How Paul McCartney’s missing head from Abbey Road billboard made Sunset Strip history

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In the fall, Beatles fans will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road, released on September 26, 1969. While celebrations will surely take place at London’s famous zebra crosswalk and all over the world, the Sunset Strip has a bit of its own Abbey Road history, which actually was a mystery for over 40 years. 

Beatles billboard for the album “Abbey Road” on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, with Paul’s head intact. Photo credit: Robert Landau

The Beatles’ first Sunset Strip billboard was also the band’s last studio album. By the time Abbey Road was released, John, Paul, George and Ringo were so recognizable that designer John Kosh (now known as Kosh) didn’t even add the band’s name on the legendary album cover. 

Assigned by Capitol Records to transform Kosh’s album into a billboard overlooking the Sunset Strip, designer Roland Young also kept the image free of text. In fact, he kept most of the original album design but cropped out the London streetscape and extended the heads into the sky as if the band was crossing Sunset Blvd.

Shortly after Abbey Road went up on the Sunset Strip that December, Bob Quinn decided to celebrate his 19th birthday by pulling a prank that involved that Fab Four billboard. He and his buddies planned to cut off the oversized wooden head of Paul McCartney. At the time, a rumor had spread that McCartney was killed in a car accident in 1966. Conspiracy theorists interpreted the Abbey Road album cover as a funeral procession with John as the clergyman in all white, Ringo was the mourner dressed in all black and George, wearing jeans, was the gravedigger. McCartney’s bare feet symbolized his death because the dead are buried without shoes in some burial practices.

Bob Quinn was a huge Beatles’ fan. He saw them play Dodger Stadium in 1966. His sister saw the band at the Hollywood Bowl. Quinn grew up near the Sunset Strip and attended grammar school just a block away. This famed boulevard was a teen playground for him, his friends, and many local teenagers.

Teenagers outside of Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip in 1966. Photo credit: Los Angeles Public Library’s Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection

Just a few years younger than Quinn, photographer and author Robert Landau also lived near the Sunset Strip and considered the legendary street his backyard. The son of a prominent gallery owner on La Cienega, Landau was encouraged to create art and chose photography as his medium. When he saw these hand-painted billboards popping up along the Strip, he pulled out his camera to document this boulevard-turned-gallery of oversized rock n’ roll art. 

“There weren't that many ways for artists, in this case rock and roll artists, to communicate. This was a way they could visually communicate directly with their fans or with other people in their business. So, in a way, it was a really personal form of expression and it was overlooked or missed,” Landau said.

Photographer Robert Landau. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal

Companies kept billboards up only for a few weeks before painting over them, so Landau’s photos provide rare documentation of, as he explains, “this really interesting period in both rock and roll history and in Los Angeles history.”  He published these photos in a book by Angel City Press called Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip and spoke to KCRW when it was published. 

Landau is also finishing up a documentary called Sign O' The Times: Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip with Rugged Entertainment, which will dive deeper into the stories of this pop culture art form.  

The only other known remaining relic of this ephemeral art is Paul McCartney’s billboard head. On the evening of his 19th birthday in December 1969, Quinn and his friends scouted out the scene near the intersection of Sunset Blvd and La Cieneaga. When the coast was clear (about 2 am), they jumped up onto the back of the billboard, only four feet off the ground, and sawed off Paul’s head. The whole process took only about ten to twelve minutes.

 Bob Quinn with Paul McCartney’s billboard head. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal

Landau noticed the missing head and photographed the altered billboard before it was taken down. He wasn’t the only one who spotted the change. The billboard company quickly called designer Roland Young, who was working in the nearby Capitol Records building. Young’s initial instinct was to replace it. But when he drove to the site and saw it in person, he changed his mind. With rumors swirling about Paul’s death, this missing head would garner more attention than the original design. As Young explained in Landau’s book, “that was another level of art, the first interactive billboard. Whoever took it was a street artist and didn’t know it.”

Designer Roland Young. Photo credit: Victoria Bernal

Fast forward to 2012. Still wondering what happened to Paul McCartney’s head 40 years later, Landau sent out a call that he’d give a free book to the person who brought the head to the book launch for “Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip.” Quinn showed up with the oversized head that he’d been carrying around for the better part of 43 years. In fact, that head has been on the wall of every home Quinn has lived in over the past 50 years. Landau and Quinn coordinated a meeting with the billboard’s artist Mario Rueda, who later passed away in 2014. A close up of the billboard head shows the detail in Rueda’s brushstrokes. Like any artist, Reuda signed the back of his work.

Bob Quinn would love to add Paul McCartney’s signature to the back of the billboard head. McCartney performs at Dodger Stadium on July 13th, so perhaps divine intervention will work in his favor. And when Beatles fans celebrate that famous London crosswalk in September, Angelenos can smile at this bit of Abbey Road history on the Sunset Strip.

-- Text by Victoria Bernal