Elvis Costello has been a songwriting heavyweight for as long as most people reading this will be able to remember. His literate, seething post punk singles at the tail end of the ’70s helped establish him as one of Britain’s most important musical voices; and his third album, 1979’s Armed Forces, broke him in the U.S.
Declan MacManus was given the sobriquet Elvis Costello by Stiff Records’ supremo Jake Riviera in 1976: the first name intended as a provocation to fans of the King (obviously with neither knowing Elvis Presley would die the following year, causing plenty more opprobrium). It’s not the only nom-de-guerre MacManus has adopted over the last 45 years or so: studying his record sleeves, you’ll find Napoleon Dynamite, Howard Coward, Sgt Larry Singer, the Emotional Toothpaste, and many others.
Then there’s Eamon Singer. Often responsible for Costello’s artwork—especially on latter releases—Singer, so it transpires, is Costello himself, doodling with an Apple Pencil with the Procreate app. These record sleeves are passable, but they don’t compare to Costello’s five-year purple (and orange, and green, and crimson, and beige) patch between 1977 and 1982, when Colin Fulcher—aka Barney Bubbles, the zelig of way-out ’70s and ’80s album art—was Stiff Records’ in-house art director.
Along with Jake Riviera’s provocative marketing, Bubbles’ visual contribution to the early part of Costello’s career helped to calcify his spiky persona. Bubbles died aged 41 in 1983, but Paul Gorman, biographer of countercultural giants like Malcolm McLaren and The Face magazine, is an authority on the graphic design genius. Gorman published Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Works of Barney Bubbles with contributions from Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, and Billy Bragg in 2008, and the forthcoming monograph The Wild World of Barney Bubbles: Graphic Design and the Art of Music, available in June.
“Bubbles worked a lot with Jake Riviera before he joined Stiff,” says Gorman. “They were all pals by then, and they’d worked very successfully on several campaigns together. I mean Jake brought him back into the swing of things, because Bubbles had had a crisis prior to that. He had incipient bipolarity and was also under the effects of a huge ingestion of lysergic acid, so he went to ground at the end of 1976.” Bubbles joined the crew just at the right time to work on Costello’s debut album in 1977. The three enjoyed a symbiotic working relationship over a five year period and produced the best sleeves of the punk poet’s career. Bubbles’ rejected draft for 1983’s Punch the Clock, made not long before he died, is a sad story for another day.
My Aim Is True (1977)
Costello’s debut, pre-Attractions, has him cast as a malevolent Buddy Holly with the provocation “Elvis Is King” surrounding his photograph, almost conveying the message subliminally. My Aim Is True came out in yellow, pink, purple, orange, green, crimson, and beige versions. Collect them all!
Paul Gorman: “At the photo session for the album cover you had Jake Riviera and Barney Bubbles behind the photographer. Bubbles was getting Elvis Costello to throw shapes. So you’ve got Elvis Costello, who is no fool, and two highly visually literate people behind the camera man, and a really great photographer (Keith Morris) directing as well. That’s why those images are so impactful, because they were invested with much more than ‘go and stand up against the wall,’ which is what most album covers were like at the time, unless they were high concepts with people shaking hands in suits and bowler hats while they’re on fire.
“It’s pretty obvious stuff, but at that point in popular culture before videos, album covers were one of the main means of communication of ideas. Together they knew how to engage the consumer.”
“And then Bubbles comes up with this ‘Elvis is King’ checkerboard motif surrounding the central image. Jake was telling me that he and Bubbles went to the printers to make sure that they got the correct Pantone, and as they were watching it go through the presses, Jake suddenly wondered if it would cost any more to change colors past 5,000 presses. Of course, it didn’t, and so that’s why there are so many variants of the back cover. You turn it around and you’ve got this fluorescent color surrounding a pigeon-toed Elvis. The really great typographic placement of the song titles and the wavy line underneath Stiff—it was a package that benefited from those people working on it. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but at that point in popular culture before videos, album covers were one of the main means of communication of ideas. Together they knew how to engage the consumer.”
This Year’s Model (1978)
Costello is recast as a cosplay David Hemmings in Blow Up. The whole image has shifted a centimeter to the left in an act of wilful detournement, possibly depicting a TV on the blink.
Paul Gorman: “Barney Bubbles always listened to the records before he came up with design options, and a song like Lipstick Vogue talks about fashion and models sometimes in quite a derogatory way, but always—and I think Bubbles recognized this—with Elvis as a kind of twisted observer. The reference to Blow Up is pretty obvious, but it was also so typical of his work to turn everything on its head. So the artist isn’t in front of the camera, he’s behind it, and he becomes the observer and he’s watching.
