It’s a noble thing to work hard, and that’s what Marquis Michael Des Barres has been doing all of his life. Mostly known for his cinematic presence – he graced the screen in a lot of movies and TV series, including classics like “To Sir, With Love” and “MacGyver” – but it was a singer’s role that he laid a claim to fame with in the ’70s. Yet, having peaked as front man of POWER STATION at Live Aid in front of million eyes, His Lordship came back to the movie world. Not that he entirely left music: in 2011, Michael appeared in MAROON 5’s video to “Moves Like Jagger” as a geezer who has both American and British flags behind his back, which brings us straight to "Carnaby Street", his first record in 25 years, and a great one to boot. Talking to Des Barres, one can’t get rid of the impression that the artist himself is taken aback by this album’s success. If there’s some aristocratic air during the conversation, you have to remember that Michael’s an actor, yet his honesty cuts through such veneer, so there’s no holds barred and no barrels held… save for the cinema aspect: it’s only rock ‘n’ roll y’know!
– Michael, let me congratulate you on your new album. It’s a killer one, and there’s no allusion on your Murdoc character!
(Laughs.) Rock ‘n’ roll assassin!
– But may I quote this: “I was taught in the finest schools, raised to be arrogant and cool”. Remember that line?
I do. CHEQUERED PAST! I remember when we formed the band, I wanted to write a song that each guy could sing – as you know, each guy in the band had a verse. And that’s what I was taught in these dreadful schools because at that time in England the class system was – and remains – so powerful force. And I really hated it. I went to these upper-class schools and I really resented it and, as a consequence, chose a working class career in rock ‘n’ roll (laughing) as a sort of a revolutionary act.
– And how did your parents react to your rock ‘n’ roll rebellion?
I never knew my parents. I was pretty much, I guess, orphaned would be the word. My mother was very young when she had me and was a schizophrenic, and was put in an institution a month after I was born, and came in and out of that institution. And my father was in jail. So I spent most of my childhood without parents, so I had no idea what they thought, since we never communicated. I didn’t have to fight against them, no, they weren’t around, so I’ve been alone most of my life in terms of any authority figures. And going to these schools, I learned discipline, I had an incredible education, and most importantly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, which was express myself as an artist. And there was nobody there to stop me from doing that. There was also nobody there to encourage me to do it. It was a decision that I made and I followed it through.
– But did your noble background somehow inform your music?
Yes. I think any artist needs to know… What you’re communicating is your view at the human condition. If I’m educated and grasp how human behavior is, it makes me a better actor, a better songwriter, and it authenticates what you’re able to communicate to an audience. I also believe that you don’t need that. I mean I worked with, for instance with Steve Jones from the SEX PISTOLS, who had no education whatsoever and yet is one of the smartest men I know. So I think that any talent you have is God-given, I don’t think you have a choice in the matter: if you remain open and you let God, let the Universe into your life, you’ll be able to express how you feel about your life in an artistic way.
– I noticed an interesting contrast. In your interviews and your Facebook posts, you’re quite a philosopher, but you try to be simple in a rock ‘n’ roll mode. Is there a temptation to sound wise in your lyrics, too?
I’ll leave philosophy to others in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a great question, and I’m flattered that you think that. But rock ‘n’ roll is about fucking and philosophy is about intellectualizing the human condition: it’s two different issues for me. I’m not a scientist, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll musician. (Laughs.) I wanna dance, I don’t wanna think! If I wanna think, I’ll sit and meditate and I’ll write about that; if I wanna dance, I’m not going to sing about the need for meditation, I’m going to sing about the need to sweat, and to piss, and to hold each other, and to connect with each other, and to dance in some tribal frenzy. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is to me! I’m more Little Richard than I am Krishnamurti in terms of rock ‘n’ roll. I read Krishnamurti and I adore Krishnamurti, and I love Lord Byron and I love those Romantic poets, I love Kierkegaard and I love Nietzsche, and I love Edgar Allan Poe, but there’s no place for that in Chuck Berry’s world. (Laughs.)
