The shirt is still the most popular and powerful piece of merchandise that bands have at their disposal. Surprisingly, since our last post where we covered the first six of the most iconic designs in this list, that hasn't changed.
Today find out our picks for the top five most iconic band shirts and learn the stories behind them.
“36 Chambers” is the quintessential hardcore hip-hop album. Not only is it a solid display of rap flow and production, but it created an entire movement of creative storytelling and world building that hadn’t been seen much in the scene during its formative years. The Wu-Tang logo itself, designed by Ronald Bean, a.k.a. Mathematics, has an inspired history that long predates its release.
Back when RZA was coming off the idea of pushing a solo career, he wanted to make stickers that said Wu-Tang to promote his new collective. He approached Mathematics, who was into karate films at the time, a theme that is now heavily referenced throughout the Wu-Tang mythos, which lead to the iconic style of the Wu-Tang W. But it wasn’t always so simple.
The design originally had an arm extending out of the wing of the W, holding a decapitated head. Ironically enough, when RZA called Mathematics about doing up a logo for the lead single of 36 Chambers, titled “Protect Ya Neck”, the decapitated head was removed from the design.
It’s likely that The Ramones sold more shirts than they did albums. That is a paraphrased quote from the designer of the shirt, Arturo Vega, who quickly then quipped about selling merch that their shows that they “probably sold more T-Shirts than tickets.”
Vega moved from Mexico to New York in his twenties and met Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone) when Colvin walked passed Vega’s loft and peeked in to mention he liked the music coming out of the stereo and that he was starting a band. Vega stayed close beside the band ever since, attending all but 2 of their 2,200+ live shows, selling merch that he designed for them, setting up their lighting and serving as the honorary fifth Ramone.
The design itself is a modified presidential seal, replacing the olive branches usually held by the eagle with an apple tree branch and a baseball bat. During an interview on those design choices in 1993, Vega said “I saw them as the ultimate all-American band… They reflected the American character in general – an almost childish innocent aggression.”
In “The Boys of Summer”, Don Henley sung “Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” which is a testament to how this iconic design permeated culture to the point where even people who wouldn’t usually associate themselves with the culture behind it would proudly wear it on their most prized possessions.
Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear), The Grateful Dead’s sound guy and LSD supplier (gotta love a multi-talented employee), got frustrated with losing the band’s sound equipment while on festivals and decided that they needed a distinctive mark on their gear so it was easy to find. He saw a white-orange-and-blue circle while driving along a California highway and thought that adding a lightning bolt across it would serve that purpose perfectly.
He told graphic artist Bob Thomas about it, who then sketched it out and passed it to another friend, Ernie Fischbach, who cut and sprayed the original stencil on the Dead’s gear. Later, maybe after sampling his own product, Stanley thought that adding a skull would be cool. Which it is. Proof that if you ever have a design that is lacking, add a skull to it to make it instantly cool.
The Misfits were the very first horrorpunk band, who have cemented themselves in pop culture with their Elvis influenced hardcore sound and lyrics inspired and based almost entirely off horror films (jury is still out on what “We are 138” means, but I assume it’s spooky).
It makes sense then that their logo is lifted directly from a 1946 horror film serial titled “The Crimson Ghost”. The film itself is basically an early version of Scooby Doo, in which a criminologist attempts to thwart and unmask the eponymous villain, The Crimson Ghost. His mask is now probably more well known as the punk equivalent of Live. Laugh. Love. than it is as a classic film villain.
The Misfits first used the image on a flyer in 1979, after vocalist Glenn Danzig and bassist Jerry Only came across a picture of the Crimson Ghost while searching for images to silkscreen onto shirts. Danzig, being crafty about copyright law, didn’t replicate any still from the film itself, but redrew it just different enough to escape any legal issues. The drummer then stenciled it on his kick drum, and it showed up again on the cover of the “Horror Business” single. Nowadays it’s rare to see anything Misfits without it.
The tongue, or “Lick”, has been incorrectly attributed to Andy Warhol, incorrectly registered in Germany and subsequently registered by a German jeans company, and used by unauthorized manufacturers of badges and shirts for so long that the original designer, John Pasche, is mostly forgotten in the mess.
Pasche was approached by Mick Jagger while still attending college to design a tour poster, and even attended Pasche’s graduation ceremony. Later he paid him £50 to design the now iconic Lick logo, which first appeared in the insert for the “Sticky Fingers” album. The rest of the cover art was designed by Warhol, hence some of the confusion about it’s origins. Later the Stones paid Pasche an extra £200 in recognition of the logo’s success.
The concept for the design was to represent the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude, sexy nature, and, of course, Mick’s mouth. If you’ve seen Mick’s mouth, which I assume you have, that instantly makes so much sense that I don’t think I need to discuss it any further and it would make me uncomfortable to do so.
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.