The Art of the Sleeve: Barney Bubbles’ beautiful record designs

Barney Bubbles—photo-booth portrait.
Downloads don’t make it, nor do CDs—yon footery wee things that look more like drinks coasters or beer mats than containers for works of great music. CDs are too brittle—they easily crack—and can often be hell when trying to remove the inner notes without crease or tear. Only vinyl counts. Only vinyl gives the user the double pleasure of quality sound and quality design work to peruse.

When The Beatles started putting thought into the packaging of their albums—hiring artists like Klaus Voorman (Revolver), Peter Blake (Sgt. Pepper’s…) and Richard Hamilton (White Album)—the record sleeve became more than just a contents label. It allowed artists and designers to produce covers that would not only sell the music but become their own artwork. Among the designers who made a career out of record design, my own favorite (and arguably the greatest) was Barney Bubbles.

Born Colin Fulcher in 1942, Bubbles graduated from the Twickenham College of Technology, in London, before learning his craft as a graphic designer working with the likes of Michael Tucker + Associates and the Conran Group, before setting up the art group A1 Good Guyz with like-minded friends David Wills and Roy Burge in 1965. The trio organized various happenings and light shows across London before Bubbles started producing design work for Oz magazine in 1968.

By 1969, Bubbles had set up his own graphic studio Teenburger Designs on Portobello Road, where he began his highly successful design career. Over the next fourteen years, Bubbles produced memorable, eye-catching and popular record designs for Hawkwind, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, The Damned, Lene Lovich and The Soft Toys. He was so talented and prolific he produced work under various different aliases—from Colin Fulcher to Big Jobs Ltd. But this was to do with modesty about his work rather than any fear over devaluing his brand name, as he explained to The Face magazine in 1981:

“...I don’t really like crediting myself on people’s albums—like you’ve got a Nick Lowe album, it’s NICK LOWE’S album not a Barney Bubbles’ album.”

After a year-long trip to Ireland—(“to recover from the end of a long term personal relationship”), Bubbles was appointed Art Director at Stiff Records by Jake Riviera (aka Andrew Jakeman) in 1977, where he supplied album, single and promotional designs for the label’s roster of artists—this was where he produced the incredible and stunning foldout sleeve for Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces LP—a work that became (quite literally) a text book for succeeding graphic designers to steal from. Working Stiff Records was liberating for Bubbles as he later said in an interview:

“It’s fun working with Jake, we’d just walk around the block—‘cause he was so busy—it would all be done in five minutes. I could actually do what I wanted to do without being told off by record companies that say ‘Fantastic but don’t you think…?’ and then they fuck it up!”

Bubbles said his approach to record design was “to wait, hear the music and meet the guys, and they tell you what they want and its up to you to deliver it.” During this time he also redesigned the N.M.E. logo and eventually branched out into a career as highly successful promo director making videos for The Specials (“Ghost Town,” “The Boiler”), Squeeze (“Is The Love?”), Elvis Costello (“Clubland”) and the Fun Boy Three (“The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)”). He also started painting pictures an designing furniture. Just when Bubbles should have been getting the praise, recognition and superstardom his genius as a designer deserved, his career faltered and his designs started being rejected by his once loyal record labels and artists. Bubbles suffered from bi-polar disorder and the rejection devastated him, which led to his tragic suicide in November 1983.

Barney Bubbles was one of those rare artists and graphic designers whose work could make you go out and buy an album or a single—by an act you had never heard of before—just by the quality of his sleeve design. Thankfully, unlike book design, you can judge a record by a Barney Bubbles’ cover.
Hawkwind ‘Search for Space’ (1971).
Hawkwind ‘Doremi Fasol Latido’ (1972).
Hawkwind ‘Space Ritual’ (1973).
More of Barney Bubbles’ work, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
06:00 pm
Wilko Johnson diagnosed with terminal cancer: Ex-Dr Feelgood guitarist rejects chemotherapy

Wilko Johnson has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas. A statement was issued by Johnson’s manager Robert Hoy which read:


I am very sad to announce that Wilko has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas. He has chosen not to receive any chemotherapy.

He is currently in good spirits, is not yet suffering any physical effects and can expect to enjoy at least another few months of reasonable health and activity.

He has just set off on a trip to Japan; on his return we plan to complete a new CD, make a short tour of France, then give a series of farewell gigs in the UK. There is also a live DVD in the pipeline, filmed on the last UK tour.

Wilko wishes to offer his sincere thanks for all the support he has had over his long career, from those who have worked with him to, above all, those devoted fans and admirers who have attended his live gigs, bought his recordings and generally made his life such an extraordinarily full and eventful experience.

