafting new ones, all the while mocking our need to hang onto any myths at all.

Two recent works seek to elevate Bubbles’ profile. The first, from author Paul Gorman, is The Wild World of Barney Bubbles, a reissued and expanded version of Gorman’s 2008 anthology Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles (a second edition was released in 2010.) It’s a lovely and essential work, coupling the hundreds of music-related designs created by Bubbles over the course of his life with personal photographs and letters, essays from musicians and artists who knew him, his paintings and drawings, and a biography written by Gorman.

The Wild World of Barney Bubbles all but bursts apart with delight. Gorman has been working for 15 years to preserve and promote Bubbles’ legacy and has authored books on Malcolm McLaren and The Face magazine. (His next book, a narrative history of the American and British music press, is due later this year.) His knowledge of the English music, fashion, and art scene of the second half of the 20th century is authoritative. “There was a fair amount of detective work that went into it,” says Gorman, “but once you unlocked the door, it seemed that a lot of people were really waiting for this; those that either worked with Bubbles or those that had appreciated him were waiting to find like-minded souls.”

Barney Bubbles
Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson

The other work is a song named for Bubbles from the Paranoid Style, the Washington, DC-based rock band fronted by journalist and songwriter Elizabeth Nelson. It’s the lead track on their new album, For Executive Meeting, due out in August. It was through Nelson that I first heard of Bubbles. I’ve played drums for the Paranoid Style since 2019, and in Elizabeth’s demos for the songs that would become For Executive Meeting was a particularly captivating one, strikingly named “Barney Bubbles”.

The song is unusual, moody, and evocative, with lyrics that sketch tiny scenes of frustration, missed opportunities, and violence. The lyrics are full of both the murderously mundane and a futile longing to escape it. But there is an underlying tenderness, as if the struggles of the main character aren’t all that different from the struggles of anyone trying to carve out a space for themselves in an unsparing world. The fragility implied by the title makes its message seem more urgent. The incessant string part that pushes things along and the piano arpeggios that ratchet up the momentum as the song barrels into its final pair of choruses suggests a Springsteen-sized anthem. “There’s definitely a nauseous, twitchy quality to this,” Nelson wrote by way of introducing it, “which I like a lot.”

Bubbles’ life is indeed worthy of the epic treatment. Born Colin Fulcher on 30 July 1942 in Whitton, a suburb in Southwest London, he was influenced early on by the detailed schematics that his father, a precision engineer, used for his work, and by his sister’s Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent records. He studied at Twickenham Art School, where he learned silversmithing, bookbinding, model-making, and, in particular, typography. After graduation, he began his career working in commercial design for the high-profile Conran Design Agency. Possessed of a masterful grasp of technique and a tireless work ethic (“I can’t picture him ever sleeping,” photographer Brian Griffin told Gorman), he built a reputation for himself as, in his own words, “a pretty famous straight designer”.

Barney Bubbles
Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson

In his off-hours, he immersed himself in the emerging psychedelic scene of the late ‘60s. He was a regular at clubs like UFO and Middle Earth, where bands like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were busily making names for themselves. Still only in his mid-20s, he took to running liquid light shows, including at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore West and Avalon Ballroom during a trip to the city in the summer of 1968. “He wanted to turn people on visually as much as the music turned people on aurally,” says Gorman.

Bubbles was seeking community with his work. He dropped his straight-laced design career and set up shop in a creative commune, which Gorman calls “a countercultural hive”, at 307 Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood. It was there that he began his relationship with the psych-rock band Hawkwind. Working in close coordination with its members, Bubbles created not just their album covers, including the mind-bending designs for 1976’s Roadhawks (which Bubbles crafted so the cardboard sleeve unfolded into the shape of a hawk) and 1971’s In Search of Space, but every element of the group’s visual aesthetic.

“There were lots of idiosyncratic performers and recording artists who made great music but had no ability or means to communicate their music visually,” says Gorman. “He was the person who would solve that problem. He could communicate this very diverse set of interests that Hawkwind had, whether Egyptology or space, often with a sense of humor. And he conveyed it very accurately.”

Bubbles would soon develop a lasting relationship with record mogul Jake Riviera, who founded Stiff Records in 1976, followed by Radar and F-Beat Records. Through Riviera, Bubbles found work with an emerging slate of young bands whose music and image he packaged and put across to a crowd of record buyers hungry for something new. For Elvis Costello, he designed Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, Get Happy!!, Almost Blue, and This Year’s Model. For Ian Dury, it was New Boots and Panties!! and Do It Yourself. For Nick Lowe, there was Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust. He worked with the Damned, Generation X, Squeeze, the Psychedelic Furs, the Adverts, Carlene Carter, Graham Parker, and dozens more artists.