– When Ian Anderson from JETHRO TULL puts his flute to his groin and sings smart lyrics, it’s below the waist but still is rock ‘n’ roll.
Ian Anderson is as sexy as a coffee table.
– All right… Another thread in your lyrics is that each of your albums has at least one autobiographic song. I mentioned that CHEQUERED PAST quote and there are interesting lyrics in “Bullfighter” from “I’m Only Human” where you sing about being a detective and being glamorous; you refer to the band DETECTIVE and also to SILVERHEAD, and by being a senator I guess you mean your background. And now you sing about Carnaby Street. So how important it is to be autobiographical on a record?
I think that’s one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, that’s an incredible question. What else, they say, when you’re learning how to write, write about what you know. What I know about is a search for identity: who am I? So in the early days, I would pose that question – I’m searching, I’m looking, I’m not this, I’m not that, what does it make me. Now I feel a little more secure in what I am, so I was able to write about the past, I was able to write about what inspired me as a kid. And what inspired me as a kid was an inspiration for just about every generation that has followed. That is, in the ’60s rock ‘n’ roll began, right? That was the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, what would you say?
– I’d say that it started in the ’50s but as an art form, yes, it was the ’60s.
I’m talking about blues-oriented rock ‘n’ roll bands. Not Elvis, not Little Richard, not Eddie Cochrane, not Gene Vincent, not Jerry Lee Lewis. I’m talking about HUMBLE PIE, THE ROLLING STONES, THE FACES: I was part of that when it began. I’m not looking back and go, “Gosh, I wish I’d been there!” I think what happened is, I’ve learned through the years, through experimentation and events of my life, and I’m getting closer to who I am, to my authentic self – which enabled me to go back and look at the glory of that golden age of rock ‘n’ roll that taught me what I’m now doing. So, to answer your question, the autobiographical songs are a search for identity which I’m beginning, after all these years, to understand. (Laughs.)
– And aren’t you linking back now to your origins in terms of style? I’m sure you didn’t record with THE ORANGE ILLUSION but there’s simplicity in your current band. So did you play music as simple back then?
THE ORANGE ILLUSION was an illusion. Somebody put it out. It was in a drama school, I was fifteen or sixteen years old, we got together to play a couple of songs. I think a couple of the guys from that band has spread around, over the years, that THE ORANGE ILLUSION was a working rock ‘n’ roll band. It was not! We did it once or twice at a party and now it’s been mythologized as my first band. That is incorrect. It was not my first band, I was just having fun. Which is fine – they can say whatever they want – but the real point in your question that I can relate to is the word “simplicity”. In the very beginning, with SILVERHEAD, it was simple rock ‘n’ roll music. It was music that was instinctive and it wasn’t prevaricated on any kind of thought process. And it’s taken me forty years to get back to that simplicity.
– So you say SILVERHEAD were your first band, but it’s hard to believe: you were so fully-formed, so professional.
Yeah, it was such interesting band for a few minutes. You know, we never ever thought for one second that we were professional. We didn’t even know what was happening. We plugged in, we all had the same frame of reference, and something magic happened, something you cannot describe. There was a synthesis – a group of guys, very young, who started to play this bluesy rock ‘n’ roll music with no thought of dough, it was putting down. London, especially, went crazy for us right away, but it wasn’t a calculation. You say, “professional”, but it was the last thing on our minds. (Laughs.) Ian Anderson was a professional; we were the opposite of that, we didn’t want to be, we weren’t interested in any of that. We just wanted to smoke hashish, get laid and play rock ‘n’ roll music.
– Where did the band’s make-up come from?
Our girlfriends. (Laughs.) It came from our desire to be beautiful. See, androgyny in rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist. Elvis wore an eye make-ups but there was no sense of that before the explosion, the revolution of fashion in London, and the whole idea that androgyny was possible just was like a natural progression for us all to look alike. It became a sort of tribal medusa – it was this wonderful being that was sexless but sexual, so we all dressed and looked like each other. And there was a great love of the notion of beauty, of physical beauty. And a little make-up helps. (Laughs.)
