Since the 1960s, Michael Des Barres has had an extensive career in movies and music. He was first seen as one of Sidney Poiter’s students in To Sir, With Love. Following that, he would lead two of the most underrated bands in the 70s. First was Silverhead, a band in the early 70s that was considered a favorite of the glam rock scene. (Although when you read this interview, you will see Des Barres does not consider Silverhead to be a glam rock band.) The second band in the late 70s was Detective. They were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label Swan Song where they supported Led Zeppelin and KISS. Classic Rock magazine has described their debut album as “the best album Zeppelin has never made.” Detective’s music appeared on an amusing episode of WKRP In Cincinnati where Michael played the lead singer of the band Scum of the Earth.
The 80s would turn out to be a very special decade for Michael, both as a musician and an actor. He wrote the song “Obsession” that would become a big hit for the group Animotion. In addition, he toured as a singer of the Power Station, a supergroup that featured Robert Palmer, Duran Duran members John Taylor and Andy Taylor, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson. When Palmer decided not to tour with the band, Michael got the gig as lead singer and toured with them, playing one of the most legendary concerts ever: Live Aid. In addition, they would make a guest appearance on Miami Vice. After The Power Station, Michal would make his most notable appearance as an actor in the TV series MacGyver. He played MacGyver’s most deadliest villain: Murdoc. Murdoc was MacGyver’s enemy from the very beginning, even before MacGyver decided to start fighting crime. In addition, despite falling off a deep cliff or mine shaft, Murdoc never died and would live to fight MacGyver the next season.
After MacGyver, Michael continued to keep busy, doing plenty of TV and movie appearances in the 90s and 00s. Seinfeld, Roseanne, Ellen, and Melrose Place are just few out of the many TV series Michael did. He appeared in NCIS on October 9, 2012 as a rock star.
Most recently, Michael has returned to music, releasing a solo album, Carnaby Street. The album gets frequent airplay on Steve Van Zandt’s radio station. Other musicians besides Van Zandt are fans of the album such as Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Michael’s old colleague John Taylor and the Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom. The Philadelphia Inquirer has given the album 3 ½ stars out of 4. Carnaby Street is a return to the type of blues-oriented rock ‘n roll that was playing in the late 60s. Fans of bands such as The Rolling Stones and Humble Pie will love this album.
In this candid conversation, we cover the long and extensive career that Michael has had. We talk about his groups Silverhead, Detective, Power Station and his current stuff. We also discuss highlights from his acting career such as playing Murdoc. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview, but most of all, I want to thank Michael.
Fortunately, there was a guy there that had a terrific collection of blues records, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Mitchell, Muddy Waters, the usual list. And I became very obsessed with that kind of music. At the same time, I was fascinated by dramatics and acting because it was one of the only arty programs at the school, and I didn’t really identify with the science side of things. So it was in tandem. There was a parallel interest in both music and performance.
After I left school at 16, I was fortunate enough to get into the movie, To Sir, with Love, which really determined that I would act for the next couple years as a kid. And then I did a musical which combined across both my loves, which were music and acting, and Robert Stigwood introduce me toAndrew Lloyd Webber, and I got a record deal in Silverhead.
JC: My impression of Silverhead being a glam band came from the debut album. In the inner sleeve, you are wearing that hat.
Michael wearing hat
JC: Um – [laughs]
Yeah, “Wounded Heart”, is a beautiful piece of music. Remember, that we’re nineteen. [Laughs] We hadn’t been that wounded yet. And Steve left the band, because he just couldn’t take the conditions and rigors of being on the road.
JC: Its interesting about Silverhead because two of the other performers went to other things besides glam. Robbie Blunt, the guy who replaced Steve Forest, went on to play with Robert Plant. Nigel Harrison went onto Blondie. Of course, we’re going to talk about Detective and Power Station, which was all different from Silverhead. In an interesting way, we mention Johansen himself who didn’t continue glam right after The New York Dolls.
JC: After Silverhead, we’re gonna get into Detective – I’m not gonna go into what band Detective reminded me of – but you were signed onto Led Zeppelin’s label: Swan Song. You had several people coming from different bands– not just you, but you had Michael Monarch from Steppenwolf, and Tony Kaye from Yes. All three of you did not make something that was, that sounded like any of your previous bands.
