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The Beyond Retro Guide to... Vintage Band Tees

Posted on July 07 2020

Metal Band T-Shirts have been a vintage staple for at least a decade now, with anything from ironically adorned hair metal band shirts from groups like Mötley Crüe to the more credible looking (and sounding) thrash metal T-shirts from bands like Slayer and Metallica (though needs to be early Metallica if you want to impress!), but there are also some great looking early British hard rock and metal T shirts to be found from bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden.

How to spot a genuine band tee

There are a few things to watch out for if you want to do this authentically, and avoid your mate’s dad staring at your newly purchased vintage death metal T shirt and sarcastically saying “so name your favourite Entombed album then”. Here are Beyond Retro’s key things to look out for, and also some of our favourite band t shirts from the 60s to 90s. But first, a history!

A brief history of the band tee

In the 1950s, the Elvis Presley fan club had the idea of printing limited edition T-Shirts exclusively for members, and after that bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones followed suit, but these were generally printed in small quantities and did not make much money for the bands.

The first commercially successful T shirts were printed by Bill Graham, owner of The Filmore venues in San Francisco and New York, and he worked with local artists and designers to create surreal and colourful T-Shirts for psychedelic bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

The influence of drugs, particularly LSD, were an integral part of the psychedelic scene in San Francisco at the time, and some of the music is pretty terrible due to the amount of drugs being taken by the bands, but the T-Shirt designs are pretty special and these are now hard to come by.

The time when band T shirts and fashion really collided was in the late seventies in London, courtesy of Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm Mclaren, the rise of punk, and their shop SEX on the Kings Road. Their T-Shirts were bold and brash screen prints, often with slogans or other logos, and this influenced how metal T-Shirts were to look in the 80s.

By the 80s, band T-shirts were an important part of youth culture; They were a way of identifying yourself as part of a clique, and with that identification of a musical genre or subculture came the rise of certain signifiers that could be seen on a T-Shirt so you could let someone know you were a metalhead without screaming at them.

 

Four top tips to get the best band tee

  1. The T-Shirt must be black. I cannot stress this enough. 
  2. There has to be a skull or some other death metaphor prominent, but obviously, skulls are best metaphors for death in all its guitar soloed glory.
  3. The less intelligible the band logo, the better the band are (with the exception of Slayer, who rule - check out Reign in Blood on Spotify if you don’t believe me)
  4. The colours mostly used in the printing are red (blood, obvs) and white (not ideal, but have you ever tried printing black on a black T shirt?)

So if you follow these rules, can you go wrong? Well, yes, you can. Because you’ve got to get the bands and genres right.

And for those of you who have read this far, you’re probably thinking, well, how hard can it be to choose a metal band T-Shirt? All the bands sound the same right? Wrong. This is where you learn about your metal genres. 


Hair Metal

A much maligned genre of cheesy 80s metal, filled with reverb laden drums, heavily permed singers, insanely misogynistic lyrics, and the worst guitar solos, these T-shirts can only be worn ironically. Bands - Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Poison, Whitesnake, Guns N Roses. T-shirt look - Hairspray, colourful logos, at least one band member wearing a bandana.

 

Thrash Metal

The kings of speed and also the coolest looking T-Shirts, thrash metal started in the early 80s, with fast pulsating drums, technical guitar solos that could go on for days, and a lot of shouting and screaming basically. If you choose one of these band T-Shirts, you’re saying you know your stuff when it comes metal, so wear these bands with respect.  Bands - Slayer, Metallica (early - check out Master of Puppets), Megadeth, Anthrax. T-Shirt look - Skulls, skulls, skulls. 

Death Metal

So, the good thing here is that  no one is going to be able to read the names of the bands on these shirts because of the absolute state of the font they use, so you can pretty much get away with wearing these without knowing a thing, but it doesn’t matter, because the T-shirts look ace. Bands - Morbid Angel, Entombed, Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse. T Shirt Look - Only white ink, a font you can barely read, slightly menacing figure about to do something pretty bad.

 

Nu-Metal

A pretty embarrassing time in the history of metal musically speaking is making a comeback in the fashion stakes, with chunky skate shoes, baggy jeans and a huge amount of T-shirt layering. Nu-Metal fused rap with downtuned, slower tempo metal to create, well, some pretty terrible stuff to be honest, but also some very cool looking T-shirts from some decent bands such as Korn, Deftones, Incubus and Slipknot.  T-Shirt Look - Colour is allowed, band members normally feature on the T-Shirt, proudly showing off their spiky hair or culturally appropriated dreadlocks.

 

English Heavy Metal - Possibly the original and most credible look in band T-shirts, but also the one to be most likely to have also been owned by your dad in the 80s, these T-shirts are funny, colourful and feature all the hallmarks of metal T-Shirts, and also this is some of the best metal there is. Bands  - Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Judas Preist, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin.

 

So now you know what to look for, but remember, if you’re going to do this properly, a metal band T-Shirt should be worn with skinny faded blue or matt black jeans, a denim or leather jacket, and boots (or Converse at a push). 

 

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