NAME THREE SONGS

Aside from scars, slang and sincerity, the Holy Grail of authenticity might well be the band tee. But where’d you get that merch? Is that a single-stitch hem? Is that a Schlitz stain on your Red Rocks tank, or did you soak it in a salt bath all weekend? Can you name three songs the Dead debuted at Roscoe Maples in ’73 — can you?

Photography_ Lola & Pani

Styling_ William Barnes

Text_ William Barnes

NAME THREE SONGS

What makes a band T-shirt authentic? It seems like a simple question, with an equally simple answer: a bonafide bit of merchandise, made by the band in question (figuratively speaking), usually bought at a gig by a ‘real’ fan or at least someone who’d heard the music.

But in a twist of fate — that our ramped-up consumer culture specializes in — the band T-shirt has been swallowed up and spat out the other side: the name of the group or artist has become divorced from the culture and music that made it. The band T-shirt now sits in high street chain stores like an amnesiac rocker lost in an Urban Outfitters, wondering who they are and how the hell they got there.

How it came to this is hard to say. Artificially distressed Ramones tees and diamante adorned AC/DC vests have been the preserve of soccer moms and midlife-crisis-men for what feels like forever, but when did Prince, Aaliyah, Biggie, Nirvana and Metallica hit high street ubiquity? There’s an almost endless list of ‘official’ music T-shirts available now, all licensed and signed off by record label overlords and available to anyone with a penchant for punchy graphics.

These tees were never intended for the mainstream; they're supposed to be a subcultural staple, an advertisement across your chest and back that showed the world you belong to a scene. In another sense, you were showing that a small part of that band belonged to you. Bought at a gig or a specialist record store — you knew what you were buying and (usually) what it said about you. The design was important, but the feeling of belonging more so.

It’s difficult not to feel that some of the soul has been stripped away by the cultural magpies who’ve happily picked-off visual elements of design and feel, but left that all important ‘meaning’ behind. To these stores and indeed their customers, they’re probably just another cool graphic tee, no different from the ‘I Love (Heart) New York’ ones they sit beside. Just as a ‘New York’ tee is no longer a guarantee that the wearer has ever been to the city, the band tee doesn’t require the buyer to have a knowledge of the artist. The statement being made is largely devoid of the content or meaning they originally contained.

It feels wrong that someone can buy Milton Glaser’s iconic N.Y. T-shirt if they haven’t visited the Big Apple and even absurd that you’d wear an Unknown Pleasures tee if you weren’t a fan of Joy Division. It’s akin to wearing a sports jersey and not supporting the team (although this is also now painfully common). In a perfect world, we'd devise a test to take before you were allowed to buy a shirt. The shop assistant could ask you to ‘name three songs’ or ‘who produced the band’s first album’. It would be like a mini game show complete with flashing lights and an appealing ‘bing’ if you passed or judgemental ‘Nrrrrg!’ if you fail.

We should see this as a process of reward rather than an elitist practice or one of punishment. It feels like for a band T-shirt to be authentic, it would require the wearer to have at least a minimal background knowledge of the artist, rather than just wearing it because it’s ‘cool’. But maybe being ‘cool’ has become too easy?

In the past knowledge was built up over time. We’d build a bigger picture of what was ‘in’ through monthly magazines, word of mouth of friends or older siblings, or even just chance discoveries. Now, with the internet, the world is at our fingertips. We can access not just the best clothes in our own towns and cities, but also stores across the globe. Alongside this we’re spoon fed new brands by hype-sites and songs and artists through streaming services. We’re required to ‘know’ very little, it’s all there for us on a plate in an online ‘memory’.

This collective memory or knowledge is clearly a good thing, but it does alter our relationship with information. Finding out about bands used to be a hard fought thing; the information had to be hunted out and when you had found what you were looking for, you still had to physically buy the record. This usually involved walking a gauntlet of trendily dressed and overly informed staff, having to take your choice up to the counter like a sacrificial offering and then trying to judge by the cashier's response if your picks had pleased the gods. The fact that this information is now easier to come by and readily available to more people doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth less, but it has become harder to tell who is actually into something and who is just dipping into a scene for the aesthetic.

