Michael Des Barres shares a lifetime of music

A red vinyl release of "Anarchy in the UK" sparks renewed interest in Michael Des Barres musical career. Des Barres was willing to sit down and share his history with Goldmine, and the lessons learned.
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By Alan Brostoff

Michael Des Barres. Publicity photo.

Michael Des Barres. Publicity photo.

While having a conversation with Michael Des Barres, you can't help but wonder how one person could have done so much in one lifetime. Singer-songwriter, actor, radio show host and activist are just a few career activities of this rock and roll personality.

Des Barres was willing to sit down and share his history with Goldmine and the lessons learned.

Des Barres vinyl

GOLDMINE: You have a brand-new color vinyl 45 that just came out, Anarchy in the UK. How have sales been? 

Michael Des Barres: Unbelievable, through the roof. It's so interesting because, you know my connection with Steve Jones, you know we were in a band Chequered Past with Clem Burke, Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante from Blondie, and Tony Fox Sales from Tin Machine. It was a great rocking band in the '80s. I have known Steve, you know, for decades. He lived with me and my ex-wife Miss Pamela, so we're very close. I just wanted to do that song again because it's such an important song for it’s generation because of the anger that John Lydon had, and the band itself, and the culture itself. But for me doing it again with Steven Van Zandt producing and arranging it, we realized that if we did it slowly with an orchestra it would have a more of a melancholy warning rather than an angry diatribe. I think it just touched a lot of people and sold out. We are now on the second pressing and it’s only been out a week. It's been f**ing amazing

Goldmine: Yes. Your take on the song is unique, original and good. 

Michael: Thanks, so much man. You know I'm a punk at heart and there is this new book out about Glam called Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds. It's really good. It's an 800-page look at glam rock and what it signifies; Bowie, Bolen, Roxy Music and there is a big section on Silverhead and they describe us as proto-punk. This is 1972, five years before Rotten was angry. I mean, listen motherf**ker, I've been wearing a dog collar before you were born. So it's got a certain wonderful timing to it for me because I thoroughly believed in the Punk Rock movement, that whole Margret Thatcher, '70s, working class, no jobs. I was very into that. To do it today, in the circumstances we find ourselves in now, both politically and with Covid-19, it needed to be done that way. Everything just sort of fell into place. It’s an important song to me for a million reasons. One of the main reasons was the opportunity to work with Van Zandt so closely and give it an orchestral feel rather than three chords rock and roll guitar riffs, and big bass drums.

Goldmine: This is your third 45 that you have done now for Wicked Cool Records. Are we going to be getting an album anytime soon? 

Michael: Oh yes. We’re a couple of songs away, but of course there will be an album. I have my own studio and a couple of my guys and my producer are recording. It’s not the same, but I know these guys good and we know what we are doing. If we don’t like the sound of something, we decide to not do it and the band does not break up. I have worked will all sorts of musicians on these records for Steven. It’s been beautiful. I’ve been doing my show from home, I’m on SiriusXM, for six years. So, it's nothing new to me to work like this.

Desbarres

Goldmine: It’s not just a great A-side song. The B-side song ["Where Did All the Lovers Go?"] is pretty strong, too. 

Michael: Initially, that was the song we were raving about, and I’m not kidding about raving as I sang on it with Genya Ravan. She is so good and has always been one of the pioneers of female rock and roll singers. She has been at it longer than most. Her band Goldie and the Gingerbreads were the first all-girl rock band to sign to a major label. She has tremendous historic importance and I love her voice. So, I wrote this '60s-style duet for us to sing for the label. Everyone was tremendously excited. As a matter of fact, Steven called me and said “Who the f**k wrote that?” I told him I did, but he said, ”No, Carole King or someone like that did that.” I said "No, No I wrote it." He was flabbergasted. This is the man who knows every note of every song written and I was proud of that song. But then we said, “What are we going to do on the other side?” and then the Anarchy thing came up, and then he went crazy producing that and really threw everything into that and that became the A-side. A-sides, B-sides, I don’t really give a f**k about that. They are just two great songs that I’m proud of them both.

Goldmine: You mentioned Covid earlier. How Is it impacting your life and the way you work? I know you have always been very active on social media. 

