Logos have become so ubiquitous that you’re as likely to identify a corporation by its logo as by its product: the golden arches, the swoosh, the bitten apple. If you’re thinking to yourself, “what?”, then where have you been for the last 30 years? But there’s something about music, the bands that have defined generations–grunge and pop and rock and rap–you would think would defy such commodification. You would be wrong.
It doesn’t take long to come up with iconic emblems of great bands like the “hot lips” of the Rolling Stones or the winged A of Aerosmith, but even in the counter-cultural 60s, classic bands were not above a bit of logo branding. Think of the Beatles wordmark-style name accented by the extended T, which purportedly came as part of a deal for Ringo’s drum set. Or how about the Grateful Dead’s “steal your face skull,” split by lightning and designed by the band’s soundman Stanley Owsley, whose sideline as an amateur “pharmacist” might have inspired the image.
It was the 70s and 80s though, where true band logoism took flight. Van Halen, Chicago, Metallica, the Ramones, all sported iconic logos that identified the groups and their followers (let the merchandise roll!). But even some of the greatest bands of the 20th and 21st centuries have received short shrift when it comes to their logos. There are just too many great bands to cover, but here are a few of the most underrated band logos that have floundered in the stenciled annals of our t-shirts, our ink, our album covers (okay, back in the day).
1. A stick man shunned:
Pearl Jam resisted consistent logo identification but the Alive album Stick Man was as iconic as the “Jeremy” soundtrack. And like the song, the Stick Man held his arms raised in V, which could be read as either submission or victory. The problem for the Stick Man was the popularity of fellow grunge band Nirvana’s ex-eyed smiley(?) face. Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate and early demise cemented the band’s face of grunge status and left the Stick Man eclipsed by its own “lemon yellow sun.”
2. In the crosshairs:
Public Enemy’s powerful and controversial crosshairs logo, which depicted a silhouette lined up in a rifle’s sights, captured the anti-establishment nature of early rap and the growing discontent of young black men and women over violence where they were caught in the crosshairs. Though the figure was meant to be front man Chuck D, those against rap believed it to be a police officer. In the wake of the 1988 controversy over NWA’s “F@*K da Police,” the logo met resistance from mainstream culture.
3. On the Crest:
The intricate Queen crest ushered in an era of Fat-Bottomed girls and the rhapsody of driving Gremlins in Aurora, Illinois, but it also was intimately connected to lead singer Freddie Mercury and his tragic death from AIDS. While you could argue, the homophobia that defined the AIDS epidemic was to blame for obscuring the logo’s popularity, the crest is underrated not for any political moment but because it isn’t recognized for its detail. The lions, crab, and angels represent each band member’s astrological sign, while the central crown and dragon refer to the band’s name.
4. Unfortunate lightning:
70s band Kiss was first known as Wicked Lester, but when lead guitarist Ace Freheley joined the group, the big-haired, made-up gods of thunder were born. Purportedly, Freheley scribbled the new name on a flyer outside of a club where Wicked Lester was still being used and his beloved lightning bolt Ss created a stir almost immediately. Because they looked so similar to Hitler’s SS insignia, the band was criticized as fascist and Nazi-loving. Freheley insisted that he simply liked lightning bolts, but to no avail.
5. Dead Kennedys:
Simplicity doesn’t have to negate the popularity of a logo. After all, Run DMC’s logo was both simple and iconic. Foo Fighters two Fs in a circle held for a time but became dated. But punk band, the Dead Kennedys, deserved more for the seemingly simple D and K of their logo. The simple design created by artist Winston Smith was meant to be easily repeatable and thus easily spray paintable as graffiti. The red background was meant to reflect the brick urban environment and the slightly medieval 3D lettering looks like an axe–are we talking weapon or slang for guitar here? Unfortunately the logo didn’t catch on quite as much as other big punk bands.
Radiohead was not a band to consistently use a logo, but the “modified bear” designed by artist Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke became the tattoo of choice for band fans. But perhaps the emblem's own understated name, which was meant ironically to represent art without meaning or complexity, relegated it to the halls of the underrated. Still the slightly Disney-esque but horrifying wide-eyed, saw-toothed bear had a powerful edge that may have gone less noticed but did not leave the band's followers high and dry.
Written by Ivan Young in partnership with Arena Prints pre-burned screens.