R1 — Ramones
The Ramones may have left the building, but their logo lives on. And how.
It’s curious how a once-subversive, punky, underground emblem has become so ubiquitous and mainstream, licenced to the likes of Sainsbury’s Tu clothing label and high-street hogger H&M.
Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of the original line-up, passed away in 2014, but sales of Ramones T-shirts remain extremely healthy — you can even get a babygrow version for little Sheena. It’s become a cult classic to rank alongside ‘I’m with stupid’, Milton Glaser’s ‘I love NY’ and the Superman chest crest.
I must admit to owning several Ramones T-shirts. But then I feel more entitled to than most. I actually saw the band live in 1979, one of the most visceral, highly charged gigs I have ever experienced.
The Ramones logo (or seal) was the brainchild of artist Arturo Vega, often referred to as ‘the fifth Ramone’. Vega was a Mexican émigré, who’d fled to New York in 1971 to escape the oppressive regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (IRP), led by President Luis Echeverría. He’d holed up in a large loft space at 6 East 2nd Street, just a stone’s throw from legendary punk club CBGBs. This versatile bolthole was to become Vega’s art studio, T-shirt printing factory and warehouse, as well as a rehearsal, living and after-party space for his mates, the Ramones.
Vega’s Ramones design work started with a banner for the stage backdrop that simply read RAMONES in big black letters on a white background. This hung in the loft while the band practiced. With a certain knowing irony, the no-nonsense typeface was lifted directly from ‘El Nacional’, a pro-IRP newspaper.
Vega then made T-shirts bearing the simple one-word design, selling them as he accompanied the band on the road, running the lights for their shows. In 1976, he added a bald-headed eagle to the design, appropriated from a belt buckle he’d found.
But he still felt the logo could be pushed further … there was more to say about the leather-jacketed, Converse-footed gang from Forest Hills. And this was how Vega explained the next step in the logo’s evolution to Jim Bessman, author of ‘Ramones: An American Band’ (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993):
“I saw them as the ultimate all-American band. To me, they reflected the American character in general, an almost childish innocent aggression. I thought, ‘The Great Seal of the President of the United States’ would be perfect for the Ramones, with the eagle holding arrows to symbolise strength and the aggression that would be used against whoever dares to attack us, and an olive branch, offered to those who want to be friendly.
“But we decided to change it a little bit. Instead of the olive branch, we had an apple tree branch, since the Ramones were American as apple pie. And since Johnny was such a baseball fanatic, we had the eagle hold a baseball bat instead of the arrows.”
Vega replaced the words ‘Seal of the President of the United States’ with the names of the band members (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy) in a similar typeface. Early versions of the classic logo bore the motto ‘Look out below’ on the ribbon held in the eagle’s beak. But this was later changed to ‘Hey, ho, let’s go!’, the chorus from the band’s 1976 debut single ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. There was one further modification, a pattern of arrows added to the body of the eagle, taken from a T-shirt that Vega wore around that time.
“[The Ramones] sold more T-shirts than records,” confided Danny Fields, the band’s first manager, in a New York Times article, “and probably they sold more T-shirts than tickets.”
To quote Talking Heads, one of the band’s CBGB contemporaries: “Same as it ever was”.