The reverse of this is also true. The internet has allowed us to form new communities and bring us together with like minded people. One of these communities is the burgeoning trading scene for band shirts. Retailers such Burned Out, Freak Scene Vintage, and Tee Jerker have some of the best curated vintage tees on the market. These online stores go to the effort of painstakingly combing the likes of eBay, thrift stores, carboot sales, and second hand warehouses looking for the right pieces. These pre-loved beauties have been worn and washed, they’re soft and often paper thin. They have holes, real holes, made through repeated wear and not artificially made by ‘tiny hands’. They look exactly like band tees should, they look like they've lived and accumulated a history and romance of their own. This is an authenticity that can’t be argued with, an authenticity made by time and wear.

What’s ironic is that the tees sold on these sites aren’t always ‘authentic’, at least not in the simple definition above. A lot of the shirts bought and sold on the vintage market weren’t officially licensed. They were created by fans, opportunist bootleggers, and touts. But this has always been a large part of band tees and a knock off T-shirt bought from a tout outside a Dinosaur Jr gig thirty years ago, seems a lot more authentic than the mass-market Ramones one of today.

At some point there will be no more 80s or 90s band tees left to mine, it’s a finite resource that one day will run dry. But fear not, for every Sonic Youth T-Shirt that will meet its end, there’s a Limp Bizkit one ready to take its place in the cycle of nostalgia.

ALICE WEARS_ T-SHIRT_ PUBLIC LIMITED ALBUM_ 1989_ FREAK SCENE VINTAGE / JEANS_ MADE FROM UPCYCLED DENIM_ LOUTRE

ALICE WEARS_ IN MEMORY OF AALIYAH T-SHIRT_ 2000S_ BURNED OUT

ALICE WEARS_ TIARA, EARRING_ UPCYCLED FROM FOUND OBJECTS AND TRASH_ KATY MASON STUDIO / T-SHIRT_ NIRVANA INCESTIDE ALBUM_ 1992_ BURNED OUT / TRACKSUIT TOP_ KAPPA_ 1990S_ BEYOND RETRO / JEANS_ MADE FROM UPCYCLED DENIM_ FW2021_ E.L.V. DENIM

ALICE WEARS_ DEAD KENNEDYS T-SHIRT_ MID 1980S_ FREAK SCENE VINTAGE / VINTAGE UNDERSHIRT_ MISFITS_ BURNED OUT / JEANS_ VINTAGE LEVI’S 501_ GOLDSMITH VINTAGE / SHOES_ CUSTOMIZED NIKE MONARCH IV_ 2015_ STYLIST’S ARCHIVE

ALICE WEARS_ BALACLAVA_ UPCYCLED FROM WOOL SWEATERS_ MS. MASKIE / VINTAGE MISFITS T-SHIRT_ BURNED OUT / JEANS_ MADE FROM UPCYCLED DENIM_ FW2021_ E.L.V. DENIM / SNEAKERS_ CUSTOMIZED NIKE MONARCH IV_ 2015_ STYLIST’S ARCHIVE

ALICE WEARS_ IN MEMORY OF AALIYAH T-SHIRT_ 2000S_ BURNED OUT / SHORTS_ KARRIMOR_ 2015_ STYLIST’S ARCHIVE / JEANS_ VINTAGE LEVI’S_ BURNED OUT

ALICE WEARS_ EVIL BAND T-SHIRT_ 2000S_ EBAY / SHORTS_ MADE FROM UPCYCLED DENIM_ FW2021_ E.L.V. DENIM / SOCKS_ STYLIST’S ARCHIVE / SHOES_ CUSTOMIZED NIKE MONARCHS IV_ 2015_ STYLIST’S ARCHIVE

Model_ Alice Cooper

Hair_ Naoki Komiya

Makeup_ Crystabel Riley

Casting_ Ben Grimes

Production_ Jono Tusder

Photography Assistant_ Adam Roberts

Styling Assistant_ Lilly Hill

Hair Assistant_ Yuri Kato

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