– I don’t feel comfortable when your image is described as a “bunch of hookers”. I first came across SILVERHEAD in connection with Robbie Blunt, so to me it always was about great musicianship, not the looks…
Well, let me tell you something. Here’s the secret to feeling comfortable: do – not – listen – to – critics! We never described ourselves as hookers, that is something that the media do. We didn’t do that, we were living our lives and we had no choice in what people described us as. I mean people have described me in any number of ways, and I’ve learned one very important lesson: don’t take praise seriously and don’t take it when you’re criticised seriously. Only you know what you are; everybody else is free to comment. And when it comes to calling Robbie Blunt, who is one of the greatest blues and rock ‘n’ roll guitarists I’ve ever heard, a hooker is absurd. We would laugh at those descriptions! We’ve been described as everything under the sun, but people are so lazy. A lot of journalists don’t think as deeply as you do, they just look at the surface; they don’t look at what’s really going on, they look at the superficiality of it all. They don’t really get inside your soul. And by the way, anybody that gets up on a stage is a prostitute: intellectually, philosophically you’ll be selling your wares. Your job as a professional artist, actor, musician is to seduce the audience, so in that sense it has a certain intellectual correctness to the description, but they usually use it… They can describe HANOI ROCKS or THE [NEW YORK] DOLLS like that but both of these bands are really smart, clever, brilliant musicians. So it’s just laziness in this description.
– And there was a certain amount of acting in SILVERHEAD, on your part, no less in your American accent.
Don’t you want to talk with Mick Jagger about that? Have you ever heard any English rock ‘n’ roll band say, “I wanna dance with you tonight, baby”? Every rock ‘n’ roll musician ever has assumed an American vernacular up until Johnny Rotten. Johnny Rotten then made it cool to sing in English. If you’re influenced by rhythm-and-blues and American music, you can’t sing that in an English accent! Does it make sense to you?
– Yeah. But let’s backtrack to the arrogance. Andrew Lloyd Webber invited you to sing on “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Did you ever regret that you declined?
I can answer that question in two ways. One, I have absolutely no regrets about anything. And two, it is not true that he asked me to be in “Superstar”. He already had his cast: he had [Murray] Head and he had Ian Gillan singing Jesus; he just wanted me to go further than I was in that musical, “The Dirtiest Show In Town”. He saw something in me but he didn’t see me as a Broadway performer – he saw me as the real deal in terms of being able to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.
– But did his opinion matter to you? I mean, Webber himself wasn’t a star then.
No, it was fantastic. When I met him, whatever I was doing in this musical, he saw it and he asked my manager at the time if we could meet because he’d like to talk to me about my career and what my dreams were, and so on and so forth. And that was our connection. I knew about him because Robert Stigwood – who, as I’m sure you’re aware, was the manager of Andrew Lloyd Webber and [his lyricist] Tim Rice and also the BEE GEES, Peter Frampton and a lot of people, and who produced “The Dirtiest Show In Town” – he really liked me and he told Andrew Lloyd Webber, “There’s a kid in this show and he really is a star, and maybe you should meet him”. And it happened that way. And I knew that Webber had done “Joseph and the [Amazing] Technicolor Dreamcoat” and already had a hit – though not a phenomenal worldwide sensation hit like “Superstar” was, but I knew of him and at that time I was ready to stop my acting career and start playing rock ‘n’ roll. And here was a chance to do it, so I took it.
– How much about being a star you learned from SILVERHEAD’s tours as a support for DEEP PURPLE, NAZARETH and URIAH HEEP?
I have learned an enormous amount from those bands. I was completely ignorant about how a rock ‘n’ roll band worked, I just knew that I wanted to sing but I had no idea how to control a crowd or make for an exciting show, but it did come quickly and naturally to me. I think that I learned from the bands that I supported, which were hard rock bands, how to create an atmosphere in which people would really, really enjoy themselves and go crazy. And those are tricks that I employ today which are fabulous intros and great endings. (Laughs.)
– I’m a fan of PURPLE but I can’t say that, with those classical elements, theirs was a good-time music.
I was never into progressive rock, I don’t enjoy that classicism in rock ‘n’ roll. I like Little Richard, I like Chuck Berry.
