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Robert Landau was 16 when he got his first camera in 1969. Living with his folks in the hills above the Sunset Strip, he began taking photos of the early rock and roll billboards that appeared on the legendary boulevard.
Beginning in 1967 with The Doors’ billboard, located just above the Chateau Marmont, hand-painted signage would feature every big name in music for over a decade: Led Zepplin, Rod Stewart, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Brown, Gregg Allman, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, The Animals, The Bee Gees, Frank Zappa, Elton John, and John Lennon. And Landau captured them all and now everyone can see and perhaps revisit them in Landau’s book, The Rock ‘N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.
Billboards back then were relatively cheap (around $1,500 to paint, maintain and remove) and the record companies did them mostly to placate their temperamental artists. Today, Landau says billboard space can cost over $30,000. Back then billboards weren’t really expected to sell records. But the record companies realized it was a way to communicate with young music fans. To that end, they often teased and recreated album covers that the kids were putting up on their bedroom walls.
Landau calls these billboards “ephemeral.” He explains: “They went up fast, stayed up about a month and then they were white washed over and a new one would go up.”
One of his favorite billboards was one Lou Adler did for the London Philharmonic Symphony’s version of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. “It was just a pair of pinball eyes staring down at you. But they didn’t say what it was for and it got a lot of people talking, thinking and guessing.”
The billboards were also controversial. “One for the Rolling Stones’ Love You Live, had a woman on a billboard who was shackled and beaten,” explains Landau. “It read: ‘I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it.’” Needless to say, feminists did not and the billboard was defaced and removed.
Even as a wide-eyed teen, Landau realized that rock and roll billboards were a vibrant art form, “the pounding heart of my generation’s culture,” at a time when musicians were helping float the counter culture mainsteam merging with art, politics, even fashion.
“It was a very exciting period,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be there at the right time and the right place.”
Landau’s billboard book covers those exciting and tumultuous years in loving detail. He has talked at length with record producers, art directors and the artists who did the actual hands-on painting of these enormous works of art. It’s a trip down memory lane like no other. All this book needs is a soundtrack.
And Landau gives credit where it’s due, to the creative collaboration of art directors, designers, photographers, record producers, even the recording artists, as well as the teams of illustrators, stylists, typographers, retouchers, printers, technical advisors, billboard painters, woodcutters and installation crews.
“These people were rarely credited,” Landau explains. But his book – done in collaboration with designer Frans Evenhuis — is dedicated to them.
The Strip literally saw every genre of music on billboards: hard rock, glam rock, heavy metal, acid rock, folk rock, even soul, R&B and funk. And then, as suddenly as the billboard craze started, it was over.
“It was music videos that killed the rock and roll billboards,” Landau says. “By 1982, all the money that had gone into billboards went into making videos for MTV.”
Now he laments, “All you see on Sunset Strip are fashion billboards.”
To find out more about Landau’s coffee table book, click here.
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