'Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip' Offers Pre-MTV Look at Promotion

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip - H 2015
Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip - H 2015

Photographer Robert Landau's images at the Skirball look at classic rock billboards from the '60s and '70s.

In the beginning, there was the LP, and Alan Freed said: “Let there be rock.” And there was rock, and he separated the single from the LP and called the singles “hits” and the LPs “concept albums.” And so began the search for an image that would reflect a concept and sell those albums. “The whole album was telling a story, like Sgt. Pepper,” says photographer Robert Landau, whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek. “So the whole approach to making album covers changed.”

Landau documents that change in Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, a photo collection chronicling the evolution of the legendary thoroughfare, on view now through Aug. 16 at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center. It all started back in 1967, when Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records, a folk label at the time, relocated to Los Angeles and decided to branch out into rock with a new band called The Doors. On his daily commute along the Strip, he wondered why the ubiquitous billboards advertised everything but rock 'n' roll. Today, the side of a building will cost you $75,000 per month, but back then it was only $1,000, so he decided to give it a try, using the image of the four bandmembers from the album cover.

“It probably didn’t make that much sense to spend a lot of money on these signs that would be up for a month and painted over,” reasons Landau. “But there was a cool factor that just created a buzz. And in Hollywood, that’s pretty important. If there’s a buzz about something, people don’t want to be left out.”

The Doors is now considered one of the most successful debut albums ever, launching the band to legendary status and transforming the Strip for the next 15 years with epic public artworks that documented a shift from the freewheeling '60s to the corporate era of the '70s.

“You start with pretty flat, photo-realistic representation,” says curator Erin M. Curtis about stylistic changes through the years. “You progress from that to the pieces that sort of went off billboards” — like one fitted with a plexiglass satellite for Electric Light Orchestra, which they later used in their show.

“We definitely explored that interplay between the public and their reactions to these billboards,” explains Curtis, adding a story about Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town billboard being spray-painted with the words “Prove it all night” across the bottom by Springsteen and his E Street Band after a night of carousing.

Recently removed from the show was the short-lived billboard for The Rolling Stones’ 1976 album, Black and Blue, depicting model Anita Russell bruised and bound by Mick Jagger with the caption, “I’m Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones — and I love it!” Targeted for protest by women’s groups, the billboard was taken down after two days, but Landau’s photograph of it for Rolling Stone made it immortal.

Landau’s photos are all that remain of the billboards, which were whitewashed after each use. The only known exception is a fragment from The Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road, which was preserved only through a fortuitous act of larceny. One morning, the Strip awoke to find the familiar image of the band crossing the street — minus the head of Paul McCartney. The mystery went unsolved until 2012 when, while promoting a photo book on the subject, Landau put out a call to anyone who knew of its whereabouts. The culprit was Robert Quinn of Woodland Hills, who confessed to stealing it as a prank on his 19th birthday and keeping it in his living room for the past 40 years.

As it turned out, Paul wasn’t dead, but the billboards are, having been replaced in the early '80s with a more modern method of music promotion. “If you had those panels, you could probably go back layer by layer and retrace David Bowie back to The Beatles back to The Doors,” offers Landau. “They were reaching a local, albeit important, audience in Hollywood. But to reach a much bigger audience, MTV did the trick.”