Picture of the group Detective
"Obsession," I was just obsessed with – I’ve always been obsessed with things you know, but I just don’t act on it. And sort of the lyrics was really about somebody who was, I just turn into a relationship context where the object is a woman. But one can be obsessed with anything. But the music remains the same, than Animotion cut. What is different is, is that vocal delivery is of the ‘80s, which would mean very kind of flat and not particularly dramatic.
Holly and I cut it to a movie, and it was – and I almost spoke it because to sing it seemed inappropriate. It was so heavy. If you really listened to the lyric, it’s very demanding. It had a certain cinematic theatrical quality to it, but Animotion, God bless ‘em, made a wonderful version of it and it sold millions of copies. To this day, I’m very grateful. My accountant has the word “Obsession” tattooed on his ass.
I got this call saying, “Come to New York. Would you like to come to New York? There’s a singer that’s left this band, and this band needs a singer.” I said, “What band?” They said, “Well, we can’t tell you that. There’s a ticket waiting for you at the –” we were in Texas at the Marshall Texas Airport. We had to go to Dallas or something. Anyway, they said, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, “I’m hanging out.” “Come to New York. You’ll be very excited by this prospect.” I said, “Oh, okay.”
So I go to New York, and I go into this office. I get off the plane with this huge, white stretch limousine there, and I get into the limo. I go into Manhattan. I go into this office. There’s John and Tony. And they’re both looking extremely nervous and very glamorous, I realized it’s the fucking Power Station. They had the number one album. And they said, “Would you like to do this tour? It’s six months.” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “But you’ve got to go to London tonight to see Andy.”
And so we went from the office to the Power Station studios, which is in New York. I took the album, and then they took Robert Palmer’s voice off the album so I had the album with Robert and the album without Robert, and I got on the Concord and I flew to London. This is all in the same day.
I’m in that studio for six hours. He doesn’t show up. I got it set off with the engineer and I had the great vocal sound. It’s all set up in the studio . He comes in, in a crowd of marijuana smoke, two bodyguards, he’s a little guy, brilliant, love him. They come in. He tells me,“Sing, Michael.” I sang one verse, one chorus. He hits the com, he says, “Let’s go shopping” [laughs] So I go out. We go to pick the clothes. I get back on the Concord. This is the next afternoon, fly back to New York, and we start rehearsals, to start rehearsals in a couple of days.
That night, I go to dinner with Don Johnson at a Chinese restaurant. Lo and behold, as I’m going to the restaurant, I get a phone call saying, “You’re out. Robert Palmer wants to do the tour. You’re gone. We had a lovely experience, but thanks so much. Bye-bye.” I go, “Fuck.” What a nightmare. I go to the restaurant. Lo and behold there’s me and Don in the restaurant and John Taylor walks in a little drunk. Don goes, “Fuck this,” and goes over to John, takes him outside and talks to him. To this day, I don’t know what he said. He comes back to the table. We don’t discuss it. I go back to the Carlisle Hotel. I go to sleep bummed ‘cause I was really looking forward to playing with them.
7:00 am, the phone rings, “You’re back in, Michael.” My manager had made a deal that Robert would – who really didn’t want to do the gig because he wasn’t the kind of artist that really could play in front of 20,000 topless girls, and I am [laughs]. So that’s what happened. They made a merchandizing deal with him where he would get a piece of this and a piece of that, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And that’s how I joined the Power Station. What was it, ten days later, we did a show call Live Aid. [To see the Live Aid show, click here.]
The Power Station
Fuzzy picture of Michael and Don Johnson
It was a hell of a time. It was really extraordinary.
But things happen and you go with it. I think it’s a plot of strategize and this is working, let’s keep doing it. It doesn’t really work. It’s what you feel you want to do that matters. Makes things more authentic. And they made better music with Duran Duran, than they did with the Power Station. Yet, I think The Power Station album is an incredible record.
Michael as Murdoc
We really bonded over the movie. We never talked about politics. It was always about art. And he worked like I liked to work, just fast. Do it, you shoot it, and you get on with it, you do the next thing, sing the next song, play the next role, do the next take.
