In 1967, a billboard was erected on the Sunset Strip heralding the debut album from the rock band The Doors.  It was the first of it’s kind, but not the last.  Over the next decade or so, Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards popped up all over the Strip featuring one-of-a-kind hand painted artwork promoting artists ranging from The Beatles to Randy Newman.  Author and photographer Robert Landau, began photographing these billboards at the age of 16, and his new book “Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” showcases these photos along with interviews and commentary from some of the top designers, illustrators and record executives involved with creating these landmark commercial art pieces.

We’ll be running a contest to win a copy of Mr. Landau’s book, so stay tuned to Figment News to find out how you can enter, but first we thought it appropriate to sit down and talk with him about the billboards, their impact on popular culture and how a teenager from LA came to document these fleeting but important works of rock art.

Figment News:  Why a book on Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards in this digital age?

Robert Landau:  To show precisely what hand-painted billboards in the classic rock period looked like. In their day, these state of the art billboards had a slightly imperfect but more human look thanks to the interpretation and brush strokes of each billboard artist who worked on them. Also, once the exhibit time was up, these billboards were whitewashed and painted over with new images, so Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is perhaps the only document of these amazing commercial art works.

FN:  How did the practice of creating these billboards get started?

Robert:  Billboards began appearing on the Sunset Strip as early as the 1920s. They displayed ads for cars, cigarettes and occasionally movies. However it took Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records, to see the possibility of using them to promote rock albums when he was ready to release The Doors debut record album. Recently transplanted from New York to Los Angeles, Holzman was aware that many of the key radio DJ’s drove to work along the Sunset Strip and he wanted to catch their attention. The Doors billboard in 1967 is considered the first rock and roll billboard.

FN:  You started taking photos of these billboards when you were a teenager. Why?

Robert:  I was 16 years old and just getting interested in photography. At the time I was living a block from the Sunset Strip near Tower Records. When I wandered down to the Strip with my camera I couldn’t help but notice these giant renderings of all the rock stars whose music I was listening to. I would also see the guys from the billboard companies installing them or touching up the paintings. Those billboards were primarily meant to be viewed by drivers in passing cars, but when you are on foot and up close, the billboards have a surreal quality that I was aware of even at that age. Also many had no advertising copy and great artwork that made the Strip feel like a giant outdoor art gallery. This initial work led me to a life-long interest in photographing the unique urban landscape of Los Angeles.

FN:  How active were the actual bands in the creation of their billboards? Or was it purely handled by their record labels?

Robert:  The great unsung heroes of the period were the art directors, designers and photographers (both freelancers and people employed by the record companies) whose job it was to create the album covers and design packaging for the rock stars. I made an effort to talk to as many of them as I could for the book. These visual artists created iconic imagery like the Beatles Abbey Road by designer Kosh, or the Eagles debut record, designed by Gary Burden. They were often friends with the musicians they depicted and would work to include them in the process. Some musicians were more visually minded than others and would have ideas or concepts for the imagery. In Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards, Kosh explains that the Abbey Road design was initially based on a sketch by Paul McCartney. After designing the record album, many took a hands-on approach to adapting their design to the outdoor billboard format.

FN:  In your book you talk about some of the designers and artists that were involved in the creation of these billboards. Who were some of the ones that stand out for you?

Robert:  Well I mentioned Kosh and Gary Burden, but there were several others I’d like to mention. Roland Young of A&M records, John Van Hamersveld (who did the incredible Exile On Main Street for the Rolling Stones), photographer Norman Seeff and designer Mike Salisbury.

In the back of the book there are thumbnails of each billboard with a credit listed for all of the talented people who had a hand in their creation. Speaking of designers, I’d also like to mention designer Frans Evenhuis who did such an amazing job conceptualizing and laying out the book.

FN:  Are there any billboard designs that you think are particularly iconic?

Robert:  Besides the Doors debut and the Beatles Abbey Road, there are several other truly iconic images that captured the spirit of the times: Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonizing in the night sky over the Strip’s non stop traffic, Marvin Gaye over the Old World Restaurant across the street from Tower Records, Pink Floyd’s simple image of a pig, dog and sheep with no advertising copy for their record Animals, and one of my all-time favorites; the billboard that depicted two giant chrome pin balls with eyes peering down from the Strip that was for a recording of the Who’s rock opera Tommy.

FN:  Did it become somewhat of a status symbol to have a billboard on the strip?

Robert:  Yes it quickly became an important milestone for rockers to gauge their level of success, much like landing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact there is no proof that these expensive and creative billboards helped sell many records but both the music artists and the record companies who were making tons of money at that time liked them, so there was definitely an ego or vanity element involved. But this aspect is also what allowed these images to veer away from traditional advertising approaches and pursue more artistic visual approaches.

FN:  Why didn’t these billboards show up in other cities? Or did they?

Robert:  There were a few other places where the occasional hand painted billboard appeared like in Times Square in New York. For the most part ads appearing in other cities were smaller printed versions of the artwork. Los Angeles and the Sunset Strip are unique due to both the car culture here and the open space of this city as opposed to more dense Eastern cities. The Strip with its wide road meandering around the Hollywood Hills combined with the gigantic 14 by 48 foot billboards and the on-site presence of both record companies and iconic night clubs like the Whisky a Go Go was the ideal place for Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards to become an art form.

FN:  Do these billboards still exist or have they largely disappeared?

Robert:  These billboards no longer exist, with one exception. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” is the only record of these rock ‘n’ roll hand-painted billboards. Those images were never intended to be anything more than fleeting advertisements, but they became iconic rock ‘n’ roll images that were wiped away shortly after they were created. Few of the boards were up for more than a month and then they were painted over.  The rock n’ roll billboard era ended when MTV and VH1 diverted music-industry advertising dollars from hand-painted billboards to music videos.

The single exception, the only remaining piece of art from this era, is Paul McCartney’s painted head that extended off the top of the Abbey Road billboard that appears on the cover of the book. Shortly after that board went up on the Strip in 1969 amidst crazy rumors that Paul was dead, some mischievous teens climbed up with a small saw and lopped off Paul’s head as a prank. Its been missing ever since. However when my book was released I offered a free signed copy through my Facebook page to anyone who could lead me to Paul’s missing head. The next day I received an email from the person, now in his sixties who had taken the head. It hangs proudly on his living room wall, and thanks to him a small but important piece of rock and roll history has been preserved.

FN:  If you were a rock artist talking to a billboard designer what three main points would you want emphasized in your billboard design?

Robert:  Billboards, unlike DVD covers or magazine pages need to communicate their message in mere seconds. The designs have to be simple and bold and don’t need much in the way of words or copy to clutter them up. They need to be read and digested by someone passing by in a car for about 7 seconds at most. The other great asset that has to be maximized is their enormous size, so bigger really is better when it comes to billboard design. A good billboard image is one that is simple yet provocative and has the effect of a time bomb that goes off in your mind after you have seen and digested it.

FN:  Where can we find out more information about the book and your other work?

Robert:  Thanks for asking! Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is available in local bookstores or on-line through the publisher, Angel City Press, and other traditional on-line outlets.

Prints of the images in the book are available through me, Robert Landau at [email protected] and people can follow me and the book’s progress at the Facebook page.

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We’d like to thank Robert Landau for taking the time to talk with us. We’ll be announcing a Rock N’ Roll Billboards contest that will be judged by Robert real soon, so stay tuned to Figment News for more info!

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