Home > Graphics & Illustration, Music, People, Things I Like... > Barney Bubbles, Elvis Costello & Armed Forces

Barney Bubbles, Elvis Costello & Armed Forces

What with seeing some Barney Bubbles stuff at the V&A the other week and catching the end of what looked like an excellent Elvis Costello gig on TV over the weekend, I thought I’d write about one of the all time classic “Music Packages” (not to mention it being one of my favourite albums)

Released in early 1979 (a year I seem to keep coming back to) Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions was an immediate success, reaching the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. It was Costello’s third album (following My Aim is True (1977) and This Year’s Model (1978) and heralded a new, richer (arguably more accessible and poppy) sound for the band, whilst still retaining Costello’s politically sharp and incisive lyrical dexterity (Oliver’s Army, Accidents will happen and my favourite, Green Shirt). The working title for the record was Emotional Fascism and the whole thing is littered with references and allusions to both politics and love, often using them as metaphors for each other.

As the Stiff Records in house designer and art director, Barney Bubbles (Colin Fulcher on his birth certificate) had worked with Costello on both his previous records. These were altogether much more sedate affairs, and I can’t find online whose decision it was to really push the boat out for this release (probably Barney’s I would guess)

Barney Bubbles is undoubtably one of the unsung and shockingly little known geniuses of UK graphic design. Responsible for a staggering number of instantly recognisable record sleeves between the late 1960’s and 1983 (at which point he very sadly took his own life at the age of 41), a 15 year period that includes Hawkwind, Ian Dury, Depeche Mode, Doctor Feelgood and The Damned to name just a few, and which all sport examples of the man’s ability, be it the early fantasy graphic style of the Hawkwind covers or the more familiar angular and brightly coloured post punk stuff… (there are a few reminders at the end of the post, after the Armed Forces images)

As Design Director, Bubbles was responsible for the overall concept of the Armed Forces sleeve and for much of the art itself, although the elephant painting on the front cover is actually by Tom Pogson. As you can see from the images here, the mix of styles and techniques and the diversity of subject matter used throughout the package is quite startling, ranging from the figurative to Pop and Abstract and from marching Chinese soldiers to faux tiger print…

The whole thing  was designed to open up and display more of the art as you got closer to the inner sleeve… wherein you’d find photos of the band lounging around a swimming pool (their house) or standing in the middle of a “nice” suburban front garden (your house).

Hours of fun was then had re-arranging the panels in all manner of various ways until (like happened with mine) it got ripped and started to fall apart…

All in all a very lovely thing, and I for one am very pleased that, as evidenced by the inclusion of his work at the current V&A exhibition about post war British Design, there is a renewed interest in the work of this very gifted and influential man…

If you want to know more, there is a recently published book called Reasons to Be Cheerful by John Gorman which chronicles Barney’s work in exhaustive detail, whilst John Coulthart’s excellent post on his Feuilleton site here is also worth a read.

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