As a pupil at a school that required a uniform, badges were one of the few ways to broadcast your sophisticated taste and esoteric musical enthusiasms, and political/ethical concerns if you had any. Of course, there were also the exuberantly biro'ed pencil cases and army surplus canvas bags but that's another story.
Crucially, they were also very cheap and made ideal pocket money purchases.
There were important distinctions in the style of badges dependent on your musical preferences. I remember pop music badges in the 70s tended to be large and full colour - a photograph of a beaming David Essex as big as a coaster, for example. Heavy metal fans favoured enamelled metal badges, or the later cheaper versions which were basically a metal square with a shiny plastic sticker, and the obligatory sew-on patches for their frayed denim waistcoats.
Punk and New Wave fans were more austere in their badge preferences (this was probably a result of limitations in budget and manufacturing capabilities as much as aesthetics). Monochrome tended to be the rule, or maybe two colours at a push, and they were always small. Bold graphic band logos tended to work best at this scale, PiL's being a particularly successful example which worked at every size from button badge to shoulder-spanning back-of-the-leather-jacket artwork.
I filled up my school blazer lapels from a small record retailer in Lincoln called Sanctuary records, which had a black felt-covered board covered in tiny, ¾" badges from which I made my careful selections.
Around the same time, I began reading the NME which had a regular advertiser - Better Badges. They placed their tiny box ad on the inside last page, always in the bottom right corner. Happily, I've just found the remains of my NME collection (now reduced to about a dozen copies in total) dating from 1979 to 1985. And the early ones do indeed have Better Badges ads.
Better Badges ad, NME 27th September 1980.
As you can see, they presented their top sellers in a weekly chart and it gives a wonderfully concise snapshot of the popular underground (if that's not a clumsy oxymoron) music scene of the time. Apart from the Jam, who weren't underground at all really (despite that song title, yes I see it!)
I can imagine little teen mods satisfying their fan worship by stocking up on badges whilst they save up to buy some black and white bowling shoes, just like Paul Weller's.
Schoolkids usually don't have much money to spend. You might buy a badge of a record before you bought the record itself. Or you might buy the badge instead of the record, and satisfy yourself with a fuzzy tape recording of the track off John Peel. At least you knew about it, and you could let everyone else know you knew about it too.
Better Badges was great because it was right on the money, producing little mascots of nerdy fandom exactly when you needed them. Before 'everyone else' had heard of them.
Better Badges, NME 3rd January 1981.
This ad from January 1981 indicates a rising political awareness with the CND badge (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) topping the chart. I'm sure it was around this time that I sent off for my copy of the CND booklet Protest and Survive, which scared me witless.
I honestly can't remember if I ordered badges directly from Better Badges. Being isolated in a village in rural Lincolnshire, I regularly sent off postal orders for records and fanzines, and then raced to beat the dog to the post before she tore the packages to shreds (I still have a few records with teeth marks). The company was also an important producer and distributor of fanzines and its very likely that some of my postal orders went to them, but I'm hazy on this. At any rate, its certain that I wore their badges.
Better Badges ad, NME 19th December 1981.
By December 1981, Better Badges had dropped the chart and just listed their new productions, and the P&P had doubled to 20p.
The next year - 1982 - I left school and went to art college, and I think my badge-wearing years ended at around the same time. Perhaps I considered them a little gauche and immature now I was a grown-up student (oh dear). It looks like Better Badges stopped advertising in the NME shortly after this too, since my few later copies don't have their ads.
This enjoyable trawl through old NMEs has lead to a day-long scanning session because I was drawn to the clothing ads in the back pages. So my next few posts will explore the delights of the mail order clothing companies that sold through my (then) favourite music weekly.
I've been very slack about doing research for this post, in fact I haven't done any in my rush to post something after quite a lull.
If you would like to learn more about Better Badges, check these links:
A short history of Better Badges and its role in badge and fanzine production and distribution.
An article by Joly MacFie, founder of Better Badges, which explores how the emergence of cheaper reproduction technologies enabled the DIY/anyone-can-do-it ethos of punk.
A Village Voice article about Joly MacFie and punkcast.com.