Few people in recent decades have shaped the music scene quite like Steve Lamacq.
Currently a lynchpin of BBC 6 Music (previously of BBC Radio 1, Radio X and NME), his dedication to supporting artists at the very beginning is unquestionable. However, Steve goes further than this by supporting music fans to find their new favourite artists and connecting with fans on his radio shows, public appearances and in a way that he never planned – BBC Radio 6 Music Wear Your Band T-Shirt to Work Day, better known as T-Shirt Day.
Steve cannot remember a moment where he realised that music would be what he dedicated his life to, but many times he has spoken about attending his first The Lurkers gig aged 13 and the feeling afterwards. “I just wanted to do that again. The emotion it provoked was unlike anything else.” This is a feeling many music fans have felt around the world and although it was approximately three decades before Steve created T-Shirt Day, some of these early feelings were the exact same feelings that ended up inspiring the event.
The moment Steve first thought of T-Shirt Day he was having a part beer/part meeting chat with two of the 6 Music producers in one of Steve’s favourite pubs called The Ship (“often known as Steve Lamacq’s office” by 6 Music staff, as the man himself explains it). "When I went out for a smoke, I was thinking about what we were going to do that is going to make some kind of cultural gesture about how we think about band t-shirts and what they actually really mean.”
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This cigarette epiphany was planned as a niche event among hardcore 6 Music listeners with the first event 12 years ago having “about 45 t-shirts” posted online. When Steve came in from his cigarette and told his colleagues the general view was it was a great idea. “We came up with the idea on a Thursday,” says Steve, “and we did it two Fridays later.”
Although Steve was naïve as to what it could become, he was slightly more reserved than his colleague. “I remember the producer saying, ‘we’ll do it next Tuesday’ and I said, ‘let’s build up to it a bit’. That was it, the idea was basically, ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could go in to work with your Iron Maiden t-shirt on; if nothing else, as a conversation starter.”
Steve and I discussed how he has lost control over T-Shirt Day within the BBC. “We started it as just our show but it’s great, it’s become a whole day,” he laughs. But more than that, Steve has lost control of it among fans. Every year Steve hears of heart-warming stories. “I love the fact that people can do what they want with it,” he says. “A Sixth Form College got in touch the other day who are raising money for local charities on [this forthcoming] t-shirt day.”
Steve happily lists other examples. “We’ve had really nice pictures of families around the dining room table with the paint out when parents can’t find t-shirts for their kids for their favourite bands, so they’ve had to make their own.” This is it, this is T-Shirt Day, the day that’s “become what everyone else wanted to make of it.”
“The weather will be inclement [for this year’s event],” laments Lamacq. “At one point there was talk of moving it to the summer, but it does feel like now it is at home in November.”
Whether or not it is by accident, the event It has become “the biggest coming together [of music fans each year]” according to Steve. He and his team at 6 Music have learned what this time on the calendar means to the listeners.
“We start getting people emailing asking for the date a good couple of months before the day itself. Sometimes we get people asking for the date before we’ve even worked out the date. It has that sort of anticipation around it. One of the things that feels quite nice about when it is, is because it’s like a party in the office. People say to me now that they feel like that’s when Christmas is coming.”
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Steve realises that fans have judgement calls to make each year. ”If you’ve got a lot of t-shirts and you’ve got a lot of favourite bands, how do I boil it down to one?” he empathises, “which one t-shirt am I going to wear, which one band am I going to pledge my allegiance to? I love the slight competitive nature in some offices, there’s a sense of humour to it.”
However, the punk ethic still lives on in Lamacq. “We do get some people with a dress code who send us pictures saying ‘I am subverting the dress code but only by having the t-shirt under my shirt’. Fair play to them, thanks for taking part. It’s slightly rebellious.”
Growing from 45 t-shirt posts in the first year to the thousands the BBC 6 Music team now receive, the team are now able to bring special treats. Last year for the 11th anniversary legendary designer Peter Saville, whose history includes having designed Joy Division’s 'Unknown Pleasures' album, created a special competition celebration shirt.
This year the team at 6 Music have continued with a similar and unsurprising theme linking with “Orlando Weeks of The Maccabees who has come up with this idea of customising your t-shirts with a stencil,” Steve explains. “He’s done a stencil for us which is a really nice star, but the idea is that you take one of the t-shirts by one of the bands you like, and you can stencil on a star for every time you’ve seen them play.”
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Whether we’re talking about the meteoric rise of IDLES’ fan-created Facebook fan group the AF Gang or T-Shirt Day, one of the timeless things forever commented about music is a sense of shared experience. “It is about how it creates a community,” observes Lamacq.
When talking of Steve’s first gig experience at The Lurkers, his thoughts may have been with youthful innocence, but also very insightful. “There were all these people,” he reminisces, “and I thought if they all like this band then we’ll probably all get on.”
Being a music fan is not a science, you cannot classify it, but whether you go to one tour a year, every event possible or simply stream things on your phone, the one thing in common is your enjoyment. For some, their feelings around music can be similar to a spiritual experience. Steve agrees. “Before they knocked it down I went to CBGB’s. It was like a pilgrimage,” he remarks, recognising the huge emotional feelings some of us attach to the buildings in which we have seen some of our idols, the artists that sound-tracked and played a part in the best part of our lives.
“When the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town shut, it was like closing a door on a part of my life. You can’t go back and stand there and think ‘I stood there when I saw Manic Street Preachers, I stood there when I saw Doves’. Well, there’s another bit of my youth been demolished.”
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Extending further into the concept of the band t-shirt, after Steve and I have discussed his full wardrobe dedicated to shirts which are “vaguely sorted into bags of eras” Steve provides a touching window into what being a music fan actually means to him and the emotional connection he has with music. “The shirts are in some cases postcards from our youth. It’s like that t-shirt has written to you and provided all the memories of what happened that particular night and why it was so special.”
Music for some is a holistic experience extending far beyond the sounds we hear and Lamacq’s attitude to it is no exception. “I wear a pair of [Doctor Marten’s boots] till they are virtually falling apart, and I always take them one last time to Glastonbury. At the end of Glastonbury, I leave them at the bin at the hotel, we have a tearful parting and I wave them goodbye and thank them for all we’ve been through together.”
Although only footwear, where else would such a dedicated fan logically take his shoes on one last journey other than the Valhalla of music? The 45 original shirts were a miniscule pocket of super fandom market research, but now with the thousands of shirts posted each year, Steve, who claims to have not cracked the formula for finding a new band, observes the cycle of musical fashions.
“It’s so revealing about what people actually like. You learn that bands thought had actually gone out of fashion, but you scroll through the timeline (of social media posts) and see bands like New Model Army who were probably a life-changing band to somebody when they first saw the group and you realise differently.”
Our conversation meanders to various bands we have both worked with, who were not backed by large budgets and corporations. Steve chose to champion them, simply summing it up by saying, “you never know what’s going to come out of the post next.”
Steve will always be firstly a music fan and secondly a DJ. He recalls a recent return from annual leave. “I opened the door to my pigeonhole and loads of stuff just fell out – literally overflowing,” he notes, sounding a little overwhelmed. “I was lucky to have learned from John Peel. We’re not greater beings, we’re just in a position where we’re able to do it.”
Although undoubtedly a champion of music, Lamacq doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “I wish I knew how it worked, but you just put them in front of people and they can make their own minds up.”
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6Music's T-Shirt Day returns on November 22nd.
Words: James Wadsworth
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