Michael: I’ve adjusted. My whole life has been abut adjusting to what was happening. Look at the f**king shit I have been through. From Led Zeppelin to Duran Duran, to the Sex Pistols and back again. With To Sir, With Love thrown in for a little dessert for you and Murdoc [his character on MacGyver] would be the main course. Who knows? Who cares? I've just adjusted. It's always a new world every day. What is normal? I don't believe in normal. I believe in what is. If this is happening, this is happening, and I will work within the confines or the horizon of what is happening rather than see it as the enemy. It is the enemy if you want it to be the enemy. I believe people are going to learn from this awful experience. You know we might not be able to embrace physically but I believe that a metaphysical embrace is even more important.

ChequeredPast

Goldmine: I would like to talk with you about the back cover photo from the Chequered Past album. How many takes did it take to capture you jumping that high [above]? 

Michael: Oh, that's me jumping of the drum riser. That’s what athletics do. I’m a f**king gymnast. I’m like a Russian gymnast with tight trousers. I’m a gold medal, motherf**king gymnast rock and roll leaping athletic. I remember doing it because that is what I used to do. I did it at Live Aid. I would get up on the drum riser and at the appropriate moment I would just throw myself into the air. It was a big jump. I’m trying to remember who shot that photo… it was someone famous, I think Norman something. The band was so used to me doing this stuff. The photographer and all his assistants were all cheering. It was a great moment and I was able to get up really high.

Goldmine: Do you consider yourself a musician who can act or an actor who can play music? 

Michael: I'm an artist and I express myself. Well, I don't believe in categorization. I'm here to express myself. I paint and I write, and other stuff people don’t see. I just love to work. I really have not planned anything, it just sort of all happened. I was 16 when To Sir, With Love happened. I’ve just gone with whatever is in front of me. Because we were famous kids when that movie came out, we had access to all of the clubs. This is in 1966 in London. Can you imagine that? So, the sidewalks were velvet and I was constantly eating hashish. I mean, it was an amazing time to be alive. Things just opened up. I just walked through those doors and up those stairs and into that room and then on to the roof and then jumped on that roof to another roof and then went down the stairs of the house and into the backyard of that house and jumped into the swimming pool And so Brian Jones swam by and came out of the pool said, “Let’s go somewhere else.” This dream has just been real and it’s nothing planned. In terms of Murdoc, I finished the tour with Power Station and it was No. 1 all over the world, and I had more money than I had ever had in my whole life and a white Rolls Royce. Then I get a call that a show wants me to play a villain and I drive onto the Paramount lot and I drive past the MacGyver’s offices where the producers are outside frantically smoking cigarettes because the thing is starting tomorrow, this episode, and they saw me drive by in my black leather outfit smoking a cigarette, and then they thought “We should get that guy.” So, boom! and that was the next five years for Murdoc. So, the point being is there's no plan I didn't make a plan. There was no theory. I'm just trying to explain it more in a hallucinatory way than in a biographical way if you understand.

Goldmine: You are also the founding member of Rock Against Drugs. How did that come about? 

Michael: It came about because I had a bit of power and success. I said to my manager Dany Goldberg, who was a brilliant man and a very spiritual man who ran record companies like Warner Brothers, and he was Peter Grant's right hand man which is where I met him with Zeppelin. I had been sober for about 2-3 years and I said we needed to do something RAD and start Rock Against Drugs, and we get Ozzy involved, Gene Simmons involved, and we get Billy Idol in, and we get others involved. And we get up on MTV and it became the most successful public service announcement since that bear in the woods, what ever that was called [Smokey Bear]. It was huge and people went crazy. The interesting part about it, was at one point I realized a couple of the famous rock and rollers who delivered the messages, were stoned when they did it. I thought, “That’s perfect.” But it doesn’t matter. What mattered was the message. If the kids saw these people saying “Don’t do drugs,” who cared if they were. The kids loved those musicians. In the big scheme of things, the facts where that it was incredibly significant, but only you can make the decision to follow RAD and Rock Against Drugs. We went to Washington and sat there with politicians and said “Look, we need money.” Then we went to Coca Cola and they gave us the rest of the money. It was an amazing journey. Then we went to Israel, this is post-Power Station and post-Live Aid, I had a bit of clout. I meet with Shimon Peres and I asked if we could do a festival in the desert and have Egyptian and Israeli rock bands play together. He loved the idea. Meanwhile, you had two Mossad officers in the corner providing security and some manager who was high on coke, decided to reach into his sock to pull out a camera to take a picture and these two guys just pounced on him and we were yelling “No, No, he just wanted to take a picture.” I was yelling at him, “You f**kin’ kidding? We're in a hotspot.” This is a f**king violent place. What are you doing with your Polaroid? We had it all worked out. I spoke to George Michael, I spoke to Prince, I spoke to Bruce, everybody. They said yes, and then six days later the war broke out and we could not do it. So, it’s been a crazy ride?

