Ken Scott On Working With Elton John On Honky Chateau

Elton John Ken Scott image

I thought it was time for another peek at what it was like working back in the glory days of the 1970s. Here’s an excerpt from producer/engineer Ken Scott’s great From Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust book that I was lucky enough to co-write. He talks about working with Elton John on his highly acclaimed Honky Chateau album.

Since things had gone well with the mixing of Madman and Robin [Cable – the engineer on Madman who was in an auto accident] was still recovering, Gus [Dudgeon – Elton’s producer] asked me to do the next album, which was to be recorded in France. At the time there was a loophole within the English tax code whereby, to completely over-simplify it, if an album was recorded outside of the country, you didn’t have to pay tax on it in England. As a result, Elton’s money people decided it was a good idea to record the next album somewhere besides England. Elton was ready for a complete change and fed up with recording in London anyway, so Gus somehow found this studio in France that no one had heard of, and off I went with them for preproduction and recording.

The studio was located in a castle built in 1740 in Herouville, in the Oise valley just outside Paris, and was supposedly once the home of Chopin. Film composer Michael Magne had purchased the estate in 1962, eventually installed a 16 track studio, and overnight the 300 year old Chateau d’Herouville suddenly became plain old Strawberry Studios. It was a working studio and various French acts had recorded there before, but I believe we might have been their first big international booking. It was both a delightful and a strange place, and like many studios on that side of the pond, seemed to be haunted. No one wanted to sleep in the producer’s bedroom after Gus swore that he saw something in the middle of the night. The studio was in a separate building from the main living quarters, and there were times walking there that were just eerie. I never actually saw anything, but there were occasions where you could feel your skin crawl for no apparent reason.


Preproduction began about a week before we started recording, but it wasn’t just preproduction; it was actually writing the material for the album as well. What happened was that Bernie Taupin, Elton’s writing partner, would go up to his room at about 7 or 8 PM every night to write. In the morning he would come down to breakfast with a stack of lyrics that he would immediately give to Elton, who would go to his piano and sort through one piece of paper after another until something caught his eye. Elton certainly had the freedom to move things around a bit if he wanted to but I don’t know that he ever actually changed any lyrics. He did sometimes block some out to fit a song though. The third verse of Daniel being a classic example.

The final verse struck Elton as too American for a lad from Pinner in Middlesex to sing with real conviction.

Bernie Taupin on “Daniel”

The entire crew of about twelve people would all slowly emerge for breakfast around a huge table, and I remember him picking out this one set of lyrics one morning and exclaiming, “Oh, I quite like this.” He was immediately over at the piano that was set up in the living room, and within ten minutes he wrote “Rocket Man.” When we all finished eating, the band got behind their instruments, which were set up in the same room, and sorted out the arrangement. It was one of those amazing moments. 

Preproduction seemed to move so damn fast. After a few days when all the arrangements were together, the gear was moved over to the studio and we started recording.

Recording At The Chateau

This was a time of huge change for Elton. Everything about the recording was different, but Gus and I knew that there was one thing that we had to try and keep as close to his past recordings as possible; the piano sound. Trident had one of the best pianos ever for recording pop/rock music; an 8 foot Bechstein grand that had the brightest sound I’ve ever heard from a piano. We realised how much a part of Elton the piano was so we had to try to make the piano at the Chateau match it as closely as possible. 

We worked on matching it for a bit and did a quite good job, but then hit a small snag. The problem was that Trident had an enclosed drum booth, so you didn’t have to worry too much about drum leakage into the piano mics. There was no such room at the Chateau however, which mean that we had to set up the drums in the same room as the piano, which gave us a huge leakage problem. As a result, we had to find a way to block off the sound. 

How did we overcome this? Easy. Gus called in some carpenters to make this big plywood box that went over the entire piano after its lid was taken off. The height of the box went about 3 feet above the top of the piano, and there were a couple of holes in it so that I could poke the mics through. It ended up working out really well. 

Another huge change. This was the first album recorded with Elton’s touring band. They had individually played on tracks before, but up until this time he’d used mostly session musicians. Apart from recording in a different country and studio, Elton and Gus also wanted a different feel from the previous albums. They’d done the orchestral thing before, so now they wanted this record to sound more like a band and have more of a rock feel.

They couldn’t have asked for three better musicians. Dee Murray was such a beautiful and melodic bass player, and very precise in his playing. We never needed many fixes after he recorded a part. He must’ve been a fan of McCartney because he played in that same style. Very melodic. It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate how great he really was. He was a bit of a fiddler though, and was never satisfied with his amp settings. On more than one occasion Gus had to tell him, “Okay, it’s perfect. Stop!”

Every band has their own lingo that they use and you [Ken] made a comment back then that we use to this day. You said to Dee over the talkback about his sound, “It’s a weeny bit wooly, Dee.” We just fell about. Dee was like, “Give a chap a chance,” because he was quite regal and proper when he wanted to be. 

Davey Johnstone: Elton John Band guitarist

Guitarist Davey Johnstone had been in a band called Magna Carta that Gus had worked with, and was a bit nervous because this was his first time doing something of this scale and importance. Despite his inexperience, he fitted the bill perfectly and was always willing to try anything. He’d frequently move from acoustic guitar to electric guitar to mandolin to even banjo, and he was comfortable with each.

Nigel Olsson has always been an under-appreciated drummer. He played along the same lines as Procol Harum’s BJ Wilson in that his playing was almost more about the spaces that he left rather than the actual notes he played. I love that kind of drummer because it leaves more room for the sound to fill out. It’s really one of those cases where less is definitely more.

As an added bonus, the vocal blend of Davey, Dee and Nigel was amazing. To me, their voices blended the same as John, Paul and George or the Hollies when Graham Nash was still with them. Elton was always very hands-off with the backing vocals and was never around whenever they worked them out or recorded them. It was all left up to Gus and the guys. Not to worry, the backing vocals always went so fast and easy.

Just to try something different, French violinist Jean Luc Ponty was brought in to play on a couple of tracks. We recorded “Amy” first and it was wonderful and then went on to “Mellow.” What he played was great, but it was sounding a little ordinary, so I suggested putting it through a Leslie. Jean Luc was amazed, as he’d never tried anything like that before, and I think it really affected the way he played. When he first starts the solo it sounds just like an organ, but when he started to do all of these slides that you could never do on an organ you begin to realize, “This is a violin.” He was blown away by it as was everyone else. 

The Tap Dance Solo

When we finished recording in France we went back to Trident for some overdubs with percussionist Ray Cooper, and to mix. On one song, “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself,” someone came up with the harebrained idea that it would be a perfect song to have some tap dancing. Throughout recording there was much madcap humour, very Goons or Monty Pythonish, and so once that was suggested everyone became really gung ho for the idea. Gus knew the exact person to call. He’d produced the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and who better for something as insane as this than “Legs” Larry Smith. I can’t remember if he brought in his own floor or we just got some plywood for him to do it on, but we laid this hard surface down in the middle of the studio. I placed a U67 (which I tended to use on everything back then) on each side of it and that was it. It wasn’t complicated to record at all, just very, very strange.

Honky Chateau took about two uneventful weeks to mix, then I was off to another project. I wasn’t sure if I’d work with Elton and Gus again, but I sure had fun on this one.

You can read more from Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and my other books on the excerpt section of

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