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, 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.
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.”