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Credit: Warner Bros.

Music

How The Grateful Dead broke in the Honky Chateau

@TylerGolsen

The Château d’Hérouville is one of the most iconic recording venues of the 1970s. Originally constructed in the 18th century, the large estate was famously painted by Vincent Van Gogh shortly before his death, with the iconic painter buried closely nearby. A historical private residence for most of its existence, composer Michel Magne bought the property in 1962 and converted the left wing of the building into a recording studio after a house fire destroyed the initial decor in 1969.

Magne was often busy with his work and rarely rented out the space to outside musicians during his initial ownership of the recording studio. When the Grateful Dead inquired about staying at the chateau during their appearance at a French music festival in 1971, it wasn’t even because the building had a recording studio. But fate led the Dead to fire up the recording equipment when mother nature rained on their parade. 

We went over there to do a big festival, a free festival they were gonna have, but the festival was rained out. It flooded,” Jerry Garcia recalled to author Blair Jackson for Jackson’s book Garcia: An American Life. “We stayed at this little chateau which is owned by a film score composer who has a 16-track recording studio built into the chateau, and this is a chateau that Chopin once lived in; really old, just delightful, out in the country near the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, which is where Vincent van Gogh is buried.”

“We were there with nothing to do: France, a 16-track recording studio upstairs, all our gear, ready to play, and nothing to do,” Garcia continued. “So, we decided to play at the chateau itself, out in the back, in the grass, with a swimming pool, just play into the hills. We didn’t even play to hippies, we played to a handful of townspeople in Auvers. We played and the people came — the chief of police, the fire department, just everybody. It was an event and everybody just had a hell of a time — got drunk, fell in the pool. It was great.”

Being one of the first popular music acts to utilise the space, the Grateful Dead opened up the doors of the chateau for other rock artists to file in. Most famously, the next notable resident of the studio was Elton John. John enjoyed his experience in France so much that he named his album Honky Chateau, the nickname that he had bestowed on the studio relating back to the album’s first track, ‘Honky Cat’. John would proceed to record his next two albums, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, at the studio.

John would not be the last rock artist to take advantage of the space. Pink Floyd recorded their Obscured by Clouds LP in the space when they were brought to France to compose the score for Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée. 1972 would be a fertile time for the studio, with John, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, T. Rex, and the MC5 all making their own pilgrimages to the studio. However, the studio soon became synonymous with David Bowie, who recorded the entirety of Pin Ups and a majority of his album Low at the chateau. 

In 1977, the space was occupied by two legendary artists: Iggy Pop during his sessions for The Idiot and the Bee Gees for their first writing and recording sessions for Saturday Night Fever. Fleetwood Mac would also parts of Mirage at the chateau, becoming one of the final major acts to use the space before the studio was shut down in 1985 and shuttered for nearly 30 years.

Check out the Grateful Dead’s christening of the chateau as a rock and roll paradise down below.