From the ground up: Re-creating the first U2 shirt

March 30, 2013 |  by  |  U2 Memorabilia

(Update, 5/10/13: While at the U2 Conference last month, I learned that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has an entire new collection of U2 memorabilia on display. Larry’s shirt is no longer there and has been “returned to the original lender.” Perhaps it will show up in an exhibit in Dublin.)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has some pretty remarkable U2 artifacts on display—ZooTV trabants, Bono’s Fly suit, his handwritten lyrics for “Bad” … But housed inside a glass case, next to a collection of rejection letters in response to the band’s early attempts to find a record deal, is a tattered t-shirt. It’s stained and stretched. It’s primitive—both in the sense that it’s the earliest of its kind, and in its rough, rudimentary craftsmanship. The logo is weirdly placed below the chest and off center, and the graphic’s two colors are poorly registered on a shirt that doesn’t quite match. The design is a larger ring encompassing a smaller ring, the former cut across by two diagonal lines. In the inner circle (a favorite phrase among U2 fans some 30 years later) are two abstracted figures built of rectangles: a “U” and a “2.”

The first U2 shirt, created by Larry and on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The first U2 shirt, created by Larry and on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The shirt was created by U2 drummer and founder Larry Mullen, Jr. in a high school art class when he was a student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, I’m guessing sometime in early 1978—it’s most likely the first U2 shirt to exist. As a graphic designer-turned-professor and as a U2 fanatic, I’m fascinated with the intersection of these two realms—U2’s visual identity. When I saw the shirt on a visit to the Rock Hall in 2011 between two 360 shows, I knew I wanted to re-create this relic produced by the boy (Larry was probably 16 or 17 when he made it) who built the band from the ground up. In doing research for an upcoming presentation at the U2 Conference in Cleveland (“What You Don’t Have You Don’t Need It Now: How the World’s Most Iconic Band Got There Without a Logo”), I’ve been very interested in the history of the different symbols, icons and visual identities that have represented U2. This was the perfect time to explore what is perhaps the band’s earliest logo.

Graphic designer Steve Averill has worked with U2 since 1978—he’s responsible for renaming them from The Hype to U2, he designed posters for some of their early gigs, he created their first album sleeve (for “Boy”) and went on to help shape the band’s identity with iconic covers for “War,” “The Joshua Tree,” “Achtung Baby” and more. I reached out to Averill on Twitter, wondering if he’d had anything to do with this early shirt design of Larry’s: “I’m afraid that was all Larry’s own doing,” he responded. So, this first logo existed before U2 signed with anyone and before Averill (now of AmpVisual, who still does U2’s design work) became the creative force behind U2.

My vector re-creation of Larry's first U2 logo, including irregularities from printing and from shirt wear.

I’ve probably spent more time studying the shirt than Larry spent making it. The primitive nature of the graphic and the geometric composition is likely a result of the technological limitations. Larry probably cut the shapes by hand out of Rubylith masking film and then manually composited the graphic before burning it into a silkscreen with an exposure unit. Rectangles and circles could be easily drawn and cut using drafting instruments. Whether intentional or not, there’s a beautiful balance in the sections created by the diagonal lines that cut across the outer ring. The intersections create four pieces highlighted by the secondary color—perhaps representative of the four bandmates, as by the time they were “U2” there were just four members. And a circle is always wonderfully symbolic, representing the ultimate state of oneness, unity, infinity. More likely, Larry probably just thought it would look good on a kick drum. The colors are a curious combination, but I’ve wondered if the green and sort-of-orange-but-sort-of-pink was a patriotic attempt at Ireland’s tricolor flag. And how’s this for some U2 poetry: The diagonal lines that cut across the circle are rotated at an angle of 33 degrees. No doubt a coincidence, but a lovely one.

VIEW A SLIDESHOW of my screenprinting and finishing processes to re-create the first U2 shirt. Or view images as a gallery.

The first U2 shirt—34 years later!

The first U2 shirt—34 years later!

Designing the Shirt
While Larry most likely used physical materials like Rubylith and cutting blades to create the geometric shapes that make up the design, I skipped the historicist approach here and built the graphic in Adobe Illustrator. It’s not a complicated form, but it was a challenge to try to replicate the irregularity. The shape isn’t a perfect circle (though probably once was and was distorted as the shirt stretched), but I decided to re-create it as one. Also, the spaces between the green and the orange-pink are uneven—this most likely happened as Larry tried to register (or evenly match up) the two colors, which would have been printed separately. I knew I’d be able to get pretty accurate registration in my own printing, so I faked the misalignment when I created the graphic. The bars that make up the “U” and the “2” are not uniform in length or width, so I traced the shapes from the Rock Hall’s photo.

Printing the Shirt
I teach at a university that has a great printmaking department, which meant I would be able to produce the shirt by hand, like Larry did. I appealed to fellow professor John Hutcheson, who is a Master Printer with nearly 50 years of experience, to show me around the print shop, as I’d never screenprinted before. He excitedly took on the task of guiding me through the process. With his instruction, I prepared the screen with photo emulsion, burned the image into the screen using an exposure unit, washed the screen and prepped it for printing, mixed the two ink colors and screenprinted the two separations (one for the green areas and one for the orange-pink areas.) By screenprinting the shirt myself, I was able to re-create the odd placement of the graphic on the original shirt.

Sewing the Shirt (and Not Sewing the Shirt)
The screenprinting was the fun part. But the finishing of the shirt was the real challenge. I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, which meant replicating the double ringer on the collar and sleeves. As best I can tell from an exhaustive Internet search, no one makes these anymore. Also, I do not sew. Not hems, not buttons, nothing. It was very frustrating to feel so limited by my own abilities. I was able to rope a friend into helping me stitch together a shirt. I bought fabrics for the two rings—the navy was an easy decision, but the other color was harder to place. At times I thought it looked red, then orange-red, then orange, then orange-pink. My friend worked her sewing machine magic on one version, and then I experimented with a no-sew option. For this one, I deconstructed other shirts that had collars and sleeve hems pre-existing in the colors I needed (a decade-old Old Navy ringer t-shirt and a new tank top from Target), and then used the magic of Stitch Witchery and an iron to bond them to the shirts, even down to the little admiral-shoulder-type detail. Larry’s original shirt has an unusually wide collar, so I cut my shirt’s neck opening down before adding the double-rings.

Studying Larry’s shirt so intensely has spurred all sorts of research directions. While U2’s superstar team of designers, photographers and marketing people has created an iconic band with a rich visual history over the last three decades, it’s this earliest iteration of U2’s logo that intrigues me. The band was Larry’s vision—it’s very meaningful that the first shirt came from him. I’m looking forward to visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again in April during the U2 Conference—I can’t wait to examine the shirt in more detail and see how close or how far off I am. Perhaps a re-creation of the re-creation will be in the works.

1 Comment

  1. I too discovered them when I was 12! However for me it was during BOY….and also a way of life for me too. I just don’t think My ears could enjoy anyone better…ever. In fact i’m sure of it! Would love love love to see this shirt for sale somewhere!!!

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