Art Interview Interview

Top image: Hawkwind ‘In Search of Space’ 1971. Artwork designed by Barney Bubbles

As a young Hawkwind fan, writer Paul Gorman inadvertently surrounded himself with Barney Bubbles’ artwork, it was there across record sleeves, badges, t-shirts and posters. “As a fan, you felt like you were involved because of the immediacy of his designs, so that’s what really turned me onto him,” Gorman explains below.

In his new book, Reasons to be Cheerful, Gorman documents, celebrates and analyses the work of Bubbles’ artistic influence, direction and mind through a selection of 600 images, commentary and essays from family, friends and colleagues.

As one of the founding fathers of album cover art, Bubbles rose to prominence throughout the 70s and 80s as one of the most influential graphic designers in the music industry. From working with Stiff Records eclectic roster – Elvis Costello, the Damned, Ian Dury and the Blockheads – to making music videos for The Specials, to designing the NME logo we see today, Bubbles’ work created an identity for the artists he worked with and for their fans. Appropriating contemporary art and suburban kitsch, Bubbles remixed these references into fresh and bold statements, influencing a whole generation of future graphic designers.

Alongside the book, Gorman has also curated a series of exhibitions around the artist, the latest being an upcoming collaboration with British stalwarts, Fred Perry. Once the recluse, under the radar, ‘artist’s artist’; Bubbles’ work will soon be recognised on the streets, with four signature t-shirts infused with his design, right down to his famed scribble shadowing the brand’s Laurel Wreath emblem.

The exhibition Fred Perry’s store on Henrietta Street, London, will run for two weeks from 3rd August, and will showcase this collection, as well as Bubbles’ artwork selected by Gorman. 

Here, Gorman talks us through Bubbles’ incredible life, whilst dropping some of the best anecdotes you’re ever bound to hear. 

Ltd edition cover, Damned Damned Damned, The Damned, Stiff Records, 1977. Design by Barney Bubbles Estate

Clementine Zawadzki: What first sparked your interest in Barney Bubbles’ work?
Paul Gorman: I used to follow a couple of groups that he designed for, one of which was Hawkwind, who were kind of this countercultural collective (Lemmy of Motörhead was the bass player). They were kind of biker, longhaired, acid gobbling makers of what was really the British version of Krautrock; very long tracks built around rhythms. I used to go see them at the Roundhouse in North London when I was a kid, and the thing was a total experience. Barney Bubbles designed their album sleeves, posters and their logos, which changed overtime and appeared on t-shirts, patches and badges, so he really came up with a corporate identity for this group. As a fan, you felt like you were involved because of the immediacy of his designs, so that’s what really turned me onto him. A couple of years later during punk, he popped up again as the designer for Stiff Records, The Damned, and Generation X, and then over the next five to six years he just produced dizzying amounts of work across the punk and post-punk field, everyone from Depeche Mode to directing videos for The Specials, so he was kind of everywhere. If you think about it, the music was really enhanced by his design skills. The late Malcolm McLaren used to talk about the sound of fashion and the look of music, so what he was really talking about was when popular music’s got great visual direction, it really pops and is something else, otherwise it’s just musos making quite nice music.

Hawkwind 'In Search of Space' 1971. Artwork designed by Barney Bubbles

Clementine: Do you think his reclusivness lends itself to his character now he’s being discovered or talked about more through things such as your book?
Paul: Oh it enhances the mystery. He only gave one interview, to The Face, and he was superseded by all those people like Peter Saville, who designed for New Order and Joy Division, Malcolm Garrett, who designed for everyone from The Buzzcocks to Culture Club, Neville Brody, who designed for The Face, and Vaughan Oliver, who designed at 4AD, they were all inspired by Bubbles but they were much more upfront. I think he was a very enigmatic person and I still haven’t cracked the enigma. So part of the book, I guess, was trying to figure out who this strange person was. As Peter [Saville] says in his introduction, this is worthwhile work and he should be sainted, really. I think that’s why people haven’t written about him because it’s difficult to pin him down, but they’re the people that I’m attracted to.

