A Better Band starts with a Better Brand

STORY BY Joe Gorelick

Published: May 9, 2013

I know what you're thinking. With a title like "A Better Band starts with a Better Brand" this is probably an article that’s all marketing gobbledygook and takes away from the organic nature of four mop haired kids in some damp garage, playing music, creating art and honing their craft. Not so, in fact, this article is about remembering that your favorite band probably has a "brand" associated with it and probably surrounded themselves with people who could unify their collective vision into a singular logo. Even successful solo artists have famous "marks" (as designers like to call them) that immediately identify them as say "Prince" or "Sting." The days of non-branding are long gone, replaced with tight graphics, proprietary typefaces, specific colors and even symbols. Lets start with the basics...

In the very early days of Rock and roll, artist logos were not the norm. Can you think of a Buddy Holly logo? a Chuck Berry logo or icon? Even superstars like Elvis had designers working with them to develop a look for their record jackets, singles, posters and other promotional items, but nothing as a standard mark. This sort of thing would not happen till much later. In the case of Elvis, these days we see the famous red dotted, bold Elvis logo from his 1968 comeback special as a definite, strong, Elvis identity, as well has his swinging, tiptoe stance as an icon. By the late sixties, early seventies, he had gotten so famous that even his lightening bolt TCB or "Taking Care of Business" logo belt buckle became a symbol for the times, well, at least his times. The "TCB" logo was meant to be a "code of ethics" for his then "Memphis mafia" band of goons.

In 1964, on the Ed Sullivan show, the world got a taste for the British wave of new bands with Ed's introduction of The Beatles, and nothing was more prominent than Ringo Starr's little 20" bass drum head with "The Beatles" hand painted in black ink on the front. That logo was immediately etched into countless (now famous) musician’s brains. Even hard rock legends like the four members of KISS remember that drumhead and logo quite vividly. It was a hugely iconic night and the logo became as famous as the three songs performed.

It really wasn't until the mid to late sixties, when serious designers got involved, that the band or artist logo became a necessary band member. If you start with pop art master Andy Warhol's band du jour The Velvet Underground, you see a band (or brand) identity beginning with the 1967 debut LP's "yellow banana" graphic that was so strong an image it was sometimes used sans the "Velvet Underground" name entirely and just Andy's stamped signature under the banana. Interestingly, even with the band name being eclipsed from the identity, the banana graphic still told the whole story. To this day, that banana logo immediately conjures up visions of druggy, anti-hippy street poetry, booming bass drum, sonic feedback, classical violin and dark, Warhol factory imagery.

The Who, another very important fashion, art and musical beast of the sixties and beyond, had quite a few iconic logos. The most famous Who logo is still "The Who" with ascending arrow over the "O" on top of the mod red, white and blue bulls eye. That logo, sometimes used with the tagline "Maximum R&B", came to represent everything the Who were about at the time: heavy drugs, rhythm and blues records, dancing, mod clothes, sexual freedom and mutli-mirrored Vespa’s. The second, almost as famous identifier for The Who was simply, the British Union Jack. The Union Jack was used by Pete Townshend as clothing, draped on his amps and sometimes over the entire band on an LP cover. Later, toward the late 1980's, Def Leppard would co-opt the flag for their own graphic uses.

Moving quickly to the seventies, The Rolling Stones, who had no identifiable icon or mark until that point, found their final and most resonant icon in 1971 with English designer John Pasche. Pasche had designed posters for many rock greats, but his pitch perfect "lips and tongue" logo, an ode to Jagger's amazingly pouty lips and overall sexual presence, perfectly represented not only The Stones at the height of their musical powers, but the aggressive, sexual deviance they symbolized. The Stones have never strayed too far from that logo, even versioning it out into 3D, changing colors and textures, and recently adding it onto a cartoon gorilla.

As years past, many artists would spend the time to carve out a space for themselves graphically and none more important than the father's of punk rock, The Ramones and their musical children The Sex Pistols. The Ramones logo, and crest, is really a two-piece powerhouse. Arturo Vega, the band's artistic director and pal, would use a simple, but very bold font called Franklin Gothic Heavy, in all caps and tightly spaced, to symbolize the strength of the band and the no bullshit nature of the music. His Ramones crest design, or seal, was based on a belt buckle he had that displayed the seal of the President. By using the band member's names, Arturo made the seal all the more memorable.

The Sex Pistols, on the other hand, went a whole other graphic route. Their use of torn, ransom style lettering, perfectly matched the frighteningly anarchistic visions of John Lydon (Rotten) and the powerfully anthemic music of the band. Amazingly, John Lydon would later approve another iconic logo when band photographer Dennis Morris created the brilliant Public Image Limited "PIL" logo for Lydon's post Pistols quartet. Like the Stone's lips and tongue, PIL's logo has never had to really change; it was spot on first time around.

Since then, countless artists and bands, even most hip hop artists, have seen the value in forging a strong brand identity. In the late 1980's, Boston band The Pixies, along with artist Vaughn Oliver, famously toyed with many gorgeous Pixies logos and icons, marrying them with supportive photos and graphics that only added to the band’s overall mystique. Rush, and talented designer Hugh Syme, did an amazing job of updating their logos with every new musical step taken.

Prince took almost as many musical leaps as he did with his brand identity, going as far as doing away with his name entirely in place of a singular, well designed symbol.

Post punk kings Nirvana took cues from The Ramones and used a specific font, which later incorporated a dead happy face icon.

Black Flag's elegant and very strong "four bars" icon is still a memorable symbol of punk aggression and many fans have tattooed the bars, even Black Flag band members.

Rocket from The Crypt, an indie punk rock band from San Diego, famous for their energetic live sets and band logo, went so far as to allow people into their shows free if they could display a Rocket from the Crypt logo tattoo.

Pavement, the very popular "slacker" indie band, for lack of a better term, used scratched, scrawled type for their logo that perfectly matched the loud, messy, very Fall (english band) influenced sound of the music.

The decades have proven, whether you’re Cheap Trick or the Bad Brains, you can't have one without the other, and we can look forward to new artists always searching for the right tone in their brand identity, some will score and some will fail miserably.

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