Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reasons to be Cheerful Even When the Bubble Burst

I had a surreal experience recently meeting up with Mark Sanderson, who writes the “Literary Life” column for The Telegraph and who has written a novel called Snow Hill that will be published by HarperCollins in 2009. The surreal angle is that, when we met at the HarperCollins crime dinner recently, we discovered in a surreal twist of fate that Sanderson and I both attended the same primary school in a village in Cheshire in the 1970s.

During that excellent dinner, I also discovered that HarperCollins editor Julia Wisdom’s first rock concert was seeing the British Heavy Metal band Hawkwind, who also happened to be one of my all time favorite bands, as well as that of Ian Rankin. Over the meal, Wisdom and I discussed the merits of Heavy Metal and Hawkwind’s psychedelic brand of space opera, especially their ground-breaking 1973 concept double album, Space Ritual, which was recorded live in London and Liverpool in December 1972. This album is an astounding mesh of science fiction, drugs and heavy rock and features writing from British SF writer Micheal Moorcock, as well as poet Robert Calvert and the whole Hawkwind entourage, including Lemmy who was a.k.a. Ian Kilmister who later formed Motorhead.

So with Hawkwind in my mind currently; I am pleased to announce that Reasons to be Cheerful (Adelita) by Paul Gorman is being released next month in the UK. It celebrates the short life of graphic artist Barney Bubbles who helped design the covers and imagery of many Hawkwind albums including Space Ritual and the definitive In Search of Space. Bubbles also designed graphics that Hawkwind used in their concerts. But Bubbles worked with many other British acts, and the title of Gorman’s book relates to the iconic Ian Drury and the Blockheads single of the same name.

It seems Bubbles made the transition from Hawkwind’s brand of SF Heavy Metal to the raw pulse of the emerging British Punk rock scene, reports The Sunday Times:
Soon Bubbles was designing record covers for Hawkwind, an explosion of ideas that pushed their freeform space-rock into a new dimension. The 1971 classic X in Search of Space, which unfolded into the shape of a cruciform hawk, was an elaborate triumph of sci-fi nouveau. “It was in the days of LSD, and I think Barney used to take the odd acid tab when he was doing the sleeves," laughs the Hawkwind co-founder Dave Brock. “You can probably see the results of that in his artwork, like Space Ritual.” Indeed, with its sleeve panels of cosmic embryos, nipple planets and sonic waves, Space Ritual combined Bubbles’s ideas on philosophy, theatre and art. Still he refused to sign his work, though his reputation was growing apace.

By the mid-1970s, Bubbles made the transition from hippie to punk, reshaping [
New Musical Express] NME’s logo and landing a job as in-house designer at Stiff Records. His graphics gave the fledgling label a sharp, smart new identity. He created sleeves for Nick Lowe, the Damned, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and more — many of which cleverly subverted art movements such as dada and constructivism. It was a fiercely intelligent streak he carried through to F-Beat, Radar and Go! Discs. “His sleeve work was sensational,” asserts the Stiff photographer Brian Griffin. “And his work rate was phenomenal. I never saw Barney sleep, ever. Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick is one of the great art pieces of the 20th century. It’s mind-blowing. I think it’s up there with a Picasso painting.”
You can see some of Bubbles’ work from Word Magazine here. However, like many creative people, Barney Bubbles was a troubled soul who tragically ended his life, here reported by Mark Paytrees at the Hawkwind fan site Starfarer:
Barney was struggling. The regular outlets for his work were drying up. He was underpaid for the work he was still doing, and a love affair crumbled around him. "I used to do this magazine with him called Y," recalls Brian Griffin. "And one day we had this argument about the rude words in the text. It was the only argument we ever had. I went round to see him and patch it up, and he'd lacerated his face with a razorblade." Nik Turner also witnessed a more desperate Barney around this time. "I got a call from his girlfriend, who said, 'Come round and help us, Barney's threatening everyone with a knife.' I did and he said, 'Look, I'll kill you too.' Then he threw the knife on the ground. He was having a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, he committed himself to a hospital."But Barney never recovered. "He phoned me up on the morning he committed suicide," Griffin remembers. "He said, 'Beej, I really feel terrible.' I recall him being worried about his VAT. I said, 'Don't worry, after I've finished shooting this Echo & The Bunnymen video I'll come straight over.' I finished early, mid-afternoon, and I phoned up. But it was too late. His sister came to the phone and said, 'Barney's killed himself.'"

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