Sam McManis

Discoveries: L.A. billboard exhibition rekindles rock memories

The Beatles “Abbey Road” was promoted in this 1969 billboard, part of an exhibit in Los Angeles. Paul McCartney’s head had been stolen by a teen.
The Beatles “Abbey Road” was promoted in this 1969 billboard, part of an exhibit in Los Angeles. Paul McCartney’s head had been stolen by a teen. Robert Landau

Perhaps it’s another sign of encroaching senescence but, these days, the strangest, most unexpected things plunge me into nostalgic reveries.

Like billboards.

Or, more precisely, photographs of billboards long since torn down.

When you visit the Skirball Cultural Center, nestled into a wooded hillside close off the 405 freeway, for the newly opened exhibition dedicated to legendary rock promoter Bill Graham – quite a nostalgic trip in itself, for those who remember the Fillmore, the Dead and all those festivals – be sure to make a right turn just past the entrance and wander down the hallway to the modest Ruby Gallery.

There, you will be transported to the swinging Sunset Strip of the late 1960s and ’70s. Looming overhead, like Greek gods looking down in judgment on mere mortals, are hand-painted billboards of rock ’n’ roll deities, 14-by-48-foot works of art that don’t just advertise some band’s new album but provide the cultural canvas for a generation.

Am I ascribing too much import into photographer Robert Landau’s new exhibition, “Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip”?

Probably. But nostalgia is such a personal thing, and surely I’m not the only middle-aged rock music consumer whose mind goes reeling backward at the sight of a favorite album cover lit up in the bright Hollywood lights, as seen in Landau’s time-capsule collection of rock ephemera.

For me, it was Landau’s photograph of Jackson Browne’s self-titled 1972 debut – the second album I ever bought – projected on a billboard in front of a hillside studded with eucalyptus trees and Spanish colonial houses, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Datsun parked underneath. The image is of a water bag bearing the likeness of Browne, doe-eyed and impossibly young, attached to the front grill of an early model Chevrolet, partially obscuring a bent and rusted black-and-gold California license plate.

For you, it might be the billboard of the 1969 Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, with the Fab Four striding along the crosswalk. Or the truly surreal image of a naked David Bowie splayed out as an androgynous centaur to promote a 1976 seven-night concert stint at the Universal Amphitheater. Or the billboard for Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” graffiti-tagged by an inebriated Springsteen after a show at the Roxy.

What Landau has captured is a place and time – dare we say a more innocent time? – in rock history.

It was that halcyon period, the late 1960s to early ’80s, when rock artists and their labels disdained conventional advertising on TV because it was deemed “a sellout, man,” and turned to arty billboards to promote a new collection or a concert appearance, often without the hard sell of even mentioning the artist’s name. This form of promotion thrived until something called MTV sprouted on cable television, and changed the way new work was exposed to the buying public.

Now, of course, both billboards and MTV videos must seem hopelessly quaint to a generation of millennials, whose word-of-mouth is all digital tweets, status updates and Instagram missives.

Fortunate, then, that a teenage Landau, who was then living with his father in an apartment above the erstwhile Tower Records store on the Strip, had the presence of mind to grab his camera and capture the images.

“I recognized then it really reached the level of an art form,” said Landau, who has published five books of photographs focusing on L.A.’s urban milieu, including the 2012 rock billboard tome from which the Skirball exhibit is culled. “I was 16 (in 1967) and had just gotten my first camera. I’d wander down to the street and see these guys painting giant billboards. I became aware quickly that they weren’t up long. If I didn’t take a picture when I first saw them, sometimes by the time I went back they were replaced. Mainly, I did it as a slide show for my friends who never got to see them because they didn’t live in the area.”

For a kid into photography and rock music, the billboards enthralled Landau.

“The size made them so surreal, especially when you see somebody up there next to it, you really got the sense (of scale,)” Landau said. “They had to be huge to be able to be read from a distance by passing cars.”

There was, he said, “some out-there stuff going on in these billboards. It wasn’t so much about selling records as it was about creating a vibe or showing the record company believed in the band. A lot of times, you wouldn’t even know what they were selling. You’d scratch your head.”

In a video interview at the Skirball exhibit, one of the period’s billboard artists, Enrique Vidal, details the meticulous care put into the hand-painted oil renderings that occasionally stretched as long as 60 feet. Artists would receive an image from the record companies, make a full-length drawing, project the image onto a wood canvas in 4-feet-high increments and then paint. Mostly, they painted in studios but, occasionally, they’d be hoisted via pulley and scaffolding onto the billboard itself overlooking Sunset Boulevard.

“We painted just like the Old Masters,” Vidal said in the video. “It’s a technique used in impressionism because there’s no really hard line. Things are going to be viewed from a distance, and that’s when it all comes together.”

Landau’s favorite was a truly bizarre painting from 1972 of two orbital chrome pinballs with eyes painted on them. The image was even more arresting because it was on a billboard fairly close to the street.

“People would drive by and slam on their brakes because it was so perfectly photo-realistically painted, these gleaming chrome eyeballs,” Landau said. “Not a single word of copy on that. We found out later it was for a recording of the Who’s rock opera, ‘Tommy.’ Pinball wizard, you know.”

The billboards generated a buzz among record buyers. When the “Abbey Road” billboard went up, the heads of the Fab Four crossing the street were wooden cut-outs that loomed above the rectangular canvas.

“This was at the height of the ‘Paul is dead’ rumors, which the record company loved because it helped sales,” Landau said. “At the height of all that, somebody climbed on top and cut Paul’s head off. Capitol Records sent art director Roland Young ... out to look at it and he said, ‘Let’s just leave it.’”

Landau eventually found the pilferer of Paul’s head, one Robert Quinn of the San Fernando Valley, who said he stole it on his 18th birthday in 1969.

“I drove out there,” Landau said. “Sure enough, there it was. That’s the only piece from that whole period saved. The guy did everybody a favor.”

Landau eventually became a professional photographer and continued his Sunset billboard project throughout the 1970s. By the time he captured one of the exhibit’s last images, a busy Sunset Boulevard in 1979 with massive billboards of Eddie Money’s “Life for the Taking” and Cher’s “Take Me Home,” he knew the billboards’ best days were over.

“It had gone full circle,” Landau said. “When they first came along, they replaced the Vegas-y performers that were on billboards. By the end, it returned to the same thing – Cher wearing that big bat-wing thing. For a brief period, though, it was pure rock ’n’ roll.”

For billboard painters such as Vidal, Sunset Boulevard back in the day was nothing less than an outdoor art gallery. Alas, crass commercialism and sterile computer-generated signs are today’s billboard standard.

“I look at billboards today, and I see magazine ads,” Vidal said in the video. “There’s a big difference between a hand-painted billboard and something generated by a computer. It’s something that comes within the heart.”

See the exhibit

Skirball Cultural Center

  • Where: 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
  • Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday–Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends
  • Cost: $10 general, $7 seniors, students $5, children under 12.
  • Current exhibits: “Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” through Aug. 16; “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” through Oct. 11.
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