Michael and Beverly D’Angelo in Sugar Town
Hollywood has a real strange view of rock ‘n roll. They decide that you’re an idiot. That’s portrayed by Ozzy, or Russell Brand or some dufus. Not that I have anything against them, but its setting up an archetype that isn’t true. When I went to see Sid and Nancy with Steve Jones and Gary Oldman, Gary Oldman was on my left, and Steve Jones was on my right. And at the end of the movie, the lights came on and Gary turned over to me, looked at Steve, and said, “What’d you think?” and Steve took a beat – took a breath, stood up and said, “It’s got nothing to do with it.”
So it’s very difficult to capture rock ’n roll because it’s got nothing to do with what really happens. It is the music that happens.
So it’s bittersweet. I spent two weeks with one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, but I had my memory and what I learned to show for it. But you know but that’s it, and one shot of me in black leather. So it’s a little – there’s a classic story about what show business is in that experience.
JC: Right. Now you hadn’t done music in a while. What made you decide to come back and record Carnaby Street.
MDB: Well, I took stock. It’s one of the things that I know you’ve had them, Jeff, yourself, where you, “What am I doing? What do I like to do? What do I want to do?” I’m 64 years old. I was 61-62 when I was down in Texas a lot. A friend of mine has a beautiful ranch down there and I go down there and hang out. And I was reminded by these incredible musicians down there what it was all about, and I would get up and sing.
It increased my awareness of what I really love to do the best, which is sing in a nightclub with a guitar around my neck and play rock ‘n roll music. And that is what I love, so that’s what I’ve proceeded to do. I wrote a bunch of songs. I became very familiar with the social networking and I wrote these posts and people started to dig ‘em and thousands of people started to read them in Facebook and Twitter, all of that stuff.
And I started to get back into lyrical writing, and I put these songs to like the music of the late ‘60s which I was inspired by the blues the Stones, the Faces, Humble Pie, music that nobody can play anymore or tries to play anymore. And I wanted to revisit that, and I wanted to reintroduce that to people. And look what happened. It’s the biggest record I’ve ever had. It’s gotten the best reviews I’ve ever gotten. Steve Van Zandt’s playing it hourly. And it’s selling.
I mean, what a shock. And I’ve been invited to go to New York and sing with Steve Van Zandt and the E Street Band October the 16th, and we’re packed everywhere we play, every club. And in January, we’re going on a major tour, which I can’t tell you who with, because blah, blah, blah. But it’s been the most satisfying thing of my entire career, Carnaby Street.
JC: One thing you mention about the late ‘60s – ‘cause the one thing that struck me when I first heard the album was an instrument I haven’t heard in a long time, and I’ve missed it for a long time: The Hammond organ.
MDB: Yeah, fucking A! That’s very smart of you, Jeff. Because what it does is, it reminds you of this long joyous sexy music that nobody is playing. Rock ‘n roll is either ironic, aggressive, angry, apologetic, or sweet and sensitive. There’s no sex in there. Rock ‘n roll is a sentiment for fucking. That’s what it is. It comes from the blues. I want carnal, sexy rock ‘n roll records. And that requires B-3 keyboards.
So I know that if I had that on top of a really great guitar player, which Eric Schermerhorn is ‘cause he was with Iggy for years, that he’s got all the roughness and he’s also a great blues player, but that is saying I’m so glad you picked up on that, and it’s so great because that’s what makes that album what it is, why everybody’s gone crazy for it because it’s got a warmth to it. It communicates something. It’s not preaching or shouting at you. It’s just letting you sit in that pocket and bathe in that incredible blues and rock ‘n roll.
JC: I understand “Little Latin Lover” [To hear a sample of “Little Latin Love, click here] is the current single, but there were several songs that I thought that could be easily the next single.
MDB: What would you put up for a single?
JC: “Hot and Sticky.”
MDB: Yeah, that’s my girlfriend’s favorite song. [To hear a one minute sample of “Hot and Sticky”, click here.]
JC: “Hot and Sticky” reminds me of a little roller coaster going up and down.
MDB:Yeah. It is ‘cause people go crazy, especially the girls, when we do it live. At the end of it, it really goes off into a sort of a Stonesy,- “Midnight Rambler”-like ending that is so infectious which just hit on a groove. I wanted to make a record that was very short, like Beggar’s Banquet, that was really three-minute songs, and that’s it. And I think that’s another reason why people like it because there’s no excess. There’s no indulgence on it. It’s . . . we’re just getting to the point, play with it, and then we recorded it in a week.
