What is the connection between Sydney Poitier and Iggy Pop? Who’s first gig fronting A Very Big Band immediately became the most watched TV music event of all time? Who stole jimmy Page’s girlfriend then married her and inspired the best and most read groupie bio in history? Who appeared naked on the London stage in the 1960s and then immediately formed a band that helped kick start the glam rock movement? Who is supposedly uncool enough to be a Marquis by birth but subsequently just about cool enough to have lived with Don Johnson (during his Miami Vice phase) as well as Sex Pistol Steve Jones who he also boasted as a band-mate? Who appeared as a maitre d in the penultimate episode of Frasier and also appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in the 1989 movie Pink Cadillac? And who wrote and recorded a song called Obsession in 1983 which was subsequently recorded by Animotion two years later and ended up selling millions of copies and becoming a world wide hit? I could go on and frequently do but it is time to let the cat out of the bag – and that cat is Michael Des Barres.
Born in Hove, Sussex in January 1948, Michael Des Barres is the son of the 25th Marquis Des Barres (himself descended from a legendary and heroic 13th century French knight) who blew most of his fortune on opium and ended up in jail, and a singer cum dancer from Liverpool. Brought up in a Gothic Castle, then essentially raised from the age of eight by strippers (due to his mother’s regular incarceration from schizophrenia) and educated at Repton School, Derbyshire, Michael credits his mother for turning him onto Billie Holiday and Elvis and “incorporating fantasy as a form of defence.” At school he had Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde prints on his wall and by the time he was twelve he was regularly appearing in Wacko, a children’s TV series starring Jimmy Edwards. In 1967 he was cast alongside Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, a first foray into film that saw him playing an East End pupil who always wore dark sunglasses. The film became a box office smash and coincided with Des Barres taking the role of an androgynous and largely naked music star called Rose in the Robert Stigwood-directed stage musical The Dirtiest Dhow In Town. Around this period, Des Barres had taken to wearing a green boa and a red velvet suit and no doubt it was this erudite combination that made Andrew Lloyd Webber sit up and offer to take Michael under his wing with a view to becoming a rock star. Des Barres’ encounters with Lloyd Webber were particularly noteworthy since the latter was under the impression that Michael was of a cockney persuasion since he always took to speaking like Mick or Keef when in Lloyd Webber’s company. Des Barres hadn’t the heart to tell Lloyd Webber that he could easily out-posh him and it’s possible to this day that the latter thinks Michael remains some kind of dandified street urchin. Lloyd Webber did get one thing right though – Des Barres was destined to be a rock star.
In 1972 Des Barres officially abandoned acting – “I found it restricting even though I always see myself within a frame and work within that frame” – and fulfilled a long-held dream to form Silverhead. The band’s look and ethos co-existed naturally within the glam rock framework prevalent at the time but in 1974 Des Barres disbanded the group after two well-received albums and subsequent tours of the USA, Europe and Japan. He was now married (to Wendy) but somehow managed to decamp to Los Angeles (with 200 dollars and a hairdryer) where he was met at the airport by a girl who would turn out to be the future Pamela Des Barres. Pamela was dating Jimmy Page at the time but the two soon fell in love and Des Barres managed to remain friends with Page who subsequently signed Michael’s new band Detective to Led Zep’s Swansong label. Famously spending $1m on production with $150,000 of that on a drum sound alone, Detective only ever released two albums even though they found themselves fiercely championed by Kiss (who they supported) and, by the time 1978 came along, Michael had radically altered his view on rock music – after witnessing Sex Pistols’ extraordinary San Francisco gig – and had married again (to Pamela), split Detective up and was now starring as the lead singer of a fictional band called Scum Of The Earth in the US sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati. He’d been here before.
In 1980 Des Barres signed a solo deal with Mike Chapman’s Dreamland Records. Chapman had achieved recent success as the composer of Mickey and producer of My Sharona and the opportunity meant that Des Barres could explore a different sound that Chapman had latterly developed producing Blondie. Blondie, of course, now featured ex-Silverhead guitarist Nigel Harrison on bass and it didn’t take long for the pair to collaborate once more on Michael’s solo work. Michael released the I’m Only Human album (spawning the excellent Someone Somewhere In The Night seven incher) later that year, toured the record in 1981 before quitting drugs for good in June the same year. He’s been sober ever since but it is perhaps this episode that spawned Michael’s greatest chart success: in 1983 he’d written a song called Obsession (about being obsessed with drugs) with Holly Knight in about ten minutes flat and when the song was covered by new wave outfit Animotion in 1985 it became a No.6 Billboard Top 40 hit and No 1 in 27 countries, selling millions of copies in the process.
Whilst all this was going on, Des Barres had quietly gone and formed Chequered Past, a band that EMI signed for $350,000 for one reason only – the line-up: Michael Des Barres, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, Blondie pairing Nigel Harrison and Clem Burke and Todd Rundgren/Tin Machine’s Tony Sales. The band toured with Billy Idol before opening for Duran Duran during their 1984 tour but it wasn’t until the following year that Robert Palmer withdrew from the Duran Duran side project Power Station and Michael got a call to audition for an “unknown band” in NYC. He was living with Jones at Don Johnson’s house at the time but he thought “what the hell” and the next minute he was performing live as Power Station front-man at the 1985 Live Aid charity concert in Philadelphia amid a set that was broadcast into hundreds of millions of homes. Michael’s friendship with Johnson ensured a guest spot for him – and Power Station – on a subsequent edition of Miami Vice.
