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The Sunset Strip and Its Iconic Billboards

The gods of rock gazed down in rectangular form from their perches, and photographer Robert Landau looked up with his camera.

When Robert Landau started taking photos of the billboards on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, he was just a kid who loved the images and the music. Today, after a photography career that has taken him around the world, he is out with a new book that showcases some of his best images of the rock-’n’-roll billboards that flashed above the Strip in its heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s.

The book is “Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” (available through Angel City Press, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble), and the billboards in Landau’s book echo a time when the Strip was king. The Whisky A Go Go and The Roxy were the places to rock and where the newest American bands debuted. Movie-industry stars and starlets were part of the night scene, coming down from their homes in neighboring Hollywood. In sum, it was exactly the kind of place that would eventually be the backdrop for the Broadway hit musical, “Rock of Ages.”

Today the Strip is a daytime tourist destination and a nighttime party district, and while it may no longer be the hottest, hippest area of town, one thing hasn’t changed: Drive down the Strip (Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood) and advertisements beckon, splashing messages for any manner of products and retailers. And for a brief moment in history, those advertisements were for artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cher and The Who.

WhereTraveler caught up with Sunset Strip chronicler Robert Landau to talk about the book, L.A., the music industry and what’s new on the Sunset Strip.

Where: How did this start?
Landau: I began photographing the rock billboards in 1969 when I was just 16 years old and saw the hand-painted larger than life Beatles crossing Abbey Road just steps from my home near the Sunset Strip. I noticed that the billboards were up for about a month and then repainted with fresh images, so I was aware from the start that this was a very ephemeral art form. Between then and the early 1980s I photographed about 600 different billboards and approximately 150 made it into the book.

Did you have any idea this was going to be a book someday?
No, not at all. I first started taking photos of the billboards to show to some friends. Then a few years ago, someone at the Getty Museum knew I had this archive and asked if I would speak about it, and I put together a slideshow and spoke. And then someone said, “This really should be a book."

Do you have a favorite billboard?
I always had a particular fascination with the billboards that appeared with fantastic imagery and no advertising copy whatsoever, like the Beatles' "Abbey Road" billboard. These rock-and-roll billboards were less about selling records and more about boosting egos and creating buzz within the music industry.

Are the billboards still being created, or have they been a casualty of a changing music industry?
Starting in the early 1980s with the advent of MTV, moving images that could be viewed on TV screens and computers—and later small handheld gadgets—surpassed billboards in their ability to reach larger audiences. Most of the money and creativity earmarked for promotion that had flowed into the creation of iconic album cover art and giant Sunset Strip billboards was quickly diverted into the creation of music videos. In the vacuum created on the Strip, the fashion industry took over and has maintained a stronghold there ever since.

Earlier this year, internationally renowned recording artists Daft Punk cited my book as inspiration for their marketing campaign, which consisted of strategically placed, large-scale billboards around the world including, most prominently, a spot on the Sunset Strip. Today’s billboards, however, are all digitally produced and do not have the same look or feel of the vintage hand-painted billboards from the classic rock era.

The '60s, '70s, and '80s seemed to be the heyday of the Sunset Strip, from hippies to punk to psychedelic, heavy metal, glam and more. What’s the vibe there today?
The Sunset Strip due to its location near Hollywood has always been a hub of social and artistic activity, particularly with a strong connection to the music scene. Earlier on in the halcyon days of Hollywood moviemaking, the Strip, which is technically in West Hollywood, was part of an unincorporated zone between the cities of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. This fostered an anything-goes attitude with laws being enforced less vigorously and nightclubs sprouting up wherein Hollywood heavyweights could carouse and be entertained. The fabled boulevard has since gone through various incarnations, but in the 1960s it became the West Coast focus of the emerging baby-boomer generation and the music that was driving it. Clubs like the Whisky A Go Go and Ciros—and later on, Gazzari’s and The Roxy—drew top-tier rockers. Record stores like Tower Records and Licorice Pizza became destinations where music lovers could pass an entire evening.

Toward the late ’70s as the rock movement became diffused with a variety of sounds ranging from country rock and heavy metal to soft pop and eventually disco and a fledgling punk movement, the Strip started losing its relevancy as a launching ground for important new music. Over the ensuing years The Strip also became associated with the deaths of comic actor John Belushi at the chic Chateau Marmont Hotel, and young actor River Phoenix outside the trendy Viper Room. This legendary boulevard that winds its way around the Hollywood Hills is currently reinventing itself as a night spot for hipsters with cool hangouts on hotel rooftops and reconfigured clubs, restaurants and bars.

SLIDESHOW: 7 Classic Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip
(All photos ©Robert Landau)