“Exposing the process is a constant Bubbles’ work. It’s a postmodern practice where you show that this is all artifice, really”
“There are lots of hidden references poking fun at the music industry, and so what better way to do it than to put in a deliberate mistake where his full name and the title of the album are truncated and the printer code is exposed. Again, this is a constant in Bubbles’ work—exposing the process. It’s a postmodern practice where you show that this is all artifice, really. They’re testing the reception of the record companies and they came a cropper, and were obviously delighted when the American label said they weren’t going to put it out like that.
“Then the reverse sleeve features the latest TV as ‘this year’s model,’ which was Jake Riviera’s idea. And then Barney sets up a shot of mannequins for the inlay sleeve with each representing one of The Attractions all in different colors, and he did that constantly. He got Cynthia Lole to buy the vests and dye them all a different color for a shoot in the laundrette.”
Armed Forces (1979)
Barney Bubbles got a diploma in retail display at the Twickenham College of Technology in the late ’50s, and he put his skills to good use with sprawling record packaging, most notably on Hawkwind’s In Search of Space and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. The elephants, the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, are just the beginning…
Paul Gorman: “This is a really clever example of Barney Bubbles’ facility to use card in a really inventive way. It all folds together, like one of those paper fortune teller things that you put on your fingers at school, where different segments appear at different times. I think there are seven different variables. So there’s that technical aspect which shows his understanding of how materials can be used, and it’s also a work of supreme art direction. He and Jake wanted something incredibly naff on the cover, which again goes back to flipping things and annoying people, and I think they were even talking about Tretchikoff’s Green Lady for a while. Bubbles had been working with this very talented and unusual painter called Tom Pogson who they commissioned to paint the front cover in the style of the nature painter David Shepherd.
“He’s completely allowing them to run with their ideas because he trusts them and he knows that they can come up with something that matches his music.”
“That’s an interesting thing in itself: there are people living in the suburbs or across Britain who have these wildlife scenes as their kind of representation of desires of escaping. The armed forces are gathering in the guise of these powerful-looking elephants, and Bubbles is also riffing on various different movements and artists like Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian, and Bazooka, this radical French art collective who did graphics and cartoon strips, who he commissioned to produce artwork as well.
“Elvis Costello originally wanted to call it Emotional Fascism. It was Barney Bubbles who didn’t want the word ‘fascist’ used, which I think demonstrates Costello’s willingness to be part of a collective of ideas. Obviously you don’t doubt the power of him and The Attractions coming up with the music, but he’s also working with Riviera and Bubbles on the visuals, and he’s completely allowing them to run with their ideas because he trusts them and he knows that they can come up with something that matches his music.”
Get Happy (1980)
Fluorescent colors and a huge coffee cup mark in the middle of the cover might make for a baffling concept for some, though it’s the whole campaign that must be considered, says Paul Gorman.
Paul Gorman: “Get Happy is an amazing feat of artistry and wildness. The album covers were only one part of the entire package Bubbles created. You have to consider the symbols and the ways in which they relate to others; you have to consider the advertising, not only for the record releases, but also for the live tours. This was all integrated into a marketing campaign, various aspects of which would appear on the cover would then appear on the single covers, whether it’s typography or photography or graphics. Bubbles came out with this fantastic design which is thoroughly retro but fairly modern at the same time. There are the wear marks but also the use of color palette on Get Happy… it’s just extraordinary. And then there’s an oblique inner sleeve…
“Those decorative oblong shapes which are on the cover are repeated on the label as well. So there’s a lot going on on that sleeve beyond the simple joke about it having deliberate wear marks on it. For most artists and musicians, they’d be happy with that. Peter Savile’s description of him exemplifies the best of postmodern practice in that it’s: ‘the past, the present and the possible’, and I think that really applies to Get Happy.”
Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Colin Fulcher assumes a different character and paints like Picasso with a piece entitled Snake Charmer & Reclining Octopus for Costello’s 1982 masterpiece.
“Sal Forlenza is an alias, and Bubbles had many. In 1980 or so, he started to paint privately, canvases mainly, and he’d give them away to friends. He just painted for his own pleasure, and he had painted that as ‘Sal Forlenza’. When he talked to Elvis Costello about the album, he proposed that that be the cover. Now, Elvis has it in his apartment in New York. Bubbles had already done it, but it was appropriate because it’s got that very strange scenario which looks like it could come from an imperial bedroom, in a way.
“It was one of maybe 40 or 50 that he produced in the final years of his life. It’s a tribute to Picasso, because if you look closely at the funny little creatures hanging from the right hand corner it spells out “si Pablo”. It’s titled Snake Charmer & Reclining Octopus, and it’s a pastiche of Picasso’s Three Musicians. It’s his depiction of Elvis and The Attractions.”