Xitintoday (1978) by Nik Turner’s Sphynx.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a reason to write about Barney Bubbles but I’ve finally worked out why one of his more mysterious album covers looks the way it does.
When Nik Turner was unceremoniously kicked out of Hawkwind in 1976 he headed to Cairo to consider his next move. While there he recorded an hour or two of flute improvisations inside the sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The resulting tapes provided the basis for his first solo album, Xitintoday, which was released in 1978 on the Charisma label, and credited to Nik Turner’s Sphynx. Steve Hillage produced the album, helping to craft the meandering solos into a suite of songs based on passages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Xitintoday is one of the more unusual concept albums from a decade filled with such things. I’ve always liked it, in many ways it’s closer to Hillage’s oeuvre than Turner’s, as well as being very different to anything else in the Hawk-sphere.
A faded promo badge. The ballpoint scrawl is Mr Turner’s autograph.
Barney Bubbles’ design for the album is also very different to anything else in the Hawk-sphere, an example of what might be called his High Modernist period, when the hippy motifs and decorative pastiches of his earlier work were replaced with bold, flat colours and playful graphic designs. Xitintoday was released with a square booklet containing lyrics, notes about the mythological theme, and a series of pictures which combine diagrams and Ancient Egyptian reliefs with calligram-like wordplay. The back cover of the album exemplifies the latter, with the word “Day” spelled out in much smaller words reading “Night”; inside the booklet there’s a page for Isis the Moon Goddess where the words “Isis is is is is…” form a curve around a photograph of the Moon. The cover design continues the cosmic theme with a field of star shapes in which each star is created by the word “Twinkle”. The star field makes sense in the context of the booklet but I’ve wondered for a long time why Barney Bubbles thought it was a suitable cover design rather than simply being another booklet page.
The solution arrived last week when work-related research had me looking through old design books for examples of Ancient Egyptian ornamentation. One of these, The Grammar of Ornament (1856) by Owen Jones, contains several pages of full-colour plates filled with Egyptian pattern samples.
And on one of those pages there are these two squares which made me think immediately of the Xitintoday cover. This might seem tenuous when the cover design doesn’t feature any red dots but Barney Bubbles was an avid Egyptophile, avid enough to name his son after one of the Egyptian gods. A quick search revealed many more examples of this pattern which are closer matches for the cover design.
It turns out that the yellow star on a blue background was a common way of representing the night sky in Egyptian art, you’ll find the same stars in wall paintings and on the ceilings inside royal tombs.
For years I’ve regarded the Xitintoday cover as being uncharacteristically random and abstract, surprisingly so when Bubbles designs from the same period are all so smart and well-considered. This discovery puts the Sphynx album in the same category, a design which avoids many more obvious solutions for a combination of the very old and the very new. Another feature of Barney Bubbles design is a kind of “Aha!” moment, when your appreciation of the design catches up with the thinking behind it. The appreciation this time has taken an outrageously long time to arrive but I’m pleased to have got there in the end.