Thank you.

Robert Hoy

Johnson is hailed as one of Rock’s most influential guitarists with his distinctive choppy, staccato style. He was a major influence on British Punk, and played with Ian Dury and The Blockheads after leaving Dr Feelgood in 1977. More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Dr Feelgood after Julien Temple’s documentary on the band Oil City Confidential. Johnson has also appeared in Game of Thrones and successfully toured the UK at the end of last year. Our thoughts are with Johnson and his family.



Posted by Paul Gallagher
12:40 pm
Ian Dury: A treat of a documentary on the legendary performer from 1979

‘If you’ve got to ask what a Rhythm Stick is, then it may be possible you will never know the answer,’ Ian Dury tells one interviewer over the ‘phone, in this brilliant documentary from 1979. This was the first full length documentary on Dury and it captures the legendary performer’s humor, enthusiasm and sheer joy at doing what he likes best (even if it’s touring for 16 weeks, and owing more money than he earns), which all goes to making this a great pleasure to watch.

Includes performances of “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”, “Inbetweenies”, “Blockheads”, “Clever Trevor” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part 3)”.

With thanks to NellyM

Posted by Paul Gallagher
06:52 pm
‘Spasticus Autisticus’: The day the BBC banned Ian Dury

Ian Dury wrote the song “Spasticus Autisticus” knowing it would cause trouble, and hoping it would be banned. It was written in response to the UN designating 1981 as the Year of the Disabled, as if high-lighting the ‘equalization of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities,’ with a motto that declared “a wheelchair in every home,” would somehow magically bring genuine equality and support where it was needed.

Dury thought the Year of the Disabled was patronizing and ‘crashingly insensitive,’ and his response was to write a song straight from the heart against the naivety and arrogance of well-meaning liberals.  ‘Oh, I see, so in 1982, we’ll all be all right!’ Dury said.

‘I thought about going on tour as Spasticus and The Autistics, but [his friend, musician Ed] Speight said, “No, it should be Spasticus Autisticus - he’s the freed slave of the disabled.’

Speight was making reference to one of Dury’s favorite films Spartacus, with its famous ending where all of the slaves declare “I am Spartacus.” It was perfect for Dury and he started running lyrics together:

“I’m Spasticus! I’m Spasticus!
I’m Spasticus! I’m Spasticus!
I widdle when I piddle
‘Cos my middle is a riddle


So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in,
So long have I been upon the shelf
I must give all proceedings to myself.”

As Ed Speight later told Will Birch for his definitive biography of Ian Dury:

‘We kicked a few phrases around, drinking more dandelion and burdock. “I wobble when I hobble,” was one of them. We knocked out the hooks then Ian did the real artwork: “So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin, And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in.” Some of it was influenced by Lenny Bruce - the “half-man/half-woman” routine. Ian said he wanted a record that would be banned. It certainly did the trick.’

Once recorded, it didn’t take long for “Spasticus Autisticus” to be banned. The song’s irony and anger were lost on a liberal media who were only able to see offense. Worse, it seemed the BBC management had forgotten that Dury was disabled, having contracted poliomyelitis as a child - something he had discussed on camera in a BBC documentary in 1979.

Dury contracted polio after swallowing a mouthful of infected water at a lido in Southend-on-Sea. His condition had been so serious that he had not been expected to live, and spent 6 weeks isolated in a hospital ward in Truro. Against all the odds, Dury pulled through, and he convalesced for a further 18 months at a hospital in Braintree, Essex, before being sent to Chailey Heritage and Craft School.

Chailey was a former workhouse, which had been converted into a school for ‘disabled children suffering from diseases such as rickets, tuberculosis and malnutrition.’ The school had been established in 1894 by Dame Grace Kimmins, under the auspices of her charitable organization the “Guild of the Poor Brave Things” - which says much about the school.

The brutality at Chailey changed Dury. Bullying and violence were endemic, and sex abuse frequent. Dury adopted a tough Cockney demeanor, to disguise his natural intelligence and sensitivity, though it didn’t protect him from bullying or from being sexual abused by other boys.

In 1981, when the BBC led the way with its campaign against Dury, they had no idea the maverick singer and poet was disabled. The BBC behaved like the well intentioned Victorians behind the “Guild of the Poor Brave Things.” The ban had a damning affect, literally ending Dury’s successful career as a singles artist, and damaging his long-term recording career.

A few months before he died in 2000, Ian Dury performed “Spasticus Autisticus” to a ‘rapturous reception’ at the London Palladium. Twelve years on,  “Spasticus Autisticus” was performed by Graeae Theater Company at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics.

More from Ian Dury, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
04:41 pm