By Eleni P. Austin
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.” Of course that’s Frank Sinatra, but it could just as easily be Michael Des Barres, who seems to have had more lives than the proverbial cat.
Descended from French nobility, Marquis Michael Phillip Des Barres was born in Sussex, England in 1948. His family’s title dates back to the 12th century. His parents split up early on and he spent a rough and tumble childhood raised by family friends and boarding schools.
Des Barres began acting at an early age. He appeared in commercials and BBC programs throughout his teens. He was featured in the Tony Curtis movie, “Drop Dead Darling” but his most high profile role was as one of Sidney Poitier’s students in “To Sir, With Love.”
As the Swinging ‘60s ground to a halt, Des Barres began his career in music. He placed an ad in Melody Maker and it was answered by bassist Nigel Harrison, drummer Pete Thompson, along with guitarists Rod Davies and Steve Forrest.
Settling on the name Silverhead, the band leapt headlong into Great Britain’s burgeoning Glam/Glitter scene. Des Barres was a perfect front man, equal parts androgyne and satyr. They recorded two records, their self-titled debut and 16 And Savaged.
Although Glam progenitors like David Bowie and T.Rex achieved instant popularity and critical acclaim on both sides of the pond, Silverhead, like Jobraith, Mud and The Sweet, were woefully under-appreciated in America. Des Barres continued to take acting gigs to cover the bills. While he was in New York making (the still-unreleased) Arizonalism, he met Pamela Miller, a.k.a. “Miss Pamela.”
The doyenne of the Los Angeles Rock scene, Miss Pamela had been a muse, in the truest sense of the word, for infamous artists like Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman and Noel Redding. Before the term groupie took on a more salacious context of knee-pads and blow-jobs, groupies were kind of like Rock n’ Roll sister-wives for road weary musicians. They darned socks, cooked meals and provided sexual succor and unconditional love.
After Des Barres extricated himself from an early marriage, he left England for good, relocating to Los Angeles and setting up house with Miss Pamela. The couple eventually married and had a son, Nicholas Dean Des Barres.
Silverhead had disbanded and he began looking for like-minded musicians. By connecting with ex-Steppenwolf guitarist Michael Monarch and ex-Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, along with bassist Bobby Pickett and drummer John Hyde, Detective was born. Suddenly, Des Barres was fronting his first “Supergroup.”
The band was signed to Led Zeppelin’s boutique label, Swan Song. Their self-titled debut arrived in 1977, and they quickly followed up less than a year later with the equally assured It Takes One To Know One. Although they secured recurring roles on the hit television series, “WKRP In Cincinnati,” as a Punk band called Scum Of the Earth, the band never achieved the commercial success they deserved.
By the early ‘80s, Des Barres had recorded an ill-fated solo album, I’m Only Human, and kicked a pretty serious substance abuse problem. He reconnected with his Silverhead pal, Nigel Harrison, who had spent several years as bassist for New Wave sensations, Blondie. That band had recently broken up, so Des Barres and Harrison, along with ex-Blondie drummer Clem Burke and ex-Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones formed Chequered Past.
The band recorded one album and hit the road, opening for bands like Ratt, INXS and ex-Bruce Springsteen guitarist, Little Steven. They received tremendous exposure touring with Duran Duran who was at the height of their popularity.
A couple years later, a Duran side project, Power Station (featuring Andy and John Taylor from Duran, Chic drummer Tony Thompson and British Blue-eyed soul singer Robert Palmer), recorded a wildly successful album. Palmer refused to tour, preferring to concentrate on his solo career. So Michael Des Barres stepped in as lead vocalist and ended up performing in front of millions at the Live Aid concert in 1985.
Throughout the ‘80s Des Barres had built a reputation fronting a variety of super groups. He had also co-written the ubiquitous hit “Obsession,” which the band Animotion took to #6 on the Billboard Charts. He released a second solo album, Somebody Up There Likes Me. He also returned to acting, with a recurring part as a villain on the hit television series, “MacGuyver.”
Pamela Des Barres had become a literary sensation following the publication of her trenchant memoir, “I’m With The Band.” Sadly the couple divorced in 1991, but remain affectionate friends and co-parents to their son Nick.
Michael Des Barres spent the last 20 years acting in television shows like “Seinfeld,” “Roseanne,” “C.S.I.,” along with feature films like Allison Anders’ “Sugar Town” and David Lynch’s “Mullholland Drive,” But music continued to be his true muse.
In 2012 he returned to music full-time, fronting the Michael Des Barres Band. His album Carnaby Street, was a brilliant distillation of his myriad influences. A live effort, Hot And Sticky, arrived in 2013. Now Des Barres returns with his fourth solo album, The Key To The Universe.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with “Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind.” Over a pile-driving rhythm and searing guitar licks, Des Barres unspools a sharp treatise on obsessive love.
Three tracks, “Roomful Of Angels,” “I Want To Punch Love In The Face” and “Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames” display Des Barres versatility. On “Roomful…” he is rueful and contemplative, surrendering to a higher power. “I’ve been lighting all the candles, and I’ve been saying all my prayers.”
Des Barres’ quest for all-consuming love is framed by a boxing metaphor on the urgent “I Want To Punch Love In The Face.” Over a hopscotch beat and roiling guitar, it’s all or nothing. “I don’t want a slap on the wrist, I just want you to make a fist/So give me some drums, give me some bass, I want love to punch me in the face.”
On the bluesy “Burning In Water…” the tables have turned. The all-consuming love has turned toxic and its grip is more powerful than drug addiction. As guitars phase and flange, cresting over a tick-tock rhythm and Hammond B3 wash, Des Barres’ despair is palpable. “You gave me a taste, knew I would fall/ Now you’ve got me climbing babe, climbing the walls, Can’t you see I’m going insane?”
The best tracks here split the difference between youthful swagger and hard-won wisdom. “It’s Just A Dream” is powered by the kind of flick-of-the-wrist guitar riff-age Keith Richards pioneered with the Stones. A swashbuckling back-beat anchors the melody, along with supple bass lines, stabbing New Wave keys and sighing back-up vocals. Des Barres offers up a mantra that has served him well, “Don’t lose your passion, oh no, don’t let it go.”
On “Yesterday’s Casanova,” the Punky, calibrated chaos of the verses give way to the sleek and shimmery samba of the chorus. Des Barres seems to be looking inward as he addresses past indiscretions. “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.”
Other interesting tracks include “Maybe Means Nothing.” Here, Des Barres rails against complacency and equivocation over soulful, Stax-Volt styled bad-assery. “Black Sheep Are Beautiful” offers a nuanced homage to the rebels of the world.
The album closes with the Funk-tastic Soul workout of “Supernatural Lovers.” Propelled by wah-wah guitar licks that flutter and punctuate each verse, Des Barres acknowledges that love is the “key to the universe.”
Production chores for this album were handled by veteran producer Bob Rose. Des Barres and Rose first collaborated nearly 30 years ago, on his second solo effort, Somebody Up There Likes Me.
Des Barres is ably supported by guitarist Dani Robinson, drummer Clive Deamer and Michael Rowe on keys. Ballast for the songs (and a sweet bit of symmetry), is provided by Michael Des Barres’ oldest musical soulmate, bassist Nigel Harrison.
Michael Des Barres weathered the Swinging ‘60s and sybaritic ‘70s by recognizing his limitations and accentuating his strengths. He’s been a part-time nobleman and actor, a fulltime father and a lifetime Rocker. The Key To The Universe is the portrait of a Rock & Roll survivor.