Synesthesia: a neurological condition in which one type of sensory stimulation evokes the sensation of another.
When I looked at the photos in Robert Landau’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, I heard music. Specifically rock and roll music of the late 1960’s through the early ’80‘s, the period that the book covers. This was a time when the Sunset Strip, that mile and a half stretch of Sunset Blvd which passes through West Hollywood, was filled with music industry offices where people worked during the day; clubs, restaurants, stores and hotels filled with musicians and music lovers at night; and Tower Records, with its knowledgeable sales people, sat right in the center of it all.
Stuck in your car in the bumper-to-bumper traffic there was nothing to do except look at the buildings, the people, and the billboards, especially if you were a kid trapped in the backseat of your parents’ car or a pre-teen in a bus on your way to Tower Records in that pre-iPod age, dreaming of becoming a part of this world bursting with the creativity displayed around you.
Landau was the right person in the right place at the right time to capture these images — a teenage boy, son of an art gallery owner, staying with his divorced father in an apartment a block from Tower Records, armed with his first camera. He “transformed from an awkward bystander to a purposeful observer” and documented the one-of-a-kind hand painted billboards he saw going up around him. They became his personal, ever-in-transition, art gallery; a new billboard would take 5-10 days to go up, stay a matter of weeks, and then be replaced by another creation painted over the one before.
Landau supplies a graceful and informative text to accompany his photos. He takes the reader through the evolution of the Sunset Strip and its billboards up to the point in the 1960’s when they turned into a reflection of the youthful music industry revitalizing the Strip, interviewing many of the artists, painters, photographers, craftspeople, and music industry executives involved. The Sunset Strip had been a major commuter thoroughfare as well as tourist destination for decades and the street was filled with billboards, which seemed to advertise everything but music.
He cites Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records, as the first to realize the potential of the Sunset Strip Billboards Holzman explains, as do others interviewed, that the billboards were not about advertising per se, they were to show the record company’s commitment to the artists, to show that the people in the offices “got” the people making the music. If a DJ on their way to work took notice — Holman calls the billboards “very large calling cards” —and decided to give a listen to the album all the better. And Holzman thought he had the perfect group to launch his idea with, a west coast band that he had signed called The Doors. It was 1967.
(There’s a wonderful black and white photo in the book of The Doors billboard, band members perched on top, as two workers in hardhats finish installing it below.)
That billboard had quite an impact, and others followed featuring more of Elektra’s artists. Six months later other labels began renting other billboards, and soon the Boulevard was filled with images inspired by the music. There is a theme running through the interviews, that these billboards were meant to be a visual component of the music being made, rather than a commercial advertisement. Like the album covers, they were an extension of the music itself. But unlike album covers, they had to make their impact within a few seconds of a car going by during non-rush hour times — which meant striking images and few words.
Sometimes the images were adapted from the album covers, often though they were unique visuals created for the billboard alone. They could be extended with plywood out beyond the rectangular frame (such as the Abbey Road album cover image turned into billboard with the Beatles’ heads popping up above the sign, framed by the blue sky behind), made 3-dimensional, including special effects.
Some transformed over days: in one a painted figure of Cat Stevens seemed to paint out the image of his album cover as time passed in favor of a landscape; in another hand painted bricks gradually disappeared to reveal the title of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The styles ranged from pop art graphic to surrealism to satire to shock to gorgeous photography. Landau seems to have captured them all.
Many interviewed in the book echo the theme of the Sunset Strip at this time as art gallery, the billboards themselves as pieces of art rather than something commercial. The vibe was supposed to be unique, independent, creative, spontaneous — the antithesis of a corporate music company. The billboards — as well as much of the album cover art of the time — were windows into the world that the musicians were creating. I may have heard remembered music looking at these photos; but these artists and art directors were listening to the music for the first time and seeing visions: Synesthesia.
The music of course encompassed more than classic rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones and included such artists as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Smokey Robinson. All had billboards, all were part of the music scene and, of course, the music business where choices are made as to where the label is going to put its money. A billboard on the Sunset Strip might make your artist happy, but the cover of Rolling Stone is going to make them even happier. And a music video on the new MTV channel is going to sell more records. By 1982 this particular art gallery was, if not quite going out of business, no longer as special and unique.
There are still billboards on the Sunset Strip, some of them music related, but none of them hand painted. Tower Records has gone the way of Kodachrome, victims of a digital age which no longer thinks it needs them. But luckily there was a teenager with an eye and a camera, Robert Landau, who was inspired to capture and save the images of this vibrant period.
The photos are spectacular as is the design of the book by Frans Evenhuis, from the endpapers printed with images of Landau’s Kodachrome slides to the archival black and white shots of the historical LA, to the color prints of the rock ‘n’ roll billboards, beautifully shot by Landau, which not only show you the billboard, but give you the essence of the street and the time the photo was taken. This is not a book of nostalgia: the images are still alive and full of energy, as is the music they were part of. Perhaps the publisher can include a mix tape with the next edition. But then, if you are looking at this book, you probably already have a soundtrack of your own.