A band’s merchandise should be as unique and expressive as their music. Good “merch” should represent who they are and what they’re about, while still being able to capture the attention of not just casual listeners and current fans, but anyone who lays eyes on it. While there doesn’t exist a static formula for a successful band t-shirt design, a general rule of thumb is to be as unique as possible. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But other times, for one reason or another, it blows up into something bigger than anyone ever imagined. Here are 13 t-shirts that forever changed the way we see rock and roll music.
1. Rolling Stones “Tongue and Lip Design” Tee:
The number one spot on our list belongs to the undisputed king of rock and roll iconography — the Rolling Stones’ famous Tongue and Lip Design.
Created in 1971 by London artist John Pasche, the iconic logo first appeared on the Stones’ album, Sticky Fingers. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger solicited designs from the Royal College of Art in 1969, and eventually settled on Pasche. Pasche has said that he wanted the overall theme for the logo to be anti-authoritarian, and that the first thing he noticed upon meeting Jagger was the remarkable size of his lips. Pasche put two and two together, and the result wound up defining what people see when they think of the legendary rock icons.
2. The Ramones “Presidential Seal” Tee:
The debate over who started punk rock is one that will persist for as long as humans have ears. Was it The Ramones in New York? Was it The Sex Pistols in the U.K.? Maybe it was Detroit’s forgotten African-American proto-punk pioneers, Death? (Your’e welcome.) One thing that remains certain is that The Ramones did it faster, harder, and with more cajones than any of their contemporaries.
The Ramones’ famous “Presidential Seal” logo was created by New York artist and longtime friend of the band Arturo Vega. According to Vega, he had just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. and wanted to create a logo that would establish The Ramones as the quintessential all-American rock and roll band. The result was this famous logo, themed after the U.S. Presidential Seal. In The Ramones’ version, however, the eagle holds a baseball bat instead of a bundle of arrows, and the phrase “E Ploribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”) is replaced with the words “Look out below.” If you’ve been to a rock and roll concert in the past 40 years and aren’t blind, you’ve probably seen this shirt in the crowd.
3. Pink Floyd “The Dark Side of the Moon” Tee:
Pink Floyd was one of the most revolutionary rock and roll bands of the 60’s and 70’s, and their album, The Dark Side of the Moon, is still considered one of the most influential rock records of all time. Since the record’s release in 1973 (over 40 years ago!), this t-shirt has attained cult status. Even if you don’t know who Pink Floyd is, we’d be willing to bet you recognize the iconic dispersive prism illustration logo. Who knew rock and roll and physics could be such a winning combination? Just kidding, we still hate physics.
(Editor’s Note: Not all of us hate physics.)
4. Led Zeppelin “USA Tour of ’77” Tee:
Being called one of the greatest, most innovative, and most influential rock bands of all time is a pretty big title; one that Led Zeppelin have worn proudly since their 1969 self-titled debut record. Aside from the importance of the band whom it represents, this tee is actually one of the only selections on our list that has a legacy of its own.
Led Zeppelin’s USA tour of 1977 was the last North American tour the band ever did. It sold over 1.3 million tickets, sold out the continent’s largest stadiums and arenas, and set records for the amount of money it made. For example, during the tour, Led Zeppelin played six sold out shows at New York City’s famous Madison Square Garden! Six! This t-shirt represents everything we know and love about rock and roll.
5. Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” Tee:
The Grateful Dead is easily one of the weirdest bands in rock and roll history, and we mean that in earnest endearment. Over the band’s 30-year history, before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, they released 22 albums, made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and developed one of the most loyal and unique fan bases in rock history. Yet, they never had a #1 Billboard chart recording — not an album, not a single, nothing. In fact, most “Deadheads” will tell you the Grateful Dead’s best recordings didn’t come out of studios and weren’t distributed through major labels, but came from backyard bootleggers and amateur audio “engineers” who recorded their live concert sets — a practice not only allowed by the band, but encouraged.
The iconic “Steal Your Face” logo, developed and released in 1973 by the band’s longtime friend and artist Owsley Stanley, was a big hit with fans (though, admittedly, the record on which it first appeared was not) and immediately began appearing on concert merch. Over the years, it has emerged as one of rock’s most recognizable images.
6. Metallica “Metallica” Tee:
When not suing people for stealing their music or being the only real band to play a concert on all seven continents, the guys in Metallica like to spend their spare time being one of the most widely known bands in rock and roll, today. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, James Hetfield and the rest of the boys re-wrote the book on how to make a living playing music and, in the process, their spikey-ended logo has become one of the most recognizable images in not just rock and roll, but the world. Metallica – 1 | Everybody Else – 0.
7. Aerosmith “Aeroforce One” Tee:
Here’s a fun fact: Aerosmith is the best-selling American rock and roll band of all time. They have sold over 150 million records worldwide and performed over 2,000 concerts, in over 48 countries, across five continents. Unlike most of the selections on this list, the Aeroforce One tee didn’t make the cut because it’s a popular and highly sold piece of merchandise, but because it’s a famously coveted nugget of rock and roll history.
