Released today in 1980: I Want To Be Straight

Stiff BUY90

Stiff BUY90

Was the sleeve above by Barney Bubbles? I don’t know, but it has been suggested that it is his work. The case ‘for’ is that he designed several record covers for Ian Dury at around this time, and for other artists signed to or associated with Stiff records. An alternative sleeve for the same single was also issued, which was created by someone else. The case ‘against’ is that I Want To Be Straight is not listed on either Reasons To Be Cheerful (the Barney Bubbles website, named after a Dury track, which has a section listing some 80 or so singles sleeves he definitely was responsible for), or the very detailed book it promotes, Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles, first published in 2008. The problem was, his work was uncredited in many instances, making a definitive list difficult to compile.

So, who was Barney Bubbles? Born Colin Fulcher, he was a graphic designer who was closely associated with the British independent music industry, based for most of his career at premises in Portobello Road in west London. He designed his first record sleeve in 1969 (a couple of years after he adopted his professional pseudonym) and created over two hundred more over the next 15 years. Some of his most celebrated designs were created while he was art director at Stiff records (from 1977) where he also produced posters, promotional items and other collateral. His brief went well beyond the design of the packaging for the records Stiff released and he came up with ideas for marketing campaigns and the brand identity of the artists signed to the label, for instance the distinctive ‘face’ logo used for Dury’s backing band The Blockheads. His idea of using a Crown Wallpaper swatch on the cover of Dury’s Do It Yourself album became an inspired marketing tool, the twist being that a number of different variations would be used: each licensee worldwide that released the album would have at least one wallpaper pattern that would be printed for the album cover in that territory exclusively.

When Stiff boss Jake Riviera left to set up other companies, Fulcher went with him and his work appeared on records released by Radar and F-Beat, most notably Elvis Costello. Famous designs included the covers of Costello’s albums This Year’s Model (deliberately designed to appear to have the cover image misaligned, with the printer’s colour calibration chart appearing on the right hand side of the picture), and Armed Forces (which featured fold-out flaps inspired by Fulcher’s 1960s work in box and packaging design). But he also worked as a freelancer as well as in-house designer for Stiff, and his sleeve designs were issued by major and minor record companies alike. For example, Dury left Stiff for major Polydor in the 1980s but continued to commission Barney Bubbles designs for a number of his records. As an artist, his style was bold and colourful, often using geometric patterns and crypotgrams, loaded with in-jokes or references to art-history, and featured surrealist imagery. Completed pieces might be plain and simple or incredibly detailed and complex.

Barney Bubbles (Fulcher changed his name by deed poll) took his own life on 14 November 1983. He suffered from bipolar disorder and bouts of depression and manic behaviour had increased in his final years. At the time of his death he had a number of professional and financial worries, including being investigated by the Inland Revenue for unpaid tax and his design work being rejected by previously loyal recording artists who had commissioned him several times in the past. One of his most lasting and visible legacies was the distinctive logo that was used on the cover of New Musical Express throughout the 1980s. He oversaw the re-design of the paper in 1978 and his logo was still in use at the beginning of this century.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Aug. 22
1980
Ian DURY AND THE BLOCKHEADS (Ian Dury) I Want To Be Straight (Stiff BUY90)
1988
SPANDAU BALLET Raw (Reformation SPANS3)
Nick HEYWARD You’re My World (Warner Bros W7758)

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