The fascinating stories behind 12 iconic band logos

  • While some musicians promote their work with just their name, many bands' logos have become synonymous with the identity of their music and image. 
  • Insider explored the history of 12 iconic rock band logos to explain how they were created. 
  • The Rolling Stones paid a master's student £50 to create their iconic logo.
  • The Grateful Dead's "Steal Your Face" was inspired by a freeway sign. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Throughout rock history, some bands and musicians have relied solely on their names to promote their music. Others have developed logos that would become inextricable from their identity.

From The Rolling Stones' "tongue and lips" to the Grateful Dead's "Steal Your Face," here are the stories behind 12 of the rock world's most recognizable logos.

The Rolling Stones' "tongue and lips" logo is not based on Mick Jagger's lips, but a Hindu deity.

In 1970, while completing the final year of his master's degree at the Royal College of Art in London, John Pasche got the call of a lifetime. The school had been contacted by The Rolling Stones, who were in search of an artist to create a logo to use on the poster of its upcoming European tour, albums, and promotional material, according to The New York Times. 

Pasche was selected and, after Mick Jagger turned down his first design, ended up creating arguably the most popular logo in all of rock history: the Stones' "tongue and lips" logo. Contrary to popular belief, Pasche based the design not on Jagger's lips, but on the open mouth of the Hindu deity Kali, using an illustration the singer showed him. 

Pasche's logo made its first appearance on the back cover and insert of the band's 1971 release "Sticky Fingers." But an altered version by artist Craig Braun — in which the lips are slightly elongated and have more lines and highlights — was used on the United States' release and has continued to be used to this day. 

Pasche told the New York Times he was paid £50 for his work (about $970 today, according to the Times) and a £200 bonus; he later sold the copyright to the band in 1982 for £26,000. The Stones' former publicity manager, Alan Edwards, told The Times the band "must have grossed a good billion [pounds] in concerts, record and DVD sales, merchandising and exhibitions." Pasche said he'd "probably be living in a castle now" had he not sold the copyright. 

Each of Led Zeppelin's four logos represents a member of the band.

Led Zeppelin's four iconic symbols are the brainchildren of guitarist Jimmy Page. After critics slammed the band's third album, Page had the idea to put out their next album with none of their names and no information about the band.

As he explained to Rolling Stone in October: "People was saying we were this, we were that, we were a hype, it was a con. Well, yeah, OK. Let's see any other hype or con come out with music of this sort of caliber. Well, they can't."

He continued, "Then there was an idea of how craftsman of days gone by had their own stamp, sort of like a trademark, but a pictorial stamp, so you'd know it was that person. So it went from that idea of one sort of sigil, one idea, to the best idea, which was that everybody came up with their own sigil or their own symbol. So everybody did."

According to Classic Rock World, Page never explained his "Zoso" symbol but fans have speculated it is inspired by the English occultist Aleister Crowley's writing. Singer Robert Plant's symbol, a pen with a circle around it, is the feather of Ma'at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness, which was derived from the ancient Mu civilization. Drummer John Bonham (the three interlocking circles) and bassist John Paul Jones chose their symbols based on a book about the religious cult the Rosicrucians.

The Who's logo was inspired by British mod subculture in the 1950s.

During the 1950s in post-war Britain, the mod subculture (a faction of young people interested in music and fashion) adopted the red, white, and blue target from the military as a symbol of their movement. 

Artist Brian Pike made the graphic even more popular after incorporating it into The Who's emblem. Pike's 1964 logo features the target with the "h" in both the words connected to show unity, and an arrow on the "o" to show the band's masculinity, according to Ultimate Classic Rock. The logo was never used on a studio album but quickly became synonymous with the band. 

The Grateful Dead's "Steal Your Face" is the band's most popular logo.

The Dead have a lot of logos, but the "Steal Your Face" skull is arguably its most popular. It was designed in 1969 by GD audio engineer, chemist, and countercultural icon Owsley Stanley and artist Bob Thomas.

