Before YouTube and social media, rock acts had to work harder to make a visual impact. One way to do it was through billboards on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood: Advertisements for albums that were gorgeous hand-painted rock dreams above the traffic. Photographer Robert Landau grew up in L.A. and, starting as a teenager, documented the large-scale images. Now his book, Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, tells the history of rock iconography that shone through the Hollywood smog.
Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was the first one to try this advertising medium: for $1,200 a month, he reserved a sign near the Chateau Marmont hotel , and inaugurated it with the Doors, who had been the house band at the Whisky a Go Go down the street. Holzman reasoned that L.A. disc jockeys would see the sign on their way to work, saying the billboard was "a calling card for the artist, but it was a very large calling card."
This Abbey Road ad was one of the first to extend its images beyond the rectangular boundaries of the billboard — so enticingly that a fan sawed off Paul McCartney's head as a souvenir. (The teenager who stole it, now a senior citizen, still has it.) The Capitol Records art department originally intended to replace the head, but then decided to leave McCartney decapitated, to play off the "Paul is dead" rumors.
The cover of Ringo Starr's debut solo album, Sentimental Journey, was a photo of a Liverpool pub. The billboard, however, wittily played up the drummer's most iconic feature: his schnozz.
The Sunset Strip was Led Zeppelin's home away from home; this billboard might be considered fair warning to the staff at the "Riot House" Hyatt hotel that it was time to prepare for the band's invasion. Note the choice of "are," not "is"–t he four sigils are meant to represent the band's four members, not their untitled fourth album.
This billboard, for Zappa's surreal movie 200 Motels, showed just how much vivid color and excess could be crammed into a single sign. Landau was just eighteen when he took this picture; he carefully preserved his Kodachrome slides for decades.
Only five years after the first rock billboard, there was a constant race to come up with attention-getting gimmicks. Designer John Kosh upped the stakes on Humble Pie's Smokin' (their first album after Peter Frampton left), with a smoke machine working overtime behind the billboard — the better to distract motorists. (As the billboard notes, it was actually steam.)
John Van Hamersveld, who designed the cover for Exile on Main St., also did this accompanying billboard, which zoomed in on some of photographer Robert Frank's 1950 images. Van Hamserveld intended the five figures on the billboard to symbolize individual Stones: from left, Mick Jagger (dapper in a tuxedo), Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, and Keith Richards, rendered "ugly as hell."
This three-dimensional Plexiglas-and-neon spaceship had a hefty $50,000 price tag — but let ELO position themselves as rock 'n' roll's answer to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"That is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life," Springsteen told Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh when he saw this billboard. So the Boss enhanced it with graffiti: Springsteen, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, bassist Garry Tallent, and some crew members arrived late at night with twenty cans of black spray paint. Springsteen wrote "E Street" himself while standing on Clemons' shoulders. "I wanted to get to my face, and paint on a mustache," he said. "But it was just too damn high."
If a band wanted to make a splashy visual statement in your living room, their best bet was a gatefold album that would unfold to reveal a double-sized centerfold. Conveniently, those horizontal images had the dimensions that made them easy to translate onto billboards, like this gatefold spread from Dream Police.
A sign from the twilight of the rock billboard era: two years later, MTV would launch. Although the billboards didn't disappear overnight, they became less central — record labels put their efforts, and their budgets, into promo video clips instead. Gradually, the open-air rock 'n' roll art gallery on Sunset Boulevard shut down.