– But NAZARETH do play rock ‘n’ roll.
Well, NAZARETH were a good band, but I never thought they had great songs and I wouldn’t call them one of the great rock ‘n’ roll bands: they didn’t really register with me that much. Other than that, they were not a sort of a charismatic band, a lifestyle band you would follow, but I respected them deeply, and as people I adored them, they were good friends. But – how can I say this politely? – when the British working class boys came to America, they discovered paradise, they had come from the very restricted, oppressed economic background, but I’d lived a very decadent life. When they came to America and they got a hotel room, the hotel room was better than any home they’d ever lived in… You see what I’m saying?
– Sure. To you, it was the opposite.
Exactly. So I didn’t go, “Oh boy, I’ve got clean sheets! I think I’ll throw the TV out of the window!” None of that occurred to me because it seemed infantile. I really wanted to know about America; I fell in love with James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Walt Disney, Cadillacs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce – that was my America. My America was not room service. There are varying degrees of decadence, and climbing to the eleventh floor drunk is not my version of decadence.
– You mentioned James Dean, and there’s a song called “James Dean” on SILVERHEAD’s live LP. But there’s no studio version. Was it supposed to be on your third album, “Brutiful”?
Yeah, it was. And we have had a recorded version. We played it in Tokyo when we reunited [in April 2012], and it’s a fantastic song! I would love it to surface, and maybe it will. There’s a talk about SILVERHEAD and we probably will play again next year. And if we do, my current label is going to put out a SILVERHEAD album which would probably be remixes and the stuff that was never put out. “James Dean” is one of them, and we also recorded a song called “Marilyn”: you know, we were so influenced by America that we wrote those two songs for “Brutiful” – only two songs – which we never made because we collapsed in a cloud of hashish.
– Speaking about America… I noticed that you have a kind of predilection for slide guitar that’s more often than not on your albums.
Yeah. Yeah. God, I love that you obviously thought about this! It’s because it’s sensual music. There’s nothing more sensual and sexy than a slide guitar. And Robbie was brilliant! So very early, I was playing one of the greatest slide guitar players of all time. Brian Jones was the first Rolling Stone, and what he did play was Elmore James, and Elmore James was the greatest slide guitar player, so Brian Jones emulated Elmore James. That was the very beginnings of the white blues hybrid. Young white musicians played slide guitar, because all the plucking and the fingerpicking that had preceded it was great and brilliant but didn’t have that sexuality, that slinkiness. For us, it was the key – I would never make a record without one. (Laughs.)
– What was amazing to me was that you added more country music to the songs you did with CHEQUERED PAST. It was like country married to arena rock. Was that the original idea?
That’s a great description, a wonderful description. What we did was because Steve… Steve Jones is a God, a rock ‘n’ roll God. He created a whole different style of music, so he had this incredible power. And Clem Burke is undoubtedly one of the great drummers of all time. So we had a rhythm section that was really powerful, but we were more interested again in American roots music so we wanted to marry that with hardcore rock ‘n’ roll. That was exemplified in the track called “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” that Waylon Jennings did, and that was a very odd choice for that band. The album, “Chequered Past”, was not as satisfying as I thought it could have been, because we had to acquiesce to the corporate decision made by our label, which I think hampered and prevented that album from being as raucous and as authentic as we wanted it to be.
– You had another band by the same name before that one, right?
Yeah, when I went to England and I had that solo record, “I’m Only Human”, I called the band who supported me on that tour CHEQUERED PAST. We had a hit, and when I was in England, I re-acquainted myself with Steve. In 1977, I went to see THE PISTOLS in San Francisco and I realised that what I was playing in DETECTIVE was, shall we say (clears the throat as a sign of aversion). I didn’t want to do it anymore, I wanted to go that way, into that energy. So a few years later, I re-acquainted myself with Steve and said, “Let’s go to New York and put a rock band together”. And we did.
– I bet that when punk came, you liked it.
