Secret history: David Bowie and the ghost of Chopin

Secret history: David Bowie and the ghost of Chopin


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2016

From a Paris correspondent:
“David Bowie est un fantôme.” These were the words that opened the solemn voiceover of a FranceTV documentary last Wednesday, days before the rock star’s death. The programme, titled Bowie, l’Homme Cent Visages ou Le Fantome d’Hérouville (The Man with 100 Faces or The Ghost of d’Hérouville), explores a curious idyll in his prolific career, two stints in an historic, sprawling manor in the French village of Hérouville, 45km outside of Paris.

The composer Michel Magne bought Château d’Hérouville in 1962, and transformed it into Strawberry Studios.

The rooms where Frederic Chopin and George Sand once made love were rocked by the sounds of Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull. Elton John named his 1972 album Honky Château after the place where it was recorded.

Bowie recorded his Pin Ups cover album in the Château d’Hérouville in 1973, sampling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 (at 4:00) and (briefly) Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra in the song ‘See Emily Play’.

bowie at hony chateau
Bowie at Honky Chateau, 1973

He returned in 1976, a recovering cocaine addict, for Low – the first in a Berlin trilogy, actually recorded in France – a masterpiece and his most advanced album up until that point.

In the TV documentary, Dominique Blanc-Francard, a sound engineer working on the 1973 sessions, said: ‘When he looked you in the eyes it was like he was piercing you with lasers, it felt as though someone was rummaging around in your thoughts…Out of all the clients we had at the chateau, he was the coolest. For that time, he had such a bizarre look, really like an alien. One couldn’t imagine him being human.’

Bowie complained about the diet of rabbit and potatoes. More troubling, according to his collaborators on Low Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, were visitations by a ghost, and a bedroom Bowie refused to sleep in, believing it was haunted.  By Chopin, perhaps?

Strawberry Studios shut down in 1985, a year after Michel Magne’s suicide. The chateau remained derelict and was finally put up for sale in 2013 with an asking price of €1.29m (£1.12m). A group of sound engineers has taken up the challenge of restoring the honky chateau to its former glory, and are seeking investors. (See below for contested claim).

They hope to reopen Honky Chateau this year. The piano used by Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is still there, rotting away in the attic.


  • Jean Taxis says:

    VERY IMPORTANT: Please be advised that the real owners of the château ARE ABSOLUTLY NOT SEEKING investors !
    The website of this link has absolutly nothing to do with the château’s actual owners.
    We hope that no one has already pré-purchased anything regarding the château,
    we strongly recommend to anyone who would have sent money to complain for fraud.

    Jean Taxis
    Château d’Hérouville co-owner.

  • May says:

    Dear Norman,
    I respect you as a journalist. Your books are on my bookshelves. I do believe this is your profession. Please go to greater lengths to research the information in all postings. Time and time again, Slipped Disc publishes erroneous information. Obviously there is something really amiss with competing interests in Château d’Hérouville. Before publishing an article, please check your sources. Naturally this takes time, however someday there might even be legal ramifications for Slipped Disc due to inadvertently publishing false information. Thank you!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, May, for your concern. There are competing claims over the chateau. We have published both sides. NL

  • Jean Taxis says:

    What do you mean by “both side” ?!!
    There is only one truth, that is very easy to check.
    The BBC made an article about the château d’Hérouville (and the real names of the chateau owners are mentioned.):
    The journaliste actually came to the château, and actually met us.
    I suggest to do the same..

    • James Cull says:

      Hello Jean,
      We are happy the new owners of the original buildings of Herouville are artists that will strive to renovate the property, after 40 years of neglect, and continue its legacy. Please be aware Honky Chateau LTD Co. LLC is an American company dedicated to the resurrection of the Honky Chateau. The Chateau d’Herouville project has been in organization for several years. a division of the French Consulate has traveled here to meet with us. The French government is well aware of our project. Our formal business plan is on file. The new owners of the buildings must obtain the proper permits for construction to remove the roof of Batiment A and restore it to Gaudot’s original design. Diagram may be found at We can then replace Tom Hidley’s acoustics for the Chopin studio.The new owners must also obtain the proper electrical permits. The recording and live streaming equipment lists have been completed according G.E. Capital France specifications. Most of this equipment is unavailable in France and must come form the U.S. Our complete plan for Chateau d’Herouville may be found at and has absolutely nothing to do with fraud. In fact our company has filed with the SEC. Sincerely

      • Jean Taxis says:

        Mr Cull, We will just stick to basic facts: We (SCA du chateau d’Hérouville, 95300 France) are the new owners. not you, and you know this.
        We do not recognize your activity, and have no intention to do so in the future. You also know this.
        It means your commercial activity consisting in raising money to the château d’Hérouville is without any foundation whatsoever.
        As any money raised by you CANNOT be used for the purpose of either refurbishing the castle or the pre-booking of studio space, we would be grateful if you could tell your clients and investors what you intend to do with their investment.
        We seek no other benefit than making sure people are aware of this.

        • James Cull says:

          Hello Jean, I don’t actually know that are the “real” owner of the chateau or not. You said you were and I believe you. If you are, you should not attract attention to yourself in the press at this time. There are many French government regulations, regulators and inspectors, regarding the operation of recording studios, specifically on the Chateau d’Herouville property, that you are obviously unaware of. As you may know, Michele Rischon used the grant money, designated for the architectural renovation of the Chateau, to purchase another castle. All the proverbial ducks must be in an actual row. Cheers

  • Hilary says:

    What an inventive song. You have to stay with it, as it begins innocently enough.

    • James Cull says:

      Thanks Hilary you are right and we will write it. First we must find Mr.Time. We’ll title it “Don’t Get Me Started”. Finish it, track and record it, mix it and Master it.

      I’m already dreading it really. We’ll need to be and work in perfect harmony with my alter ego Mr Jimmy. That horrible incorrigible deplorable terrible awful meat-eating heartless human bastard.

      (besides that he smokes)

      Relentlessly Yours,

      Thank You Slippedisc for providing such an excellent platforum.

      Happy New Year! ©π All Relevant Rights Reserved

      • James Cull says:

        Better Version? What do you think Hilary?

        Thanks Hilary you are right and we will write it. First we must find Mr.Time. We’ll title it “Don’t Get Me Started”. Finish it, track and record it, mix it and Master it.

        I’m already dreading it really. We’ll need to be and work in perfect harmony with my alter ego Mr Jimmy. That rotten incorrigible horrible terrible awful meat-eating heartless contemptuous critical quasi-human Bastard.

        Relentlessly Yours,

        Thank You Slippeddisc for providing this excellent platforum.
        Happy New Year! 2016 ©π All Relevant Rights Reserved

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