Barney Bubbles
Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson

“My first album had to stand out in a marketplace swamped with the high gloss values of early ’80s pop,” writes Billy Bragg in his essay that opens The Wild World of Barney Bubbles. “When Life’s a Riot With Spy vs Spy finally appeared in the summer of 1983, Barney’s sleeve stood out from the other albums in the racks before anyone had even heard its contents. In a world filled with distractions, he made me distinctive.”

“Part of the reason why I probably picked up a copy of Get Happy!! was because of the cover art,” says Elizabeth Nelson. “I looked at this guy; he looked kind of like John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants, and there had been cool older kids at school wearing Elvis Costello t-shirts who I thought I would like to get to know. And so, I didn’t know anything about this person but it looked like their music was approachable in a way that Skinny Puppy’s music was not approachable, to me. That co-mingling of art and artist was super important to Bubbles and he was able to encapsulate what kind of music you were about to experience, with his artwork. He was really good at landing on an image that was arresting and that would make people want to buy the record but which also helped them understand what they were getting into.”

As The Wild World of Barney Bubbles makes clear, there is no easily identifiable fingerprint in Bubbles’s work. Some covers, like his work for Devo, Hawklords, and Red Dirt, employed a single stark photograph, while others were packed with eye-popping shapes and colors. He plundered art history for inspiration, cadging whatever bits he deemed necessary. The standard he set for himself was mercilessly high, yet his work never feels tortured or strained. “With much of Barney’s work, I initially have a hard time deciphering the design process,” designer Clarita Hinojosa writes in The Wild World of Barney Bubbles. “‘How did he do that?’ is a question which recurs.”

In his sensibility, Bubbles straddled two social movements, the San Francisco hippies of the late 1960s and the London punks and pub rockers of the 1970s, that would seem to present contradictions far too extreme to reconcile. But reconcile them he did. And in his fusion of those movements, he made them seem not all that far apart, after all. “He was totally engaged in the work,” says Gorman, “managing to maintain, for a long time, not only that prodigious output but also an incredibly high-quality threshold. Sustaining that eventually created difficulties.”

Barney Bubbles
Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Despite a magnetic and self-effacing manner, Bubbles cast a rather small net with his designs. His hip allusions and visual puns were often lost on many. Even his tendency to sign his work using a pseudonym, when he even signed it at all, a practice that led to other designers later being able to claim his designs as their own, was dismissed by some at the time as the supreme affectation. For Bubbles, though, that was all fine; if you didn’t get it, then you just didn’t get it. When pressed on the topic by The Face magazine in a 1981 interview, the only one he ever gave, Bubbles insisted that his motives were sincere; “[It’s] not a Barney Bubbles album … You’ve got to wait, hear the music and meet the guys, and they’ll tell you what they want and then it’s up to you to deliver that.”

As he neared his 40s, Bubbles maintained a manic work rate. Never content to rest on his credentials, he expanded to working in music videos, painting, and furniture design. But despite the steady business, he struggled financially. He was dogged by back taxes owed to the English government, competition from new designers, and his ever-worsening mental illness. Slightly built with an unnerving, sometimes exhausting amount of energy, his eyes would scan about the room during conversations, incessantly taking it all in, in excruciating detail. “There’s a real sense that he could be quite overwhelmed by the world,” says Gorman.

Bubbles suffered a tragedy when he lost both of his parents within days of each other in December of 1981. As his mental health declined and his professional frustrations accumulated, his behavior became more erratic and concerning. He died by suicide on 14 November 1983.

“Holding the piece of physical media and understanding who was behind putting it together, that was something that I appreciated,” says Nelson. “Not a lot of people know about him and I think that’s tragic. People take for granted that these awesome and iconic album covers … they came from somewhere. They came from a person who made things and made them beautiful. It’s heartbreaking to think he’s not a household name.”

There is an undeniable sense of tragedy in Bubbles’ life and sadness for his continued obscurity. He was a massive creative force, supportive of young artists and forever demanding more of his own talents. It’s hard to see a Barney Bubbles design and not feel like even just a little bit of his ceaseless creativity and boundless enthusiasm hasn’t dug their way under your skin. While his work lives on, it’s hard to escape the fact that he disappeared much too early. “There’s no doubt that that’s there, but to start with that would kind of play into a bit of a death cult around him,” says Gorman, who intentionally structured The Wild World of Barney Bubbles to be a celebration of Brooklyn life and work, and not a meditation on his death. “To see a Barney Bubbles design is a reason to be cheerful, and it gives you a reason to be cheerful for a long time.”

Barney Bubbles
Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.