“From my vantage point some 40 years after I first took a photograph of a Sunset Boulevard billboard, it seems purely by chance that any evidence of those rock ‘n’ roll works of art exists at all,” writes photographer Robert Landau in the forward of his wonderful new book, which looks back with much appreciation at a time when music reigned over culture and the world did not yet want its MTV. Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is photographic history about a brief moment when the gods of rock floated in extravagant iconography over Hollywood—but it’s also about more than that, because it is an entirely personal history as seen by a teenager on the cusp of adulthood wandering alone with a camera, animated and astounded by displays of here-today-gone-tomorrow pop art. It is indeed a wonder that the evidence still exists.
“I was a kid and a music fan, I was buying those records, but my sensibility was more visual,” said Landau during a recent conversation. “I was drawn to the billboards because they were so non-commercial. A lot of them didn’t even have text on them. It was like having an art gallery in my back yard.”
What a backyard, and what a time to be there: Landau was a kid living with his father in the Hollywood Hills in the late 1960s and early 1970s, on the street above the Tower Records store that was the hub of the music scene at the time, when the great rock billboards along Sunset Boulevard began appearing. “The first one I shot was in 1969, for one of my favorite albums—the Beatles’ Abbey Road, said Landau. “But in my research for the book, I talked to Jac Holzman, the founder of Electra Records, and he told me the first billboard that went up was for the Doors in 1967.”
It’s difficult from a modern perspective to imagine the impact of the glorious hand-painted billboards, which were designed by some of the top art directors in the business. “They’d be up for a month, and then they’d all be painted over and a new one would go up,” said Landau. Hendrix. Santana. Pink Floyd. David Bowie. They weren’t mere advertisements; they were cultural signposts: “The albums that came out then really were leading the way in things,” said Landau. “A record would come out and change the way people dressed, talked, and thought.”
It is no coincidence that the billboards appeared during the era of the great album covers, from which their artwork was often adapted. “The record companies put all their marketing money into all this,” notes Landau. “For bands, getting a billboard on Sunset was like getting a cover of Rolling Stone. And all the labels had their offices in the area, so for the music-company executives it was a way to show off their prowess in signing big acts.”
And then it was over. First came MTV in the early 1980s. “All the marketing money that had gone into the billboards now went into making music videos,” says Landau. Later came the CD, and the wondrous album artwork of yore, so resplendent on 12-inch by 12-inch sheets of cardboard, lost its power to astonish.
By that time, Landau was on his way to becoming a noted photographer of the physical and cultural landscape of Los Angeles. His pictures of the rock billboards were stored away and, like the era that spawned them, largely forgotten. A few years ago, however, someone working for the city of West Hollywood who knew about the images invited Landau to show them at a local gathering. “As I went through the slides, I realized again the power of the billboards,” said Landau. The book he ended up putting together is a mix of personal memories and well-researched history—a glimpse back at art and music that were in every sense bigger than life.