According to Grateful Dead Music, Owsley saw a freeway sign with a circle divided by a white line into blue and orange sections. This inspired him to think up the original design: a blue and red circle divided by a lightning bolt. The skull was added a few days later to represent the "Grateful Dead" and the name's folklore roots. 

The logo was first emblazoned on the Dead's equipment before appearing inside the gate-fold cover of its 1970 self-titled album. It would later appear as the cover of the Dead's 1976 live album "Steal Your Face," which forever married the lightning skull to its now-iconic name. 

The meaning behind the artwork is somewhat unknown. Some people believe the 13-pointed lightning bolt represents America's original colonies, while others believe it's a nod to the 13-step process to create LSD, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The "dancing bears" in the Grateful Dead's other famous logo actually aren't dancing.

The "dancing bears" logo first appeared on the back cover of the Dead's 1973 album "History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear's Choice)," in which Owsley Stanley (whose nickname was Bear) picked some of his favorite tracks. 

The bear logo was created by artist Bob Thomas. He was inspired by a lead printing block that had a picture of a laughing cartoon-like bear on it, according to Owsley Stanley's personal website.

But according to Owsley, the bears aren't actually dancing. On his website, he writes, "I guess you may have realised by now that the bears on the album cover are not really 'dancing'. I don't know why people think they are, their positions are quite obviously those of a high-stepping march. You can also see what some people think are 'bibs', are actually a stylization of the chest fur of the bear."

Anthony Kiedis drew the Red Hot Chili Peppers' iconic logo on a whim before the release of the band's first album.

According to Merchbar, Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis drew the band's iconic logo in 1984. Ahead of the band's debut self-titled album release the same year, management at EMI America and Enigma Records asked the band to provide a logo, so Kiedis sketched the eight-pronged asterisk, and the rest is history. 

The logo is often referred to as the "Star of Affinity," based on a similar drawing from author Michael Moorcock in 1970, and some fans think it's a nod to Kurt Vonnegut's asterisk in the preface of his 1973 novel "Breakfast of Champions." But in his 2004 autobiography "Scar Tissue," Kiedis affectionately refers to the logo as "an angel in heaven's a–hole" being viewed from Earth.

Radiohead's bear logo started off as a drawing for artist Stanley Donwood's 1-year-old daughter.

Although Radiohead's "Modified Bear" graphic was only featured on one album cover, the 2004 compilation album "Com Lag," it quickly became the band's logo and is now synonymous with the band's identity. The bear logo was first released as promotional material for Radiohead's fourth album "Kid A" in 2000. 

In the description of a print of Donwood's bear on Where There's Walls, the artist explains that the idea stemmed from a drawing for his daughter: "It isn't angry; it's hungry. It's all the toys you used to play with when you were little. I first drew it for my daughter when she was about one. It was part of a story about how forgotten toys wake up in dusty boxes and go and eat the adults who abandoned them."

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, in a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, explained that reading about genetically modified food also helped inspire Donwood's graphic. 

"Early on, Stanley Donwood, who does our artwork, and I started doing this thing, 'Test Specimen,' a cartoon about giving birth to a monster, the Frankenstein thing," Yorke told Rolling Stone. "For example, the bear logo – that is the test specimen, the first mutant. The idea was loosely based on stuff we were reading about genetically modified food. We got obsessed with the idea of mutation entering the DNA of the human species. One episode was about these teddy bears that mutate and start eating children."

There are two conflicting backstories behind Nirvana's smiley face logo.

Most fans believe that Nirvana's smiley face, which first appeared on a flyer advertising the launch of the band's 1991 sophomore album "Nevermind," was drawn by the late Kurt Cobain, according to the British radio station Radio X. It's believed that Cobain drew inspiration for the logo from a similar smiley face sign above the strip club The Lusty Lady in Seattle. 