JC: That was one of the things I like about Carnaby Street is that it is back to the length albums used to be – around 35 – 40 minutes. I don’t think there’s any song that goes beyond four minutes.
MDB:“Please Stay” is five minutes, which is that ballad, as it were. [To hear a one minute sample of “Please Stay”, click here.]
JC: Oh, yeah, “Please Stay”, okay.
MDB: It’s a Gospel thing, and that, I wanted them to play. I really wanted you to hear that keyboard solo – I think that’s important on any album that you should hear the musicians shine.
JC: Well, “Please Stay”, that’s another one I could say that could be easily a single. “Sugar” was another one.
MDB: Yeah. [To hear a sample of “Sugar”, click here.]
JC:Also this is another thing we’ve talking about – different directions. Carnaby Street is not Silverhead. It’s not Detective. It’s not Power Station.
MDB: Yeah. The difference this time is I play guitar. In the last three-four years, that’s all I’ve done. I’ve done a few movies and I’ve done a couple of TV things, but essentially what I’ve done is play guitar, play guitar live. I played guitar in every song on the album, while I was singing. I’ve never made a record where I was playing guitar and singing at the same time, like in one take, two takes, tops. Everything you hear is live. I’ve never fixed anything. I didn’t go in and say, “Oh, I’m a little flat here. How ‘bout an ad-lib.”
Michael and band live in action
I didn’t do any of that. The only thing I did was put some tambourines on it, some backups and it worked. It’s real music. Now I’m not saying that Lil Wayne isn’t real and there’s some brilliant music out there, there’s no question about that, but it’s just not my kind of music. But I appreciate everybody who goes in, whether it’s a laptop or a slide guitar, God bless you. Good luck. But it’s just my cup of tea, is Muddy Waters and skinny white guys in London in velvet trousers.
JC:So is the music now your biggest top priority over acting?
MDB: No, it is completely my priority. It has to be because we’re asked to play everywhere. We’ve never played a gig where people didn’t go bonkers. I’m not saying that out of arrogance. It’s because we’re doing it together. This is my thing. After every song, I say, “We love you. We’re so excited to be with you playing these songs with you. Not for you, but with you,” because they’re with us. That music is so inclusive. It’s not exclusive. It really invites people into your life. And if you listen to the words, I’m talking to specifically about love, about redemption, about sex, about connection, and people feel connected. If you sing about connection and you do it with a smile on your face and your band members are obviously enjoying themselves, you’re going to enjoy yourself. So it’s a conversation. It’s not a sermon.
And there’s so much music out there where people are literally playing at you. They’re not playing with you. Not even for you, but with you. Like one – especially in the clubs, which I really much prefer to anywhere else. It’s just a packed club where it just becomes like one thing, like one organism. Everybody’s there together. The music is so in people’s DNA. They might not know it, especially the young ones. I mean, at least 80% of the audience is in their 20s.
JC: That’s great. That’s great.
MDB:Which means that people long to hear the Faces again because it’s so infectious. So I’m tremendously proud of my band, and I think the record is fucking awesome and everybody should go out and get it immediately and enjoy themselves and make love to it.
JC: This is gonna be the last question I ask you. If you just had the acting career alone, that would be impressive, likewise with the music, and you did nothing else, that would be impressive. Here, you have the case of a great music career and a great acting career, what would you say the reason for why you were that successful or what do you think’s the secret to your success?
MDB: The secret to my success is saying yes. I have said yes to everything. I have never, ever said no to anything. I’ve said yes to everything. I’ve been prepared, and I’ve been ready, and I have been an ensemble actor and musician. I love to collaborate with people. I never say no to something without playing or hearing it first. I’m a collaborator, but the most important thing, man, is I love the arts and I love to communicate with fellow artists. And there’s no greater feeling than achieving something together.
It’s not something that you do egotistically, narcissistically. It’s something that you do with people. So, the main thing throughout my life has been about connecting, not only with an audience, but with your fellow artists. Your life exponentially is more rewarding the more connected you are, and I think that the discipline of theater when I was young, when I was very young – eight, nine, ten, is when I first started to act. I’d do little bits and pieces and then I’d go away to these schools and then I’d do some acting and it was always about the discipline of the learning those lines and being ready to do it. Even when I was out of my mind on cocaine, I still had a sense of discipline. So, I would say discipline, and I would say doing things for the love of it, and always saying yes and being eager to please.