70s Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards: An Artistic Ethos, Spirit and Vibe

By on March 23, 2015

In the 1970s, back when the major record companies had pretty deep pockets, if you were in a band, or made recordings that were released under your own name, there was no better way to assess how the label you were signed to felt about your career than seeing your new album displayed with a huge, hand-painted billboard on the Sunset Strip. Here’s a home video that was shot on the Sunset Strip in 1977.

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The billboards were expensive, so not every act got to experience seeing themselves depicted twenty feet tall and hovering above the Strip, but they were more than just promotional gimmicks. They were visual interpretations of an artistic ethos, a spirit, and a vibe.

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The music billboards started to appear at some point in the 60s — at witnessed here by the Doors posing with their debut album billboard in a photo taken on June 10, 1967, and the Monkees’ s billboard, dating back to 1968 and advertising their new movie Head, at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset:

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But the 70s was the main decade that these billboards flourished… and then they pretty much disappeared in the early 1980s as the record labels and management companies decided to put their promotional money towards making music videos; MTV had come along by then, bringing about a new era in the promotion of new releases. You can still see them, occasionally, but not like it was in the 70s, a golden age for record sales and promotion both.

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Elektra Records had high hopes for their band Rhinoceros, but the band did not live up to the record label’s expectations. Still, it’s a nice billboard, no?

Typically, these billboards were taken down and stored away — or destroyed — after just a month or so, or whenever the contract for their display ended, but an enterprising young teenage photographer named Robert Landau began to take photos of the billboards.

From the LA Weekly:

In 1969, when he was 16, his parents divorced and he moved in with his father in an apartment near the former location of Tower Records, just one block above Sunset Boulevard. The budding teen photographer would stroll along the Strip, eyeing giant 14-by-48-foot, hand-painted billboards depicting some of his favorite musicians. He noticed the panels coming down just a month after they were installed, so he began documenting them using color slide film. It turned into a project that lasted over a decade.

Landau’s early efforts paid off. In 2012, Angel City Press published a book of his photography called Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.

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© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press

Now, the Skirball Cultural Center is exhibiting photos based on the book. Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is on view March 24 through August 16, 2015 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Admission is free!

Featuring more than twenty photographs of hand-painted billboards that dominated the Los Angeles landscape for almost two decades, this exhibition—displayed in the Skirball’s community space known as the Ruby Gallery — brings to life a unique period in the history of rock & roll and the fabled Sunset Strip, whose nightclubs were the birthplace of rock & roll royalty. Photographer Robert Landau traces the billboard phenomenon from the breakthrough promotion for the debut album by the Doors in 1967 to the advent of MTV in the 1980s, which signaled the end of an era.

We found some additional billboards for your enjoyment, taken at the same location, Clark and Sunset, years apart. In the first, we see Fanny’s billboard (and, on the side of the Music Hall record store, another display for Elton John’s self-titled album. Below, the record store location is now occupied by a Licorice Pizza chain store, and the Asylum label have paid for a nice Joni Mitchell billboard.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.