By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2008. No part of this site may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
Who were the two geishas on the cover, or were they actually guys in drag?
Did you ever send Rosemary Clooney a copy of the album?
Russell Mael: The two girls were members of a Japanese dance company touring England in 1974. They are women, not men, not Ron, not me. We were very happy that Island Records allowed us not to have the name of the band nor the album title on the front cover. We thought the image alone would speak loudly enough. Try to get a company to go along with that concept today. No, we have not spoken with Rosemary Clooney.
The Kimono My House album cover, featuring two slightly askew kimono-clad geishas with absolutely no mention of the band at all, has been voted among the best album covers of all time in almost every poll taken. Beck named it again in the November 2001 issue of Vanity Fair.
Island Records’ Marketing Director Tim Clark fashioned his promotional strategy for Sparks after the one he had implemented with Roxy Music. “The very name Sparks meant to us that the music would lend itself to a very glossy and arty feel.” The photographer of Roxy’s glamorous album covers, Karl Stoecker and art director Nicholas de Ville were recruited to create the iconic cover of Kimono My House, though the concept of the goofy geishas was completely Ron Mael’s idea.
Ron made a mock-up of his Japanese-themed idea for the album cover. He chose a vintage wartime propaganda photo of two geishas disdainfully pinching their noses while displaying Sparks’ second album cover, A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing. The flippant spirit of the photo was retained for the actual Kimono My House album cover. The original propaganda photo appeared in an old 1940s issue of LIFE magazine, intended to ridicule Japanese culture. The geishas were holding a photograph of Winston Churchill, and scornfully pinching their noses. The caption explained, “Churchill’s initials also stand for ‘toilet’ (water closet) in Asia and Europe.” Most Japanese would not have understood this photo, with its English caption and the rarity of water closets prior to World War II.
Russell: “We were very happy that Island Records allowed us not to have the name of the band, nor the album title on the front cover.
We thought the image alone would speak loudly enough.
Try to get a company to go along with that concept today.”
Karl Stoecker, now a renowned photographic artist, was known for his glamour shots on Roxy Music’s album covers in the 1970s, with stylist Nicholas de Ville. Roxy were Sparks’ label mates on Island Records. Most notable was their 1972 debut album featuring cover-girl model Kari-Ann, Mick Jagger’s sister-in-law. Then came Roxy’s For Your Pleasure (1973) with Salvador Dali’s muse Amanda Lear and a panther, then of course Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, Marilyn Cole on Stranded. London’s swinging ‘60s designer Ossie Clark’s favorite model, Gala Mitchell was shot by Stoecker for the back cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer album. Within six months of the Kimono cover, Roxy Music’s Country Life, released in October 1974, featured two cover girls in nothing but sheer underwear, later censored by removing the girls from the shrubbery photo altogether.
Roxy’s singer, Bryan Ferry was a student of Pop-art painter (and, some say, the actual progenitor of Pop-art) Richard Hamilton at Newcastle University. Hamilton created the stark, minimalist cover of The Beatles (White Album). It followed up and contrasted Sgt. Pepper’s psychedelic cover bursting with color. Hamilton’s philosophy was, “Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business.” According to Bryan Ferry, “Most LP covers of the time had the group standing in an alleyway, looking very sullen and moody”. Karl Stoecker’s Roxy Music covers changed all of that.
The two garish geishas on the cover of Kimono My House with smeared makeup and disheveled hair were the antithesis of Roxy’s classy covers. They laughed in the face of cover art, while at the same time making history as one of its greatest examples! One of them seems to foresee this – with a wink! The chosen cover photo was actually an outtake, shot near the end of the photo session. It has been voted among the best album covers of all time in almost every poll taken. Beck named it again in the November 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. The models, Michi Hirota and Kuniko Okamura were from Japan’s Red Buddha Theatre headed by Stomu Yamashta performing in London at the time. The geisha on the right is Michi Hirota, who also provides the memorable abrasive spoken Japanese vocals on the song ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters album, 1980.
My interview with Michi in 2008, Islington UK.
IS THERE A GEISHA IN THE HOUSE?
By Madeline Bocaro ©
YES, there most certainly is!! And she is none other than the beautiful Michi Hirota, better known as ‘the one on the right’ on the infamous, iconic Kimono My House album cover. We caught up with Michi in 2008 and were thrilled to have her as our special guest at Sparks’ complete performance of the album in Islington on May 18!
What led you to become a model on the cover of Kimono My House? Michi: We were both actresses touring with a Japanese theatre company in Europe and the USA. My husband Joji Hirota was musical director. A record company (Island records) approached our director looking for Japanese women, and we were asked to do the modeling. I am the woman on the right (with a fan).
Do you know the whereabouts of the geisha on the left? Michi: I have no news about the other lady since I left the Japanese theatre company at that time, however her maiden name was Kuniko Okamura. She married a Frenchman soon after finishing our tour and bore 4 children.
What kind of instructions did Ron, or the photographer give you? Michi: We were not told much, they just let us move freely. We didn’t know how to arrange our hair properly or how to fix our kimono. There was nobody to dress us. The session took 4 or 5 hours.
Karl Stoecker also photographed models for the Roxy Music album covers. Did you ever work with him again? Michi: I’ve heard that he is the one of the foremost photographers in the world, but unfortunately I never had a chance to work with him. (I would like to, if he is looking for an old Japanese lady!)
What did you think when you first saw the photo on the album cover? Michi: It had such an impact, however I thought that I looked bit ugly.
Are there any other photos from that session, besides the famous cover shot? Michi: Yes, I kept one Polaroid photo in which I looked rather Kawaii (cute in Japanese), which Karl dropped on the floor. Hope this is OK with him. I keep it in my personal photo album.
What did you think of the Kimono My House album when you first heard it? Michi: Very unique, unusual, and inspiring voices!
Have you ever seen a Sparks concert? Michi: Not until now!
What kind of music do you like? Do you have a favorite singer? Michi: I love all sort of music from Classical music to Rock. My current favorite is Cecilia Bartoli (Italian).
What have you been doing all these years? Michi: I continued acting (mainly singing, dancing, and acting for the theatre) until in my late 30’s. I performed in The King and I with Yul Brynner in London, and sang on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters album. Now I assist with my husband’s administration work, and also attend ballet class for my pleasure.
*This is an excerpt from my Kimono My House concert program for Sparks’ 40th anniversary performances of the album in London and in Los Angeles in 2014.
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