Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip
While billboards today are nothing more than visual clutter, eyesores advertising the latest car models and reality TV shows that barely command a cursory glance, there was a time when these surfaces were hand painted works of art worth viewing for their aesthetic sensibility as much as for the wares on display. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the release of a new album by The Beatles, The Doors or The Eagles was a momentous and often culture defining occasion that was marked by the unveiling of an original billboard on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, a city that had emerged as the centre of both music and car culture. This largely forgotten and overlooked moment in music history forms the basis of Robert Landau’s exhaustive study Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip – a project that is equal parts lavish coffee table book and painstaking cultural history. The publication acts as a showcase for Landau’s rather impressive collection of photographs that he began taking in 1967 as a 16-year-old living above Tower Records on the Strip. From the first rock billboard advertising The Doors’ inaugural album in 1967, Landau traces a history of this emerging art form that married the music culture of the West Coast with the outdoor advertising medium to fashion a new visual language that very much captured the essence of the era.
Landau’s photographs are so evocative of another time and place that when perusing Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards you are instantly transported to Los Angeles in all its 1970s grittiness and vivacity; the photographs exude the energy and experimentation of the era and its changing social and cultural mores. One can only imagine what it must have been like to see such storied billboards as the one for The Beatles’ Abbey Road in the flesh – an ad that didn’t require a single word to announce the new release, indicative of the band’s unprecedented level of success. On the Sunset Strip, a street that was absolutely teeming with attention grabbing imagery – a bona fide visual assault – billboards had to be provocative and seductive in order to stand out amongst the plethora of other illustrations and signage vying for attention. The last third of the book features an extended gallery of the billboards of the period organized chronologically which serves as the perfect forum to appreciate Landau’s thorough photo documentation of these ephemeral creations. From an impossibly beautiful James Taylor sprawled in a field of grass to the iconic imagery of Pink Floyd’s The Wall to the campy disco glory of the Village People’s Live and Sleazy album, Landau uses this particular aspect of material culture to tell a larger story of the transformation of popular music that occurred over this fifteen year period.
More than just a book of pretty pictures, Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards is a meticulously researched history of the music industry of the time with profiles of such luminaries as Lou Adler and Shaun Cassidy and a series of studies of the art directors and illustrators who created the iconic billboard designs. Landau also examines how larger cultural changes – from the emergence of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” ethos and the embrace of the psychedelic to the popularization of sci-fi precipitated by the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey – are manifest in the billboard designs themselves through the inclusion of hallucinogenic and ethereal graphics. Taking more than a week to complete, these billboards were elaborate constructions that required the expertise of a range of individuals. By dedicating an entire chapter to the stories of the largely unknown and anonymous artists and creators, Landau claims a space for these figures in the history of both popular music and visual culture.
Although these billboards represented the commodification of music, there does seem to be an exuberance and almost naivety in the imagery that is quite different from what we encounter in contemporary life, and they indelibly marked the urban landscape of Los Angeles at the time. Landau’s photos, taken on Kodachrome slide film, innately have that seductive, lush quality that we all try to approximate with Instagram and it’s practically impossible to avoid being charmed by his imagery. The book is undoubtedly an exercise in nostalgia, yet it’s an enjoyable journey back to the heyday of the Sunset Strip, a time when this 1.7 mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard was the epicenter of all that was cool on the West Coast.