Michael Des Barres Puts His Heart on His Sleeve for ‘The Key to the Universe’

With his new album, the veteran British singer/actor delivers a set of spirited and emotional rock and roll.
Michael Des Barres
The Key to the Universe

It’s might be safe to say that if any recording artist had the chance to make an album in beautiful and historic Rome — rather than the usual places of L.A., New York, or London — he or she would undoubtedly leap at the opportunity. That’s what happened to British rocker and actor Michael Des Barres when an old producer friend of his, Bob Rose, called and invited Des Barres to record his next album in Italy’s capital. The two had previously worked together on Des Barres’ album from 1986, Somebody Up There Likes Me.

“He said, ‘Michael I want to make an album with you,’” the affable and charming 67-year-old artist recalls. “By this time, he was very successful; he had FOD [Records], a fabulous label with distribution; and all of the things you need. He said, ‘Come to Rome… we’re gonna make a record.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I just arrived there with a bunch of words and we sat there and we did it. It was divine to do it in Rome because… it’s fucking Rome! You’re out of your comfort zone, you’re in a beautiful timeless place, and we made a beautiful timeless rock ‘n’ roll record.”

The album he is referring to is The Key to the Universe, Des Barres’ first new studio record since 2012’s Carnaby Street. Joining the singer on the album are former Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison, guitarist Dani Robinson, and drummer Clive Deamer. A collection of vibrant, straight-ahead songs, The Key to the Universe harkens back to the swaggering rock ‘n’ roll that the veteran artist has been known for, from his tenure in such bands as Silverhead and Detective during the ’70s, to Chequered Past and the Power Station in the ’80s.

“I can feel rock ‘n’ roll pretty good,” Des Barres explains about the album’s spontaneous and live feel. “The only way I can do that is looking at people right in the eye — I can ‘t watch them do overdubs — I’d rather go to the dentist. This is the most satisfying record I’ve ever made, and I can say that with absolutely utter no self-promotion or self-aggrandizement. It’s a fact. Bob Rose is a visionary and sees himself as a guy not interested in the technological creation of rock and roll. It’s not my kind of rock ‘n’ roll, which is Little Richard, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters. That’s what I enjoy.”

If the album’s songs have an autobiographical thread running through them, it was kind of by design. The first single off the record is the Linda Perry-penned rocker “Can’t Get You Off My Mind”, which attracted Des Barres because of its sense of urgency. “When I heard the song I was compelled to cut it immediately,” Des Barres says. “I wanted to do a testosterone-driven rock ‘n’ roll song about obsessive love because I’m in such a good place in my life. You tend to just veer towards the joyousness and compassion of life. But I wanted to make a record that people would identify with when they’re in pain and they’re hurt, they’re obsessive. I think that song is a cure-all for that feeling, a salve that people can listen to and feel okay because they don’t feel lonely about this obsession, apart from the fact it’s a rocking tune.”

Another hard driving track from the record is the emotionally-honest “I Want Love to Punch Me in the Face”, which deals with the complications of falling in love, according to Des Barres. “It’s so hard for people to connect with one another,” he says. “They can’t find a partner that they can tell the truth and make love to, cook a meal for, and adore and be adored. It’s so difficult. And as a consequence of those difficulties, I think people go into a coma. ‘Wait a minute, I want love to punch me in the face!’ is a metaphor to wake up and know that the secret to this is to fall in love with yourself. Because the minute you respect yourself and love yourself, somebody’s gonna see it and come in and want to be a part of that. You’ll see yourself in others, and that’s what love is all about.”

Continuing on the heartfelt nature of the record is the melodic and soul-searching “Room Full of Angels”, which at one point brought the singer to tears in the control room following his performance. “I just listened to it and I went, ‘Oh my God. At last I sung something that I really mean.’ Honestly, that’s Bob Rose. He just said, ‘Look Michael, Frank Sinatra sang a song, that’s all he did. He didn’t throw any ad-libs in there — ‘Wooh! Yeah baby!’ — all this rock ‘n’ roll crap that you get from certain artists. And the art is true. Just feel it, for God’s sake!’ How rare it is can you say the last time you had an artist who wasn’t auto-tuned, photoshopped, and disfigured by surgery? We live in a make-believe robotic world. So when you hear the truth cut through like a crystal glass, you go ‘Oh!’ And I came back and I [thought], Oh my God, how happy am I right now? I really meant that song.”

The basic tracks on The Key to the Universe were made at Forum Music Village, the studio where the famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone worked on his scores. During the recording, Des Barres sung his vocals into vintage microphones dating back to World War II, lending that sense of authenticity to the process. “I sang the whole album in [what] was the most exquisite week I’ve ever spent creatively,” he says. “I can’t explain. I would walk around the village — the village was just 1,000-year-old buildings crumbling but still proud; statues missing a hand and grass growing over them; wonderful trees. I would walk to the studio from the hotel. I would just go, ‘Oh Michael, this is timeless, this is magic.’ And I would sing as authentically as I could.”

