Has any rocker ever made music of merit wearing a sleeveless shirt? Not while making music bare-chested or wearing a tank top, not bare-chested under a vest, but specifically making music while wearing a sleeveless shirt.
If you’ve clicked these opening links you’ll see that U2 drummer Larry Mullen has been known to wear the sleeveless shirt. I’ll grant that an argument can be made that U2 made some music of merit while Mullen donned such a gun-bearing fashion atrocity, but he’s a drummer. In past style pieces on Rock Town Hall, drummers have gotten a pass for all sorts of questionable fashion choices, including performing in barefeet and wearing shorts. We make some allowances for rock’s driving forces based on matters of comfort. For the purposes of this survey, we’ll give sleeveless drummers a pass. Beside, I want no part of George Hurley.
Granted, as a guy who’s never expressed his vanity through his forearms (as if I could), the whole sleeveless shirt thing mystifies me. It’s to be expected that the poster boy of Rock Town Hall’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas series, Alan Vega, would go sleeveless, but the style would spread to some of the coolest of the cool. How much comfort does a man need to be a rock legend? How much do we really need to know about him? Sure, sometimes even the President of the United States has to stand naked, but did Bob Dylan really need to play sleeveless?
I don’t know when the sleeveless shirt craze took over, but do a search on a number of rock artists with the date “1985” following their name and I’d bet you can come up with as many shots of them sleeveless as I just did with Dylan. (BTW, I didn’t realize he was into the Bare-Chested Vest Look as early as the mid-’70s, for that Renaldo and Clare movie.) You don’t believe me? Try these:
- “Tom Petty 1985“
- “Peter Buck 1985“
- “Bruce Springsteen 1985“
- “Neil Young 1985“
- “Chrissie Hynde 1985“
- “Joe Strummer 1985“
Strummer, for all his late-period Clash fashion faux pas shouldn’t surprise me, but seeing him in sleeveless shirts still hurts. Make it stop already!
Even a search on Rock Town Hall’s patron saint of mediocrity, “Bob Seger 1985,” turns up this. I pray that’s a bare-chested hippie vest shot and not what it seems.
To answer my own question, D. Boon did musical works of merit sans sleeves. Probably early enough into The Police‘s career, when I had a better chance of liking their records, Sting did some good work despite a lack of sleeves. Only bassist Mike Watt saved The Minutemen from being rock’s first sleeveless trio, matching the similarly pro-sleeve work done, I believe, by The Police‘s Andy Summers. U2, however, has produced some good music while launching an 8-gun salute.
I’m not a fan of Van Halen, but for what they did, they did it better than any other band of their era. They made plenty of “really good, if you like that shit” music wearing all sorts of bad clothing, so it’s possible that they wore sleeveless shirts while dancing the night away. (BTW, in the linked photo of the band, Eddie Van Halen is wearing what ladymissroyale taught us dudes a few months ago is called a cap-sleeve shirt, which is cut to venture into that no-man’s land between deltoid and upper biceps muscles. The cap-sleeve shirt will be covered in a future piece in our Rock’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas series.) Hey, check it out: they did!
Too often, though, the sleeveless shirt marked a descent into a misguided musical direction or, as best represented by early 1980s Pete Townshend, a cry for help. Perhaps what started as a means of responding to overactive sweat glands, an issue that finally came to a head in the climactic scene of The Kids Are Alright, turned into a fashion obsession for Townshend and led to an eventual period of self-examination.
Individual sleeveless rockers aside and their musical merits aside, what’s worse: the self-cut sleeveless shirt or the tailored sleeveless shirt? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? As you chew on an answer, see if you can help me with another challenge.
Happily, for me, the sleeveless shirt faded from fashion. Maybe this was a positive offshoot of the sports world’s targeting of athletes using performance enhancing drugs. Maybe that was part of my problem with rockers baring their guns in those silly, incomplete shirts: rock ‘n roll was a safe haven for kids not obsessed with muscles. If you had them and felt like flaunting them, fine, but shoot, man, I don’t want to read about muscles as part of any rocker’s profile.
As with any of rock’s unfulfilled fashion ideas, however, this style must have had some promise, beside staying cool. I’d like to think that all fashions other than drawstring Zubaz pants had their roots in an intially even semi-cool visual idea. Is there a once-promising Jimi Hendrix Headband of Sleeveless Shirts that I’m missing?