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Michael Des Barres

With his powerful voice, charismatic stage presence, and style rooted in art, glam, and hard rock, musician and actor Michael Des Barres' performing career has repeatedly intersected with the rock and on-screen elite. After making his film debut in the 1967 classic To Sir, With Love, he made his mark on the international music scene as leader of Silverhead and Detective in the '70s, as co-songwriter of the Animotion Top Ten hit "Obsession," and as the touring replacement for Robert Palmer in the Power Station in the '80s -- including a performance at 1985's Live Aid concert -- and as a collaborator with members of Stray Cats and the Polecats as the Swing Cats at the turn of the millennium. In the meantime, he launched a solo career with albums including 1980's I'm Only Human, a fusion of glam and new wave, and 1986's more hard-edged Somebody Up There Likes Me. He also landed recurring roles on such storied television series as MacGyver, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, and Melrose Place. The 2010s brought the release of solo efforts like 2015's hard-rocking The Key to the Universe. By that time, Des Barres had accrued scores of acting credits, including guest spots on CSI, Gilmore Girls, and Bones, and in films such as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) and the music-themed drama California Solo (2012). He also launched a popular satellite radio show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage for SiriusXM. Still busy in the 2020s, he delivered singles including an orchestral cover of punk classic "Anarchy in the U.K." and "Ain't Nothing You Can Do About It," a 2022 collaboration with glam revivalists Prima Donna. Born Michael Philip Des Barres in South East England on January 24, 1948, the aspiring actor attended drama school in London, where he performed in several plays. He also won roles on a handful of TV series in the '60s before landing a part in the Sidney Poitier classic To Sir, With Love (1967) as a teen, playing student Williams. He appeared in the stage musical The Dirtiest Show in Town and had a small role in the Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing horror flick I, Monster before forming cult glam rock outfit Silverhead -- with Rod Davies (percussion, vocals, guitar), Nigel Harrison (bass), Pete Thompson (keyboards, drums), and Stevie Forest (guitar, vocals) -- at the encouragement of none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber following a performance of The Dirtiest Show in Town. With Des Barres as their dynamic frontman, Silverhead signed with Deep Purple's Purple Records label and issued their self-titled debut in 1972. Forest was replaced by Robbie Blunt for the group's sophomore effort, 1973's 16 and Savaged, and after it failed to find a broader audience, Silverhead split up before releasing the concert album Live at Rainbow London in 1975. Harrison eventually signed on as bassist for new wave hitmakers Blondie, while Blunt went on to play on several solo releases by Robert Plant during the '80s. After relocating to Los Angeles, Des Barres also carried on, at first as a member of Led Zeppelin-inspired prog rock group Detective with former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye and bass player Bobby Pickett. Signing with Zeppelin's Swan Song label, they released two albums, 1977's Detective and 1978's It Takes One to Know One, before also calling it quits. Shifting focus to acting, Des Barres quickly landed guest spots on series including WKRP in Cincinnati and The Rockford Files. He also recorded and released his solo debut, 1980's I'm Only Human, which blurred the lines between glam, new wave, art rock, and even ska. In 1982, he formed another band, Chequered Past, this one with the all-star lineup of former bandmate Harrison, drummer Clem Burke (Blondie), guitarist Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), and bassist Tony Sales (Iggy Pop). They issued a lone eponymous LP in 1984, the same year Des Barres had a principal role in the film Ghoulies and scored a worldwide hit as co-songwriter (with Holly Knight) of "Obsession." Animotion took the song to number five in the U.K. and to the Top Ten in countries including the U.S., Canada, and Germany. Meanwhile, Chequered Past opened for Duran Duran, leading to the opportunity for Des Barres to replace vocalist Robert Palmer in Duran spinoff the Power Station (with bassist John Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson) when Palmer bowed out of touring in support of the group's 1985 self-titled debut. With hits under their belt including a Top 40 cover of T. Rex's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)," one of the Power Station tour stops was the mammoth, internationally televised Live Aid benefit concert. By 1986, members of the Power Station had parted ways, and Des Barres resumed his solo career with the grittier hard rock of Somebody up There Likes Me in 1986. In the meantime, he appeared on episodes of TV series such as St. Elsewhere and, with Power Station, on an episode of Miami Vice. In the late '80s, Des Barres scored a recurring role as arch nemesis Murdoc on the hit show MacGyver that spanned several years. He was also a regular on sitcom The New WKRP in Cincinnati in the early '90s, playing a DJ, and continued to turn up on hit shows as diverse as Seinfeld, L.A. Law, and Northern Exposure. A recurring role on Melrose Place included appearances in 1996 and 1997, and in 1999, he was part of the ensemble cast of the music-comedy film Sugar Town alongside Duran Duran's John Taylor, Spandau Ballet's Martin Kemp, X's John Doe, and others. The end of the decade also brought reissues of both Silverhead studio albums with remastered sound and bonus tracks. In 2000, Des Barres lent his vocals to an Elvis Presley tribute, A Special Tribute to Elvis, credited to the Swing Cats, which featured members of such '80s rockabilly revivalists as Stray Cats and the Polecats. The decade also brought continued acting work highlighted by credits in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001), a dramatic turn for co-star Mick Jagger in The Man from Elysian Fields (2001), and TV series such as JAG, Alias, and Bones. Des Barres resumed his solo recording career with a string of releases that included 2012's Carnaby Street, the next year's Hot 'n' Sticky Live, and 2015 rocker The Key to the Universe, which again found the singer and songwriter collaborating with Nigel Harrison. Other members of his backing band included drummer Clive Deamer (Radiohead, Portishead, Robert Plant) and guitarist Dani Robinson. By the time of its release, Des Barres had been enlisted by Steven Van Zandt to bring some of his rock & roll and soul expertise to Little Steven’s Underground Garage on SiriusXM, where he found a home as a regular DJ with an audience in the millions. In 2016, Cherry Red Records reissued Silverhead's catalog after the discovery of two previously unreleased songs. Van Zandt's label, Wicked Cool Records, released the 2018 Des Barres singles "Living in the USA" and "Gotta Serve Somebody," the latter a Bob Dylan cover. That year, he also returned to the MacGyver franchise as Nicholas Helman on a series reboot. Performing as Michael Des Barres and the Mistakes with guitarists Loren Molinare (Little Caesar) and Eric Himel (Powerman 5000), bass guitarist Paul Ill (the New Czars), and drummer Matt Starr (Guns N' Roses, Ace Frehley), he issued the two-track single "Crackle and Hiss"/"Stop! In the Name of Love" in 2019. A solo cover of Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.” that was produced and arranged by Van Zandt followed in 2020. That year, the documentary Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me to Be? was made available on various streaming platforms to much acclaim. After touring plans were scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Des Barres returned to the studio for tracks including a two-song collaboration with neo glam outfit Prima Donna, 2022's "Ain't Nothing You Can Do About It"/"Waves."
© Marcy Donelson /TiVo


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