I’m with the T-shirt: how a punk band invented a design classic

Ramones top is still a fashion staple, 40 years on, underlining the power of good design

 

It’s 40 years since one of the great pieces of rock iconography first emerged – the Presidential Seal Ramones T-shirt.

Designed by the band’s creative director, Arturo Vega, in 1976, the resultant T-shirt has become one of biggest selling fashion items of recent decades, available not only on market stalls but also in branches of Next and H&M.

It even takes pride of place in the Ramones museum in Berlin.

The four members of the Ramones named on the T-shirt – Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy – may now all be dead but they live on as sales of the T-shirt remain as strong as ever (it’s believed to be the best-selling of all time).

Seen on everyone and anyone from Britney Spears to members of One Direction, the beautiful irony of the Ramones T-shirt is it usually worn by people who couldn’t name even one of their songs.

The New York punk band, active from the mid-1970s to when they broke up in 1996 always sold more T-shirts than they did records.

Usually wearing a band T-shirt is seen as a badge of honour, a way of telling the world what cool taste in music you have.

It does help if the design is noteworthy (see Nirvana and Sonic Youth) as it can be a bit tragic there’s no design merit there whatsoever (see Oasis).

Clear design

But, despite the Ramones breaking up over 20 years ago and never really troubling the charts, the global, best-selling success of their Presidential Seal T-shirt is down to a clear design aesthetic and an ineffable sense of “cool”.

More famous designers have been given far larger design budgets to come up with band T-shirts before and after the Ramones but Arturo Vega’s design endures simply because of its visual appeal and the enhanced status of the band it signifies.

As scuzzy punk rockers who played fast and furious (the band could rip through 25 songs during a one-hour gig), The Ramones were permanent “outsiders” – beloved of a certain cognoscenti only.

Arturo Vega spent a lot of time thinking up what image he wanted and what he wanted that image to convey.

Given their outsider status, he came up with the Presidential Seal used by American Presidents.

“I came up with the Seal because I saw them as the ultimate all-American band,” Vega has said. “I thought the well-known seal of the President of the United States would be perfect for the Ramones as it symbolises strength and the aggression that would be used against whoever dares to attack us.”

It’s the ultimate authority figure endorsement for a bunch of punk rockers and it’s as striking in its simplicity as the Rolling Stones “lips” logo from 1971.

Josh Sims, the author of the book 100 Ideas That Changed Street Style says of the work: “any kind of band T-shirt that either goes the distance or transcends the original connection is basically down to good design”.

In this sense, the Ramones T-shirt works independent of the band and their music.

Incidentally, Sims, though knowing about the band, only became aware of their iconic T-shirt when his wife bought it in H&M for their one-year-old child.

Although properly only worn as a T-shirt and in its original black colour, you can now buy it as vest, tank-top, sweat shirt, hoodie and in colours ranging from pink to vivid lime.

Parodies

It comes in whatever size you want and, interestingly, one of the biggest size sellers is that for babies aged from one to four.

There are numerous parodies of it also, with the one substituting the name of the Mitford sisters for the band members being one of the most popular.

When Vega first suggested to the band he was going to make up some band T-shirts to sell at their gigs, they laughed in his face – “Who’s gonna buy a Ramones T-shirt?”.

Not long after though, when the band were playing to audiences of thousands of people, nearly everyone at the show would stop off at the merchandise stand on the way out to buy a Ramones T-shirt at $25.

By showing that a great piece of design could lift a band out of the margins and see them penetrate the commercial mainstream, Arturo Vega was a pioneer.

These days bands make more money selling their vast range of merchandise (from T-shirts to mugs to towels to carpets) and, given the profit margins concerned, it’s not unheard off for a band to go out on tour solely to make T-shirt income.

As a footnote, it should be remembered that the Ramones helped change the course of popular music and remain a major influence on today’s bands at the better end of the scale but, thanks to their design breakthrough, they are best known now as the T-shirt on the back of someone who has never heard a Ramones song in their life.

Top of the Tops – best rock band T-shirts:

1. Nirvana – Smiley Face

Created by Kurt Cobain himself, during the Nevermind sessions, it’s ridiculously simple yet powerful. The back of the T-shirt is striking, featuring the self-deprecating phrase “flower sniffin kitty pettin baby kissin corporate rock whores”.

2. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

You can’t move on South William Street in Dublin without seeing this popular and enduring design. The image, selected by drummer Stephen Morris, depicts the radio waves from pulsar CP 1919.

3. AC/DC

So good it’s as if the T-shirt design came first and the band name second.

4. Rolling Stones – Lips

Inspired by Mick Jagger’s own lips, it originally appeared on the Sticky Fingers album and is regarded as one of the greatest band logos of all time.

5. Sonic Youth – Goo

The couple in this are actually (and very surprisingly) Maureen Hindley and David Smith, key witnesses in the 1966 trial of Moors murderers Myra Hindley (Maureen’s sister) and Ian Brady.

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