Rock and roll is all about the moment. Time and place. Think Elvis Presley or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. James Brown at the Apollo. Think San Francisco and the Summer of Love. Punk rock in New York and London. And think of the ubiquitous rock ‘n’ roll billboards that, until recently, dotted the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Photographer Robert Landau’s book Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip pays homage to this uniquely Californian form of music marketing and if you didn’t see them in their heyday of the late 60s, '70s and very early '80s, you’ll need this book as your tour guide. Because those days are gone; the oversized, handmade wooden creations advertising the latest sounds from The Doors, The Who and Stones, are now replaced with the usual suspects hawking beer, cars and The Gap.
Interestingly, Landau also wrote the book, which provides an excellent primer on music marketing and a short history of the production and design of these handmade, hand-painted wooden behemoths. There’s an interview with one of those “masters” and conversations with several music label creative directors who talk about their craft and what went into designing billboards. All of these short sidebars are fascinating and provide depth and context.
But, of course, the billboards are the real story. As a young Angeleno, Landau began shooting Kodachrome of the billboards to share with friends who lived in other parts of L.A. and the inside covers of the book feature an assortment of these original slides. Landau’s photojournalistic style serves both the narrative and subjects well and we follow the very first rock billboard of the Doors (with accompanying photo of the band climbing to the top!) to various die-cuts and conceptual presentations, such as ELO’s light-up spaceship (that they would eventually take with them on tour) and the working floor lamps that bracket Eric Clapton’s Backless. The Who’s billboard for Tommy is out-of-the-box genius and the Stones misogynistic misfire for Black and Blue is graffitied by feminists, which only makes Landau’s B/W photo (one of the few in existence, as the billboard was removed within days) all the more compelling.
If you were hip, you got a billboard in the seventies. All of the superstars are here — the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and Zeppelin — but Waylon Jennings, Curtis Mayfield, Leon Russell and Flo & Eddie also cast their gaze down on the Strip. With bright blue skies, palm trees, vintage convertibles and crappy Chevy Nova’s sharing the stage with these works of art, this couldn't be anywhere but California, and Sunset Strip is a major character in rock and roll and in this story. The Strip is the antithesis of the neon-lit Times Square or the gritty black and white Bowery of East Coast music meccas; it is the visual equivalent of the siren song that sent many musicians and would-be musicians west.
The book ultimately leaves me with the realization that these rock ‘n’ roll moments are all fleeting and soon fade. Robert Landau has authored a bittersweet visual document of a time, a place, and a fledgling industry the likes of which we won’t see again.
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