For better or worse, branding is one of the most important facets of a successful band. Commercially, bands are closer to Lululemon than they are to Bach, and creating killer merch becomes a deciding factor for success. Don’t fret your little head, it’s not a complete dystopian future in which music, itself, is irrelevant. In the strive for a logo, many bands fall short, as if playing the drums doesn’t translate completely into creative design management. These are the bands that got it right.
In looking at iconic band logos, some asterisks showed up (*** – those asterisks). Logos that contained only the band’s name were excluded. Not to say those logos aren’t excellent branding, or even artistic, I simply have to venture past creative fonts. Bands like AC/DC, The Beatles, and Metallica, have outstanding logos that can be considered as signature as any other, but at that point we’re really splitting hairs regarding which ones make the cut at all. As a man with a shaved head, I’m not one for hair splitting.
Finally, I want to outline some honorable mentions. The Earth Wind and Fire eagle, the Van Halen wings, Wu Tang Clan’s adaptive crest, and Michael Jackson’s toe-stand silhouette, all deserve a formal nod. Ruling out Ziggy Stardust was as painful as an uppercut to the groin (something I have experienced. Twice.) However, if we stray into album-unique logos, we would be opening up a box that melts our faces clean off. Not in a good way, like a Malmsteen concert. The bad way, like we just tied Harrison Ford and Karen Allen to a pole. It would be complete anarchy amongst Pink Floyd fans, and I’m fairly certain the baby from Nevermind would find me and… well… uppercut me.
Without further ado, sans this line, here are the finalists:
5 – Queen’s “Crest”
There is so much going on in this logo, it shouldn’t work. This complex design, drawn by British frontman Freddie Mercury, features a similarity to the Royal Coat of Arms of the British Monarchy (also known as The Queen. Freddie was cute like that.) The crest, itself, features the zodiac symbols of the four band members. The zodiacs are around a ribbon letter “Q”, which may or may not represent the word Queen. There is a royal crown within the Q, above which there are some flames with a rising phoenix: not a zodiac symbol (If it were, it would be by far the coolest one. Since the Phoenix is not one, the lion remains the best one. That’s not this Leo’s opinion, that’s an objective fact.)
Considering that Mercury drew the logo before the first album came out, it was a pretty solid commitment. This is the musician’s equivalent to going on a third date and getting matching tattoos. Sometimes, people just know when they’ve met the one, and Freddie certainly knew. Those four continued to play together for the entire reign of Queen up until Mercury’s unfortunate death in 1991, sporting the crest as the Band’s logo the entire time. It’s an iconic symbol of the band’s creative unity, as much as every harmonized vocal they sang together.
4 – Grateful Dead’s “Lightning Skull” Logo
The Lightning Skull is a logo that was spawned in the trenches of a working band, and extends to encompass the fans, themselves. The logo was created by Owsley “The Bear” Stanley, Grateful Dead’s sound engineer, to mark the Band’s equipment cases at festivals. Apparently, other musicians in the 60’s would occasionally find themselves in states of confusion for some reason. Ignoring the indisputable fact that a person named Owsley shouldn’t need a cool nickname like “The Bear”, a crew doodle that expands into one of the most well-known logos in music history is 100% pure, unadulterated, rock ‘n’ roll.
The lightning-cracked skull is also a personification of the fans, affectionately dubbed “deadheads”. The Dead were an early example of psychedelic music, and the skull embodied the idea of opening your mind to a new plane. This method of creativity was a significant hub for Deadheads, and a major paradigm in music culture. That’s because Owsley Stanley is also known for making the first major LSD lab. Well, non-government lab. In an era of social revolution and mental exploration, the Lightning Skull represented quite a bit more than the music equipment it originally labeled. If you were an individual partaking in certain substances of the 60’s, you likely found this design to represent quite a bit more.
Acid. The certain substance was acid.
3 – Iron Maiden’s “Eddie”
Iron Maiden’s custom font name is fairly well recognized amongst metal fans. However, the name isn’t what you’ll see front and center on all of their albums and merch. That spot belongs to Eddie, the band’s ambiguously undead mascot. Created by pyrotechnic Dave Beasley as paper mache masks worn by the band prior to their record deal, the first full form of Eddie was drawn by Derek Riggs for Iron Maiden’s debut album in 1980. Since then, Eddie has appeared on every album cover and shirt. He appears in a towering, physical form at shows, as well as multiple video games. In this day in age, Eddie is more real than many living musicians. You’ll see him in every era of time, several planes of existence, in space, bearing the flag of every country he’s visited, even dogfighting (not like Michael Vick. Dogfighting in planes. Eddie is a respectable guy.) He has represented many people and ideas, which may have been influenced partially by the removal of Riggs as the lone artist of Eddie in 1992, to open up submissions from multiple people.
