Iggy and the Idiot

On 2 February 1976, David Bowie and his band began the Isolar 1976 Tour at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. It continued through North America and Europe, ending at the Pavillon de Paris in Paris, France, on 18 May.

At the end of the tour David and Angie Bowie were staying at Paris’s Plaza Athénée hotel, but the number of fans made it intolerable. On 19 May Pierre Calamel, the manager of the Château d’Hérouville, invited the couple to stay for a few days, an offer which was immediately taken up.

Château d’Hérouville was a residential recording studio a short distance from Paris, where the Pinups album had been recorded in 1973. During his short stay, Bowie decided to book the studio and engineer Laurent Thibault in June and July 1976, to record what became Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot.

Bowie produced Pop’s album, with the pair collaborating on much of the songwriting. Various musicians were brought in for the sessions, including Bowie’s bandmates George Murray and Dennis Davis towards the end of July.

We were all in the right place at the right time and it just worked out well for everybody concerned. I think it was collaborative, definitely, with Iggy. I spent a lot of time writing for him as well as producing. For me, Iggy’s strength was as a lyricist – I thought he was the funniest, darkest lyricist of the time. I really wanted to give him some musical support that would get him a wider audience. It just seemed so unfair that he was virtually neglected, as was Lou Reed when I first started working with him … I was going through a very experimental stage when I first started working with Iggy on The Idiot. I had some ideas on that which reached their fruition when I started working with Brian on Low. The Idiot, for me, was a kind of format for devising a new kind of musical scenario.
David Bowie
Seconds magazine, August/September 1995
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Although the sessions were a success, Bowie’s past continued to pursue him. Money was often elusive during the 1970s, as a result of his disastrous management contract with MainMan. Even after extricating himself from the company, half of his earnings on every release up to David Live still went to his former manager Tony Defries, along with 16% of royalties for everything else released by Bowie up to September 1982.

In the summer of 1976, Cherokee Studios were preparing legal action to recover $30,000 for the costs accrued while recording the aborted Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack. Bowie had also been sued for $85,000 by photographer Steve Schapiro, for portraits which had been used in promotional material without permission. Bowie had furthermore failed to pay a $4,000 consultancy fee to Schapiro for his work on the Isolar Tour programme.

By July Bowie’s financial difficulties worsened still. He had fired his manager Michael Lippman at the start of 1976, filing a lawsuit on 27 January to recover money he claimed Lippman had failed to pass on. The legal issues continued throughout the recording of The Idiot and Low, one result of which was the freezing of Bowie’s royalties. Lippman eventually won the lawsuit, which compounded Bowie’s distress during the Château d’Hérouville sessions.

During the recording of The Idiot I saw they had all sort of problems then because all his money was blocked in the United States. He couldn’t make the money come. He told us he has to sell his Mercedes. He came with a big Mercedes and a chauffeur. In fact he asked us to find a garage to sell it. It was a big class Mercedes and the value of the car was terrible because he’d had a car crash. So they offered only a very low price. David was very angry because he said that the Mercedes was paid for by RCA as an advance in royalties and it was very very expensive and they wanted him to sell it for nothing.

David and Iggy were forced to move on from Château d’Hérouville at the end of July, as it had been booked by the band Bad Company. The sessions for The Idiot relocated to the Musicland studio in Munich, Germany, where vocals and final instrumental overdubs were recorded.

The studio was situated in the basement of the Arabella Sheraton Hotel, where Bowie, Pop and Thibault stayed while working. They recorded during the night, as Thin Lizzy were using the studio during the day.

Bowie was in need of a guitarist, so he contacted Tony Visconti for recommendations. Visconti initially put forward Ricky Gardiner, whose invitation was rescinded shortly before he embarked for Germany. Another guitarist, Phil Palmer, was drafted in for The Idiot, and Gardiner was later used on Low.

Towards the end of August 1976, Bowie and Pop moved to Berlin, sharing a seven-room apartment above a shop at Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg. They were joined in the city by Visconti, who stayed at the Schlosshotel Gerhus in Grunewald.

Breaking out, breaking off – it was hard. But getting out was the best thing I did.

Getting out and trying to realise another kind of existence in another environment. I have no fixed address. I never intend to. I think it would be ruinous to the kind of songwriting I do, which is intrinsically change.

David Bowie
Chicago Tribune, 9 April 1978

Visconti had been brought in to work on the Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack recordings, but Cherokee refused to release the tapes while the studio fees remained unpaid. The trio instead finished mixing The Idiot at the Hansa Tonstudio in West Berlin.

The whole reason for going there [Berlin] was because it was so low-key. Jim (Iggy Pop) and I – we were both having the same problems – knew it was the kind of place where you walk around and really are left alone and not stopped by people. They’re very blasé, there. Cynical, irony-based people and it’s a great place if you really want to try and do some soul-searching and find out what it is that your really want.
David Bowie
Q magazine, June 1989