Clementine: Is there anything you wanted to include but couldn’t find?
Paul: There’s one thing that I didn’t get, which was his design for The Rolling Stones – who were still pretty small then – for their gig on Eel Pie Island, which was the kind of the centre of the British Beat Boom in the early 60s. I think he was still a student when he designed the poster, but I couldn’t get it… Someone had it but lost it in a divorce or something, it was one of those things. It actually popped up at an auction a few months back, which I didn’t know about. I’m still finding bits of his work I didn’t know about, I recently found a recipe book Bubbles’ designed in 1975.

Gallery: Fred Perry X Barney Bubbles collection

Clementine: It’s amazing how people have rare memorabilia, like early tour posters, yet have no idea of their value.
Paul: The book was a bit like that, in that ex-girlfriends or assistants would save stuff, because for Barney Bubbles it was, ‘Job done, move on,’ you know? He burnt a lot of stuff at one point, which is a valid artistic impulse, but these people realised how valuable it was. He made an 8ft tall sculpture of Chuck Berry and if you pulled the rope the legs moved. I knew the music publisher he made it for who had it in his sitting room. From another place I found these pieces of paper, which were actually the paper version of the model he was making, and the people who had those pieces of paper didn’t know what they were. It’s still a continuing journey.

Clementine: Do you think you’ll ever…
Paul: Be free of it? [Laughs] I don’t think so because his reputation is growing. I’m contacted all the time by young designers who are really interested in his work, because they don’t come at it from an English background which is a bit like, “I like Hawkwind, but I don’t like Elvis Costello,” or “I like Ian Dury, but I don’t like The Damned,” they just see it as pure design, so that kind of stimulates me to keep going because I get a great response to it.

Clementine: It’s one of those things that can be appreciated from so many angles and one doesn’t necessarily need the other to be relatable to someone.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. Interestingly, and on the point of the Fred Perry collaboration, I went over to see Peter [Saville] several times while we were putting together his essay – and he’s like the doyen of British graphic design and art direction, and he’s been involved in fashion for a very long time – and he said, “Fashion would love this.” There’s a really nice Dutch illustrator who did a lot of work for Kenzo a couple of years ago, and he really loves Barney Bubbles, and so his influence is silent, but is out there. So when Reuben Billingham [Fashion Consultant at Fred Perry] approached me and said, “What do you think about a collaboration?” A light bulb went off in my head and I remembered that conversation with Peter about how street style is one of the places this will end up. I was really pleased to do these shirts and work with them because it means his work lives. I like that Fred Perry is known very well for a certain thing and comes out of skinheads and mods and, while Barney has connections to that, he still has that wild element I got from Hawkwind; that very vibrant, slightly acidy, freeform liberated expression that I really like about him.

“He had a brain that was full of art and design references which he would just pull out of his head whenever appropriate.”

Promotional paint-pot for Do It Yourself, 1979. Design by Barney Bubbles Estate

Clementine: Do you have a favourite story about Barney?
Paul: Ian Dury rang up Bubbles and said, “I need a logo for the Blockheads,” because they’d just been formed and he wanted them to have a slightly separate identity from his solo music. “I’d like it to be square…” he told Bubbles and they had a conversation about it. During that conversation, which would only have been for about a minute, Bubbles said, “I’ve done it.” So that blew Dury’s mind, particularly when he saw it. What he’d done was… there was a book in print in the 30s and 40s called The Left Book Club, and Bubbles’ dad was a Labour supporter, and they had this really nice square logo on the front which used the letters ‘LBC’ to form a little face, and so he kind of channeled it. In the context of a cheeky, cockney bloke like Ian Dury, it became something else, so that’s what he was doing. He had a brain that was full of art and design references which he would just pull out of his head whenever appropriate.

Clementine: What do you hope people take away from this collaboration and exhibition with Fred Perry?
Paul: What I want to do is just keep sending the messages out there, but also not to blow it out of the water so it becomes a fad. Whether it’s exhibitions, or street style shirts, or pieces I write, to just keep sending the message out there that this is – to my mind – one of the most important people in the recent history of British design. I’m hoping the people who buy the shirts, the people who dig Fred Perry, people who wouldn’t necessarily know anything about him think, “Oh, this is good. Maybe I should investigate this further.” I’m like what Peter [Saville] says I am: a missionary banging the drum for him.

The Barney Bubbles exhibition takes place at Fred Perry’s Henrietta Street store from the 3rd August for two weeks.
The Collection will be available from 3rd August in-store and online.