Daily Picture Show

A Brief History Of L.A.'s Billboard Art

  • Bruce Springsteen's album Lucky Town, 1992 (Columbia Records), art direction by Sandra Choron.
    Hide caption
    Bruce Springsteen's album Lucky Town, 1992 (Columbia Records), art direction by Sandra Choron.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Landau cites this billboard for the movie Tommy (based on the record by The Who) as one of his favorites. It created a stir at the time, he says, because there was no text — just "these science fiction eyes staring at you," says Landau. "There was no limit to the money or creativity at that point."
    Hide caption
    Landau cites this billboard for the movie Tommy (based on the record by The Who) as one of his favorites. It created a stir at the time, he says, because there was no text — just "these science fiction eyes staring at you," says Landau. "There was no limit to the money or creativity at that point."
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Rod Stewart's Foot Loose & Fancy Free, 1977 (Warner Bros. Records), art direction by Rod Stewart/Kosh.
    Hide caption
    Rod Stewart's Foot Loose & Fancy Free, 1977 (Warner Bros. Records), art direction by Rod Stewart/Kosh.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, 1973 (Tamla/Motown Records), art direction by Mathieu Bitton, photo by Jim Britt.
    Hide caption
    Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, 1973 (Tamla/Motown Records), art direction by Mathieu Bitton, photo by Jim Britt.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Cheap Trick's Dream Police, 1979 (Epic Records), art direction by Paula Scher and Steve Dessau; photo by Reid Miles.
    Hide caption
    Cheap Trick's Dream Police, 1979 (Epic Records), art direction by Paula Scher and Steve Dessau; photo by Reid Miles.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, circa 1980.
    Hide caption
    Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, circa 1980.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • 10cc's Deceptive Bends, 1977 (Mercury Records); art direction by Hipgnosis, art by Richard Manning, Aubrey Powell and Peter Christopherson.
    Hide caption
    10cc's Deceptive Bends, 1977 (Mercury Records); art direction by Hipgnosis, art by Richard Manning, Aubrey Powell and Peter Christopherson.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Elton John's Caribou, 1974 (MCA Records), art direction by David Larkham and Michael Ross, photo by Ed Caraeff, art by Chris Denney.
    Hide caption
    Elton John's Caribou, 1974 (MCA Records), art direction by David Larkham and Michael Ross, photo by Ed Caraeff, art by Chris Denney.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Linda Ronstadt's Living in the USA, 1978 (Asylum Records), art direction by Kosh, photo by Jim Shea.
    Hide caption
    Linda Ronstadt's Living in the USA, 1978 (Asylum Records), art direction by Kosh, photo by Jim Shea.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Frank Sinatra's Trilogy: Past Present Future, 1983 (Reprise Records), art direction by Saul Bass.
    Hide caption
    Frank Sinatra's Trilogy: Past Present Future, 1983 (Reprise Records), art direction by Saul Bass.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Donna Summer's Live and More, 1978 (Casablanca Records), art direction by Gribbit!, Henry Vizcarra and Stephen Lume, photo by Francesco Scavullo.
    Hide caption
    Donna Summer's Live and More, 1978 (Casablanca Records), art direction by Gribbit!, Henry Vizcarra and Stephen Lume, photo by Francesco Scavullo.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Neil Diamond's On the Way to the Sky, 1981 (Columbia Records), art direction by David Kirschner, photo by Kenneth McGowan.
    Hide caption
    Neil Diamond's On the Way to the Sky, 1981 (Columbia Records), art direction by David Kirschner, photo by Kenneth McGowan.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Electric Light Orchestra's Discovery, 1979 (Jet Records), art direction by Norman Moore and Paul Gross.
    Hide caption
    Electric Light Orchestra's Discovery, 1979 (Jet Records), art direction by Norman Moore and Paul Gross.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • The Rolling Stones' Love You Live, 1977 (Rolling Stones/Atlantic records), art by Andy Warhol.
    Hide caption
    The Rolling Stones' Love You Live, 1977 (Rolling Stones/Atlantic records), art by Andy Warhol.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • UFO's Obsession, 1978 (Chrysalis Records), art direction by Hipgnosis.
    Hide caption
    UFO's Obsession, 1978 (Chrysalis Records), art direction by Hipgnosis.
    Courtesy of Robert Landau
  • Cars on L.A's Sunset Strip
    Hide caption
    Cars on L.A's Sunset Strip
    Courtesy of Robert Landau

