Refused- The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)Artists- Dennis Lyxzén, José, David Sandström, Ulf Nyberg“To dress well, as clothing and fashion, are the only things which we — the kids — being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over.” - Ian Svenonius, early Nation of Ulysses fanzine, 1992
"The problem with rock n’roll is that at some point in the 1970s, it became very obsessed with authenticity." - Ian Svenonius, in conversation with Calvin Johnson, 2009Punk, more or less, revolves around posturing. To have been called a punk originally meant that someone was interpreting your stance, clothes, dress, whatever, as beyond the pale; you were revolting, in both senses of the word, simply by appearing. Punk, as such, is in permanent revolution. As soon as a behaviour becomes passe- bland, safe, no longer interpellating the observer into viewing the subject as unacceptable, as ‘punk’- then it becomes useless in the progressive sense (but of course, instantly useful in the commercial). As such, punk has a double identity. It exists as an idea — a worldview — and as a set of signifiers. As such, there are bands who self-consciously write Green Day or Jawbreaker songs, or who tear themselves apart trying to rip it up and start again. Like, Black Flag can have a million different vocalists and still be Black Flag; what matters is how they articulate, not what they sound like. It’s not to the content of Damaged, but the integrity, the spirit, which is why I don’t even remember what the Black Flag album that came out this year is called. What punk-as-idea requires is the opposite of decay, a way to never appear as safe, simple or digestible to those it is constructed to oppose. A filthy squat is full of life, insect or otherwise, after all. So, punk also generates instant nostalgia ("sadness without an object"), since it constantly moves forward. What is longed for is an integrity that is no longer extant in anything but a document from a time when it seemingly abounded. The force of it is such that those who strive after the intangible ideals are in search not of a particular sound qua sound, but a conscious, constant deconstruction. However, this can only be reified properly in the form of an album, the canonical punk iteration of a ‘statement’— despite the genre’s origins, the power of detournement has not had lasting staying power. To be punk is to be always arriving, never arriving, like the bodies in a moshpit, but the stops and landmarks that chart the way are concrete experiences; albums. So, punk, the music that was to be a middle finger, has to keep forming and reforming more complicated gestures of the same. Johnny Rotten has been holding his up since 1977, but hasn’t made a new move since Metal Box, for example. As such, it’s a genre that isn’t kind on followers. Each ‘masterpiece’ signifies not the start of a road, but the end of one; none can come this way again. The only way after London Calling was Sandinista, after all. And coming to the end of the line is often the case for the people who produce these masterpieces, too.Which brings us neatly to the cover of The Shape of Punk to Come, maybe the most self-conscious, self-reflexive punk record of them all. Making it spelled the end for Refused, but it was the kind of statement that could only be a swansong, sort of like Moses looking at the Promised Land before closing his eyes permanently. And Refused knew it. Everything about this cover is a vehicle for self-canonisation, of underlining the importance of this record as a blueprint for the future (simultaneously damning anyone who followed it too closely, of course.)Borrowing from the authenticity and timelessness of Blue Note’s design aesthetic is a tricky move in a lot of ways, but the line is clear; not only is this an album that embraces the complexity of jazz, but also the restlessness, all while asserting the historical authority associated with a music of great artistic seriousness and impeccable taste. This is the kind of art on the walls of the people who know, right? As it’s been pointed out a lot, the jazz-signifier positioning takes a great deal from the Nation of Ulysses, not least that on Plays Pretty For Baby N.O.U. referenced the original Ornette Coleman with a song called “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. As such, there is a historical lineage of iconoclastic marriages of forward-thinking, genre busting talent (listening to Ornette right now, man, he is always the best) and wackjob deconstructivsm (ideologically, like Svenonius, or musically, like Coleman) formed from the title onwards. All are also outliers, culturally, Ornette coming from poorer than poor rural Texas, and Refused from Sweden. The idea of a punk record as a Statement in the way it is iterated here had been eschewed by nearly everyone in the American hardcore underground apart from Svenonius, and Plays Pretty for Baby was the closest they came to making one. Of