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In Search of Barney Bubbles

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BBC Radio 4, 4pm, Bank Holiday Monday, 2 January 2012

Written and presented by Mark Hodkinson.
Produced by Mark Hodkinson and Ian Bent.

Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Depeche Mode, The Damned, Hawkwind, Nick Lowe and hundreds more owe a debt of gratitude to the tragic artist Barney Bubbles for shaping their image through radical record sleeves and posters. Nymphs floating into outer space, Ferris Wheels sparkling against a cityscape, faces made from light bulbs, paper clips and cassette tapes… this is all the work of Barney Bubbles.

Bubbles (real name, Colin Fulcher) was a designer with roots in both the commercial world (he worked for Sir Terence Conran and created the ‘archer’ logo for Strongbow Cider) and the London underground scene of the 1960s/early 1970s where his Notting Hill-based company, Teenburger Designs, contributed to Oz and Friendz and numerous record sleeves. His work, often drug-fuelled, was an imagination set loose – colourful, playful, three-dimensional, merging the prosaic with the profound. He was appointed designer and art director at Stiff Records and devised innovative marketing concepts. Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim is True’ included adverts in three UK music papers from which a poster of Costello could be constructed. Ian Dury’s ‘Do It Yourself’ sleeve came in 28 slightly different ‘wallpaper’ versions.

He was a key player in the explosion of 7” records in the punk and post-punk era. Before, singles had come in plain paper bags or with generic label artwork – Bubbles and his peers saw them as a mini-canvas to complement the music within. Later, he directed several pop videos, including ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and singles by Squeeze, Fun Boy Three and Elvis Costello.

In the early 1980s Bubbles fell out-of-favour, with little demand or acclaim for his work. He had suffered regular bouts of depression and his behaviour had become erratic, involving incidents of self-harm. Amid personal and financial worries, he committed suicide in 1983 at the age of 43. Since his death, his work has been re-evaluated and its influence acknowledged. Sleeve art has also become seen as an art-form in its own right and its loss mourned in the download age. He is seen as seminal influence on the YBA scene of the early 1990s, inspiring the likes of Damien Hirst and Jay Jopling.

The programme looks closely at the times Bubbles lived through – hippy, idealistic 1960s to punk/new wave of the late 1970s/80s; his often-troubled life; and his lasting legacy. Key contributors include figures from the rock industry, close friends and family, and fellow designers.

First posted: Friday, December 30th, 2011.

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