Native Angeleno Robert Landau never consciously set out to document the music billboards of the Sunset Strip. In 1969, when he was 16, his parents divorced and he moved in with his father in an apartment near the former location of Tower Records, just one block above Sunset Boulevard. The budding teen photographer would stroll along the Strip, eyeing giant 14-by-48-foot, hand-painted billboards depicting some of his favorite musicians. He noticed the panels coming down just a month after they were installed, so he began documenting them using color slide film. It turned into a project that lasted over a decade.
Landau's early efforts paid off. In 2012, Angel City Press published a book of his photography called Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. Now, the Skirball Cultural Center is exhibiting photos based on the book.
Landau never expected anyone to publish his photos, let alone exhibit them. But he did believe the billboards were unique, since they often featured just images without any text, transforming the Sunset Strip into what Landau describes as something like a drive-through art gallery.
"The images on the billboards — much like the music they represented — captured and reflected the mood of that time so perfectly," he observes. "So much creative energy went into these billboards, and yet they were only seen and appreciated by relatively few people in their time."
For his book, Landau even tracked down a few of the people responsible for the billboard images, and learned more about the artists who painted them on such massive scale. "I’m not nostalgic by nature," he says, "but I do respect the power of a single photograph to capture and preserve information that helps define and understand a specific place and time, as these images do."
With this in mind, we asked Landau to share his thoughts about a few of the images on display in Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.
The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969 (Sunset near Queens Road)
"For some reason, the first Sunset Strip billboard to feature the Beatles, to my best recollection, was for [one of] their last studio album[s]. I’m guessing that due to all the built-in interest for anything The Beatles did in those days, Capitol Records didn’t have do a lot of extra promotion. This is one of the first boards I shot, and also one of the most storied ones because during its posting, at the height of unsubstantiated rumors that Paul McCartney was dead, somebody climbed up on the board and lopped his wooden head off. There is a picture of the headless version in the book, and we later tracked down both the culprit and the missing head."
John Lennon with Yoko Graffiti, 1971 (Sunset near Queens Road)
"There was a period after The Beatles broke up when John was living alone in L.A. and wanted to remind people that he was still around. I don’t think that billboard was for any specific record project. The clever use of cut-out lettering or real negative space called attention to an otherwise minimalist approach. After it had been up for a short time, some clever soul added this gently comical bit of graffiti."
The Who and London Symphony Orchestra, Tommy, 1972 (Sunset near Queens Road)
"This is one of my all-time favorite billboards — as close as you can get to a pure artistic statement in a commercial realm. Commissioned by music mogul and billboard enthusiast Lou Adler, who is profiled in the book, and designed by art director Tom Wilkes, it glared down fiercely from the Strip for a number of weeks, almost causing several accidents as passing motorists puzzled over its meaning. The rock musical created by The Who about a blind, deaf and dumb pinball wizard was depicted by Wilkes through a pair of photo-realistically rendered chrome pinballs with colorful eyes. No copy was needed, but the name Tommy was added near the end of its posting time."
Electric Light Orchestra, Out of the Blue, 1977 (Sunset near San Vicente)
"ELO plunked down $50,000, a lot of money in 1977, for a plexiglass space station with revolving lights that was affixed to their Sunset Strip billboard and later appeared as a prop in their live shows."
Donna Summer, Live and More, 1978 (Sunset near Sweetzer)
"With all due respect to a very talented lady, I was not a fan of disco music when it arrived on the scene. I thought it represented the end of classic rock and the return to Vegas-style entertainment that rock & roll had replaced just a short while before. Nonetheless, this is a powerful use of the billboard medium and a great use of extensions on the upper-right hand side of the frame."
UFO, Obsession, 1978 (Sunset near La Cienega)
"In the wake of the classic Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, billboards and album covers with a sci-fi aura appealed to spaced-out audiences in search of escapist fare."
Pink Floyd, The Wall, 1979 (Sunset near La Cienega)
"Pink Floyd was known for spectacular visuals in both their live shows and in the packaging and promotion of their records, and this board touting the 1979 release of The Wall was no exception. It first appeared on the Strip as a blank brick wall, and then slowly over a period of weeks, the bricks were removed to reveal this design underneath."
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"Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip" is on view March 24 through August 16, 2015 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Admission is free. More info.