Oh, absolutely! That changed everything. What happened to me was, in SILVERHEAD we were very punky, we were very rebellious, and then we started to know how to write songs and got more technical. Then I got into DETECTIVE, and it became, like, half-time pum-pah, pum-pum-pah – it was more tough and big and arena-like. And then [came] Rotten and Jones and Cook and Sid [Vicious], and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s more like it!” (Laughs.) That was fantastic.
– SILVERHEAD had a song “Underneath The Light”, a variation on “Born To Be Wild”. So was it great to know that STEPPENWOLF’s Michael Monarch wanted to form a band with you, which became DETECTIVE?
Yes. When SILVERHEAD broke up, I came to America, I was really strung out on coke, I was living with a guy, Sepp Donahower, who was a big promoter (a man behind the California Jam festival, – DME). He knew Michael Monarch, who was a teenage prodigy and was in STEPPENWOLF at sixteen; he put me and Monarch together, and DETECTIVE came about from that relationship. And then we were signed by [LED] ZEPPELIN, because I knew Jimmy [Page] and Robert [Plant] who were SILVERHEAD fans. I’d known them for a while, and they came to LA and came to see us. Jimmy was our champion and signed us to Swan Song.
– By the way, was it you who recommended Robbie Blunt to Robert Plant?
You know, no. Robbie was Robert’s friend from the childhood. They both came from Birmingham, in England, they knew each other very well way before SILVERHEAD. In fact, Robert told me about Robbie Blunt when our original guitarist [Stevie Forest] left, so it was the other way round.
– Did you have a great time on Swan Song in the company of – I’m not talking about ZEPPELIN now – BAD COMPANY, say, or Maggie Bell?
I’ve always respected Paul Rodgers, I think he’s a phenomenal singer and songwriter. But they were more poppy than we were, they had more of a hooky thing… Believe me, I love BAD COMPANY, but we never really hung out. I deeply respect them but I had no connection with them whatsoever. We were in America – we were the only act on Swan Song that was technically an American band, we were based in Los Angeles – and they were in England. We were just on the label, and nobody on that label were brothers and sisters. DETECTIVE was hard, man, because it’s a blessing and a curse to be signed to LED ZEPPELIN. As men and friends, I love them with all my heart, as business partners… not at all.
– Wasn’t it then that you toured with Alice Cooper?
I didn’t tour with Alice.
– But you did sing on Gene Simmons’ first solo album?
Love Gene! Gene is incredible. I met Gene in, like, 1972, maybe in New York – they opened for us. KISS opened for SILVERHEAD, and Gene had posters of SILVERHEAD on his wall when he was a young man. I remember it was me and Johnny Thunders standing in the wings, looking at this band, and they were dressed just like they dress today. The drum riser went up fourteen feet in the air, and I thought, “Oh fuck, now I have to follow this!” I was on angel dust ’cause Thunders had given me a joint, and we struck up a friendship. The remarkable thing about Gene and Paul [Stanley] – who have been so good to me over the years, they put all my bands on their tours – is they’ve never had a drug, never smoked a cigarette and they’ve never drunk: they’re two of the cleanest guys in the world – smartest guys in the world, and I have a deepest respect for both of them.
– And you also toured with Steve Marriott, with HUMBLE PIE…
Yes, I did. And that blew my mind. I’ve learned more from him than anyone. He was tiny, and I would watch him every night and I just could not believe that that voice came from him, the power that he had not only a singer – he was also a phenomenal guitar player, my kind of a guitar player, which is rhythmic, not solo, and to hear his guitar complimenting this absurd voice! This incredible – powerful – beautiful – voice that just captured my imagination and was my greatest influence. HUMBLE PIE is in the Top 3 for me, absolutely. A couple of months ago, in LA, I did a gig with Jerry Shirley who had a book out [“Best Seat In the House”] and who, of course was the original drummer in HUMBLE PIE and, in fact, their only drummer. We did “C’mon Everybody”, and I did “I Don’t Need No Doctor” with him which was a real thrill.
– To me, Marriott’s version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” is much more powerful than Ray Charles’ one.