The Aeroforce One shirt references Aerosmith’s famous fan club of the same name. The shirt wasn’t sold to the public, and was offered only to fan club members. But that didn’t stop Garth Algar from rocking it in Wayne’s World, and if we’ve learned anything over the years about being cool, it’s that Garth Algar is the godfather of “geek chic” and can do no wrong. In Garth We Trust.
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers “Star of Affinity” Tee:
For a symbol that’s consistently voted one of the most recognizable logos in rock and roll history, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic “Star of Affinity” logo is surprisingly meaningless. According to RHCP frontman (and original designer of the logo) Anthony Kiedis, the band was asked by record label executives to produce a last-minute logo for promotional purposes. So Kiedis sat down, scribbled the first thing that came to mind, and the famous eight-pronged star was born.
Yup. The symbol used to represent one of America’s most well-known Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, a band that has released 10 studio albums that have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, was just a random and forced scribble on a piece of paper. Either way, even if their version of “Love Rollercoaster” didn’t speak directly to your heart (and with lyrics like, “Your love is like a rollercoaster baby / baby I wanna ride yeah aw aw aw aw!” how could it not?) you’d still recognize this famous logo anywhere.
9. Nirvana “Smiley Face” Tee:
“Who cares about Nirvana?” … Is something no one said, ever, unless you’re Rush Order Tees’ resident content person, me. Despite my personal distaste for this band, they were pioneers of one of rock and roll’s most prominent sub-genres, grunge, and Kurt Cobain was a really smart guy, save for the whole “Courtney Love” thing. Hey, we all make mistakes, right?
Rumor has it that Cobain himself drew the logo on his apartment wall one evening after getting good and stoned, but the meaning behind the logo is heavily debated among fans. Theories range from the logo being Cobain’s portrait of Axl Rose, to it just being a “creative interpretation” (Read as: “ripoff”) of a logo on the marquee of a now-defunct, but then-popular Seattle strip club.
10. Black Flag “Four-Bar Logo” Tee:
Walk into any dive bar in the country, especially in the South Bay area of Southern California, and the odds of spotting at least one Black Flag logo t-shirt are pretty good. Black Flag’s four-bar logo is a pillar of rock and roll iconography, and about as punk rock as it gets (for a hardcore band, at least).
According to its creator, Raymond Ginn (brother of original lead singer Greg Ginn), the idea behind the rather basic logo, which consists of four vertical black rectangles, was simple: If a white flag represents surrender, a black flag represents anarchy and the spirit of rebellion. The logo and its resulting t-shirts have become staples of the punk rock, hardcore, and Beach Boys communities.
11. AC/DC “Lightning Bolt” Tee:
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, and often referred to as rock and roll’s thunder from down under, AC/DC is one of the oldest and most influential bands of all time, even if Angus Young has always been too old for his creepy schoolboy outfits. Though officially formed in 1973, their iconic lightning bolt logo wasn’t conceived until 1977, by famous artist Gerard Huerta. Since its first appearance almost 40 years ago, the simple, yet iconic design is consistently ranked one of the greatest and most recognizable rock logos of all time.
12. The Misfits “Skull” Tee:
In their heyday, The Misfits were one of the most popular bands in rock and roll. The “horror punk” pioneers from little Lodi, New Jersey, became known and loved for their thematic mix of punk rock and horror film imagery. Song titles like, “Mommy Can I Go Kill Tonight” and “Die, Die My Darling” pepper the band’s discography, and it’s not weird at all.
While original Misfits singer Glenn Danzig may only be 5-foot-4-inches tall, his old band’s logo is larger than life. The famous Skull logo, which first appeared on the band’s “Horror Business” single in 1979, was first believed to be inspired by a movie poster for the 1946 horror film serial, The Crimson Ghost. However, there’s some compelling evidence out there to suggest The Misfits actually stole their logo from a little-known Stan Lee comic.
The only thing we know for certain is that the classic Misfits skull logo tee is one of the most prevalent pieces of punk rock and roll memorabilia.
13. CBGB “Classic” Tee:
At the risk of sounding cliche, we’re going to say that CBGB’s is the place where it all began. Started in 1973 as a would-be country and blue grass bar (CBGB actually stands for Country Blue Grass and Blues) by the famed Hilly Kristal, CBGB’s would become the incubator from which the eggs of rock and roll sub-genres like punk, hardcore, and new wave would eventually hatch. The famous CBGB stage became the soap box for some of America’s most iconic rock and roll outfits, including Patti Smith, The Ramones, Joan Jett (remember “I Love Rock and Roll?”), and later, hardcore bands like The Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, and Gorilla Biscuits. The classic font of the shirt is based off the original CBGB’s sign, hand painted by Kristal himself, upon the venue’s opening. Even if you didn’t know what “CBGB” stood for, you probably know what it represents — the birthplace of American underground rock.