As a logo, he’s done wonders for Iron Maiden, who has always utilized a low amount of commercial advertisement for their size. The artwork Eddie is featured in is stunning, and the band isn’t afraid to decorate everything they can with it. The band’s tour plane, piloted by frontman Bruce Dickinson (feel free to take a moment to digest that information), is dubbed “Ed Force One”, and features our fiendish friend. Eddie even appears on the label of the band’s beer. He’s the Tom Hanks of logos, where the end result is a devoted fan base with countless styles of Eddie shirts across the globe.
2 – The Rolling Stones’ “Tongue” Logo
Once upon a time, the traditional rock logo art style was not-so-traditional. Representing the harder side of the British Invasion, The Rolling Stones pioneered a great deal of what has defined rock ‘n’ roll. While any band that can go toe-to-toe with The Beatles in notoriety is unarguably huge, even people who have never heard a Rolling Stones song (heretics) still recognize The Stones’ logo.
Commissioned by Mick Jagger from an art student named John Pasche in 1970, the original intention for the logo was to make a simple design to be used as a small symbol for letterheads on notepads and programs. Spoiler alert: that didn’t go as planned. Pasche’s logo was perfect, and Mick Jagger was destined to spend the next 50 years posing with his tongue out. A giant print of the logo was put on the sleeve of the next album, and the logo would go on to adorn the fronts of, well, everything. You can find it on shirts, jackets, mugs, posters, coasters, toasters, human flesh, and any other printable surface. It’s an image that perfectly encompasses the spirit of rock music as a genre, and is possibly the most commercially marketable band logo completely void of a name. Although, that may be via technicality…
1 – The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s “Love Symbol #2”
This was almost excluded on the basis of being from an album, but let’s be honest with each other: you knew this was coming. Your parents knew this was coming. That guy that lives two doors down from you and is always awkward when you cross paths? He knew this was coming. That should be enough evidence to place Love Symbol #2 firmly in the #1 spot, but if you need more, the logo easily extends beyond the reach of any other. Prince was already a major star when his twelfth album was released, introducing this unpronounceable symbol. However, the logo went on to replace Prince’s identity, effectively making the album that spawned it the first self-titled album for a new artist.
In 1992, Lizz Fray designed a stylized “7” for the hit song on the untitled twelfth album. Upon seeing it, Prince wanted to include the combination of male and female symbols into it, and use it as the cover of the untitled album. He also decided to go ahead and name the album after the symbol, the pronunciation of which Prince explained was on “another level of existence.” If that’s not the most Prince-like explanation, I don’t know what is. In the same vein, only Prince would decide to give his label the middle finger by changing his name to said symbol. If somebody told you they were going to change their name to a character they couldn’t pronounce, the last thought in your mind would be: great marketing decision.
And it was, without question, a risky decision at the time. As we know in hindsight, it worked out pretty well for Prince. Like anyone forced to use Time Warner cable, Prince was fed up with Warner Bros. Their trickling release of his music as a marketing strategy forced Prince to lash out in a way that no one but Prince could pull off, forcing Warner Bros. to market him as this new icon. There was even an infamous floppy disc mass-produced with a font file containing only Love Symbol #2, so the media-dubbed “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” could be written about more conveniently. “The Artist” eventually changed his name back to Prince in 2000 after severing connections with Warner Bros. by means of what I can only assume was switching to Comcast (you can’t just rebrand yourself as “Spectrum” and expect us to forget what Time Warner Cable was. You’re not Prince, and people don’t forget.)
While everyone could finally call him “Prince”, again, the symbol continued to be his identity. His instruments and stages were shaped like the icon, which appeared on posters, albums, clothing, necklaces, and any other marketable object in his signature purple hue. That hue was officially named in his honor, you guessed it, Love Symbol #2. To clarify: the name of the color is the symbol, itself, not the words “Love Symbol #2”. You can see how valuable that floppy disk was through the 90’s.