Coincidentally, The Key to the Universe arrives in a year that marks two special anniversaries in Des Barres’ career. “Obsession,” the song he co-wrote with Holly Knight, became a Top 10 hit for the L.A. synthpop band Animotion 30 years ago. The sexy track has since become synonymous with the the decadence and excess of the ’80s. It came about when Des Barres was entering a period of sobriety following drug use. “So everybody’s walking around and saying ‘obsession’… and it just struck a chord with me. It suddenly made sense. I was obsessed with narcotics, but I wrote it about lovers. And Holly just created this beautiful track. We did it for a movie, as I recall [1983’s A Night in Heaven]. An A&R man heard it and gave it to the band Animotion, and they did their version of it. It was a tremendous hit, and an annuity for my many relationships,” he remembers, laughing.

That same period in 1985, Des Barres’ profile was widely heightened when he unexpectedly got an offer to join the rock supergroup the Power Station, consisting of Duran Duran members Andy Taylor and John Taylor, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson, after singer Robert Palmer opted not to go on tour with the band. At the time, the band released its self-titled debut record with the hit singles “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of T.Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On)”. “I was with Don Johnson,” Des Barres now recalls. “We were hanging out and he was making a movie. And I got a call from New York saying there’s a band that needs a singer, and the singer just dropped out, and there’s a tour booked, and ‘are you interested?’ I said, ‘What’s the band?’ ‘We can’t tell you, you got to come to New York, there’s a ticket waiting for you in Marshall, Texas.’ I was there at the airport in San Antonio or wherever it was.

“And then I flew to New York and I was [in an] office with a very nervous John and Tony sitting there. ‘My God, the Power Station!’ And [T.Rex’s Marc] Bolan, of course, was my mate, and they did ‘Get It On’. Then they flew me to London that night, and I met with Andy [Taylor] the next day. I went into the studio and sang ‘Get It On’. He hit the intercom and said, ‘Let’s go shopping.’ We went shopping and I bought a bunch of clothes at Vivienne Westwood.”

One of the Power Station’s first shows with Des Barres as the new singer took place in probably the world’s biggest stage ever at that time: Live Aid. “I rehearsed 35 songs in ten days,” Des Barres recalls. “We did ‘Obsession’, ‘Dancing in the Streets’, [and] ‘Some Guys Have All the Luck’. Literally the first gig was the night before Live Aid, which was at the Ritz in New York City. I’ve gone from being in Texas after quitting Chequered Past because we were all strung out; then literally two weeks later I am in front of the biggest audience of all time and singing those songs. Then, on went six months, five nights a week with the Power Station with John, Andy and Tony.”

During that time, Des Barres and the Power Station made an appearance in an episode of the hit TV show Miami Vice, and recorded the track “Someday, Somehow, Someone’s Gotta Pay”. As he recently told British music publication MOJO, the band was tired and splintered following the tour. Were there any regrets for Des Barres given that the experience was short? “John [Taylor] remains one of my best friends,” he says. “I saw him two nights ago, and I adore him. He went on with his one and only solo hit that I wrote with him, ‘I Do What I Do’ for [the film] 9 ½ Weeks. We stayed friends.

“The main thing I’m trying to get across is six months of doing [the Power Station] was enough. I don’t regret it not going further, all the success or any of the millions of sales. That was not the focus. The focus was the process. And I can say that absolutely unequivocally without any bullshit. It’s the doing of it. If you don’t enjoy what you do, do something else. So I was very satisfied with that. And then I did that album with Bob [Rose], and then I killed people on TV.”

Des Barres is no stranger to acting. One of his earliest roles was his portrayal of Williams in the 1967 film To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier. Since leaving the Power Station, he appeared as the villainous Murdoc in MacGyver and the snooty maitre’d in the classic Seinfeld episode “The Smelly Car”, as well as other numerous TV and film projects, including Melrose Place, Roseanne, Mulholland Drive, NCIS and CSI. Most recently, he appeared in an online parody of American Idol called American’t Idol, as one of three clueless fictional judges (the others being played by Sara Gilbert and Linda Perry) critiquing and shooting down aspiring hopefuls as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Led Zeppelin.

“I don’t believe in all of that,” Des Barres says of today’s music competition shows. “I hate all of that shit. I loathe any kind of competitiveness. This is really evidenced by the fiasco of a thing called the Grammys, which to me was an ESPN hockey game. And next year they should go to a small club with minimal lighting, with an audience of people who actually buy, download, and listen music. The people who are nominated for that award should go play those songs in that club of 200 people and broadcast that. And nobody should win. Everybody is a loser, how’s that? Because the whole notion of competition in art is absolutely fucking ludicrous.”

Having been one of the few artists to consistently maintain an acting and music career for over 40 years, in addition to serving as one of the hosts of Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio program on SiriusXM , is there one vocation that Des Barres would choose over the other? “I see everything as equal,” he explains. “It depends on how you look at it. If I had to absolutely answer your question — ‘Would you prefer music or acting?’ — I would say the greatest joy in my life is standing in front of a microphone to 300 people sweating and dancing their asses off to rock ‘n’ roll music. There’s nothing that matches that. I’ve done movies and I’ve done sitcoms, and all the rest of it. I’ve done all of that. The most thrilling thing is playing rock and roll music.

“Could you imagine with all that power,” he continues, “that volume and that spontaneity and chaos and creative sweat, blood, tears, and other bodily fluids after the show? Acting is a complicated discipline. You say other people’s words, it’s got a distance, there’s an objectivity to the great art of acting. But once a song is written, you just go out there and forget everything and you just be.”