course, that was the last N.O.U. album. Such is the continuation here that Refused, aesthetically, spared N.O.U. the trouble of having to make one.Moving on, though, the choice of images is pretty deliberate in signifying what shape this future punk is to take; there is new technology (the guitar pedals), protest, dancing and movement, and the anonymity and unity of the performers. The use of hitherto unthinkable elements like 8-bit music in The Shape of Punk to Come is still cited as one of the defining aspects of the record, and rightfully so; including pedals hints, not overwhelmingly, that this is central to the practice, considering that punk began as a rejection of any kind of fucking around with the three-chords-and-the-truth formula. And then the swing dancing; I flashed my eyes past it for years and always presumed it was moshing, but it’s swing dancing, drawing a line between the two moves, the two worlds, the two eras. While both occur speedily in a confined space, moshing is an expression of communal, unified aggression, while swing dancing is more refined, intuitive, autonomous. While still communal, it is not so dictated by the sweat and thud of others, allowing more time for individual thought and direct interaction with another. This is supposed to appeal to the higher, productive emotions, not the merely nihilistic and violent; punk as aesthetic, not as signifier-group. The listing of the band members redoubles the echo of the jazz sleeves, while  emphasises a decentralised view of the punk band as not merely a guitar/bass/drums/vocals group, but an ensemble. Furthermore, it’s one that differs to jazz, which might be billed under a performer-auteur’s name. Rather, punk must be necessarily collective, something underlined by the blanked-out eyes of the performers.That heady subtitle echoes the myth of the farewell transmission ("Refused are Fucking Dead", after all) — this record is ‘chimerical’, in that it literally rises from the ashes of the band burning up on re-entry from the future, as well as being a ‘bombination’ of the senses that you bring back to life and re-experience every time you listen to it. As such, it is defined by a desire for active listening, a constant renewed attention. At the start of “New Noise”: “Can I scream?” You know he’s going to anyway; the question is all about directing the focus back on the object, the speech. Are you going to watch him scream? If a punk band destroys the patriarchy in the middle of the woods and no one is around to hear it, did it happen? If Refused make a masterpiece and no one recognises it, does it exist? Their answer is ‘no’. This record is defiantly punk in that it cannot be punk until it identified as such, and you can do that for them just by reading out the title. In this, they have built aesthetic validation, confirmation of their intent, into the very product before it is even consumed. 
It has shades of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the tragic, gifted but not brilliant academic walking in the footsteps of men greater than him, working his way through his imagined progressive alphabet of intellectual success. In his view, everyone starts at A, and most get to M or some such. Very few get to R, where he is. But, with his best work behind him, how much he’d wish to get to S! He is doubly damned by his need for sympathy, to be recognised for his gifts so he can go on and produce the fruits of them. Without sympathy, he can’t do anything; he must be recognised as brilliant to feel himself brilliant and capable of more brilliance. Refused’s design, this aesthetic, is as brave as it is doomed to the power of the content to reach people; if this record was horrible, it might be the biggest piece of hubris in the whole dang history of cover art; consider how ridiculous the new Pop Etc. album cover was when it emerged how horrific the music was.Those ‘woos!’ that come out in “New Noise” are  thrilling; how rockist! How invigorating! How unfussy they seem, until they appear as another piece of the whole construction; the consciously placed pivot upon which Refused scroll between old scraps of music history to forge the new future of punk. Hardcore punk, having begun from a point of pure ascetic denial, now arrives at the point where it must eat the culture it originally set out to destroy, to deny, to survive. As such, by apology, this is music that defiantly stakes out a claim to ward off criticism, and requires being looked at and admired by a lot of people to achieve the goals it is inscribed with. This is self-canonisation by design, the deliberate construction of the masterpiece in a fashion similar to how good kid, m.A.A.d city constructed itself as same and was accorded status thusly. Through the ways in which it signifies and the standards and expectations it constructs in the viewer — the authority it confers itself— it has to be viewed as a masterpiece to be a masterpiece. Lucky the music is half decent, hey?

