It’s hard to believe now, but from the late sixties through the eighties, Rolling Stone was the arbiter of cool. During that pre-Interwebz epoch, nerdiness wasn’t quite as big a business as it is now, and it could be tough to find merchandise – unless you happened to rummage through mail-order listings. If you were diligent, you could find some goofy gems. Much of it is unlicensed merchandise made by people in their homes, and while the products themselves were probably of lousy quality, then ads themselves still hold plenty of entertainment value. They’re also a glimpse into a burgeoning nerd culture, one that was still a ways off from breaking into the mainstream.
Culled from the indispensable Rolling Stone 40 Years: Cover to Cover DVD-ROM set, these are ten of the nerdiest mail-order ads from the magazine’s first two decades.
1) Superman Shirt by KOG, RS #69, October 29, 1970.
Rolling Stone was launched in November of 1967, and for the first several years the ads in the back pages tended to be about music, drugs and things of hippie concern. In this particular issue, there were ads for essential oil catalogs, low-budget cookbooks, real estate in Mendocino County (“$750 down, $44 per month, Neighbors of the same faith,” which doesn’t sound creepy at all).
And then there was this, the very first nerdy ad to run in the magazine. There’s no telling what other designs were in that $.50 brochure – other superheroes, presumably? Obviously Kog felt that Superman was enough to get people to part with four bits. Like most of the proprietors of most of the ads, Kog no longer exists (or, at least, doesn’t have a web presence), so we may never know.
2) Shaza(a)m! Pendant, RS #196, September 25, 1976 .
The next superhero symbol didn’t appear in the back pages for another six years. It was also a month before the final episode of the dire live-action Shazam!television series, which was just good timing on the part of Space Craft 2, Inc. But the real question is, was the misspelling of “Shazam!” intentional to avoid copyright infringement, or did they just not care? I’m voting for the latter.
3) Jaws Bicentennial, RS #198, October 23, 1975.
For better or worse, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws fundamentally changed the nature of film distribution. It inaugurated the summer blockbuster as we know it, and it also remains an endlessly watchable film. (The new Blu-ray looks fantastic, I might add.) Among its lesser-known achievements: Jaws had the first merchandise for a hit movie or other new pop culture phenomenon that appeared in the back pages of Rolling Stone. This wasn’t actually the first Jaws tchotchke to crop up; the very first one, a shark tooth pendant, was in RS #196 right next to the Shazam! pendant. But this one is the best, purely because of R. M. Wishon’s brazen mash-up of Jaws and the Bicentennial. What do they have to do with each other? Nothing at all, and that’s the brilliance of it. Heck, it’s too abstract to even be a political statement. I hope Wishon sold a million of ’em.
4) Hobbit T-Shirts, RS #202, December 18, 1975.
This particular Hobbit House ad actually ran in dozens of issues, and overall, there was more Lord of the Rings stuff in Rolling Stone than any other nerdy property. It’s no surprise, since the rock world in the sixties and seventies always had a thing for Tolkien; Led Zeppelin wore their worship on their sleeves in songs like “Battle of Evermore” and “Misty Mountain Hop,” and by all accounts, the Beatles wanted to make their own Lord of the Rings movie. (And, of course, everybody loves themselves some pipe-weed.)
I wonder how many people wore their T-shirts to the premiere of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, and then wished they’d just stayed home instead to play …
5) Quest of the Magic Ring, RS #232, February 10, 1977.
This board game – er, I mean, “strategic adult game,” which probably isn’t as sexy as it sounds – is one of the few items on the list for which there’s online evidence of it having existed in the real world, specifically on BoardGameGeek. Considering that they name-drop Middle-earth twice as well as Gandalf and Strider, I can’t help wondering if they had to get copyright clearances from Tolkien’s estate, as this seems even more blatant than the Hobbit House shirts. According to the Library of Congress copyright records and the game’s box cover, however, it’s a game of adventure in mythical earth, not middle earth. Well, that’s different! Move along. (One thing I can’t get past is how much that looks like a misplaced apostrophe in the headline. It’s not, but it leaps out at me every time.)
6) May the Force Be With You T-Shirt, RS #245, August 11, 1977.
Less than three months after the premiere of the film, the very first Star Wars ad appeared in Rolling Stone. I’m aware that date on the cover of a magazine isn’t necessarily the date that it hits the streets, but it’s all we have to go on – and either way, I can picture the enterprising proprietor of His Grace Productions, a week or two after the movie came out, scrambling to make the shirts and submit the ad to the magazine. In fact, the ad probably came first.
The real question is, what does it mean for a T-shirt to be “French cut?” My girlfriend’s a fashion designer, and even she’s unfamiliar with that term. A Google Image search suggests that it’s a woman’s cut, not dissimilar to a baby tee. Therefore, I choose to believe that it’s the first piece of Star Wars apparel marketed to girls, and that makes it awesome.
7) Addicted to Space Invaders T-Shirt, RS #331, November 27, 1980.
And then there were video games. They kept a pretty consistent presence in the back pages for the next few years, up until the time of what we now call the Video Game Crash of 1983. This ad appeared right around the time that Space Invaders was getting overshadowed by another video game we’ll get to shortly, but it seems appropriate to me that this was the first ad, considering how utterly enduring that character design has turned out to be. If you don’t believe me, switch back and forth a few times between this page and the page for Groove Coaster. It’s fun! But the real juggernaut that had taken over by then was …
8) How to Win at Pac-Man, RS #361, January 21, 1982.
Now, the majority of the Pac-Man merchandise was in the form of T-Shirts by a company called “The Wiz Kids,” which proudly proclaimed that they offered licensed products, and that they were the “Printers of the Official Videoshirt.”TM (Yep, they had the temerity to trademark that slogan, lest somebody else snatch it up.) But the ads for the not-licensed products were much more interesting, such as neckties, hand-painted ceramic pins, and this especially this publication by Dayton’s redoubtable “Computergame Experts.” There’s just so much to love: The eyeball that gives the unhyphenated Pacman the speed-freak look that his behavior always implied, the cascading logic of learnable secret format (format, you say?) that will not only allow you to impress your friends but in fact play all night thanks to their simple instructions. I can only imagine how many budding Billy Mitchells sent in their $3 and never saw it again, in spite of the “Money Back Guarentee” [their sic, not mine].
LINK: “budding Billy Mitchells”
9) Bar Trek, RS #432, October 11, 1984.
Curiously enough, this is the only Star Trek-related ad I could find. I’d thought for sure that there’d be something during the rise of the show’s fandom in the mid-’70s, but no. Hey, at least it’s the OFFICIAL Bar Trek T-Shirt, courtesy of the “Retarded Cat Foundation.” Uh-huh. And I’m sure that if they COULD have thought of something better for the couple lines than than “Jim Beam Me Up. Vulcan blood green,” they totally would have. So get off their back, already.
10) Godzilla LiteTM Refillable Butane Table Lighter, RS #456, September 12, 1985.
And finally, just as Godzilla 1985 was leaving an undistinguished run in American theaters, this was made available to a public desperate for new stylish ways to light tables. (That’s what a table lighter does, right?) Among the things I’ll always love about Roger Ebert is that he though he rightfully slammed the movie, there was a poster for it visible in his office during the opening credits of his television show. Did he also have a Godzilla LiteTM somewhere in his office? I’d like to think so.