I agree one hundred per cent. I couldn’t agree more. I think that that song pretty much sums it all up. And the instrumental section, the breakdown where Steve sings with the crowd on the classic live album [1971’s “Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore”], which is the best live rock ‘n’ roll album ever made – that and “How The West Was Won” by LED ZEPPELIN, and “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” by THE STONES.
– It’s interesting, lately you tend to be singing cuts not only from “Carnaby Street” but also covers. Why so many covers when you have a lot of songs of your own?
Because I’m peculiar in that sense. It’s hard for me to revisit songs that I did in the past because the guys I play with are not the guys who played them, so it’s difficult. Also you’ve got remember that my band is a very new band: we’ve only played a dozen gigs, so I’m still formulating what the showship is. Obviously, most people know me from my past, but I’m a sort of fixated on “Carnaby Street”. “Carnaby Street” to me is the best record I’ve ever made, and I just want to play and play and play it. I will incorporate [SILVERHEAD’s] “More Than Your Mouth Can Hold” [into the set], and we do “Detective Man” by DETECTIVE. The more we play, the more I’ll be able to organically create a show that reflects some of my past, but mainly I’m just here to play what I’m doing now.
– Let me pick two of the things you just said, DETECTIVE and “organically”, and ask you about Tony Kaye and the organ: there’s a mighty solo from him on “Dynamite” but, save for that, Tony’s contribution to the band was somehow minimal – why?
Because he joined late. He wasn’t part of the original line-up. The original line-up was only the four of us [Des Barres and Monarch plus Bobby Pickett and John Hyde], and he came along later. So a lot of the songs had been created without keyboards. When Tony came along, because we felt that we needed to be more, like, melodic, I really championed him. He’s a great rock ‘n’ roll piano player. Obviously, he’s known for his progressive work with YES, but I heard him play like Nicky Hopkins and I thought he was fantastic and amazing piano player, and that’s what I wanted. But DETECTIVE, in all honesty, was a very stodgy, hard rock ‘n’ roll, Zeppelin-esque band, and I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to be in a slinky, sexy group and get away from bastard rock ‘n’ rolling. My attempts to get Tony into the band, shall we say, was not a democratic decision.
– Does that explain the introduction of suits to your pictures?
The suits, I think, was just a way of separating us from the bands that were similar. We knew that we’d get comparisons to ZEPPELIN and we knew that we’d get comparisons to the bands of that ilk, and we thought that if we actually sort of dressed a little more stylishly, that would distinguish us from the pack.
– I’ll resist the temptation to ask you about your part in the TV series “Suits”, so I’d better ask you about Laurence Juber. He’s a serious guitarist, so how did you link up with him for a couple your albums?
The truth of the matter is that CHEQUERED PAST was, shall we say, challenged by drug abyss, and at the end of our stint Juber was brought in by the label to play some solos and, maybe, beef up the sound a little. I knew at that point that the band was dead, because we were contractually signed and after a while they determined that certain members of the band were incapable of playing what was required from EMI, which I call every-mistake-imaginable records. So they brought Juber who is a terrific player, but I really had nothing in common with him.
– There’s a song on the “Chequered Past” album, “A World Gone Wild”, which sounds a little bit idealistic to me. How much of that idealism you retained to this day?
I vaguely remember this song – not one of my favorites. But I think even then I had a very positive attitude that we’re all going to be fine, you know, that post-Apocalypse is going to be paradise. I realised early on that the world was going to explode (giggles) and I also wrote “Dancin’ On The Brink Of Disaster” for one of my solo albums [“I’m Only Human”]. I was very aware of the challenges that we were going through, and that song was another riff on the suffering. I’ve always sensed that the disaster, perhaps, is coming – and it’s, of course, more real today than it was then – but the metaphor for the song is my philosophical metaphor, which is that love and connection are going to win the day, and if we care for each other and connect as a unified family, we can transcend every disaster.
– This somehow relates to the song you wrote for movies: “We Fight For Love” for “Commando” and “I Do What I Do” for “9 1/2 Weeks”. Were they originally written for the films?
