Recently, a college buddy posted a picture of himself on social media with a Pablo Cruise T-shirt that his brother had given him for his birthday. It was so random that I was pretty sure it was tied to an inside joke between them. Could Dave have really been a big fan of the band and its songs like “Love Will Find A Way” and “Whatcha Gonna Do,” or was it that he, like many of us, thought that the band’s logo with its sunset coloring and lilting palm tree was a perfect metaphor for the 1970s? Either way it got me thinking about the concert/rock tee phenomenon.
The rock T-shirt had its origins in the late 1950 via an Elvis fan club. However these tees were rarely worn in public and were considered part of a fan club membership pack. Then in 1968 rock concert promoter Bill Graham and his San Francisco-based Winterland Productions decided to use concert tees as a way to help promote local bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Graham saw a “walking billboard” potential in the tees and saw to it that they’d have a band image on the front, with a band’s touring calendar printed on the back. Since most concertgoers of that time either watched a performance standing on a dance floor or siting on the ground, these tour calendars were impossible to ignore. Sometimes, based upon the size of the crowd and the venue you were in, the back of the person in front of you might be the only thing you could clearly see all night. It was brilliant if for nothing more than its simplicity, and his decision to use a screen printing process allowed Graham to produce the tees quickly and in volume. Almost overnight he created a new industry.
The concert T-shirt platform quickly moved to becoming a more creative canvas for bands and the artists that followed them. Concert tees would begin to embrace design elements that made them more than swag. Instead they could make a personal statement about the person wearing them without them ever uttering a single word. Soon the tour dates on the back of the T-shirts would begin to disappear and the focus would move to what was on the front of the tee (although you still see tour date calendars on T-shirts today, or at least you did until bands stopped touring).
Some T-shirts from the 1970s have become as famous as the bands they promoted. Consider this a small sampling:
AC/DC, “lightning bolt”: In 1977 this T-shirt became the debut platform for the now-iconic lightning bolt logo, making it one of the most recognizable images in all of rock. It’s propelled the sales of everything that’s included the logo, and, according to historian Glenn A. Baker, made AC/DC the first band to ever make money off merchandise. KISS would learn from AC/DC and make merchandising their primary source of income, adding bobble heads, action figures and much, much more to their offerings over the decades.
Pink Floyd, “The Dark Side of the Moon”: This tee has long ago reached cult status. The album’s prism illustration may even be more associated with the T-shirt than the actual album. The appeal is so vast that this tee is even often sold at astronomy expos – in volume!
Grateful Dead, “Steal Your Face”: The “Steal Your Face” logo was developed and released in 1973. It was designed by the artist Owsley Stanley and created by Bob Thomas. While this instantly-recognizable skull-with-lightning-bolt logo has emerged as one of rock’s most recognizable images, band historian David Lemieux recently told me that fans in the 1970s rarely wore T-shirts with the logo to concerts. There, you were more likely to see denim, flannel and suede. That has long since changed, and at any given Dead & Company show you could now call wearing this tee (or some variation of it) the dress code.
The Rolling Stones, “lips and tongue logo”: While the famous “lips” logo made its debut on the album Sticky Fingers, it was when it started to appear on T-shirts that it really caught air. The T-shirt is so closely associated with the band and their fan base that the Stones included a photo of a couple from Europe with one of them wearing it on their 1998 live album No Security.
The Ramones, “Presidential Seal”: The Ramones’ famous “Presidential Seal” was created by New York artist Arturo Vega, who wanted to create a logo that would establish the Ramones as the quintessential All-American rock and roll band. The result was this famous graphic, themed after the Seal of the President of the United States. It may not have accomplished what it set out to do, but the logo and the tee are now iconic, found everywhere, and have become in every way “American.”
At one point around the 1970s, the concert tee became so popular that iron-on decals were made available through various promotions. They could be offered as a gift with purchase in your local record store, come in the Sunday newspaper, or be slipped into the jacket of an album you purchased. I also remember mailing in a proof-of-purchase for something and having an iron-on sent to me. All you needed was a blank tee, an ironing board and an iron and you could make your own rock tee the way you wanted. The concept was awesome. The execution, not so much. The images always looked faded and typically would vanish after two or three runs through the washing machine. The DIY movement in tees wasn’t quite there yet.
In the 1980s the popularity of concert tees waned a bit. Fashion senses moved away from denim and cotton tees to bold, bright colors and apparel that popped. Maybe the only tees of that period that made an impact were the ones worn in Wham and the “We Are The World” videos.
In the nineties the rock tee reasserted its influence with bands like Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica. They kicked rock T-shirts forward with designs that the bands personally created. To this day, Nirvana’s “Smiley Face” tee, with a logo drawn by the late Kurt Cobain himself, demonstrates how powerful a legacy these shirts can leave behind.
Today, big apparel companies like streetwear brand Supreme have flooded the marketplace with new tees tied to bands like Joy Division, Sonic Youth and the aforementioned AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana among others. However, this market saturation has really diluted the impact that wearing a tee from one of these bands once made. I mean who cares now if you like AC/DC? Who doesn’t? It’s like wearing a tee promoting Coca-Cola!
Like all things vintage, there is also an active collector’s marketplace for tees. Original concert tees from bands like Aerosmith can command prices as high as $300. On eBay, the range of offerings is wide and the pricing for all (even through the pandemic) has remained strong. If you can believe it, someone recently paid $10,000 for a Led Zeppelin tee from 1979!
A few years back I was tempted to take my collection of concert tees and send them off to a company that takes old sports jerseys and recycles them into a quilt. I thought it would make a great bedspread for the guest room. I was the only one in our house who felt that way. On second thought, though, I’m glad the idea got vetoed. My old Grateful Dead and NRBQ tees were meant to be worn and some of my newer concert tees, like one from a Doyle Bramhall ll show, have been hijacked by my teenage daughter. That makes me even happier than wearing them myself.
The T-shirt may have gotten its real pop culture debut from Marlon Brando, who famously wore one in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. But it earned its cool factor by helping rock n roll become more than just a musical genre. T-shirts propelled rock forward and made it a lifestyle. That lifestyle has been defined by the teens who proudly represent the bands that they think matter most. To anyone paying attention it begs the question, “When was the last time you felt this strongly about anything?” The answer is probably when you last wore one of these tees yourself.
Whatever path forward rock takes, this fashion phenomenon will proudly promote it, probably with a whole bunch of swagger, flair, and fun – even if the band on the front is someone like Pablo Cruise!