Refused- The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)
Artists- Dennis Lyxzén, José, David Sandström, Ulf Nyberg

“To dress well, as clothing and fashion, are the only things which we — the kids — being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over.” - Ian Svenonius, early Nation of Ulysses fanzine, 1992

"The problem with rock n’roll is that at some point in the 1970s, it became very obsessed with authenticity." - Ian Svenonius, in conversation with Calvin Johnson, 2009

Punk, more or less, revolves around posturing. To have been called a punk originally meant that someone was interpreting your stance, clothes, dress, whatever, as beyond the pale; you were revolting, in both senses of the word, simply by appearing. Punk, as such, is in permanent revolution. As soon as a behaviour becomes passe- bland, safe, no longer interpellating the observer into viewing the subject as unacceptable, as ‘punk’- then it becomes useless in the progressive sense (but of course, instantly useful in the commercial). 

As such, punk has a double identity. It exists as an idea — a worldview — and as a set of signifiers. As such, there are bands who self-consciously write Green Day or Jawbreaker songs, or who tear themselves apart trying to rip it up and start again. Like, Black Flag can have a million different vocalists and still be Black Flag; what matters is how they articulate, not what they sound like. It’s not to the content of Damaged, but the integrity, the spirit, which is why I don’t even remember what the Black Flag album that came out this year is called. What punk-as-idea requires is the opposite of decay, a way to never appear as safe, simple or digestible to those it is constructed to oppose. A filthy squat is full of life, insect or otherwise, after all. 

So, punk also generates instant nostalgia ("sadness without an object"), since it constantly moves forward. What is longed for is an integrity that is no longer extant in anything but a document from a time when it seemingly abounded. The force of it is such that those who strive after the intangible ideals are in search not of a particular sound qua sound, but a conscious, constant deconstruction. However, this can only be reified properly in the form of an album, the canonical punk iteration of a ‘statement’— despite the genre’s origins, the power of detournement has not had lasting staying power. To be punk is to be always arriving, never arriving, like the bodies in a moshpit, but the stops and landmarks that chart the way are concrete experiences; albums. So, punk, the music that was to be a middle finger, has to keep forming and reforming more complicated gestures of the same. Johnny Rotten has been holding his up since 1977, but hasn’t made a new move since Metal Box, for example. As such, it’s a genre that isn’t kind on followers. Each ‘masterpiece’ signifies not the start of a road, but the end of one; none can come this way again. The only way after London Calling was Sandinista, after all. And coming to the end of the line is often the case for the people who produce these masterpieces, too.

Which brings us neatly to the cover of The Shape of Punk to Come, maybe the most self-conscious, self-reflexive punk record of them all. Making it spelled the end for Refused, but it was the kind of statement that could only be a swansong, sort of like Moses looking at the Promised Land before closing his eyes permanently. And Refused knew it. Everything about this cover is a vehicle for self-canonisation, of underlining the importance of this record as a blueprint for the future (simultaneously damning anyone who followed it too closely, of course.)

Borrowing from the authenticity and timelessness of Blue Note’s design aesthetic is a tricky move in a lot of ways, but the line is clear; not only is this an album that embraces the complexity of jazz, but also the restlessness, all while asserting the historical authority associated with a music of great artistic seriousness and impeccable taste. This is the kind of art on the walls of the people who know, right? As it’s been pointed out a lot, the jazz-signifier positioning takes a great deal from the Nation of Ulysses, not least that on Plays Pretty For Baby N.O.U. referenced the original Ornette Coleman with a song called “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. As such, there is a historical lineage of iconoclastic marriages of forward-thinking, genre busting talent (listening to Ornette right now, man, he is always the best) and wackjob deconstructivsm (ideologically, like Svenonius, or musically, like Coleman) formed from the title onwards. All are also outliers, culturally, Ornette coming from poorer than poor rural Texas, and Refused from Sweden. The idea of a punk record as a Statement in the way it is iterated here had been eschewed by nearly everyone in the American hardcore underground apart from Svenonius, and Plays Pretty for Baby was the closest they came to making one. Of course, that was the last N.O.U. album. Such is the continuation here that Refused, aesthetically, spared N.O.U. the trouble of having to make one.

Moving on, though, the choice of images is pretty deliberate in signifying what shape this future punk is to take; there is new technology (the guitar pedals), protest, dancing and movement, and the anonymity and unity of the performers. The use of hitherto unthinkable elements like 8-bit music in The Shape of Punk to Come is still cited as one of the defining aspects of the record, and rightfully so; including pedals hints, not overwhelmingly, that this is central to the practice, considering that punk began as a rejection of any kind of fucking around with the three-chords-and-the-truth formula.

And then the swing dancing; I flashed my eyes past it for years and always presumed it was moshing, but it’s swing dancing, drawing a line between the two moves, the two worlds, the two eras. While both occur speedily in a confined space, moshing is an expression of communal, unified aggression, while swing dancing is more refined, intuitive, autonomous. While still communal, it is not so dictated by the sweat and thud of others, allowing more time for individual thought and direct interaction with another. This is supposed to appeal to the higher, productive emotions, not the merely nihilistic and violent; punk as aesthetic, not as signifier-group.