“I Do What I Do” was written, as I recall, when we were on tour with POWER STATION, and Adrian Lyne, who directed “9 1/2 Weeks”, was using “Obsession” which I wrote with Holly Knight as a temp track for one of the scene. They call me up and asked, “Do you have something similar?” And I said, “No, but I’ll write one tonight”. (Laughs.) So I wrote it with [DURAN DURAN and POWER STATION’s] John Taylor and we recorded it, and that was specific for the movie. Then, “We Fight For Love” was written at the end of the tour. We were approached by Joel Silver who was the producer of the Schwarzenegger movie to write a song for it, so Andy [Taylor] and I came up with the song, and it’s the only recorded version of THE POWER STATION with me on vocals.
– Your album “I’m Only Human” has stood the test of time. It still has that twang and there is ska that’s still relevant. But your second one, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, sounds a bit dated. How would you rate them?
I think you’re actually right. “I’m Only Human” was something that I’d been working on ever since DETECTIVE broke up, and I thought, “Jesus, I have a lot to say!” and I’d spent unreal time on those songs. When “Somebody Up There Likes Me” came along, I was so in this POWER STATION bubble: we’d done Live Aid, the band was massive, I’d made a fortune, I’d had obsession, and I wanted to have a big band, because that’s a great feeling when you got a 14-piece band. So I had the TOWER OF POWER horns, I had Steve Jones, Andy Taylor – I had so many people on that album! I think I got a little carried away with myself, and the songs were not as true as the songs I’d written before.
– “I’m Only Human” has an intro and outro: was it a concept album?
Yeah! If you listen to it, you’ll see it’s where I was at at the time: “Baited Breath” – I was out of breath with excitement; “Scandal Papers” was a song I wrote about this phenomenon of paparazzi way before tabloids became what they became, and the whole thing about celebrity and Kim Kardashian and all of this crap – it was a song about what was coming. Also the album had a kind of a science fiction feel to it, so it was futuristic. As for the music, [producer Mike] Chapman was great: he worked fast, we made it in ten days in Sausalito, in San Francisco. It was a really good band: Nigel [Harrison, ex-SILVERHEAD and BLONDIE] was on it, and John Goodsall, great guitar player who you probably know from BRAND X and Phil Collins, Ric Parnell, incredible drummer, and Paul Delph, young, brilliant keyboard player. It was a great band, and we knocked it out, and it felt good to me.
– There’s a couple of songs there that sound like precursors to “Carnaby Street”. “Too Good To Be Bad” on “Somebody Up There” is like a prequel to “You’re My Pain Killer”.
Ah, how interesting. My God, that’s interesting! I never thought about it. (Sings.) “Too good to be bad, too bad to be good…” Yes, it’s bluesy and it’s rhythmic. But the thing about “Pain Killer” is, it’s a love song, a fully realised love song, and “Too Good To Be Bad” was a question: that’s the only difference. I know what I’m up to on “Pain Killer” – I know that love is better than, er, anti-depressants (laughs), but on “Too Good To Be Bad” is an almost confused love. But it’s the same emotion.
– And you sang “Locked In The Cage Of Love” just like Otis Redding.
It was written by Dave Stewart of EURHYTHMICS, he’s a brilliant man, and I love the song. And Otis has been an incredible influence. “Otis Blue” was the first record that I went, “Oh my God! What is this?” It was the first record I ever bought, it was the first record that blew my mind, other than Elvis: those “gotta, gotta” and all of that phrasing. And I realised that to be a rock ‘n’ singer you have to sing like a drummer – it’s very percussive. I think that voice and the drums are the same thing.
– Yeah, “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa”.
Exactly right, because that’s what it is! It’s the drums that say, “Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa”. It’s all rhythmic. If you listen to Steve Marriott or any great soul or rock ‘n’ roll singer, they’re singing drum parts. Tina Turner is the classic example of that, as a female vocalist; Janis, she sang like a drummer. So it has amazing impact, short cymbals – and I’m talking about syllables, short syllables – and a lot of ad-libbing around those drums which to me sound like cymbal crashes in a way. So I try to sing like a drummer.
– Would you like, then, to do a soul album?
