by Tom Stratton

Band Tees!

Merch is a major part of every bands tour; tables outside the gig w...
Band Tees!
Merch is a major part of every bands tour; tables outside the gig with rows of people waiting to snap up a memory of the moment. Particularly since the loss of physical sales, t-shirts and other merchandise have become a large part of a touring bands income. They’ve also become a major fashion piece for everyone whether they know the band they’re wearing or not (I’m pretty sure the Kardashians are not fans of Slayer or Metallica). The history of rock music isn’t that much longer than the history of the band t-shirt but it did take the bands/managers a little while to catch on. 

History of Merch

Arguably the first band t-shirt ever produced was not by an official promoter but via the Elvis Presley Fan Club. These were more of a gift to fans than something to be worn as we do today. T-shirts themselves had only just gained popularity (thanks, in part, to Marlon Brando) so the idea of running around with a musician, or any sort of logo, plastered all over your tee was ludicrous. There’s some argument that teddy-rockers used to write the names of their favourite bands over their own shirts but regardless they were a way away from Ramones tees in Topshop.
A brief timeline provided by the writers of The Art of the Band T-shirt states that in 1964 The Beatles produced a limited run for guests at their US tour. Whether any of these exist or not is unclear but what is clear is that the idea of a t-shirt for promotional value had not yet entered into the consciousness of those 60’s money-grabbing managers. In fact, considering The Beatles seemed to have more ridiculous merch than even modern bands have, it’s quite surprising that they didn’t go into the t-shirt game early on. 

Hey Hey We're The Monkees

Now, according to the same authors The Monkees did produce t-shirts for their tour in 1967. Whether or not it’s the credibility of The Monkees as a band, nobody wants to admit they had one, or they just didn’t make that many, information on the tee itself is fairly scarce. My guess would be they were printed in limited numbers for certain people and still nobody had cottoned on to the fact that there was big money waiting to be had from the fans. One more mention from that book too as the Allman Brothers make a t-shirt in 1970, they were however reserved exclusively for crew and family so who knows if any still even exist. 
By the late 60s, slogan tees were starting to make more of an appearance. The backlash over the Vietnam War was rising through the 60s counterculture and protest would often come in the shape of fashion, whether simply dressing a bit odd or scrawling END THE FUCKING WAR on the front of a t-shirt, there was a rising of a new generation who wanted to be heard. This is where famous promotor Bill Graham took notice.
Bill Graham was promoting such acts as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix when he noticed the viability of tees: walking billboards. Along with music exec Dell Furano, Graham set up Hinterland Productions, widely recognised as the first concert t-shirt manufacturer. At this time Bill Graham also worked with The Grateful Dead who, in 1971, created their iconic tie-dye tee that continued to be used up until the 90s. 


Grateful Dead’s tie-dye wasn’t just a paean to the band. They didn’t just say ‘I like The Grateful Dead’. They were an indicator to others around you that you were one of them. You were essentially saying ‘I smoke weed’ and in this becoming part of a whole culture. The want for social change, the fanaticism of Grateful Dead fans, and the drug culture of the band culminated into a perfect opportunity to sell t-shirts. 
It would still be a few years before the real benefits of t-shirts as merchandise were to be seen. The seventies were very much the antithesis of the hippy culture that had been before. Music was big business and, as pop/rock music was still a relatively new phenomenon, there was still some marketing to iron out to fully monetise the whole experience. The t-shirts started to trickle out - Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, and The Band sold tour t-shirts when they played a series of concerts together. Then later in ’73 the band Yes brought out a tour tee which made them a fair bit of money ($250,000, apparently). 


This is where it all became the massive business it is today; AC/DC released their first album in 76 and would, through the 70s, become the first band in history to make more money from merchandising than from ticket sales. Whether it was the simplicity of the AC/DC logo or just lucky timing as fans started to get on the t-shirt train, one thing is for sure: merch was now big business. 

Kiss would famously jump on this new money-making scheme by merchandising everything from condoms to coffins. There’s even a Kiss cruise that sails yearly. Of course there were many bands that went against this tradition but in the present day bands mostly have no other option than to merchandise whatever they can. The loss of physical sales and the paltry amounts that trickle through streaming services means that in order to make a decent living out of their music, most bands must now treat merch as part of their whole act. 

Catwalk Fashion

The fact that band tees are now on catwalks and in high street shops is on the one hand a sad indictment of the music industry but, on the other hand, perhaps they are managing to keep some of those bands afloat and offering some level of promotion. Regardless, that’s something I’ll write about another time. For now let’s just enjoy a few of the great (and rare) band tee designs we’ve had over the years. You’ll be lucky to find most of them but if you do, you could be in for a fair few quid. 

Sonic Youth Goo, Ramones Presidential Seal, Nirvana Smiley Face, Pink Floyd Dark Side    

I wasn’t going to mention any of these but instead I think they need special mention: they’re probably the most recognisable due to being picked up by the mainstream and reprinted. There’s loads I could’ve chosen from but I thought these were a good example of band tees becoming fashion rather than a proclamation of your love for a band. I’m not having that half the people I see in these tees know who the bands are but such is capitalism and merchandising. Also, one of the reasons, is because of the timelessness of the designs: whatever you think about the commercialisation of such artists, you can’t deny the iconic look of all of these designs. 

Aerosmith Aero Force One 

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Aerosmith but I’m definitely a fan of this t shirt. Perhaps it’s purely because I’m a big fan of Garth from Waynes World but he absolutely made this tee. To be fair to Aerosmith it’s a great design and I do like a pun. You can definitely find these if you do a bit of digging around. It won’t be the cheapest for an original but definitely not as much as some go for.

Nirvana In Concert

Unfortunately you’d be hard pressed to find this anywhere but I had to include it for that great design and the price tag it had attached to it. The crew members-only tee was designed for the ’93 In Utero tour so only a handful were made. Cobain’s bodyguard put his up for auction where it managed to pull in just under $7,000. I don’t think you’d wear that on a night out would you?

Rolling Stones Knebworth ’76 

This image of Obelix carrying a large stone is another one you’re not going to find but it’s too good not to show you. Another one made just for crew, family, and friends, there’s a couple of variations but it’s never going to set you back less than a few grand. It’s since been recreated so you can get a new version for a few quid but there’s plenty of other original Stones tees to choose from so why bother eh? The real thing or nothing! 

The Pogues The Brother Wouldn’t Look at an Egg USA Tour 

From the Pogues 1987 USA Tour featuring the Flann O’Brien quote on the back: “The brother wouldn’t look at an egg”. This tee perfectly sums up The Pogues and particularly frontman Shane Macgowan: messy, beautiful, and poetic. It wouldn’t be long until McGowan stopped turning up - he decided not to for the ’98 US tour, so this is a little slice of a tumultuous history. Definitely one of the cheaper ones on the list - you should pick it up for a couple of hundred quid. Bargain. 

Lauryn Hill Miseducation World Tour 1999

A simple but effective number here for Lauren Hill’s world tour promoting her one and only solo album. The tee is made to look like a chalk board to fit in with the theme of the album, the back was actually a picture all the tour dates written on a stand-alone chalk board. Again, a much cheaper option than some of those really rare ones, it’d be a treat to find though.