Goldmine: What kind of record collection do you have? 

Michael: Oh, it's massive. I’ve been collecting vinyl since I was a kid. I have everything and it’s all vinyl. Little Richard, Robert Johnson, all the blues men. The King on both Sun records and RCA. I’ve got outtakes. It’s just a massive collection.

Goldmine: Any stores that you like to visit? 

Michael: I don’t go anywhere right now, man. I have my studio here in my beautiful house with my wife and cats, but online, I’m an addict. I need to go to Vinyl Anonymous. That plan has 69 steps.

Goldmine: Anybody that you would like to write or record with? 

Michael: Oh God, yes. I’ve been fortunate. I just worked with Ryan Allison and Stevie [Van Zandt] just signed him. He is a Texas songwriter, brilliant. He and I spoke on the phone and he was telling me about getting a divorce and we wrote a song on the phone together. It’s an ongoing thing. I am currently working with two groups. I have a life of live music that we are putting out an album to support the July 10 release of the documentary. This music is with my band The Mistakes. I called them the Mistakes because I have leaned more from my mistakes than from the triumphant moments, that’s for f**king sure. We play very loud and we make a lit of mistakes. Steve and I worked on Anarchy. That took weeks and it’s on 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Steve loves those less than 3-minute songs. He loves the Temptations and he steered me to write more in that direction. My other recent single, "Crackle and Hiss," is about vinyl. You should check that out. "Stop, In the Name of Love" is the B-side to that single and it just won an award for best cover song, but we did it the way Vanilla Fudge would do "You Keep Me Hangin' On." In terms of being able to work with people, I just write something and then think who would be great with this, call them up and be done with it.

Goldmine: Can we expect a tour once things calm down from Covid-19? 

Michael: We were meant to be in Japan and Russia right now. I do hope so. I really do, but in in a sense I think we all should feel like there it is and just deal with what's in front of us. If you have anticipation of something that you want to do, and it doesn't manifest, it's a sad thing. I'm just taking care of business right now, you know. I'm enjoying recording and writing in my book and you know, the documentary's going to come out which I'm very excited about it, and promoting. Of course, doing my three-hour-a-day radio program which I love more than anything.

Goldmine: A book, when is that coming out? 

Michael: That book has been going on for 20 years. I’ve been writing this story. I don’t really have a time schedule. It’s over 400 pages as of now. It’s going to be a big journey. I have had a big life, dude. My father was an aristocrat and my mother was a stripper. I went to boarding schools for years in this very cruel culture. Had to deal with the class system which I hated. As a teenager they kicked me out and I go to drama school, and I get this movie and then blah, blah. It’s been this unique adventure. I got sober when it was extremely uncool. So, dealing with that was interesting. I have written 100 pages on just that. About being a leper, a pariah in this world of these absurd players who would tell you the same story 10 times in a half hour.

Goldmine: I listen to Jonesy’s Jukebox, and he talks about being on different drugs during his time in Chequered Past, and not remembering much of it. You bring the complete opposite side to that story, I assume. 

Michael: I remember everything, even when I was high. But I became sober in '81, and the rest of the band did not. So, I wrote an extreme amount of material about a guy, the frontman of a band, and he is literally surrounded by a band of junkies of one sort or the other... drunk, or [on] drugs. That’s why that band never went any further. It could not go on. There is a great lesson there and that’s when the seeds were sown for Steve Jones. The same thing happened to the Power Station. John and Andy Taylor got sober after the tour, because of my vibe with them. I was two-three years sober by then, actually four years. They were 22 year-old pop, Duran Duran stars and loaded, and not enjoying a second of it. 

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