Nothing Captures the Essence of a City and Its Citizens Like the Things That They Are Enticed to Buy, Fear, Respect, or Be Amused By. We Consider the Hook, the Artifice, the Sale and Aftermath of a London & Los Angeles Driveby, All Through the Lens of Robert Landau.
In 1967 Jac Holzman, the head of a fledgling independent record company called Elektra Records, took the bold step of procuring advertising space on a well positioned billboard at the heart of the Sunset Strip, a mere stone’s throw from the legendary Chateau Marmont. Up until then, that billboard would have primarily been employed in the service of promoting shiny new Pontiacs, macho cowboys smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and the occasional lounge lizard act appearing in Vegas (picture a young Wayne Newton). But Holzman had something completely different in mind.
Having just departed the folk music world of beatniks and coffee houses in New York City, Holzman was looking to make his mark on the West Coast’s exploding rock and roll scene. Shortly after setting up office in West Hollywood, Holzman signed a little known L.A. club band with a strong local following on the Strip called the Doors. Holzman had a hunch. He was just acclimating himself to L.A.’s car-driven culture when he noticed that Sunset Strip billboards were hawking everything but contemporary music. Holzman reckoned if he could erect an eye-catching super-sized image of Jim Morrison and friends—not unlike the one on their debut album cover—then radio DJs zipping down the Strip on their way to work would have to take note, and maybe even grant the Doors some all important access to the airwaves on the AM/FM radio dials.
In those pre-digital years state of the art outdoor advertising meant one thing; hand-painted billboards. With a technique more closely aligned with cave painting and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel than anything hi-tech, talented and highly trained commercial artists painting in large studios from motorized scaffoldings, could bring a 14 by 48 foot photo-realistic rendition of almost anything to life—from a Big Mac to Fleetwood Mac. Thick oil based paint gave the resulting images a shiny surface, and the slightly imperfect element of human brush strokes made the enormous faces seem even more heroic. The cost for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip for a month-long showing in 1967? Three thousand bucks. Holzman plunked down the cash and a new trend was born: the rock and roll billboard. In a matter of years, having a billboard on the Sunset Strip became second only to seeing your face on the cover of Rolling Stone as proof that you had arrived as a true Rock God.
The large wooden panels that comprised each billboard were cumbersome and expensive so at the end of the month they were returned to the billboard studio where they were white-washed and made ready for a new incarnation. Hence the Doors begat Joe Cocker, who became Frank Zappa, who gave way to Pink Floyd, who morphed into David Bowie, who transitioned into Donna Summer. Between the Doors debut billboard in 1967, through the 1970s pantheon of classic rock, and on up into the early eighties of disco, and new wave acts like Elvis Costello and Blondie—all were momentarily memorialized in paint on the Sunset Strip.
I say art form because these rock and roll billboards often transcended their initial commercial intent and achieved a critical albeit short -lived artistic and cultural status. The generation to whom they were speaking, of which I am a member, was the first to grow up with commercial television as a constant presence in the home and as such was highly suspicious of anything overtly commercial. Traditional advertising methods, for example selling a new Beatles record like a box of Rice Krispies, would have been viewed as selling out. There was no MTV or YouTube or Instagram. Almost by default, album cover art was the sole platform where recording artists could visualize their music and get an unadulterated message across to their fans. To that end the world’s best designers, photographers, art directors, and sometimes big name fine artists like Andy Warhol, were employed to create fantastic and groundbreaking imagery. That imagery was then re-purposed into behemoth CinemaScope proportions for display on the Sunset Strip.
Why the Strip? Well, to be honest, the expenditure for a well situated billboard—which has climbed steadily from the paltry sum paid by Holzman in the sixties to the range of fifty thousand for a key location today—never did make much sense from a strictly financial standpoint. But the billboards were seen as a hip way to tip off a hip crowd, and maybe generate some all important industry buzz for a new project. Besides, many record companies, producers, and managers had offices and homes on or near the Strip, so it was also an opportunity for them to brag to each other while feeding the egos of their biggest stars.
One thing is clear, there’s no proof that these billboards marched anyone to the cash register who wasn’t already a fan intent on buying the record. Given that latitude of expectations, rock and roll billboards were free to exploit existing visuals and be whatever they wanted to be. They often appeared with no advertising copy, and often left passersby guessing as to what was being offered. As rock oriented billboards came to dominate the 1.7 mile stretch of the Strip, the overall effect was at times to transform the Boulevard into a giant drive-thru gallery.
I began photographing the rock and roll billboards in the late 1960s as a teenager when my parents divorced, and when I moved in with my father a block above the Strip. I was just getting into photography and also had a passion for the music and the artwork that so well represented it. What began as a hobby quickly became an obsession as I realized that my favorite ones would not remain up for very long. The rock and roll billboards flourished right up until the early 1980s, when the arrival of MTV spelled the end. The money and creative juices that once flowed freely into Sunset Strip billboards evaporated overnight, and was diverted into slick music videos. The void left on the Strip’s billboards by a retreating record industry was quickly filled with slick fashion marketing, and the usual ads for cars and booze. This unique period in the history of Los Angeles and rock and roll that began in 1967 was over and done in a scant 15 years, and except for these photos, would be lost to history.
Photography: Robert Landau.
Images Courtesy: Robert Landau and Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, (2012), Angel City Press, Santa Monica.