Everything I do has soul. Would I like to reproduce Stax? No. Do I think I had gotten close to that? Yes. I think that “Pain Killer” is as close to soul music as you’re going to get, because I resisted using horns and girls. The minute you put a brass section and girls on a track, you have a soul thing. What I decided to do, and it was a conscious choice, was not to do that, because I wanted to make a rock album that suggested the influence of soul and Stax, but I didn’t want to reproduce that. There’s nothing worse than Sheryl Crow going to Memphis, hiring every motherfucker that played on those records and coming up with a piece of crap that sounds like Sheryl Crow with Booker T. And The MG’s.
– I’ve just read that Paul Rodgers is going to record in Memphis with Steve Cropper producing.
I will listen to it, but the trick is, for me, is not to think what anybody else is doing. I’m not interested in what anybody else is doing. I’m only interested in what I’m doing, and it takes all my effort, all my concentration, all my energy to write songs for me and my band. I’m very aware of what everybody else is doing – I’m entertained by current music – but I’m influenced by no-one. I’m on output, I’m not on input. I’m not influenced, I’m influencing, as far as I am concerned. I’m giving back what I’ve learned.
– Was that your modus operandi for concentration and energy that you did “Carnaby Street” just in ten days?
The way that was done was I made a conscious decision to play these songs live as much as I could before I went into a studio. I don’t believe that a song is recordable until it’s been fully explored by being played live. I don’t believe in going into a studio and writing a song. Maybe I’ll do it in the future, I don’t know, but for this record I wanted to invoke… Listen, in Keith Richard’s book [“Life”] I read that in six days in 1968 they went to a Chess recording studio and recorded sixteen songs, and six of those were international number ones. So why the fuck would I spend much more time now? We played in Austin, in Nashville, in California, in sweaty night clubs, and we had twenty odd songs. So we went in [a studio] and we played those songs, and “Boom!” – there it was: first take, second take, no more. I didn’t sing anything more than once.
– Of course, it’s important to have a good band. But how important it was to call it THE MICHAEL DES BARRES BAND, and not Michael Des Barres and backing musicians?
Very good! (Laughs.) I wanted to express that I am in a band but I didn’t want to call it THE COFFEE TABLES. I didn’t want to make a solo record and yet I wanted to be acknowledged as being that driving force of that music, since I wrote everything and produced it and so on. And I feel that, perhaps, if someone is familiar with my name, it would help us get attention, but by putting “band” on the end of it I’m honoring the incredible band I have. I have a really incredible rock ‘n’ roll band and I am so grateful for it. (Laughs.)
– Speaking about your name: today it seems to be more associated with your ex, Pamela. Are you comfortable with that?
I wouldn’t agree with that at all. That, perhaps, might be so to people that are not aware that I’ve also spent thirty years on American television, that I’ve played in forty movies, that I have literally done a hundred and twenty hours on TV, that I’ve put out many many albums. I think that she has her niche, and I have mine, and I wish her all the luck in the world. But I would absolutely disagree that my name is better known as being related to her. I don’t think that’s true.
– You said, America. But there’s Union Jack on the “Carnaby Street” cover. Was it to stress your original Britishness?
Of course! I am British! It’s not original, it’s what it is! (Laughs.) And the Union Jack is a symbol of all that British adoption of an American music. I think it is a very interesting thing that it took the Brits to reintroduce American music to America.
– I guess there’s one question you don’t have to ask: “Will you still need me when I’m sixty-four”. The reaction to your album is the best answer to that, right?
Oh, God bless you! (Laughs.) I’m very happy about that. When that song was written, I’m sure Paul (McCartney) felt differently and I’m sure he feels a lot differently now. What I really want to say about that is, if you live a life of enthusiasm and energy, and you love people, and you’re trying to give the best of yourself to people in an honorable authentic way, you remain young. And by young I don’t mean years – I mean your excitement about what you do, and that was seen as what young people feel. But in order to stay youthful, remain interested and engaged in what’s happening in the world, and I think you’ll live forever. And I fully intend to live to 164, and at 164 I will still be wearing velvet and I will still be singing songs inspired by Chuck Berry.
– So let me wish you to live that long and even longer.
Thank you, sir.