Dylan Jones: At heart, Barney Bubbles was an artist –which led to the creative strain he put himself under

Talk of the Town

Saturday 29 November 2008 01:00

Barney Bubbles drew my youth, carved it out of coloured paper, counterintuitive typography, bald modernist graphics, old bits of cardboard and photographs of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Generation X and Ian Dury. Unwittingly I had bought into his world via a Hawkwind album that he designed and I bought in 1974, when I was 13 and he was 32, but it was the punk explosion two years later that really brought him into my life, like it did for thousands of others.

Barney Bubbles was one of the most important designers of the punk and post-punk era – working with all the artists above and many more – a rarely celebrated creature who was always far more interested in achievement than acclaim. This month he is being justly celebrated in a surprisingly moving and comprehensive illustrated biography, Reasons to Be Cheerful: The life and work of Barney Bubbles by Paul Gorman (Adelita, £24.99). The iconography of punk would have been a lot more reductive were it not for Bubbles' inclusive mix of modernist graphics and Sixties playfulness. With Bubbles you always felt that whatever he was working on was treated as a genuine artefact rather than simple decoration. At heart, he was an artist, which led to the creative strain he put himself under.

Reasons to Be Cheerful is not only a lovingly researched biography, it is also an alternative history of the post-punk scene, from Stiff to Radar to F-Beat to 2-Tone to Go! Discs to – gulp! – Red Wedge and beyond. It's easy to forget the wealth of talent that managed to seep up from under the floorboards during that time. The book also includes the full story behind his cover for Elvis Costello's 1979 album Armed Forces, one of the few visual masterpieces of the post-punk era.

Gormon pays scant attention to Bubbles' suicide in 1983 at the age of 42, and while this slightly undermines the picture of the designer that he spends 200 pages building, in some ways it keeps the enigma alive. In the book's foreword, graphic guru Peter Saville says: "The publication of Reasons to Be Cheerful is ... missionary work; Barney Bubbles should be canonised." He couldn't have put it better had he used Stencil Bold Letraset and a 0.5 Rotring Rapidograph.

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'

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