You see them everywhere these days, on public transport, down the pub, in the local park and at Glastonbury, on the backs of everyone from Jonathan Ross to a 10-year-old girl. The Ramones T-shirt has become a ubiquitous garment, a globally recognised design that retains only a flimsy link to the music made by America’s quintessential punk band.
Many wearers couldn’t name you a Ramones song – although some might hazard a guess at “Hey Ho Let’s Go”, the opening lyric of their 1976 debut single “Blitzkrieg Bop” (currently being used in a TV advert for an online electrical appliance retailer). People of a certain age might see this as a despicable betrayal of the Ramones’ memory, but does it matter? After all, to accuse a 10-year-old child of lacking punk authenticity would seem unfair. Having become a regular fixture in high-street clothing stores, maybe the Ramones T-shirt has merely taken on a strange new life of its own.
“Any kind of band T-shirt that either goes the distance or transcends the original connection is basically down to good design,” says Josh Sims, author of the book 100 Ideas That Changed Street Style. “That good design often follows from whether the band has been fortunate enough have a good logo – like Kiss, AC/DC, or Run DMC.
They just look good, regardless of the band or its music.” The Ramones were fortunate to have a talented lighting director and art co-ordinator, Arturo Vega; his decision to adapt the US Presidential Seal to depict “the ultimate all-American band” was, in retrospect, a stroke of genius. The olive branch became an apple branch, the arrows became a baseball bat, the lettering within the seal changed as the line-up of the band changed. The shirt on sale at H&M for £7 features the names of the original line-up of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy; all now dead, but somehow living on, emblazoned on the chests of people who don’t necessarily know who they were.
While the case of the Ramones shirt isn’t unique (H&M also sells shirts featuring metal bands to people who don’t listen to metal), the demographic of band T-shirt-wearers has remained pretty static over the years: teenage pop acts and metal bands sell way more than hip-hop and R&B artists, with indie sitting somewhere in between. “If you look at their audiences,” says Justin Smith, director of British merchandising company Kontraband, “90 per cent of people at a metal concert will be wearing a band T-shirt and will be likely to buy one.
For us, the best-selling shirts are still ones with tour dates on the back. People want to show that they went to the big gig at the O2, the ‘I was there’ thing.” But he also considers the broadening, cross-genre appeal of band merchandise to be part of a declining tribalism among music fans. “It used to be the case that if you liked a certain band then you weren’t allowed to like another style of band,” he says, “but that’s changed a lot. A band such as [influential US punks] Misfits sell a huge number of shirts in comparison to record sales; the name isn’t big, but people just think it’s a cool shirt.”
Sims, meanwhile, attributes that broadening appeal to a music industry trying to find new income streams in a digital era. “Given that touring and merchandising are supposed to be where bands are making their money,” he says, “there’s a greater interest in selling T-shirts, and improving their design to make them more marketable.”
The various factors that lead a buyer at Next or H&M to put in a Ramones order are complex (and both companies refused interview requests) but whether they’re based on pure design, cultural echoes or some kind of ironic distance, people are evidently buying them. “I wasn’t aware of that Ramones design until about two years ago,” says Sims, “and the only reason I became aware of it is that my wife bought it from H&M for my then one year-old child. And I didn’t even know a lot about the Ramones. I knew that they were a band, that they were influential and that they played at CBGB in New York, but beyond that…”
As the band has slowly receded into history, sales of their shirts have picked up. It was reported that the day after Joey died in 2001, one American clothing chain put in an order for 10,000 units. Ramones Productions Inc, the company set up after the band broke up, still presides over the approval of merchandise and splits the profits among the estates of the former members. Punk purists might consider this to be akin to “selling out”, but the company’s co-owner, Johnny’s wife Linda Ramone, sees it as perfectly compatible with the band’s ethos.
In an interview in 2008 she stated that “Johnny did want to be the biggest band in the world”. And if that accolade is measured by sales of shirts, maybe his wish will come true.