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'scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

From the '60s to the '80s, rock music billboards ruled Sunset Strip. Robert Landau was there for the pop art explosion.

April 22, 2007|Robert Landau | Robert Landau has published four books related to photography and popular culture, most recently "Hollywood Poolside" (Angel City Press, 1997).

I was a student with my first camera, living above Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, in the mid-1960s. My father, Felix Landau, was an art dealer whose gallery was by then a cornerstone of the L.A. art scene. Pop art was just emerging, and I was sensing a divide between the more classical European-influenced fine art on display in my father's gallery and the exuberant, vibrant art of American culture in all its bawdy and commercial badness.

Traveling along Sunset Boulevard on my way to school and seeing the hovering billboards was like having a pop art gallery at my fingertips. The most fleeting and colorful of them promoted rock 'n' roll bands--back in the day when album cover art was a full square foot, not a postage stamp-sized icon on an iPhone screen. Sometime around the Summer of Love, a billboard of someone like Paul Anka was dismantled panel by panel, returned to the Foster and Kleiser studio on Washington Boulevard and adorned with a fresh coat of paint featuring Jim Morrison and the Doors. A fire had been lit.

For the next 15 years, fantastic pop culture masterpieces exploded on the Strip, featuring the likenesses of rock stars, from the Allman Brothers and the Beatles to Neil Young and Frank Zappa. These oversized monoliths saw the light of day for a month or two and then went the way of, well, Paul Anka.

The best designers and photographers of the period partook in their creation. Often adapted from what became landmark album covers, the billboards took advantage of the format's 14-by-48-foot CinemaScope shape to create traffic-stopping displays. Highly trained commercial artists hand-painted the images onto wood panels that had been pre-pounced with charcoal outlines of the key elements. No two were exactly alike.

The Strip's rock billboards flourished right up until MTV supplanted them in the early 1980s. The importance placed on producing videos for airplay on the fledgling network sucked most of the promotion resources right out of recording artists' budgets. Today the marketing focus is not on gargantuan, hand-crafted imagery but rather file card-size vignettes that dance and sing in YouTube videos. But one thing hasn't changed: The penchant to build up stars is still equaled by the desire to see them brought back down.

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