Look at me and my old band t-shirt!
Declaring your love for some barely remembered group on your chest is a strange mix of narcissism, nostalgia and irony.
Unless you’re an Irish author seeking to flog a misery memoir, one of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen or, as a boy, you once appeared on Jim’ll Fix It, most people are pleasantly nostalgic about their youth and childhood.
This is why some have this week been lamenting the demise of the print edition of the Dandy, and why thirtysomething parents are currently buying their children Christmas toys from their own childhood, such as Furby dolls and Subbuteo. This is also why those of a fogeyish disposition reminisce about the ‘good old days’ of the dreary, ration-blighted 1950s, and a later generation wax lyrical about the 1970s, when the entire country was on strike, inflation was rampant and everybody in showbusiness, it seems, was a paedophile. And there are Germans who are given to Ostalgia about their childhoods in East German, mysteriously forgetting the Stasi and that if you tried to escape the country you were liable to be shot.
I’m not immune to nostalgia myself. For me, the 1980s were less about the miners’ strike, IRA bombs, football hooliganism and greed, and instead bring to mind The Goonies, Now That’s What I Call Music albums and trips to the Wimpy burger bar. But my generation - those born in the 1970s - is famously prone to regressing and reminiscing. In the Nineties, we did it in Skool Discos, in the following decade on Friends Reunited and later through Facebook. Now, in whatever decade this is meant to be called, we are exhorted to wear our old rock t-shirts to work.
This Friday saw the fifth annual ‘Wear Your Old Band T-Shirt to Work Day’, the creation of BBC6’s Steve Lamacq. ‘The day is Steve’s now annual response to the fashionistas who take the short cut to musical credibility, picking up their band merchandise on the high street rather than the gig circuit’, enthuses the BBC6 website. ‘Steve invites listeners to dig out their favourite t-shirts and celebrate the art of declaring “I saw Coldplay at the Colchester Arts Centre and I have the poorly produced, cider-encrusted shirt to prove it!”.’
Let’s leave aside the hypothesis of boasting that you saw Coldplay. Actually, have you ever seen anyone in a Coldplay t-shirt? No. Because wearing one would mark you as a dickhead. And let’s forgive the inane anti-corporate posturing and celebration of handicraft/counterfeit merchandise, which brings to mind the juvenile politicking of Rik from The Young Ones; rock-music devotees have always been bovinely obsessed with ‘credibility’. Yet there is still so much that is risible and pitiful about this event. It was something neatly encapsulated by one tweeter, @samgreenthorn: ‘Last day of “Movember” & 6music encouraging the nation to “Wear your old band t-shirt to work”. Workplaces must be full of double arseholes.’
As it’s for charidee, one isn’t really meant to criticise ‘Movember’. Yet there is something inherently narcissistic and adolescent about that event: revisiting those times 20 years ago when you started experimenting in the mirror with your emergent bumfluff. As well as comparably providing for a shared collective experience, this ‘band t-shirt to work’ business has a similar self-regarding and retrogressive feel to it as ‘Movember’. The event (and that witnessed during this year’s Children in Need, in which employees were encouraged to dress as animals) has itself evolved from ‘dress down Friday’, which ostensibly is meant to demonstrate a liberal attitude on behalf of employers. In reality, it owes far more to those last Fridays of term in which, as infants, we were allowed to bring our toys to school.
This is all very babyish. And in any case, the practice of wearing rock t-shirts is so contrived in the first place. As someone who used to wear them as a teenager, I have a bit of insight into how they work. My heavy metal t-shirts as a middling teenager were designed to give the entirely fraudulent impression that I was dark and forbidding. The indie t-shirts of later adolescence sought to intimate an ethereal and wistful disposition. Then there was my Lawnmower Deth t-shirt, which made me seem off-beat, eccentric and very funny indeed. In my mind.
Yet one mustn’t underestimate the significance of the obscure band t-shirt. It is presumed to bestow to the wearer either a sense of individuality or membership to an exclusive club. Participants in last week’s event can be seen on the BBC website with t-shirts of bands a lot of people won’t have heard of: Sultans of Ping FC, Catherine Wheel, Menswear, Carter USM and Mega City Four. Those last two had a small yet obsessive following back in the day, and sporting their logos now serves the same purpose it did 20 years ago: to declare, paradoxically, one’s individuality through membership of a sect. Rock t-shirts make statements both literally and metaphorically.
When in the 1990s Motorhead t-shirts started to become voguish among celebrities who wouldn’t know their ‘Overkill’ from their ‘Capricorn’, it was obvious to me why. The scary face, the Gothic typeface and, oh my, those imperious Germanic umlauts - it’s all so sinister and so spooky, with Nazi undertones. Add to this the subconscious connection to the virile, smoking, whisky-guzzling Motorhead singer Lemmy, then no wonder ‘Motorhead England’ became a mainstream icon. This is why among those who participated in last Friday’s event, many can be seen with the ‘dangerous’ t-shirts of Guns & Roses, the Ramones and Black Flag.
At the turn of the millennium, Iron Maiden t-shirts started to come into vogue. This was more in the spirit of (yawn) irony, as Iron Maiden have always a nerdy image, singing about war and mythology, whereas Motorhead’s subject matter is booze and sex. Presumably this is why Peter Serafinowicz was appeared last Friday with a t-shirt bearing the name of the Scorpions, that über-uncool band that will always bring to mind that whistle from ‘Winds of Change’ and have listeners reaching for real or imaginary cigarette lighters. Lauren Laverne, on the other hand, sported a Sonic Youth t-shirt, a half-forgotten band that those in the know invariably describe as ‘seminal’. That word is about as über-cool as you get in rock journalism. Apart from the word ‘über’.
In the end, band t-shirts are always about me. Nostalgia is no bad thing when taken in moderation. Yet when obsessing about the past has become the defining characteristic of an entire generation, topped up with infantile narcissism, it makes you wonder if some aren’t just remorseful about the present.
Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.
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