A few decades back, when the music industry was booming and record companies had more money than they knew what to do with, a curious phenomenon played out on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Bands started showing up on billboards.
The first group that Robert Landau noticed in the larger-than-life format was the Beatles, in 1969. The billboard showed the now-iconic image of the group walking across Abbey Road—no text, no explanation, and no explicit advertising, really, aside from the image of the band itself. The billboard gripped Landau, then a teenager living in the neighborhood, with a "surreal immediacy," and he snapped a Kodachrome slide to show his friends later.
It was the start of something the photographer would pursue for the next 10 years, a self-imposed quest to document these strange things that were part ad, part art, and wholly a product of their time (just look at all that hair). Now, all of Landau’s photographs are available in a new book, Rock 'n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip—a collection that chronicles music-industry excess across diverse acts and genres, one big rectangle at a time.
By the time the Fab Four imprinted themselves on Landau’s consciousness, however, the Sunset Boulevard billboard was already well on its way to becoming a thing. The Doors had pioneered the strategy with an ad in front of the Château Marmont in 1967, and other acts on other labels had quickly followed suit. But even then, it was something different from conventional billboard marketing, more about building hype than selling records. "Not many people outside Sunset and the music industry were seeing these," Landau explains. "What they were really trying to do was create buzz within the industry."
But as the billboards became an institution unto themselves, by turns becoming more extravagant and, in some cases, less explicit about who or what they were promoting, the signs became as much of an industry ritual as anything resembling traditional advertising. "There was a kind of one-upmanship going on," Landau told me. "I think some of the designers, and even some of the executives of the record companies, were all trying to out-do each other."
"It was sort of about bragging," he continued. "And I think it was also important for the record companies to show that they supported the artist. When it became a big thing, everybody wanted a billboard on the Strip. It was sort of like having the cover of Rolling Stone. It was a sign that you had made it in the industry and that the record company was behind you." Instead of hoping to see their names in lights, what up-and-coming acts in the biz really wanted was their mug hovering above traffic.
Like the artists they promoted, the billboards in Landau’s book run the stylistic gamut. Some of the hand-painted placards are straightforward adaptations of album art—a formal conversion made easy, Landau notes, by the fact that the art was typically being designed for billboard-proportioned gatefold LPs in the first place. Others are a bit more vague—like an enigmatic lineup of a pig, a dog, and a sheep that went up in anticipation of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. The billboard for Randy Newman’s Born Again, a close-up of the singer’s face, painted in full Kiss make-up, with green dollar signs instead of black shapes surrounding his eyes, embodies the visual play of the era while also drawing attention to the fact that music was, indeed, very big business. Even so, the billboards themselves weren’t necessarily about the bottom line.
"It didn’t really make sense from a business standpoint," Landau says. But then, it didn’t need to. "The records were selling, and all these guys were making so much money—and there really weren’t very many places to advertise. So for them it was sort of a creative outlet. They could pour a lot of money into it."
For whatever their role as a unique (and uniquely visible) cog in the industry machinery, however, the billboards serve as a reminder that album art, at its best, can indeed be art. And in this case, art on a very big scale.
"The Strip really seemed like its own outdoor gallery," Landau says, recalling his early days of photographing the pieces. "They’d be there for about a month, and then they’d just disappear. If you didn’t see 'em, they were gone, and there was no record of them other than that." Thankfully, there was one person who was dutifully recording every one he saw.
You can order the book, which tells the fascinating story of the ads, along with full-color photos of over a hundred, for $50 from the publisher, Angel City Press.