Photos: The Heyday of Rock 'n' Roll Billboards On The Sunset Strip

Before video killed the radio star—and the Internet killed the video star—billboards were used as a major promotional tool. In the capital of entertainment and car culture, they were conversation pieces for commuters and pedestrians. So where better than on the city's most famous street for record companies to erect 14 ft. versions of their biggest artists?

Head of Elektra Records Jac Holzman realized this in 1967 when he hired an outdoor advertising company to create a billboard for The Doors’ eponymous debut, featuring the album’s back cover. It was the first rock ‘n’ roll billboard. It cost Holzman $1,200 a month; today, that number can be as much as $100,000 a month.

The Skirball Cultural Center is displaying photos of some of these masterpieces in their exhibit Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. Culled from L.A. photographer Robert Landau’s 2012 book of the same name, the 15 images survey nearly 20 years of billboard art in L.A. from the psychedelic late ‘60s to new-wave early ‘80s. (It's part of a upcoming trio of music-related exhibits, including Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution and The Singing Posters: Poetry Sound Collage Sculpture Book.)

In the 1969, Landau was a 16-year-old wannabe photographer living with his dad in an apartment above Tower Records. “I didn’t have the patience to paint or draw, so I got a camera pretty young,” says Landau. “When I’d walk down the strip looking for things to shoot, there’d be these giant billboards and I’d see these guys painting them. So that’s what got me photographing them.”

That year, Landau took one of his first photographs of a billboard of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which was painted by Mario Rueda, and featured the Fab Four’s heads extending above the board. (In his book, Landau includes interviews with many of the billboard artists of that era). It was also the year that rumors of Paul McCartney’s death were circulating, which inspired a couple of high school pranksters to climb up the billboard and saw off McCartney’s head. Capitol Records never replaced it, playing up the rumor and gimmick two-fold.

A few years ago, Landau tracked down the owner of McCartney’s head, Robert Quinn, who lived in the San Fernando Valley. Quinn showed up to Landau’s book launch with the head, and later had it signed by Rueda.

“Thanks to him,” says Landau “a little piece of that history got saved. Because when all that art was put up and the posting time was up, all those images were painted over.”

Record companies used loads of props for one-upping their signs: smoke, moving parts, 3D elements. Landau contends that the spaceship-looking billboard for ELO’s Out of the Blue, made of Plexiglass and rotating lights, was the most elaborate, costing $50,000 in 1977.

Some billboards were sequential and evolved over time, like Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall, which featured bricks that were slowly removed over the course of weeks. And some promoted local gigs, including a double image of David Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs, which advertised a show at the Universal Amphitheater, and Donna Summer’s 1978 live LP Live and More, recorded at the same venue.

Others had no words, including the London Symphony Orchestra’s 1972 recording of The Who’s Tommy, which featured only two chrome eyeballs.

The heyday of music billboards came to an end in the early ‘80s when record companies began diverting advertising money into videos.

“It was a very ephemeral art form,” says Landau. “It probably didn’t make sense financially in the music business. But there was no Internet in those days. Nobody had Twitter accounts or Facebook. It was one of the few ways they could advertise. That was how groups communicated with their fans. And it had that cool factor. It had the same caché as being on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip opens March 24 and runs through August 16. It will be on display at the Skirball Cultural Center at 2701 N. Sepulveda Boulevard, 310-440-4500, free.