Culture

From Johnny To Harry: The Long And Painful History Of The Ramones T-Shirt

Punk is dead.

A couple of weeks ago, Tommy Ramone died, meaning that all of the original Ramones have now departed this world. It was a sad day for fans, and you could write reams about the band’s impact on our culture, from the moment they sparked the punk revolution in the mid-’70s with their brilliantly deconstructed rock & roll melodies, chainsaw guitar riffs and leather-and-denim-clad swagger.

But Tommy’s passing also gives us time to pause and consider one aspect of their legacy: the ubiquitous, eternal Ramones T-shirt. This one piece of apparel may be, for better or worse, the most instantly recognisable thing about the band – more than their discography, more than their influence on so many bands that have come along since, even more than “Hey ho! Let’s go!” and “One two three four!”

The most basic Ramones T-shirt – the white-on-black one with the block letters and the cheekily altered Presidential Seal of the United States – is surely one of the most successful pieces of street fashion ever. The word “iconic” is hammered a lot lately, but this shirt is bloody iconic. You don’t even have to look at it too closely to know exactly what it signifies. The culture-jammed Presidential seal has become a blur, in just the way the original seal on the US dollar bill is a blur, the way the seal on a can of Budweiser is a blur.

You may not even immediately think of the Ramones’ music when you see it. Nowadays it’s by no means required that you’re a fan of the band to rock this shirt, any more than you need to know anything about Sailor Jerry to have one of his designs on your skin. The Ramones T-shirt has become a kind of generalised symbol of rock & roll purity and all-American attitude – much like a pair of Levi’s or a can of Bud. And like those things, it’s been commodified.

Hey Ho, Let’s Go: The Creation Of Street Fashion

The shirt dates back to 1976, the same year the band’s debut album was released. It was the brainchild of Arturo Vega, known as the “fifth Ramone” for his crucial all-around contributions to the band’s success. Up-and-coming bands – even with as much buzz as the Ramones had – didn’t sell T-shirts or have logos in those days, but Vega had a vision. The resulting design not only helped cement the band’s identity, it helped define the punk look. Vega was fascinated with the designs of governments and other institutions. By fusing such universally accessible visual elements with the fuck-off piratical spirit of punk, he helped create street fashion as we know it.

For the Ramones logo, each element in the mashed-up Presidential Seal was carefully considered. The baseball bat in one eagle claw was a riff on “Beat on the Brat” of course, but also to Johnny’s love of baseball (he was a New York Yankees fan like me). The apple-tree branch in the other talon replaced the olive branch because Vega felt the Ramones were “as American as apple pie”. “Hey ho let’s go,” from “Blitzkrieg Bop” replaced “E pluribus unum” in the banner held in the eagle’s beak. The names of the respective band members – Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy – replaced the name of the seal around the edge, and shifted over time according to the changing lineup. The striking arrow motifs, meant to communicate the aggressive sound of the band, are arguably an improvement on the original.

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The T-shirt was actually the band’s main source of income for years. I contributed to this myself; I had one as a high schooler in the late ’80s. I lived in Ft Benning, Georgia and there were no shops that stocked punk Ts, so I had to mail-order it. How was this actually done without the Internet, you wonder? First I had to mail-order the catalogue itself! The ad was in the back of Rolling Stone; the catalogue cost a dollar. My mom wrote a check and I sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope. When the catalogue arrived, I filled out a form, my mom wrote another check, and I sent it in, then waited 6-8 weeks. Somewhere in here there’s a meme about growing up in the ’80s.

The point is that even then, fourteen years after Dee Dee Ramone first shouted “One two three four!” at CBGB, the band’s style and attitude were of massive importance to awkward, mixed-up, geeky kids everywhere, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to find the Bowery on a map. You didn’t need to be able to afford designer fashions. You didn’t need to be good looking; you didn’t need tattoos, wild haircuts or other daring punk accoutrements. You could just put on torn jeans and be yourself. The Ramones were just four guys from Forest Hills, Queens, and they changed the world.