But after the band filed a lawsuit against fashion designer Marc Jacobs, accusing him of using its smiley face logo in his 2018 "Redux Grunge Collection," the freelance graphic designer Robert Fisher claimed he was the one who actually drew up the iconic logo, not Cobain. Fisher said the band came to him in the summer of 1991 looking for album artwork for the album "Nevermind." Fisher said he "started playing around with variations of the smiley faces that he used to draw in his final year at Otis College, when acid culture was at its peak," according to Billboard.

The legal battle is ongoing.

Each animal in Queen's logo represents a band member's zodiac sign.

Since appearing on Queen's first album in 1971, this iconic logo became inseparable from the band's image. The logo was designed by lead singer Freddie Mercury who, according to Smooth Radio, attended art college. 

Each of the four animals in the logo corresponds to the horoscope of a band member. There are two lions for drummer Roger Taylor and bass player John Deacon, who are Leos; a crab for guitarist Brian May, a Cancer; and two fairies for Freddie, who was a Virgo. In between the two lions, there is a "Q," presumably signifying the band, which has a crown inside it, and behind the four animals is a phoenix. The meaning of the phoenix is unclear but the design is said to resemble the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom.

The popular Ramones emblem is based on the US presidential seal.

Arturo Vega, The Ramones' creative director, archivist, and "fifth Ramone," is responsible for creating the logo that helped send the punk band on their way to stardom, according to Merchbar.

Vega reportedly thought of the Ramones as the "ultimate" all-American band so he used the US presidential seal as inspiration for the design. Instead of the eagle clutching arrows in its right talon, Vega switched it out with a baseball bat as a nod to Johnny Ramones' love for baseball. In its left talon, Vega switched out the olive branch for an apple tree branch because he believed the band was "as American as apple pie." The banner in the bird's mouth reads "Hey Ho, Let's Go," which are the lyrics from the Ramones' first hit single "Blitzkrieg Bop." The four members' names are written around the perimeter of the seal as the final touch. 

Merchbar writes that the Ramones relied heavily on shirts emblazoned with the band's seal for revenue, as the band has sold more T-shirts than albums. 

Artist Hugh Syme says he never intended for Rush's "Starman" logo to become as popular as it did.

Appearing for the first time on the 1976 album "2112," the "Starman" logo created by Rush's longtime artist Hugh Syme has become synonymous with the band's identity. The logo was created as a combination of the concept album's two key players: the Solar Federation trying to suppress creative thought and the man trying to promote creativity and the arts. 

Syme told uDiscoverMusic that, "The evolution of the star and man was Neil [Peart's] and mine's first true collaboration. He simply described the Red Star Of The Solar Federation as being all that is contrary to free thought and creativity, and the man as our hero. I simply combined the two. Never was this intended to be the band's brand or logo, with such a strong and enduring association with all things Rush."

At one point, Prince replaced his name with the iconic glyph that became permanently ingrained into his legacy.

Prince's logo is perhaps the most controversial in all of rock history. As Wired reporter Margaret Rhodes writes, there are two sides to the story. There's the tale of when Prince changed his name in 1993 to his signature glyph to antagonize his record label, Warner Bros., for trying to delay the releases of his albums.

Then there's the story of how the glyph was designed. Prince hired the company HDMG to design graphics for some music videos and a logo. Mitch Monson, a partner at the company, ended up drawing the logo that would become one with Prince's identity. Inspired by two female dancers he was working with, Carmen Electra and his eventual wife, Mayte, it merged the female and male gender signs to create a new gender fluid symbol, Rhodes observes.   

Rhodes also points out in her article that there are imperfections in the design of Prince's logo: The love symbol is slightly off balance, the circle at the top isn't perfectly circular, and the right side of the horizontal bar is misshapen.

But Monson, the designer, told Wired it was all intentional. "I get grief for it all the time from people who are like, 'Can't you just clean up that logo,'" Monson told Wired. "But it was supposed to be that way; he didn't want it to be perfect."

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