The listing of the band members redoubles the echo of the jazz sleeves, while  emphasises a decentralised view of the punk band as not merely a guitar/bass/drums/vocals group, but an ensemble. Furthermore, it’s one that differs to jazz, which might be billed under a performer-auteur’s name. Rather, punk must be necessarily collective, something underlined by the blanked-out eyes of the performers.

That heady subtitle echoes the myth of the farewell transmission ("Refused are Fucking Dead", after all) — this record is ‘chimerical’, in that it literally rises from the ashes of the band burning up on re-entry from the future, as well as being a ‘bombination’ of the senses that you bring back to life and re-experience every time you listen to it. As such, it is defined by a desire for active listening, a constant renewed attention. At the start of “New Noise”: “Can I scream?” You know he’s going to anyway; the question is all about directing the focus back on the object, the speech. Are you going to watch him scream? If a punk band destroys the patriarchy in the middle of the woods and no one is around to hear it, did it happen? If Refused make a masterpiece and no one recognises it, does it exist? Their answer is ‘no’. This record is defiantly punk in that it cannot be punk until it identified as such, and you can do that for them just by reading out the title. In this, they have built aesthetic validation, confirmation of their intent, into the very product before it is even consumed. 

It has shades of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the tragic, gifted but not brilliant academic walking in the footsteps of men greater than him, working his way through his imagined progressive alphabet of intellectual success. In his view, everyone starts at A, and most get to M or some such. Very few get to R, where he is. But, with his best work behind him, how much he’d wish to get to S! He is doubly damned by his need for sympathy, to be recognised for his gifts so he can go on and produce the fruits of them. Without sympathy, he can’t do anything; he must be recognised as brilliant to feel himself brilliant and capable of more brilliance. Refused’s design, this aesthetic, is as brave as it is doomed to the power of the content to reach people; if this record was horrible, it might be the biggest piece of hubris in the whole dang history of cover art; consider how ridiculous the new Pop Etc. album cover was when it emerged how horrific the music was.

Those ‘woos!’ that come out in “New Noise” are  thrilling; how rockist! How invigorating! How unfussy they seem, until they appear as another piece of the whole construction; the consciously placed pivot upon which Refused scroll between old scraps of music history to forge the new future of punk. Hardcore punk, having begun from a point of pure ascetic denial, now arrives at the point where it must eat the culture it originally set out to destroy, to deny, to survive. As such, by apology, this is music that defiantly stakes out a claim to ward off criticism, and requires being looked at and admired by a lot of people to achieve the goals it is inscribed with. This is self-canonisation by design, the deliberate construction of the masterpiece in a fashion similar to how good kid, m.A.A.d city constructed itself as same and was accorded status thusly. Through the ways in which it signifies and the standards and expectations it constructs in the viewer — the authority it confers itself— it has to be viewed as a masterpiece to be a masterpiece. Lucky the music is half decent, hey?

