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There’s a sense of consumer cluelessness when a young wannabe pop star like Lindsay Lohan is photographed clutching an energy drink fittingly called Rehab and wearing a Queen ’80 tour T-shirt without a trace of irony. First of all, if she can name a Queen song other than “We Will Rock You,” we’ll guarantee Freddie Mercury himself will rise from the dead. Second, she was born in 1986. Welcome to the unrelenting retro retail trend of buying other people’s misty watercolor memories: the vintage rock T-shirt. Unlike the bulkiness of the ’90s, vintage T-shirts with thin collars, as well as baseball jerseys, of the classic rock, metal and punk eras are fitted for a more fashionable look and have a softer, worn-in, comfortable feel. They’re your ticket to hip street cred, like your ’70s shag haircut, ’80s leggings and ’40s rounded-toe pumps. They’re also nostalgic conversation starters. What else says “I listen to blue-eyed Philly soul” like a Hall & Oates H2O tour shirt complete with Whole Oates Enterprises copyright, private eyes be damned?
In Rock Tease: The Golden Years of Rock T-Shirts, one of the many books on the market chronicling the history of this wearable music memorabilia, co-authors Erica Easley and Ed Chalfa trace the popularity of these “time-capsule souvenirs” to the mid-’70s, when Bill Graham started the first music-merchandising company in the coatroom of his Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In the ’70s, single and four-color prints and illustrations were simple. In the ’80s, as technology improved, graphics became bolder, and logos, props, scenery, “photo-based images,” and demonic mascots still used by metal bands today grew popular. In the ’90s, it was oversize back-to-basics as grunge and hip-hop took over. Easley and Chalfa have unearthed some real beauts here: an actual royal-purple Deep Purple shirt; a Sex Pistols shirt with the tag on the outside used as promotion for the Never Mind the Bollocks album; and a Canadian shirt of Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo tour oddly displaying a burning cross and KKK imagery, even though he’s never been associated with any hate group. Tease also includes interviews with Richard Hell, who created the infamous “Please Kill Me” shirt that inspired Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s punk tome of the same name (though it was worn by Television bandmate Richard Lloyd and not Hell himself), as well as Arturo Vega, the originator of one of the most recognizable works of rock ’n’ roll imagery, as ubiquitous as the Stones’ tongue logo — the Ramones’ presidential seal.
Author Johan Kugelberg “curates” hundreds more of these “symbols of conformist nonconformism,” courtesy of N.Y.’s vintage store What Comes Around Goes Around, in the awesome compendium Vintage Rock T-Shirts (in bookstores February 6). “Cocker Power,” “Wings Over Wembley,” “Slade Alive,” “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” — eye-popping, every single one of them. And what Stones fan wouldn’t want to get his sticky fingers on a sweater bearing the Goats Head Soup album, said to be one of only 12 made for the band and their friends? Kugelberg goes the distance by including photographs of artists wearing other artists (Joan Jett in Sex Pistols, Patti Smith in Brian Jones, Iggy in T.Rex); shirts worn by concert-venue staff (Fillmore East, Fillmore West and Max’s Kansas City) and the crew of Showco, the largest touring company in the ’70s; and shirts made by record labels (Debbie Harry’s lipstick smeared on a pink tee to commemorate Blondie signing with Chrysalis). And unlike Tease, Vintage Rock T-Shirts isn’t stingy in the punk department; try finding the Adicts at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium presented by Goldenvoice, or a 1979 bill with the Clash, the Cramps and Dead Kennedys at the mall.
You don’t have to befriend a collector like Chalfa with a stash worth more than $30,000 to buy a piece of yesteryear or its imitation cousin. Knockoffs are just an Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic, Virgin Megastore or Target away. And even if you don’t give a flip about authenticity, these chain stores go the extra mile by adding touches like tour dates, real or imaginary, to some of their shirts. (Virgin sells a Pistols “New York 1977”tank, even though the band never played New York and didn’t tour the States until the following year.) If you’re a high roller, however, or just plain high, the boutiques listed below offer rare, one-of-a-kind, slept-in-for-years, stained-and-holed finds (some not only featuring tour dates, but specific cities, venues, artist copyrights and record-label logos) ranging from $100 to — cough, choke and inhale — $1,000. Here is our guide to local vintage rock-T-shirt spots, but remember, as with any collectible, they’re only worth as much as you’re willing to spend.
The World of Vintage T-Shirts
The goods here are kept under lock and key behind a chainlink fence, if that’s any indication of their value. You can comb the racks and decide to contribute to the careers of Engelbert Humperdinck, Aha or Julio Iglesias, maybe snatch the “Bally’s Presents Sinatra” shirt to show you’re a real fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, or the one of a solo Barry Gibb from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film to prove you’re not full of jive talkin’. For a serious seeker, a shirt with Luther Vandross on the front, and the lineup of an ’84 San Diego Jazz Festival on the back that boasts Patti LaBelle, Kool and the Gang, the Whispers, New Edition and Teena Marie, is well worth the $129 price tag. But don’t take our word for it. Celebs from Johnny Knoxville to Mandy Moore to Usher have graffitied their testimonials on the walls, though none compare to Britney Spears’ tagged message: “Britney Spears wuz here with her fine hubby Kevin Federline who is the sexiest man alive.” At least it wasn’t a tattoo. 7701 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. (323) 651-4058.