Photographer Robert Landau grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s and witnessed rock’n’roll arriving on the Sunset Strip. As the billboards went up, advertising new albums and tours through inspired artistic reinterpretations of the covers – or just straight copies – Landau was there with his camera, faithfully committing the finest billboards of the rock era to Kodachrome. What he ended up with was a love letter written in images, an affectionate record of the golden age of the album cover and a series of snapshots laying bare the music industry’s glorious hubris.
Great days, gone but preserved. Landau has collected decades’ worth of his billboard photographs for a book – Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip – accompanying the images with a history of rock during its most ostentatious period, and interviews with photographers and art directors. It’s a fascinating document and we can offer a taste below, 20 of the best photos in the book.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Love You Live’ (1977)
The Rolling Stones were of course well-represented on the Strip, with their fame in the spendthrift 70s no less starry than it was in the 60s. From the bits cut out of the album cover for the ‘Exile On Main St.’ billboard to the appalling effort for 1976’s ‘Black And Blue’ – featuring a woman tied up and bruised, and sitting on the album gatefold – they had the publicity-grabbing statement down pat. ‘Black And Blue”s image attracted the ire of Women Against Violence Against Women who scrawled on the poster in red paint before Atlantic Records bowed to pressure and took the offending billboard down, but 1977’s ‘Love You Live’ turned the violence in on themselves. The album image created by Andy Warhol, of the Stones biting great chunks out of each other, became a widescreen montage of chomping.
10cc, ‘Deceptive Bends’ (1977)
Many of the Strip’s billboards were repainted versions of the original album covers, with the odd embellishment from the studio that adapted them. The striking image on the cover of 10cc’s US Top 40 album ‘Deceptive Bends’ is a great example, with Hipgnosis’s distinctive design now missing extraneous divers, and the main feature cut out against the sky for maximum impact.
David Bowie, ‘Diamond Dogs’ at the Universal Amphitheater (1974)
Guy Peellaert’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ artwork was eye-catching enough by itself, but doubled up it was unavoidable. This was a standard trick to broaden the canvas and allow a bit of text – billboards usually kept that to a minimum, letting the image do the work – in this case advertising a local gig.
Rod Stewart, ‘Blondes Have More Fun’ (1978)
This one, featuring Rod in classic sly old dog style, was art-directed by John Kosh, the man behind The Beatles’ iconic ‘Abbey Road’ cover. It was worth your while adapting Kosh covers for billboards because he’d pop into the studio with a six-pack of beer to keep the work rolling along nicely.
Electric Light Orchestra, ‘Out Of The Blue’ (1977)
Another Kosh design, the ELO space station was conceived when the designer slapped a promo sticker on his son’s frisbee. Seeing it fly through the air set the cogs whirring, and the Wurlitzer-inspired logo was suddenly spinning through the cosmos. The billboard incorporating the 3D satellite cost a cool $50,000 in 1977 dollars.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’ (1973)
During the 70s, rock’s hegemony on the Strip was eventually challenged by the mainstream rise of soul and R&B, spearheaded by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson – great hitmakers now turned great album artists. Motown’s LA office was on Sunset Boulevard and the label took charge of a prominent billboard position. Here, Gaye’s billboard drives home ‘Let’s Get It On”s central message with the quote from T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes that appears on the album sleeve:
“Birth, and copulation and death,
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Queen, ‘News Of The World’ (1977)
In the post-‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ world, sci-fi artwork was big on album covers and the Strip. Queen’s ‘News Of The World’ is also a great example of vast gatefold artwork being adapted for the Californian streets – check the addition of beardy long-hairs to, um, speak to the market.
Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’ (1972)
Stevie Wonder’s ‘Talking Book’ cover was shot by Norman Seeff who lived in an apartment above his studio on Sunset Strip, with a billboard right on top of the building. “We would shoot three sessions a week – Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder one week, and then more stars the next,” says Seeff. “I’d do a shoot one day, and a couple of months later the picture would be fifty feet wide above me.”
Donna Summer, ‘Live And More’ (1978)
The success of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ in 1977 saw disco firmly ensconced in the mainstream. What had been niche suddenly had stars of its own – with Donna Summer its leading diva.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (1978)
By 1978, with rock joined on mainstream radio by disco, funk, soul and of course the rising New Wave, the billboards on the Strip would have seen Bruce Springsteen bumping up against Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Elvis Costello and Donna Summer – just a sample of how popular music was diversifying.
Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’ (1979)
Big on the grand artistic statement, the Floyd were perfect for billboards, be it a massive cow for ‘Atom Heart Mother’ or – here – making best use of ‘The Wall’. Some of the more complex billboards were those earmarked for a ‘sequential campaign’. These took it as read that a person would walk past several times during a particular billboard’s lifetime, so the image was altered to keep it alive throughout the period. This billboard began as a mysterious ‘brick’ wall’ before the ‘bricks’ were gradually and tantalisingly removed to reveal the legend.
Cher, ‘Take Me Home’ (1979)
And, naturally, the broad canvas of the billboard was the perfect excuse to project an enormous image of Cher dressed as a glam-rock space-age Boudicca across the Strip. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
All images from Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip by Robert Landau, published by Angel City Press.