Kimono My House - Sparks (1974)Artist- Karl Stoecker
Q: Is there a more important lime green wall in the world?A: No fucking way(more on that later)Maaaan. This image mirrors the viscerally brainy shock of the music inside in a way that takes some unpicking, just because the whole package is ravishing enough to completely bypass the ol’ critical faculties. First off, the records Sparks made during their golden era in London in the mid-1970s finally brought the joyless weirdo hyperintelligence King Crimson pioneered in guitar music into a world you could grin in: the gumbo goofiness of glam. Moreover, Sparks pulled off this kinda impossible balancing act with a panache bordering on the manic. Even after forty years, nothing really quite lives in the same place Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet  do, save the Cardiacs’ poppier moments or the times when Deerhoof have really gone for the jugular. The sheer impossibility of a song like "Something For the Girl With Everything" is matched only by the impossibility of the band playing it; a heartthrob in his grandma’s jumper sprinting up and down through weird scales in a bizarre haughty upper register, suspended over the mash and punch of three butch ring-ins keeping their heads down and plugging away, all while the Charlie Chaplin-cum-Hitler freak on the Roland directs traffic with his eyebrows. "Here in Heaven" is like T-Rex playing Brahms, and that’s before you realise it’s a monologue from the point of view of Romeo whining about Juliet taking her time meeting him in eternity, all while complaining about the lack of amenities up there (“you can’t buy souvenirs… I don’t have many friends/It’s really very clean!”). There are whole family trees of geek-rock that are impossible without this, from Brainiac to the Buzzcocks. Crazy enough to make beardy-weirdys dig their heels in, but obvious enough to get a teenaged Morrissey amped to hassle the bejeezus out of the letters to the editor guy at the NME for the best part of the 70s. The elegance (and I mean elegance in the way math guys talk about algorithms) of the whole Sparks concept is imperturbable, and naturally, it extended to how they approached their record sleeves. 
The image itself comes from a rich lineage of glam-era cover photos; the photographer was Karl Stoecker, who was responsible for the kinda game-changing Roxy Music album sleeves that paved the way for a lot of straight up sex up front stuff followed, from Queen to Britney to whatever impulse designed this. Yet, while Stoecker embodied Roxy Music’s louche anything-philia through the arched garishness of a string of supermodels, he approached Sparks on their own terms. Ron Mael’s original draft involved two geishas holding their noses and looking at the cover of A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, a piece of self-deprecation that played off the seriousness and prestige of the geisha— not the exotic— but in Stoecker’s hands things got a lot more interesting. 
The women on the cover were actresses from the Japanese Red Buddah Theatre, a theatre company touring England at the time; on the right was Michi Hirota, who ended up backing up David Bowie on "It’s No Game (Part 1)". When you beat Bowie to some(one)thing, you’re onto something. So, usually, if you reduce something to brute fact like that, the idea of plucking two Japanese women out of nowhere for some colour on an album sleeve tends towards the Duran Duran approach to cultural sensitivity (i.e. towards zero), but Sparks, naturally, were much cleverer than that. What the presence of the geishas does is provide the idea and excitement of the exotic without succumbing to it as a caricature; the actors have such force of personality and agency that the image is animated with weirdness, radiating charisma without the presence of the sexual or the blandly appropriative, rather than exploitation or cheap chicanery. They’re acting, and in control of the entire situation, slyly saying ‘kimono my house’, laughing at how dumb the joke is at the same time they’re making it. There’s nothing of the flat and kitsch to it, and the title redoubles the playfulness of the whole thing. As the extant rejected shots show, this was entirely part of the plan. And then we have that wall: it’s a huge visual punchline. The artificiality of having two geishas representing an American rock band because of the presence of a Japanese word in the record’s title — itself named for a throwaway joke in a song on side B — is one thing, but at the same time, the whole Pandora’s box of the hokey Oriental male fantasy wish fulfilment scenario is opened up by the visual presence of geishas. Yet, this is deflated entirely by the fact they are standing in front of a fucking green screen; you can project whatever you fucking like, guys! As such, Kimono My House is a gorgeous come on that immediately reports itself as a joke, a whimsy, a burlesque feather stroked along a forehead. Meta-kitsch, ladies and gentleman. 1974. Bryan Ferry’s teacher at school was the (frankly incredible) Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who quoth:Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamourous and big business.”Of course, there are many ways to go about Pop Art, and Stoecker’s ability to shift gears within the medium is astonishing. Compare his work for Roxy Music against Kimono My House and the difference is telling; they’re both perfect images for the content, but Sparks are about inviting you on board, while Roxy Music are all about the remove, using the proxy of the idealised female form to create a distance between the subject and the object, demarcating itself as serious objet d’art that enables access to rarefied levels of sexual and aesthetic exploration, which is exactly the way Bryan Ferry wants you to approach his music. Sparks just want you to listen to the damn thing; they’re even inviting you with a wink fer chrissakes-It’s curious how ‘insider’ the references are on this sleeve, because Sparks were maybe one of the first bands to develop a real ‘cult’ following and then have to retreat back into it for the remainder of their career (Goo Goo Dolls, anyone?). Considering how awful Ron Mael’s original idea for the cover, commercial suicide was always a likely proposition. Like all true cult bands, they became big in Europe, eventually. The idea of being a cult secret is intimated, in the cover though; as Ian McDonald noted in his beyond-ecstatic NME review:The one on the left is listening to Kimono My House for the first time (she’s probably just realised how Russell Mael is going to finish “Equator” and isn’t quite sure whether she can take it); the lady on the right with the cocky wink and the open fan has heard the whole deal and is with Sparks.You’re either one or the other with Sparks, but you Kimono My House tells you who gets to have more fun.

Kimono My House - Sparks (1974)
Artist- Karl Stoecker

Q: Is there a more important lime green wall in the world?

A: No fucking way

(more on that later)

Maaaan. This image mirrors the viscerally brainy shock of the music inside in a way that takes some unpicking, just because the whole package is ravishing enough to completely bypass the ol’ critical faculties.

First off, the records Sparks made during their golden era in London in the mid-1970s finally brought the joyless weirdo hyperintelligence King Crimson pioneered in guitar music into a world you could grin in: the gumbo goofiness of glam. Moreover, Sparks pulled off this kinda impossible balancing act with a panache bordering on the manic. Even after forty years, nothing really quite lives in the same place Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet  do, save the Cardiacs’ poppier moments or the times when Deerhoof have really gone for the jugular. The sheer impossibility of a song like "Something For the Girl With Everything" is matched only by the impossibility of the band playing it; a heartthrob in his grandma’s jumper sprinting up and down through weird scales in a bizarre haughty upper register, suspended over the mash and punch of three butch ring-ins keeping their heads down and plugging away, all while the Charlie Chaplin-cum-Hitler freak on the Roland directs traffic with his eyebrows. "Here in Heaven" is like T-Rex playing Brahms, and that’s before you realise it’s a monologue from the point of view of Romeo whining about Juliet taking her time meeting him in eternity, all while complaining about the lack of amenities up there (“you can’t buy souvenirs… I don’t have many friends/It’s really very clean!”). There are whole family trees of geek-rock that are impossible without this, from Brainiac to the Buzzcocks. Crazy enough to make beardy-weirdys dig their heels in, but obvious enough to get a teenaged Morrissey amped to hassle the bejeezus out of the letters to the editor guy at the NME for the best part of the 70sThe elegance (and I mean elegance in the way math guys talk about algorithms) of the whole Sparks concept is imperturbable, and naturally, it extended to how they approached their record sleeves. 

The image itself comes from a rich lineage of glam-era cover photos; the photographer was Karl Stoecker, who was responsible for the kinda game-changing Roxy Music album sleeves that paved the way for a lot of straight up sex up front stuff followed, from Queen to Britney to whatever impulse designed this. Yet, while Stoecker embodied Roxy Music’s louche anything-philia through the arched garishness of a string of supermodels, he approached Sparks on their own terms. Ron Mael’s original draft involved two geishas holding their noses and looking at the cover of A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, a piece of self-deprecation that played off the seriousness and prestige of the geisha— not the exotic— but in Stoecker’s hands things got a lot more interesting. 

The women on the cover were actresses from the Japanese Red Buddah Theatre, a theatre company touring England at the time; on the right was Michi Hirota, who ended up backing up David Bowie on "It’s No Game (Part 1)". When you beat Bowie to some(one)thing, you’re onto something. So, usually, if you reduce something to brute fact like that, the idea of plucking two Japanese women out of nowhere for some colour on an album sleeve tends towards the Duran Duran approach to cultural sensitivity (i.e. towards zero), but Sparks, naturally, were much cleverer than that. What the presence of the geishas does is provide the idea and excitement of the exotic without succumbing to it as a caricature; the actors have such force of personality and agency that the image is animated with weirdness, radiating charisma without the presence of the sexual or the blandly appropriative, rather than exploitation or cheap chicanery. They’re acting, and in control of the entire situation, slyly saying ‘kimono my house’, laughing at how dumb the joke is at the same time they’re making it. There’s nothing of the flat and kitsch to it, and the title redoubles the playfulness of the whole thing. As the extant rejected shots show, this was entirely part of the plan. 

And then we have that wall: it’s a huge visual punchline. The artificiality of having two geishas representing an American rock band because of the presence of a Japanese word in the record’s title — itself named for a throwaway joke in a song on side B — is one thing, but at the same time, the whole Pandora’s box of the hokey Oriental male fantasy wish fulfilment scenario is opened up by the visual presence of geishas. Yet, this is deflated entirely by the fact they are standing in front of a fucking green screen; you can project whatever you fucking like, guys! As such, Kimono My House is a gorgeous come on that immediately reports itself as a joke, a whimsy, a burlesque feather stroked along a forehead. Meta-kitsch, ladies and gentleman. 1974

Bryan Ferry’s teacher at school was the (frankly incredible) Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who quoth:

Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamourous and big business.”

Of course, there are many ways to go about Pop Art, and Stoecker’s ability to shift gears within the medium is astonishing. Compare his work for Roxy Music against Kimono My House and the difference is telling; they’re both perfect images for the content, but Sparks are about inviting you on board, while Roxy Music are all about the remove, using the proxy of the idealised female form to create a distance between the subject and the object, demarcating itself as serious objet d’art that enables access to rarefied levels of sexual and aesthetic exploration, which is exactly the way Bryan Ferry wants you to approach his music. Sparks just want you to listen to the damn thing; they’re even inviting you with a wink fer chrissakes-

It’s curious how ‘insider’ the references are on this sleeve, because Sparks were maybe one of the first bands to develop a real ‘cult’ following and then have to retreat back into it for the remainder of their career (Goo Goo Dolls, anyone?). Considering how awful Ron Mael’s original idea for the cover, commercial suicide was always a likely proposition. Like all true cult bands, they became big in Europe, eventually. The idea of being a cult secret is intimated, in the cover though; as Ian McDonald noted in his beyond-ecstatic NME review:

The one on the left is listening to Kimono My House for the first time (she’s probably just realised how Russell Mael is going to finish “Equator” and isn’t quite sure whether she can take it); the lady on the right with the cocky wink and the open fan has heard the whole deal and is with Sparks.

You’re either one or the other with Sparks, but you Kimono My House tells you who gets to have more fun.

Nixon - Lambchop (2000)Artist: Wayne WhiteLambchop are a v. particular kind of country band, and maybe the best evidence that there’s no good excuse to listen to Wilco. Have you HEARD the sound of Kurt Wagner yanking himself up towards his falsetto? It’s like a cat being joyfully squelched ‘neath a Jeep’s new treads, and the greatest thing about them is captured in that winsome, ugly sound; their vision of America is not about sliding slackjawed and smooth between glossy hugenesses and magnificences. It’s all in the bumps and ructions on the way, all about reaching for the spaces within the sad, strange weirdness that animates facts like:"The guy on the cross is holier than I/But then again he’s made from plastic”
They are wry, sly, strange, surreal and benefit from endless revisiting, and so it is with this cover: White’s characteristic and iconically American lettering (reminiscent of the Hollywo(r)d sign, art deco and advertising copy) hovers ominously over the most bucolic scene that the American postcard industry could possibly offer, at once blending in and sticking bizarrely out. It’s arresting as hell, appearing as rustic as everything around it, but holding an eerie tension. The children watch it, the boy tossing a rock, the elder girl holding flowers and standing as if she’s come to a complete grim stop having arrived upon the damn thing, and their relationship with it bears all the dim gravity of a loss of innocence, of existing with an unpleasantness in what had previously been taken as benign. When, in their collective imagining, Americans come gather by the river, it’s out of everything simple, trusting and communal in the national character, and Richard Milhous Nixon is the very opposite of that. Lambchop live exactly and wherever those two Americas meet and bruise one another, and that’s precisely what’s at play here.

Nixon - Lambchop (2000)
Artist: Wayne White

Lambchop are a v. particular kind of country band, and maybe the best evidence that there’s no good excuse to listen to Wilco. Have you HEARD the sound of Kurt Wagner yanking himself up towards his falsetto? It’s like a cat being joyfully squelched ‘neath a Jeep’s new treads, and the greatest thing about them is captured in that winsome, ugly sound; their vision of America is not about sliding slackjawed and smooth between glossy hugenesses and magnificences. It’s all in the bumps and ructions on the way, all about reaching for the spaces within the sad, strange weirdness that animates facts like:

"The guy on the cross is holier than I/
But then again he’s made from plastic”

They are wry, sly, strange, surreal and benefit from endless revisiting, and so it is with this cover: White’s characteristic and iconically American lettering (reminiscent of the Hollywo(r)d sign, art deco and advertising copy) hovers ominously over the most bucolic scene that the American postcard industry could possibly offer, at once blending in and sticking bizarrely out. It’s arresting as hell, appearing as rustic as everything around it, but holding an eerie tension. The children watch it, the boy tossing a rock, the elder girl holding flowers and standing as if she’s come to a complete grim stop having arrived upon the damn thing, and their relationship with it bears all the dim gravity of a loss of innocence, of existing with an unpleasantness in what had previously been taken as benign. When, in their collective imagining, Americans come gather by the river, it’s out of everything simple, trusting and communal in the national character, and Richard Milhous Nixon is the very opposite of that. Lambchop live exactly and wherever those two Americas meet and bruise one another, and that’s precisely what’s at play here.