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.