The True Stories of 11 of the Most Iconic Band Shirts - Part One

Posted by Merch Worx on 25 October 2020

In a previous post, we discussed how the shirt is the most popular and most powerful piece of merchandise that bands have at their disposal. But just how powerful it can be often hinges on the design on the shirt just as much as the music behind it.

Today, join me on a journey through the first six of eleven of the most iconic and most worn band shirts in the world.

11. Smashing Pumpkins - Zero

The shirt that divides the internet to this day.

Originally sported by Billy Corgan in the "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" music video, there are claims that the shirt was originally a crossover between Zero Skateboards and the Pumpkins son "Zero" from Mellon Collie, which is almost the most 90's sentence that has ever come out of my mouth.

Other people claim that it was the custom of Zero, a superhero persona created by Corgan. The evidence for this, according to supporters of this theory, is their following album Machina/The Machines of God. Machina tells the story of a rockstar named Zero who hears the voice of God and performs in a killer band that everybody loves. Which is almost the most Billy Corgan thing that has ever come out of Billy Corgan's mouth.

In 2011, Corgan auctioned off one of his original handmade Zero shirts for Japanese Earthquake relief, getting USD$6, 547.41 for it. That's almost ten grand Australian. Wow.

10. Gorillaz - DARE

This spot goes to basically everything that Gorillaz have done. The British virtual band is almost unique in the fact that it's only two static IRL members consist of a musician (Damon Albarn) and an artist (Jamie Hewlett).

Hewlett worked for years in the comic book industry and famously co-created Tank Girl, an anarchic strip about a punk girl who drives tanks through apocalyptic deserts and dates a mutant kangaroo. He definitely pulled some of that unique weirdness across to the Gorillaz when conceptualizing 2-D, Murdoc, Hobbs, and of course, Noodle.

It all culminated perfectly in this beautiful shirt and single design showing Noodle chilling in her bed room above large Japanese lettering.

9. My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

Known mostly for the G note that can make an entire generation cry, "The Black Parade" is a theatrical arena rock album centred around The Patient, a cancer victim who has died and is reflecting on their life. Each song represents a different memory, and within the folds of the album insert is James Jean's iconic art representing the black parade being led by this kinda cute, skully, grand marshall.

During a keynote, Jean said that while the concept for the artwork was vocalist Gerard Way's idea, the sketch that Way gave him was essentially "one long black blob" and he had to invent all the weird little details himself.

Somehow the feeling of the entire artwork has just as big an impact when the cute skull grand marshal is the only part of the parade that is represented, making for one great, iconic band shirt. Whether you are united or divided on My Chem's contribution to the emo sensation that struck the mid noughties, you can tell a lot about a person when they're rocking this tee.

8. The Velvet Underground & Nico - Banana

Understanding the history behind The Velvet Underground & Nico's banana logo would require a deep dive into the culture and arts of the 1960's. So I'm gonna summarise the entire decade as concisely as I possibly can: it was as weird as it was mundane. Which is much more interesting about this design is what happened decades later, in 2012.

Obviously designed by Andy Warhol, who operated as Velvet Underground's mentor and manager, the artwork became the focus of a large lawsuit in January 2012, when Lou Reed and John Cale sued the Andy Warhol Foundation of Visual Arts. Their reason? They didn't want Warhol's iconic banana being printed on iPhone cases (at least not without their name and wallets attached to it).

The case was settled out of court, after a judge discovered that they had forgotten that they'd already signed contracts promising not to sue each other over the banana. A fact they must've forgotten during a totally sober part of their lives.

7. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

I have a personal stake in this one that could jeopardize all the cred I have with music merch enthusiasts. I don't know a lot about Joy Division, but I wear this shirt. All. The. Time. I know you're not meant to wear a shirt if you can't name a song by the band that's on it, but I feel like I've earned this one by being a design geek who is a huge fan of the image's designer, Peter Saville.

Saville based this iconic image off a readout of radio waves from the pulsar CP 1919 which he found in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. He reserved it out, making it white on black, against the band's wishes because it was "sexier" that way. That is a direct quote of someone calling a technical graph of successive radio pulses sexy - I just wanted to stress that.

The image has been parodied countless times, by everyone from Australia's Frenzal Rhomb, to Disney, a company who are otherwise obsessed with preventing anybody ever using their images in vein. I have to agree with Saville, this design is "cool, in all meanings, from cool to cold."

6. Sublime - Sun

The Sublime sun design that adorned the cover art for their debut album, "40oz to Freedom", has become shorthand for Southern Californian surf culture, but it also has it's place within punk, ska, raggae and hippie culture. It's light has spread far and beyond the initial reception of the 1992 release, which famously didn't sell very well. But it has humble beginnings.

It was designed by Opie Ortiz, a screenprinter turned tattoo artist, who was childhood "punker" friends with Sublime bassist Eric Wilson. Over the course of their friendship Ortiz illustrated and printed Wilson's entire musical journey - from the shirts, to the flyers, to album covers and more. So when Sublime formed, Ortiz become their de facto artist.

The sun itself was originally printed on a throw away shirt that Ortiz sold vocalist Brad Nowell for $20. Nowell wore that shirt until it fell apart, and then hung it on the wall of his apartment. Later he paid for the design to appear on the now famous album cover. And then he paid for it again and said to Ortiz "Hey, don't sue me about the sun." Ortiz reportedly thought to himself "Oh, I should totally sue him about the sun now"

Join us next time for the top 5!

MerchWorx Pro Tip

Did you know that we don't just print shirts?

We also have a great team of graphic artists and designers who can help you design a shirt that represented you and your music perfectly (I should know, I'm one of them.)

Get in touch and maybe you too could raise ridiculous amounts of cash for charity, or just come up with a cool design that has a cool backstory that might one day show up in a list just like this.

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