1 of 16

View slideshow i

Photographer Robert Landau inherited artiness from his father, who ran a fine-art gallery in Los Angeles and favored German and Austrian expressionism in particular. As a teenager in the 1970s, though, Landau favored something else. The Sunset Strip was his playground, and in his eyes, art was all around.

Cover of Rock 'N' Roll Billboards Of The Sunset Strip
Angel City Press
Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip

by Robert Landau and Frans Evenhuis

Hardcover, 210 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip
  • Robert Landau and Frans Evenhuis

"When I went out to explore the world," he says on the phone, "I felt the Strip was like a gallery; there were these hand-painted works of art on the street."

What he's referring to, though, are billboards: Not necessarily what most would consider "art" — at least not by contemporary standards.

"They looked like giant art pieces that kind of represented my generation and the music I listened to," he says.

Landau was 16 when he started pointing a Kodachrome-loaded camera at larger-than-life icons hanging over L.A.'s streets — the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, Linda Ronstadt in roller skates. At the time, he explains, music billboards were relatively new to L.A.

Big ads for hotels, cars and soda were a dime a dozen. But in his new book, Rock 'N' Roll Billboard of the Sunset Strip, Landau writes that rock-related billboards didn't debut in L.A. until 1967. That year, Elektra Records took a gamble on a new marketing strategy to promote a local, up-and-coming band: The Doors.

"It led me to an interest in the urban environment," he says. "I'm an urban landscape photographer. I've always thought that L.A. had a very unique look. It's really built around people driving in their cars. And so the billboards, like a lot of the signage and architecture, are really meant to be seen from people's cars."

Landau has an extensive record of L.A. from the 1960s onward. And a good 40 years after his first billboard photo, he has unearthed those early Kodachrome slides for this book.

A few of Robert Landau's Kodachrome slides from Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. i i

hide captionA few of Robert Landau's Kodachrome slides from Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.

Robert Landau
A few of Robert Landau's Kodachrome slides from Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.

A few of Robert Landau's Kodachrome slides from Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.

Robert Landau

It's not only a catalog of music billboards in L.A., but also offers anecdotal insight into the rise and fall of an art form. Each billboard photograph contains information about the art directors, photographers and artists involved — including names you might recognize like Andy Warhol and Saul Bass.

Mario Rueda at work.

hide captionMario Rueda at work.

Courtesy of Robert Landau

To this day, Landau is still friends with men like Mario Rueda, now in his 90s, who made a living painting billboards by hand. He writes in his book:

"Whether he was painting Paul McCartney walking barefoot across Abbey Road or rendering some ornate marble statuary for a funeral home, [Rueda] brought the same natural talent and disciplined approach to his work, earning him the highest respect from everyone in the outdoor advertising business, where most considered him to be the greatest billboard painter of his time."

The outdoor advertising agency (and Rueda's employer), Foster and Kleiser, had a space the size of an airplane hangar for the creation of these billboards. Because they were hand-painted, no two were alike. And, like Rueda, many of the painters who worked on them were highly trained, with degrees in fine art.

Robert Landau, back in the day.

hide captionRobert Landau, back in the day.

Courtesy of the photographer

It was an ephemeral art form. Each billboard could take up to 10 days to create, and after hanging for a month, would be painted over. Landau's photos are all that remain of L.A.'s golden age of billboard art.

These days, Landau says he will occasionally photograph a billboard, though now it's all digital.

"At one time, L.A. just felt a lot funkier. It felt more Western, and ... people could come here and do whatever they want. To a degree, that created a lot of chaos, but there was something about that freedom that allowed people to do fun things," says Landau.

"Things were a little quirkier back then," he says. "There was a bit more of a personal feel to the environment."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: