Sunday, October 19, 2008

New Content Coming

Thanks for everyone's posts and emails. I've finally gotten in touch with Laurent Thibault! He's been very gracious and is providing lots of details. I'm going to go back through and make additions in BOLD text. Take a look at the "Sister Midnight" post, for starters.


I just finished a 1.5 week tour of France which was great. We played some great shows including the Printemps de Bourges. Laurent Thibault kindly met me and we had some great time hanging out and chatting together about "The Idiot" recording and his music career.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Track 5: China Girl

With the surname of "Nguyen", Kuelan Nguyen is unlikely a girl of Chinese descent. Kuelan Nguyen is the China Girl in "China Girl" who was at the Chateau with French performer Jacques Higelin with whom she had a child and would later marry despite Iggy's courtship. Somehow "Vietnamese Girl" doesn't really roll off the tongue, and the year being 1977, most of the world would have some issues related to the Vietnam War which just ended 2 years earlier.

The interactions between Iggy and Nguyun were complicated as they spoke no common language and communicated without language mostly. Iggy pursued Nguyen and when he confessed his feelings to her, she responded with "Shhhh...". This concept was of course incorporated into the song's lyrics.

Originally titled, "Borderline", Iggy and Bowie penned this pop hit with lyrics dealing with desire, culture corruption (European / Western world dominance) with a brief reference to Nazi-ism. Both Iggy and Bowie had some Nazi dalliances independently.

The stand-out instrument on this track is a toy-piano which was owned by then-8-year old daughter of Laurent Thibault. As with most Bowie works, the guitar production on this song is top notch, the lead guitar part sounding very balanced. Notice in the background the hammering, distorted Baldwin piano. Later in the song, electronic strings add a very appropriately cold crescendo.
Tony Visconti, in his autobiography said: "Iggy often started a song singing very quietly and then gradually built up to a scream (as in ‘China Girl’), distorting the microphone preamplifier. This was one of those ‘happy accidents’ again, because the vocal wouldn’t be the same if it were any other way now. Usually there was no take two to correct the over-modulation. I love this album! This over- modulation is obvious when Iggy sings "WHITES of my EYES".

"China Girl" was the song that finally put some real money into Iggy's pocket after David Bowie recorded and released it. (This was not the last time that Bowie would record an Iggy song himself thereby netting Iggy some songwriting royalties, see "Neighborhood Threat", "Tonight", "Don't Look Down" and others).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Of Course I've Had It In The Ear Before!

The photo to the left shows Roy Young and Carlos Alomar attempting to hide at The Chateau, while David Bowie (on the left) counts to a hundred. This picture was taken during the "Low" sessions.

Tony Visconti, Brooklyn-native, has been a fairly constant presence behind the glass of Bowie's work records among others. He's produced, mixed, engineered and / or played on the following Bowie records: "Diamond Dogs" (1974)," Young Americans" (1975), ""Heroes"" (1977), "Low" (1977), "Lodger" (1979), "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" (1980) "Heathen" (2002), and "Reality" (2003). And of course, he mixed (some of) Iggy's "The Idiot", which Bowie produced.

In email exchanges with Visconti where I have asked about some of the details from the Idiot sessions he's been kind to reply, but cannot recall the details of what the gear he used, which is understandable. However, he also stated, "I use the same gear as all engineers do, the same mics, pres, consoles, etc. The way I use them is really my own business." My first reaction was puzzlement, "Why would someone protect some recording technique that is over 30 years old?". Well, back in 1977 after the release of "Low" engineers were clamoring to figure out what Visconti had wrought, and he wasn't telling then either.

Visconti's main secret behind the sounds of "Low" and "The Idiot" lies in the Eventide Harmonizer. I should say this is also a success for Thibault because he states that the Château was the first studio in Europe to have an Eventide Harmonizer. [Memories are fuzzy, we may never know who used it first and where] The Harmonizer is a real-time pitch-shifting device that one would typically use to fabricate vocal harmonies. In the hands of Bowie, Visconti and Thibault this device was used to pitch drum sounds DOWN. It's effect is more pronounced on "Low" but can be heard on "The Idiot" as well (remember both albums were recorded pretty much simultaneously at the same studio).

Here's Visconti talking about the Harmonizer in the context of the "Low" sessions:

Before we recorded the first piece, I had to get sounds from each instrument, and in the case of the drums, one for each drum. I immediately set up my Harmonizer and decided to use one of the coolest tricks I’d discovered before I’d left London. I sent a feed from the snare drum mic to the Harmonizer, I dropped the pitch by a semi-tone, and then I added feedback of this sound to itself. In simple terms it means a very deep snare sound that keeps cascading downwards in pitch; the initial impact had the ‘crack’ but then the ‘thud’ never seemed to stop, and, not only did it go on at length, but it got deeper and deeper in pitch, kind of like the sound a man makes when he gets punched in the stomach – ‘ugh’. Everyone was amazed.

David scratched his head and said, ‘I agree it’s an amazing effect, but I’m dubious whether we’ll use it.’ But as we grew more familiar with it – we eventually loved it. Of course, it made the final cut and it has since been regarded as one of the most revolutionary drum sounds ever created.

The harmonizer's effect can be heard quite clearly on "Funtime" where the snare sounds like a descending "Dush" sound.

The Eventide Harmonizer was designed by Eventide's Anthony Agnello. The Harmonizer H910 offered pitch shifting (±1 octave), delay (up to 112.5 ms), feedback regeneration and more from a $1,600 box. Users found all sorts of applications, ranging from regenerative arpeggios to bizarre sound design effects to lush guitar or vocal fattening. The first customer—New York City’s Channel 5—immediately put an H910 to work, downward pitch shifting “I Love Lucy” reruns that were sped up to squeeze in more commercials.

Frank Zappa put one in his guitar rack. Engineer Tony Platt used it for the memorable snare sounds on AC/DC's Back in Black. Eddie Van Halen had a pair (set to either 18-cents sharp and 18-cents flat with a 12ms delay on one side or +12c/-15c/18ms) as part of his trademark guitar sound. Tom Lord-Alge’s setup for Steve Winwood’s soulful vocals on “Back in the High Life” also employed two slightly detuned H910s (one sharp/one flat) with an 18ms spread. The twin Harmonizer effect was so popular that Eventide recreated it as the “Dual 910” program in the H3000 UltraHarmonizer that followed it a dozen years later.

New Music Night and Day

I just completed Hugo Wilcken's 33 1/3 book on Bowie's eleventh release: "Low". "Low" was the first of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy". I searched it out to gather some background research on "Low" because it was recorded simultaneously with "The Idiot". The record shares some of the same personnel and some similar production techniques. More on that later.

Wilicken's book is well written and very comprehensive. In fact there is a whole chapter on "The Idiot".

Station to Station

"The Idiot"'s genesis can be traced all the way back to Bowie's tenth release, "Station to Station". Here we find Bowie firmly in the grips of cocaine mania and backed by an R&B ("Americans of color" according to Tony Visconti) band. Dennis Davis on drums, George Murray on bass and Carlos Alomar. Station to Station is definitely a fusion of funk and then-modern European influences like Neu! and Kraftwerk.

Iggy Pop had figured into Bowie's life at this time, inspiring songs "TVC15" and joining Bowie on the Station to Station tour.

The left image shows Bowie in Red Square on the Station to Station tour.


"Low" was created after / during (depending on who you talk to) "The Idiot" even though "Low" was released before it. Laurent Thibault said that during the creation of both records, the personnel didn't know which songs would appear on which album. In fact, "What in the World" actually was intended for "The Idiot" and was recorded as "Isolation". Iggy's backup vocals can be heard on the track.
Bowie famously said of Iggy and "The Idiot": "Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn't have the material at the time, and I didn't feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else's work, so that album was opportune, creatively."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dr. Jim Osterberg and Mr. Iggy Pop

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concept is a generally a literary cliché that authors use as a convenient way to explain the diversity of persona used by artists. Even in music, there is a great deal of theatre and character. Paul Trynka uses this concept in his book, "Open Up and Bleed" and I felt that it was the same old cliché carted out again. Trynka refers to "Iggy" and "Jim" as two different entities.

In the case of Iggy Pop (and Jim Osterberg) this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde device used by Trynka is well used, as I've been watching plenty of video interviews lately. There is a definite certainty and deliberateness that Iggy conveys while performing but in interviews, Jim Osterberg possesses none of these qualities. When young, Jim Osterberg is either boyish (Iggy on Tom Snyder), or sophomoric. The aging, present day Jim Osterberg comes across as dopey in interviews. This interview is the closest to Iggy Pop that Jim Osterberg gets during an interview (and one of my favorite interviews, ever).

Track 4: Baby

While not the strongest track on "The Idiot", "Baby" is an icy ballad which showcases plenty of distorted piano, icicle synthesizers and a world-weary lyrical view.

Baby you're so clean
Baby please stay clean
Baby you're so young
Baby please stay young
Baby, don't you cry
Baby, I've already cried

This track is the conclusive point where Iggy shifts from being a "wild boy" to his more introspective period. In the context of his work with Stooges, this song, both lyrically and musically is one of the furthest departures.

An interesting thing from the production side of this record is the snippet of talking or incomplete mutes that pop up at 0:47.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Honky Château

The Idiot's first recording sessions were convened July 1976 at the Château d'Hérouville located in Pontoise, France just outside of Paris. The Château is where the "basics" for "The Idiot" were tracked. The studio was dubbed "Honky Château" by Elton John during his 1972 sessions for his record by the same name.

Bowie had recorded "Pin-Ups" in July 1973 at the Château and he said, "The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot." and "[Its] a lovely place to record an album. Warm, summer sunshine, a lovely château and a fantastic sixteen-track recording studio." Its widely mentioned that the studio and grounds were haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand.


Château d'Hérouville was conceived in 1969 by Michel Magne, a French film music composer. An article written by Adrian Hope in the May 1975 issue of Studio Sound magazine (one year before "The Idiot" sessions began) describes the Château as follows:

"There are two wings to the main body of the building and a large complex of outhouses that were probably stables. These outhouses now house two studios, one (as yet unnamed) under construction and one (Chopin) under repair. When I visited the Château last October only the third studio (Sand), at the very top of the right wing, was operational. Even the Sand studio was, in fact, not really open, but (like the Who's Ramport studio) was remarkably busy all the same. Hérouville has clearly been built at different times by different gentry, and there is a haunted bedroom in the left wing which is kept permanently locked. The right wing houses the Sand studio, the offices and the family living accomodation; the left sign houses the echo chambers (large rooms with their windows bricked up), dozens of single bedrooms for accomodating visiting musicians, a 'star name' residential suite where the likes of Elton John and David Bowie stay, several vast kitchens, a huge restaurant, and a fun-room for the musicians. Thus, on the whole, those booking the studio live in the left wing and those running the Château in the right."

In February 1974, with personnel turnover and financial difficulties facing the studio, Michel Magne chose Laurent Thibault, Jean-Claude Delaplace and Pierre Aupetit to partner to get the studio running profitably again. After plenty of work addressing electrical problems, equipment absence and disrepair and even a 50 cm high lawn, the partners get a console and tape machine and a steady stream of clients.


I plan to conduct some interviews to sort through some of these equipment and setup details, but as a starting point, here is more information about the Château from Franck Ernould's page from around the time that "The Idiot" was recorded. Franck has collected the below information from an issue of Studio Sound from 1975.

"Wherever possible the Château engineers try and record as flat as possible, without equalisation on the desk, even on a drum kit. But with most artists having days rather than weeks or months to spend at the Château, pressure of time often prevents this. The studio microphone setups are really much as usual with D224C on drums, AKG C12A or AKG 224 on piano, and sometimes those little Sony condenser mikes or Neumann U87 s on snare or top kit."


AKG C12A, the precursor to the C414. These days, the C12 is in a green cylindrical housing.

The venerable Neumann U87.

"On the day that I watched Michel Magne record, Jannick Top was producing a very curious recorded sound for his bass by using a high-powered Ampex amplifier and a deliberately overdriven small cabinet of the wrong impedance. If it's not a contradiction in terms, the result was a clean fuzz of a very individual character. Available in the studio for musicians' use are a full-sized Fender 88 , one of the lovely old large Hammonds with two of the original Leslies, and an Ampex bass amp feeding a Sunn horn cabinet. There is a Farfisa, a Steinway grand, timpani, marimba, spinet and clavinet. Separation in the studio is with screens and to aid this the Steinway piano has an interesting box-like cover which completely encases the open top."

"As I mentioned previously, the echo system is by means of walled-up rooms of the Château, and although only one is currently in operation there are several more available for use when the need arises. A nice idea is to identify each room (residential and utility) by its colour. thus the black echo chamber has a reverb time of around five seconds, and the red chamber next door somewhat less. A single Altec speaker is used in the black room, with a Blumlein pair of AKG 224C s."
The picture to the left is the Château's MCI-500 and MCI tape machine photographed in 1978, very likely the same gear used to record "The Idiot". Apparently the Château was very state of the art for its time and aside from the MCI 500, it had the first Westlake monitors to be installed in Europe.

The picture below shows Bowie during his "Pin-Ups" recording sessions which took place in 1973. Bowie seems to be singing into an AKG C12A, there's a Neumann U87 in the forground a rhodes suitcase piano in the background.

The Château today