I was 13 years old when my brother placed a round, grooved disc of vinyl on the record player, dropped the needle and introduced me to
Music has a profound power to shape the world around us. What we listen to can influence our friendships, what we wear, where we dine, even where we lay our heads at night. But to affect us, the music first must reach us, traversing a crucial "last mile" between creator and consumer. Today that distance is just the few inches between ear and iPhone. But an upcoming exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles shows how, once upon a time, billboards along a fabled strip of Southern California real estate were key in bringing rock music to the masses.
"Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip," which opens March 24 and is scheduled to run through Aug. 16, features photographs by Robert Landau of billboards along that heavily traveled route. The exhibition makes the case that they were integral to the success of the music industry for more than a decade and a half, starting in the late '60s.
According to Landau, the first rock 'n' roll billboard was the one Elektra Records head Jac Holzman erected in 1967 to promote the Doors' debut album, hoping to pique the interest of the radio DJs who drove up and down Sunset to work. That touched off a rock-promotion land grab.
Although he isn't quite as precise about pegging the end of the era, Landau is more than happy to finger the culprit. "The era lasted about fifteen years, just barely into the Eighties," he writes in the 2012 book "Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip" (Angel City Press), which prompted the exhibition. "That was the time
This arc of influence is reflected in the images that make up the exhibition: a series of 24-by-30-inch photos (and a handful of 24-by-36-inch images) of billboards graced by David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer,
"We wanted to do something that gave people the scale of the billboard art and the craft that goes into making it," said Skirball assistant curator Erin M. Curtis. "So we're having a muralist named Enrique Vidal come in and paint a billboard-size 12-foot-by-22-foot mural in the gallery that depicts a portion of
Landau's photos don't just capture the billboards in a way that makes one nostalgic for hand-painted plywood. Many of them include snippets of the world in the corners of the frames, capturing the cars, the houses and the long-gone businesses, the hairstyles and outfits of passersby.
Because Landau leaves us at the doorstep of the MTV era, we couldn't help but wonder what the modern-day version of the rock 'n' roll billboard might be. "The point of the billboards was [that] you're in Los Angeles, there's a car culture here, and they needed to bring the message of this music to where it was going to be met," Curtis said. "That's what YouTube is doing today, so I think that's the closest analogue, even though it's a very different form."