The late ‘80s saw Des Barres head back into acting although a second solo album, Somebody Up There Likes Me, in 1986, featured contributions from former bandmates Steve Jones and Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor. In 1987, Michael’s wife Pamela published her memoirs I’m With The Band: Confessions of a Groupie but even though the book’s calculated spotlight on the rock n roll demi-monde became something of a cause celebre (and featured her husband all over it), it hardly prevented Des Barres’ rise within the ranks: in 1987 he starred opposite Clint Eastwood in Pink Cadillac and he continued to take lead film roles in Midnight Cabaret, Under Siege, Poison Ivy, The New Seduction and Sugar Town. However, it’s on television that his acting career has really taken off: as well as playing the master assassin and master of disguise Murdoc in TV series MacGyver – a role that ensures he gets recognized in the street – Des Barres has also appeared in Roseanne, Seinfeld, Renegade, Ellen, Nip/Tuck, Hart To Hart, Melrose Place, Nash Bridges, Northern Exposure, Rockford Files, St Elsewhere, 21 Jump Street, Frasier, Hawaii, Bones and NCIS amongst countless others.
Des Barres’ more recent forays into the public arena have seen him return to his true love – rock music – and included stints with The Usual Suspects (featuring Steve Jones and Mick Rossi), Down Boy (featuring Paul McCartney’s guitarist Brian Ray) and a ten-piece soul band called Michael Des Barres and Free Love Foundation. In 2012 Des Barres released two albums, a studio record called Carnaby Street – “a metaphor for the swinging London ‘60”s, the youth cultural revolution that literally changed the world” – and a live album called Hot n Sticky Live, which was recorded at Los Angeles’ Viper Room. He also toured Japan that year reuniting Silverhead for the first time in 38 years and it was no doubt this thrilling live experience – playing to sold out audiences – that inspired Michael to record the enormously powerful and suitably below the waist rock and roll opus that is Key To The Universe, his new album due for release on FOD Records in March 2015. Produced by the legendary Bob Rose and recorded at Forum Music Village in Rome (famed for spawning several Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks), Key To The Universe once more reunites Des Barres with Nigel Harrison but also showcases the talents of Clive Deamer (Portishead, Robert Plant) on drums and the incredibly-talented Jimi Hendrix Live Experience frontman Dani Robinson on guitar. Michael has already said that he believes “audiences are kind of starved for a carnal, sensual, sexy blues music” but Key To The Universe confirms that we need starve no longer. Kicking off with the impossibly dirty and decadent Can’t Get You Off My Mind, Des Barres sings “Well, the white lines on the highway, headed for a heartache” and sounds not unlike he’s fronting a band that thinks it’s the Stooges. It’s emotional stuff and Room Full Of Angels, which follows, is no deadbeat either, Des Barres showing how far his voice has come in forty years.
Of the delightfully-titled I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face, Des Barres says this: “I have always written all my life about what I really feel about what’s going on and what I feel is that we must connect with each other. Its imperative and important that we start practicing the art of love however its gonna hit you over the head.” We say, of course, it’s raw, it’s brutal and we can imagine Mickey Rourke in the video. Other tracks are similarly inspired: Maybe Means Nothing is all ZZ Topp tomfoolery and rasping tonsils; Burning In Water is Des Barres as angst-ridden showman – “Edge of a razor/Mouth of a gun/Then there’s you babe/Where do I run?/Either way it hurts the same/Burning in water/Drowning in flames” – a guitar-slinging Dani Robinson at his side; and It’s Just A Dream is like Tom Verlaine’s Television are in some kind of Mexican stand off. Most innovative of all, however, is Yesterday’s Casanova: pithy, witty and just the right side of tragi-comic, Des Barres has surely never attempted anything as out there as this and, consequently, never appeared so vulnerable – “Your lover boy days are over/You still dance the bossanova/The cops just pulled you over/You’re yesterday’s Casanova/Fun, I guess, for a while/Playing Dionysus as a child/Broke every rule and you broke every vow/The show is over, time to take a bow.”
Key To The Universe continues unabated with Black Sheep – like stumbling across MC5 down the local speakeasy – before the Des Barres/Harrison penned electro supra-funk of Supernatural Lovers reminds you why we came here in the first place; Des Barres has an imagination the size of the Hollywood Hills and his supernatural lovers have “the key to the universe.” The album closes with LibertyTrain which is Kiss as garage band and twice as good as that sounds without you yet hearing it.
The list of acts Michael des Barres has opened for reads like a who’s who of rock n roll: Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Uriah Heep, Nazareth, Kiss, New York Dolls, Kansas, AC/DC, Todd Rundgren, Blue Oyster Cult, Jethro Tull, Iggy Pop, Deep Purple, INXS, Billy Idol, Ratt, Duran Duran. It’s an impressive collection but Des Barres suggests that it’s meant that “we were fluffers which was no fun cost you don’t get to come.” One listen to Key To The Universe should convince you that that is all going to change but consider this: just before going into the studio, Des Barres announced that the new record was going to be “very loud, very raw and it’s gonna rock like fuck.” He also said that “when painters started to paint it was very involved and precise and intricate and the older they got the less brush strokes, the less imagery, so you got down to Mattise and there it is – great beauty in one flash and that’s what I intend to do on this record.” And d’you know what? He’s only gone and done it.
Michael des Barres releases Key To The Universe on FOD Records in March 2015.