B2 — The Blockheads
Paul Gorman, author of ‘Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles’, tells us how a flash of brilliance during a 10-minute phone call gave birth to one of the of the finest band logos of the 1970s.
The story goes that Ian Dury called up designer Barney Bubbles, who was art director at his label Stiff Records, saying he needed a logo for the backing band that he’d newly formed called The Blockheads. He wanted it to be square and black and white. While they were talking on the phone, Dury overheard someone walking past Bubbles’ desk and say “Wow!”. He asked “What’s up?”, and Bubbles said, “Well, I’ve just done it”.
[Label boss and band manager] Jake Riviera, who worked with Bubbles for more than 10 years and was the co-founder at Stiff says that, like many great visual artists, Bubbles had a huge set of prompts and references, which he plucked out and applied to given situations.
The Blockheads ideogram was almost certainly derived from the logotype of the Left Book Club [a left-leaning publishing group that offered a monthly choice of books to members during the 1930s and 1940s]. Bubbles’ father had copies of Left Book Club books around the house, so the young Colin Fulcher (as he was born) would have noted the logo for future reference.
Bubbles had been coming up with graphic identities ever since he started working at Michael Tucker & Associates’ commercial studio when he left Twickenham College of Technology in 1963. That phone call with Ian Dury was some 14 years later. Day in day out, he’d been producing a whole range of graphic symbols, ideograms, and so on. So it was second nature for him to recast this reference point in a rock ’n’ roll context. You can kind of see the steps of his mental process, but the amazing flash of brilliance in the application is something else.
Bubbles was a trailblazer. He’d been recontextualising the great European and Russian art and design movements into popular music way before it became common practice in the 1980s among designers and typographers such as Neville Brody. You might think the juxtaposition of Constructivism and punk rock is surprising. But there are similarities — those movements were equally radical in their approaches to visual communication. That’s where Bubbles made the connection. He could see there was a common root, which is why it works so well.
From the back cover of ‘Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles’:
“Bubbles designed for Sir Terence Conran and underground magazines ‘OZ’ and ‘Friends’ and created remarkable record sleeves for Hawkwind, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, The Damned and Billy Bragg. He collaborated with artists and photographers including Derek Boshier and Brian Griffin, and produced paintings, furniture, set designs and promo videos.”
Interview by Jim K Davies. Many thanks to Paul Gorman for his time and insight.