‘Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,’ by Robert Landau

The Doors’ photo shoot atop a billboard on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA on January 4, 1967. Photo by Bobby Klein.
The Doors’ photo shoot atop a billboard on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA on January 4, 1967. Photo by Bobby Klein.

On Sunset Boulevard, no traffic flow is gradual enough for the sensory occasion. The driver or his passenger, craning to take in a billboard’s extent through the insufficient frame of a windshield, is seduced into variant environs: an idyllic pond in which a band wades fully dressed (Paul McCartney and Wings), a Sergio Leone western (the Eagles), a soft-edged surrealist fantasy­scape (Yes) or the hypnotized front row at a festival show (Neil Young). Or they’re enticed onto some other street altogether: say, Abbey Road, once the 20-foot-high Beatles have crossed it—but wait, someone stole Paul’s head!

You might be induced to pitch forward into the illusion of intimacy with the musicians, as they slouch around a terrace or recording studio, or be swept into Jim Morrison’s nostrils, Chaka Khan’s cleavage or James Taylor’s crotch. Images that originated on album covers or concert posters, or merely as negligible publicity stills, are transmuted by scale and setting into a vicarious dreamscape by those billboard artists—the genius designers and publicists and painters—whose work is captured in Robert Landau’s lavish time tunnel of a picture book, Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.

Oh, the book does contain text: extensive, well researched and full of respectful awe for the largely anonymous creators—the industrial artists and, especially, the lost guild of those who hand-painted the billboards themselves. Even if it’s by definition redundant, and swamped by the pictures themselves, the writing still contains any number of amusing specifics as to the genesis or fate of this or that memorable image. Key quote: “For a brief time, it seemed as if everyone was making money.” Another, from an interview with the designer Roland Young: “Those billboards were made to show that the company and the artist agreed, that they shared the same philosophy. At that time it was very important that the record company be perceived as a company aligned with its artist. That’s Number 1, and Number 2 is the artists could brag to their friends and family, ‘Hey Mom, I got a billboard on the Sunset Strip!’ Once I understood this, I could solve the design problems, but not many people understood what the problem was.”

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