Not Just Laundry: Rocking Tour Shirts

Back in black tour shirts

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Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


In honor of the official return of t-shirt weather — and the roaring return of Colorado concerts — I’d like to pay tribute to a true rock and roll tradition: the tour t-shirt.

It’s usually black. It has a band name on it. There’s usually some very striking artwork splashed across it. A lot of times, the tour dates are on the back too.

And they are a sign of just how cool you are.

Why? Because tour shirts express what kind of music you really dig — and signal that you were willing to get out there and see your favorite bands play live.

Tour shirts are more than just product branding, though “branding” is certainly a part of it. But more, they are about a time and a place — rock and roll memories are what make tour shirts more than just laundry.

Favorite design Johnny Clegg and Savuka

They become the history of good concerts and great times.

I bought my first tour shirt in 1975 at a Rolling Stones show. That was the year the Stones played in Fort Collins at Hughes Stadium. However, I flew into Los Angeles to see them on two consecutive nights at the “Fabulous” Forum.

A friend from Phoenix — not a city on the Stones tour — asked me to buy him a t-shirt and since I was doing so, I bought one for myself. I wore that thing constantly, though I probably wouldn’t fit into it now. Still, this old thing isn’t going in the rag bin.

First tour shirt Rolling Stones 1975

Since then, I have hardly ever failed to least check out the merch booth at every show I go to. And once you’re there, you may as well buy something, right?

Actually, before I bought any tour shirts, I was buying programs. I bought a full-color program at my very first concert overall — Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in Phoenix in 1966.

My favorite program of all time, though, was the one from the 1974 George Harrison tour with Ravi Shankar, which included a full tutorial on Indian music and instruments. I saw the show in Tucson and since Harrison was the first Beatle I got to see live, I still have that program.

Vintage NOCO shirt The Atoll

There are other great rock and roll collectibles as well. Band buttons were especially popular in the 1970s and 80s — and a relatively inexpensive souvenir.

My first buttons were free. When I saw T. Rex in Santa Monica in 1972, they were handing out buttons to promote “The Slider” album. When I saw Blondie in 1978 at the Starwood, the famous punk club in LA, they were handing out buttons that said “Blondie is a Group” signifying that vocalist Deborah Harry wasn’t the only one in the band.

Most recently, I just had to buy a UK Subs button when the venerable punk band made a stop in Fort Collins at Hodi’s. 

Of course, there are also posters, but I was never very interested in them — they are just too hard to carry around during the show without messing them up. But the coolest poster that I did buy was a custom piece of art for a run by The Dead at Red Rocks one year — a skeleton cowboy riding a bucking bronco.

Stickers? I have a David Lindley and El Rayo X sticker I picked up after a particularly raucous show out at Fort Ram. I have a few patches too, like the one I bought in Las Vegas to commemorate a wild show featuring Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the Jim Rose Circus, perhaps one of the rawest concerts I’ve ever seen.

I even snagged a Bob Dylan bandana at his most recent appearance at Red Rocks.

But tour shirts are the coolest rock and roll memorabilia of them all — and I’ll bet the 2022 tour shirts will be hot items.

As stated, it’s about the memories, but it’s also about the artwork. Some shirts are just striking — like the scary-looking Godsmack shirt, I bought at Red Rocks. And some are even shocking — like the bloody Gwar shirt, I collected at the Aggie Theatre.

Some of the shirts are folk art. My favorite t-shirt design of all time is one by Johnny Clegg and Savuka. The artwork shows a music party in full gear with a colorful and diverse number of characters living it up.

But I noticed when I was looking through my collection of tour shirts recently that there were some shirts missing, notably a U-2 shirt I bought at McNichols Arena on St. Patrick’s Day in 1985; and the Bruce Springsteen shirt I bought, also in 1985, at Mile High Stadium, the venue packed to the brim with Bruce fans despite volatile Colorado weather; and The Pretenders shirt I bought at Red Rocks one glorious afternoon. 

Oh, that’s right, I can remember seeing my daughter wearing them around at one point — and those vintage shirts were never to be seen again.

The last tour shirt I bought was at the same place I bought the first one — at the Forum in Los Angeles. It was Black Sabbath’s farewell tour and I couldn’t NOT get a shirt.

It was a special date for me and my brother. We had seen Sabbath open for Grand Funk Railroad at the Forum in 1971 — their first major LA appearance — and here we were, 45 years later, seeing the band again in all their dark glory.

But wait — I may not be done. I just bought a ticket to see Alice Cooper at the Budweiser Events Center in October. Hmmm, I don’t have an Alice Cooper tour shirt yet…

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”.