“A Dyed-in-the-Wool Revolutionary Spirit”: Paul Gorman on the Legacy of Barney Bubbles

January 24, 2022   •   By Elizabeth Nelson

THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO, the great, thrilling, daring, tragic, and grievously underappreciated graphic designer Barney Bubbles died. Over the course of his extraordinary career, he conceptualized visionary album covers for bands ranging from Hawkwind to Elvis Costello to Carlene Carter, and he created the iconic logo of the NME. To experience his work in all of its high comic and agitprop glory is to be in the presence of a singular and unforgettable sensibility that imprints on your brain as readily as Lichtenstein or Kandinsky.

I have wanted to write a song for Barney Bubbles since I first heard of him, many years ago. But until recently, I couldn’t locate the feeling or the words. Bubbles can overwhelm. I did eventually write my song, which my band, the Paranoid Style, recorded in August. It is now a stand-alone single at Bandcamp, courtesy of Bar/None Records. The lyric video for the song debuts below.

Paul Gorman is a London-based music and fashion historian and the main curator of Barney Bubbles’s posthumous legacy. His indispensable book The Wild World of Barney Bubbles is entering its third edition and will be available from Thames & Hudson next July, with a special illustrated edition also forthcoming. For those who don’t know Bubbles’s work yet, I hope my chat with Gorman, as well as my song, will serve as an enticement to learn more about one of the most extraordinary and overlooked artists of his generation.

Author photo by Toby Amies.

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ELIZABETH NELSON: Since Barney Bubbles remains an obscure figure, I’m wondering if you might describe some aspects of his early life that might have impacted his vision and worldview. 

PAUL GORMAN: He comes from a fairly straightforward background. He was born during the war in 1942, had an older sister, and lived with his parents in the suburb of Whitton, which is in the outskirts of Southwest London. He had a pretty normal childhood. I think it would be seen as unexceptional and suburban. On the other hand, he was born as a baby boomer at exactly the right time. If you look at his contemporaries, particularly in the London area, you’re talking about Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, all of those people. There was this magnificent postwar system where young people from the age of 13 and upward were accepted into art schools and colleges, of which there were many. He went to Twickenham Art School when he was 16, and he remained there for five years. And at that point, he did a foundation course for a year in which he internalized various disciplines. Silversmithing, life drawing, graphics, illustration, textiles, fashion, photography, and model-making — he tried all the disciplines, and he fancied all of them. He painted watercolors in the style of Van Gogh and Picasso. He was a polymath.

After art school, Bubbles took straight jobs working at some of London’s most established design firms while simultaneously participating in the city’s emerging avant-garde scene. It reminds me of Warhol: the confluence of fashion, commerce, and art.

Yes, and he shares with Warhol that tradition of coming out of formal education and also commercial art practice. After college, Bubbles goes to work for Michael Tucker + Associates and the design studio operated by retail entrepreneur Terence Conran for a couple of years, and really learns the hard edge of commercial practice. But there is this other thing happening: the British underground. Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, playing extended sets with projected effects. Taking all of this in, Bubbles perceives a way forward. He creates avant-garde light shows based on mixing oil and paints and projecting them over Audie Murphy movies and Busby Berkeley dances. The projection on the walls seems to bubble up. And so, he comes up with this name, Barney Bubbles. He visited San Francisco in 1968, which was a pretty adventurous thing to do, unless you’re in a band. He wasn’t in a band, but he knew some people. He stayed on the West Coast for six weeks, took acid, and came back a changed person. He left his straight job and set up his studio, which he called Teenburger in West London’s area of Ladbroke Grove.

Why do you think he was attracted to San Francisco as opposed to New York?

Well, from early on, he had a pretty fragile personality and I think at the time, New York would have been a much more daunting prospect. In California, there was a vibe, however bogus, of, “Hey, man! Welcome!” You know, the kind of welcome that he could expect in San Francisco. In his postcards home, he said that, in San Francisco, he was operating a light show at the Fillmore West.

Amazing.

He was actually very sure of his talents, and I think this comes out during this period. And even in his hippie phase you see the underpinnings of the subversiveness that would end up being so crucial to the Stiff Records sensibility. He had a résumé that was ready-made for punk and a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary spirit. He gravitated to people who were unusual and a bit bent out of shape.

One of the puzzlements with Bubbles is the fact that he sometimes didn’t sign his name to work and instead would use various noms de plume. Consequently, a lot of his work is not understood to actually have even been his. It’s difficult to comprehend why he would do this.

Yeah, exactly. One of his friends and co-workers, Suzanne Spiro, who knew him quite well said, there’s a thin line between humility and arrogance. Possibly, what was going on was that he was essentially daring his public. If you don’t recognize that this artwork is by me, then you don’t really get it anyway. That was the arrogance. But I also do think part of it stemmed from a real humility. Like, “This is a Nick Lowe record. Who cares who made the cover?” I do think then he painted himself into a corner because his work was eventually subsumed by other, more ambitious people.

The aesthetics around album artwork began to change in the ’80s. More emphasis on cassettes and smaller formats and consequently literally less room to work. How did that affect him?

The CD was already on the rise by the time he died on November 14, 1983. And he was already bristling at the telescoping of the format. The future was arriving pretty quickly. And you have to build into this the fact that his undiagnosed bipolarity was, by then, absolutely determining his existence. So, I think the future looked bleak professionally because of those factors.

But it didn’t necessarily need to be.

Of course not. He could have adapted to the video age. He was adapting to the video era. He made a number of widely admired videos — he directed the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and several others.

There’s a fundamental irony in losing such a transformational, future-focused artist a couple of decades before his vision of the future was fully realized. And a real sadness. I’m wondering what it has been like keeping the torch aflame for Barney Bubbles all these decades.

Getting things to this stage has, in terms of his biography, been something of a psychological haul. It’s a very, very sad story, isn’t it? It’s an incredibly sad story. One of the things that struck me about your song is that you didn’t flinch from mentioning it — his ending. Because in a way, in the first edition of my book, I was slightly careful about that. But now, 12 years later, I think mental health is talked about and understood in a much more open way. It’s tragic that his sadness overtook him, but it’s ecstatic the work he left behind. Every day he was alive was somewhat more amazing than every day he wasn’t.

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Elizabeth Nelson is singer-songwriter for the Washington, DC–based garage-punk band the Paranoid Style, a civil servant in the field of education policy, and a regular contributor to The Ringer, Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and Pitchfork, among other publications. In 2020, Spin Magazine ranked the Paranoid Style the 27th best rock & roll band currently working, thereby adding 26 names to her renowned Enemies List.