Today, “Five Questions” are put to photographer Robert Landau, whose book "Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip" features the iconic California music billboards of the late '60s and '70s. The book, published by Angel City Press, is available on Amazon and a must-see for fans of album cover artwork and anyone interested in the history of rock 'n' roll.
You essentially started this book at sixteen years old. That’s pretty incredible for a number of reasons, but mostly I’m amazed those images weren’t lost to history. Clearly this was a tale worth saving and telling but do you remember what your original motivation was?
In 1969 I was living a block from the Sunset Strip, right near Tower Records, and I was just getting interested in photography. I’d wander down the Strip and there would be these giant images of the Beatles and a lot of the musicians whose records I was buying. I’d see the guys from the billboard company installing the new panels and touching up the paint, and then also taking down the older ones. They seemed to stay up for about a month. I became aware that if there was one I liked, I better photograph it before it was taken down. My motive at that age had nothing to do with history; I thought they were cool and I wanted to show my friends who lived in other parts of L.A. and didn’t get to see them. I was shooting Kodachrome transparency film and would have slide shows with a carousel projector on my living room wall. You can see some of these Kodachromes inside the cover jacket of the book Rock N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.
How did you go about photographing them; what went into the angles, the decision to shoot day or night, etc. or was it “I better get it now,” as in the case of the Rolling Stones “Black and Blue” billboard which came down in 24 hours or so?
Because I lived above the Strip, every time I went out it involved traveling on Sunset in one direction or the other. At first my selection of what to shoot was happenstance, if one caught my eye, I’d stop and take a picture. After a while it became a bit more obsessive and I’d go out looking for good ones. There are probably hundreds I didn’t shoot because either they weren’t that visually interesting to me or I wasn’t into the band.
Also over time, I learned the best angles to shoot each billboard from and avoid getting hit by passing traffic. Some you had to get close to with a wide angle lens, others needed to be shot from across the street with a telephoto. Also because I lived right there I could go out shooting early in the morning and occasionally late at night when traffic was lighter. Also some of the billboards were designed to be seen at night with special lit elements and moving parts.
For the Rolling Stones Black and Blue billboard, when I first saw it I happened to have a roll of black and while film in my camera. The board had already been grafittied in protest by a woman’s group. I grabbed a few shots in black and white with the idea of returning soon with some color film. By the time I got back a few days later the board had been taken down. I sent a print of the black and white shot into Rolling Stone magazine and they published it that week. Although the billboard had only been up for a few days it probably got seen by more people in print than it would have by people passing on the Sunset Strip. And it did nothing to hurt the Stones’ image as the bad boys of rock 'n' roll.
This trend was started by the indie labels and then co-opted by the major labels. What’s there now and what do you think the future of “the billboards of Sunset Strip? will be”
The rock and roll billboards were particularly emblematic of the late 1960s and 70s. At that time there were not too many ways to promote rock music that would not be considered crass commercial sell outs- like advertising on TV for instance. Also, since many of these independent folks in the music business had offices on the Strip there was an element of them bragging and showing off to their competitors. There’s very little evidence that they actually increased sales, but having a Sunset Strip billboard became a cache as important as getting your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone- so all the rock stars wanted one.
When MTV came along in the early 80s everything changed and all the new groups saw the importance of having a video to promote their music to a larger audience. All the money and creative energy that flowed into Sunset Strip billboards was diverted away. The fashion industry moved into the void created there and along with television, film and more traditional products (cars, alcohol etc) continues to dominate the Sunset Strip. The occasional music project finds it way back up there, and when Daft Punk released their last hit album they took a copy of my book into their label bosses and demanded and got a traditional Sunset Strip rock billboard. Also, vinyl albums from whose covers a great deal of the art on billboards derived seem to be making a come back, so maybe there will be more to come?
You’re the photographer behind the book, but you’re also the writer. It’s very well-written and could serve as a brief history of the LA rock and roll industry. How difficult was the writing part for you?
Thank you and yes I did not initially set out to do the writing, but realized that I knew the story as well as anyone else, particularly since it’s a slice of history that no else had noticed, and which I only thought seriously about in retrospect. The writing, which at first seemed tedious, turned out to be a great deal of fun. It afforded me the opportunity to contact and speak with people who had been heroes of mine ranging from legendary music moguls like Jac Holzman of Elektra Record (who signed and released the historic Doors records) and Lou Adler — to cutting edge graphic designers and photographers like Gary Burden, John Van Hamersveld, Roland Young and Norman Seeff, who were responsible for some of the best record album cover art ever. At this point I’d love to turn this work in to a documentary and capture some of these voices and faces, and that period in time before it all fades away entirely.
Do you have a favorite billboard or one that you think was most effective or unique?
When I think about this question, and it’s hard always to single out one favorite, what comes to mind are all the billboards from this period, and there were many that appeared without any words or message — just amazing visual statements. This made the point that selling records was not the only goal behind them. The billboards of that period were artistic statements by musicians and record companies and graphic artists who were proud of what they were doing and saying. Those images went up for reasons of both pride and passion and at times had the effect of transforming the Sunset Strip into a virtual drive-thru gallery.
Having said that, one of my all time favorites has to be the billboard commissioned by Lou Adler for a symphonic recording of the Who’s rock opera Tommy about a deaf, blind and dumb pinball wizard. This billboard featured two gigantic photo-realistically rendered chrome pinballs with colorful eyes painted on them that glared down on the Sunset Strip for a month or so then vanished just like all the others.
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