Reasons to be cheerful, reasons to be sad. Today would have been the 80th birthday of the astonishingly brilliant, visionary artist and graphic designer Barney Bubbles. Bubbles — who was born Colin Fulcher in the London suburb of Whitten, Middlesex — attended the art school at Twickenham College before embarking on a successful career in advertising. So many things were happening as the U.K. gradually rebuilt itself following World War II. It was a nation recovering from the psychic horrors of years of bombing and bloodshed, a country beginning to reckon with its diminishing relevance and the ramifications and atrocities of its high colonial period, and a time when a dawning age of mass consumption and runaway technological momentum were in a very real sense reordering the human psyche. Bubbles was born into the beating heart of it all — the miasma of tragedy, excitement and terror — and his staggering body of work would come to exemplify and define it more than any living contemporary.
Emerging from a modest background, Bubbles worked straight jobs out of college in order to keep the lights on. But his sympathies were with the emergent counterculture and soon enough he was a fixture on the outré-edges of Swinging London’s art scene, orchestrating head-caving light shows for various happenings and nurturing his intuitive attraction to all things subversive and underdog. Soon enough he was designing groundbreaking album art for the psych-rock astronauts Hawkwind and gaining a reputation for a mind-expanding visual vernacular which ran on parallel tracks to the musical avant-garde. Soft-spoken and almost heartbreakingly sensitive, Bubbles was dispositionally a natural hippie. He moved through the world with every aperture open, greatly disturbed by the violence inflicted on people by the heedless machinery of war and finance. Imagine reading the headlines every day and then not being able to walk away from it: the cruelty, the oppression, the plunder and the killing, over and over. Imagine not being able to compartmentalize. Imagine reading the headlines and not then saying, “Well, that’s sad, but it’s time to go to work.” But instead: “This is my work.” Trying to explain it. Trying to help.
I first became aware of Bubbles from his astonishing designs of the Elvis Costello LPs My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy, Imperial Bedroom, Almost Blue and Trust. I am a minted Costello fanatic but it’s fair to say I don’t know that I would have ever loved his music so deeply had I not discovered it simultaneously with Bubbles’ contributions. Perhaps in no other instance has a songwriter and album designer worked so perfectly in lock step. Costello with his brittle, broken, romantic, angry outcast stance and wondrously catchy bromides, one-liners, and calls-for-help. Bubbles with his insinuating slogans, subtly out of frame images, tense portraiture, whimsical collage and winking acknowledgements of the overt act of “selling a product” and all of the fun and menace which that dark art could yield. Costello’s music and Bubbles’ artwork taken together are an astonishing example of world-building, warning of a time when corporatism would yield to fascism and still you could fall and love and break your heart. Exhilarating, scary stuff.
Costello was only one of many collaborators that Bubbles did amazing work with. He would eventually serve as the in-house designer for the legendary Stiff records, and his across-the-board brilliance appears on the covers of records by Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Carlene Carter, The Damned, Squeeze, Dr. Feelgood, and nearly every other major act associated with the early days of English punk. Probably most people don’t know the name Barney Bubbles, but if you are in any way interested in the music of that time, it is almost inevitable that you’ve seen his artwork and been impacted.
It has to be said, but not dwelt on, that Barney Bubbles lived a lot of his life in pain. He suffered terribly from depression and was somewhat fragile by his nature. This is tragic, yes, because it’s reasonable to conclude that we might have had him so much longer if there’d been some better way to help him. But he accomplished more in his allotted time than any hundred of his peers. A lot of times he wouldn’t sign his own work, as a simultaneous act of anxiety, hubris and self-negation. It’s so hard to talk about this stuff, to parse it.
Reasons to be happy. Barney Bubbles’ 80th birthday is being celebrated as never before. Paul Gorman’s indispensable Bubbles compendium The Wild World Of Barney Bubbles has just issued an updated reprinting which is going off like gangbusters. The first single from the new Paranoid Style LP “Barney Bubbles” has lifted hearts and minds from the Autumn Roses to the LA Review of Books.
I operate with the confidence that in twenty more years — and Bubbles himself would admit that the notion of twenty more years of habitable Earth sounds ambitious — he will be fully embroidered into the highest echelons of analogous artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein and some of those other losers. Wish you were here.