Logos have been a part of popular music dating back to the early days of jazz when floor-mounted bass drums provided a convenient canvas on which a group could be identified. In 1963 London drum shop owner Ivor Arbiter literally made a name for the Beatles when he created the capital "B"/dropped "T" design that graced Ringo Starr's bass drums and is still in use today on Beatles merchandise.
Artist logos have made up some of the most powerfully and universally recognizable graphic images in art history, from the Rolling Stones' protruding tongue and AC/DC's lightning bolt to Outkast's royal crown and Run–D.M.C.'s double red bars. But even as music has moved into the less visually oriented digital age, a successful logo is still a tremendous tool in attaining the prized asset of brand identity. And creating logos involves equal parts art, commerce, psychology, and luck.
"Logos, and artwork in general, give you a way to connect to music even when you're not actually listening to it," says Bob Defrin, a former art department head at Atlantic Records who oversaw the look of albums by Chic, Foreigner and Mötley Crüe. "The key to matching artwork and music is … you have to remember that you're packaging someone else's talent. It's not about you creating your own masterpiece. It's always been very important to me to talk to the musicians and listen to what they have to say."
One of Defrin's most satisfied clients is AC/DC, for whom he designed the enduring lightning bolt logo.
"When [AC/DC] came to Atlantic, they knew who they were and had their image down, but they didn't really have a strong logo," Defrin recalls. "I worked with the great lettering designer Gerry Huerta to get something that felt strong and had more of the metallic edge to it, and we got just the right stylized lightning bolt to create that sense of power. We liked it, they liked it and the fans embraced it."
Even when a logo concept is straightforward, the design work can be extensive. In 1976 graphic designer Deborah Shackleton had her work cut out for her when she was commissioned to design Heart's debut album, Dreamboat Annie.
"In terms of a logo, we were looking for repetition of a simple motif — a design metaphor that would connect with the idea of [a] heart," says Shackleton, who is now a professor at the Emily Carr University School of Art + Design. "But it wasn't easy to get it right. I worked with typography expert Jim Rimmer and we went through some awful neon-looking things and probably did 50 different takeoffs on the logo until we got the one that worked."
British artist Roger Dean began his long association with GRAMMY-winning rock band Yes working on the cover for 1972's Fragile.
"I thought of the band's music as coming not from a specific time, but some specific place, some other world you stepped into, and I thought the artwork should reflect that," says Dean. "I began thinking that it would be nice to design a logo that could carry beyond one album. I saw it as a kind of Chinese puzzle to be worked out, creating a unified whole out of these three distinct letters."
Dean subsequently created artwork for Yes' follow-up album, Close To The Edge. "They were very enthusiastic and things have worked out quite nicely for us since then," he says.
The Rolling Stones' iconic logo, which features lavish lips and a protruding tongue, was first used in 1971 when the band was establishing its own label imprint, but seems to have a dual origin history. The lips seen most often throughout the band's career were designed by British artist John Pasche, who was a student at London's Royal College of Art when a call from the Stones' management led to a sit-down meeting with Mick Jagger.
"He said he really wanted something that would represent the band without using the band name, which was quite unusual at the time," recalls Pasche. "He had a picture of the [Hindu] goddess Kali, who has a very distinctive pointed tongue coming through her lips. It was more of a challenge than you might think to come up with a disembodied mouth, but I finally came up with a [three-fourth] profile in a style that Mick quite liked. He took it back to the band and not too long after that it turned up on Sticky Fingers. It was really a visualization of what the band was trying to put across in its music, and I think it's survived so long because the Rolling Stones have stayed true to who they are as a band."
Before the release of Sticky Fingers, fans in the United States may have seen a different set of lips, designed by artist Ernie Cefalu at the behest of the Stones' manager Marshall Chess. Cefalu's design, distinct from Pasche's in its heavier use of black outline, was used on a wide variety of U.S. merchandise.
"I actually like John's logo better," Cefalu admits. "Mine was stiff and stylized, [but John] added life to it."
Adding an element of contemporary style, for the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary, the logo has been refreshed by artist Shepard Fairey, who also created the official artwork for the 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards.
"Logos can be difficult work," adds Cefalu, who has also designed logos for artists such as Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as the logo for the rock opera Jesus Chris Superstar. "But they feel simple when you get them right. A logo [has] to resonate with what a band stands for, but, more importantly, it has to create an emotional connection with a fan. If you have those two things together, you've got something that can last a long time. You bring a band and a fan together in one simple piece of design, and you've got magic."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)