The Power Of Marketing And The Commodification Of Cool

Okay, so later we found out the delinquent-casual image was very calculated – by Johnny, as it happens. It was a form of marketing. But even so, it was an image that was achievable by regular kids. At that age I was as tall and ungainly as Joey; sticking to a band shirt, jeans and sneakers and hiding behind my hair made me feel better. Once upon a time you felt you could trust that someone wearing a Ramones shirt was actually cool – or, failing that, that they at least knew the band and their music, so that you could actually have a conversation. The famous people you saw wearing it were the likes of Lemmy from Mötörhead, Jim Jarmusch, Joan Jett and of course, Joey himself.

Somewhere along the way, though, something slipped, and the signs and signifiers of street apparel become abstractified. Street fashion became fashion. Celebrities are now expected to wear T-shirts, torn jeans and sneakers – the more expensive, the better. And these days you can wear just about any logo – any band’s shirt, any sports team’s insignia – and get away with not knowing what you’re representing. This has been going on for so many years it no longer feels ridiculous; it’s just a thing, like any other thing.

harryavril

A few years ago I saw a faux-vintage Velvet Underground tee in a Splash shop at a mall in Abu Dhabi. It was the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, complete with Andy Warhol’s famous banana artwork. I wondered just how many teenage girls in Abu Dhabi would know the Velvet Underground’s music; know Warhol; know about the New York underground, the drugs and S&M.

Mind you, this is not a judgment of a foreign culture – I would just as easily wonder the same thing if I saw the shirt in Prague or Omaha. The only thing that really surprised me was that I was surprised at all. Nowadays the Ramones shirt-wearers are the likes of Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain, the chick from Paramore and, of course, Paris Hilton. They’re sold in boutiques and other places frequented by people who are into fashion.

Kids These Days: And The Death Of Rock

Spend some time looking at Ramones shirts online and you’ll feel like you’ve fallen into a universe filled with washed-up reality stars and celebrity boyfriends, endlessly stumbling around Fifth Avenue looking hungover, clutching shopping bags, spoiled kids and Starbucks beverages. Harry Styles from One Direction has managed to create something of a cult around his Ramones shirt, which he seems to wear a lot. There’s a Keep Calm meme riffing on it, while this fan site tells you how to Get the Look. Styles’ bandmate Niall Horan must have read up because he’s got the look, as does Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Check out Sarah Harding in a girly pink-and-heather-grey variation. Here’s Kiwi actor Martin Henderson in a pre-faded job.

Can you imagine Harry Styles or Fergie jamming to — or even knowing — “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Loudmouth” or “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”? (Fun exercise: Imagine Harry Styles sniffing glue.) The Ramones shirt, like the band shirt in general, probably like rock & roll in general, no longer stands for being a rebel or an outcast, being awkward or just being yourself; and it definitely doesn’t represent the New York underground, the Bowery, CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Rockaway Beach, buying smack on 53rd and Third, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Cretin Hop, beating on the brat, headbanging with Suzy or sniffing glue anymore.

It represents a representation of those things. It’s a simulacrum, like a Caramel Macchiato. It’s just another accessory. Get upset about it, try to measure how far we’ve fallen, and you become just another whinging purist. The joke’s on you.

So with the four Ramones now dearly departed, is it finally time to retire the shirt? Yeah, probably. But if you have to ask the question — if you haven’t already folded yours up and stuck it in the back of the drawer — I’d say don’t worry about it. Keep wearing it to Starbucks with pride! Because even forty years later it’s pretty much impossible to water down or sell out the band’s music, and that’s what matters.

If the only Ramones lyrics you know are “Hey ho, let’s go”, or “One two three four”, or if you only know the shirt, time to get back to basics. Check out this video of the Ramones performing “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” live at CBGB in 1977 – with Joey wearing the famous T-shirt onstage – and see if it makes you think of Paris Hilton.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from@fivegrand1.