Michael Des Barres on Being Signed to Led Zeppelin’s Label
Before Michael Des Barres spent the late '80s trying to kill MacGyver on TV as master-of-disguises villain Murdoc, he was a hell of a rock singer.
Des Barres' slinky vocals were first heard with Silverhead, a British glam-rock band with a hard-rock edge in the early '70s. By the late '70s, Des Barres had fallen in love with muse-deluxe Miss Pamela and moved to Los Angeles to live with her. But then, "she got a soap opera as an actress and went to New York and I was left with a hairdryer and a couple hundred bucks," Des Barres recalls.
Des Barres would soon have a new gig too. He connected with Michael Monarch, the talented original lead guitarist for "Born to Be Wild" hitmakers Steppenwolf. Monarch began hanging with Des Barres at the Laurel Canyon pad where he was crashing. "We'd sit by the pool and we would play music and get into trouble here and there," Des Barres says.
Monarch knew drummer Jon Hyde, who knew bassist Bobby Pickett. And within two weeks, their new band Detective was born, with former Yes keyboardist and David Bowie sideman Tony Kaye completing the circle.
Detective signed with Swan Song Records, the record label launched by '70s rock overlords Led Zeppelin. They released two strong albums on Zep's imprint, a self-titled debut and follow-up LP It Takes One to Know One, both issued in 1977. Neither Detective album set the world on fire, but the recordings have held up well. If you love the bell-bottom blues wallop of Zep and Bad Company but want something less omnipresent, Detective slaps.
Zep guitarist and mastermind Jimmy Page recently gave Detective back their masters, and two Detective albums are now being reissued. First up, that self-titled debut, sourced from the original analog master tapes and released via Org Music, a boutique label that's previously reissued Bad Brains classics, for this Saturday's Record Store Day.
The Detective LP, recorded with frequent Zeppelin studio collaborator Andy Johns behind the console, is being pressed on silver vinyl with new liner notes. Album highlights include swaying opener "Recognition," Zep-like stomps "Grim Reaper" and "One More Heartache," power ballad "Nightingale" and groove-rocker "Got Enough Love."
Off the strength of the album, Detective would hit the road with Kiss, opening for the makeup-slathered band on multiple tours. "Gene Simmons was very good to us," Des Barres says of the bassist and singer.
In addition to Detective and Silverhead, Des Barres replaced Robert Palmer in the pop-rock band Power Station, fronting the "Some Like it Hot" group at Live Aid in 1985. He and Pamela Des Barres, known for her best-selling memoir I'm With the Band, were married from the late '70s through the early '90s. Long sober now, Michael Des Barres was a confounder of Rock Against Drugs back in the '80s, which were "not exactly the most drug-free decade," he says with a chuckle. These days, he's a host of Sirius XM's radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage. Des Barres’ epic arc is chronicled in the 2014 documentary Who Do You Want Me to Be?
The charming Brit has lived many lives. But when Des Barres recently checked in from his L.A. home for the following interview, Detective was the focus.
Michael, how did you end up getting the Detective masters back from Jimmy Page and Swan Song?
I got a phone call. And it just happened out of the blue. It's perfect Jimmy Page. I mean, the whole Swan Song culture was unlike any other in the music business, because it was run by four members of the greatest band in the world, who had a lot on their mind, and [Zeppelin manager] Peter Grant. In a sense, it was a magical moment from the very beginning, and getting them back was as magical as getting signed, I think. Because it's a very interesting time for music like this to come out in the world. What happened was I got a call from Jimmy's lawyer saying, "Listen, Jimmy would like to give you the masters back of Detective." Which is so incredibly generous. We were always pretty close because of a million reasons. He [Page] was with [previously dated] Miss Pamela. I knew him from Silverhead. They [Zeppelin] would come see us play. It wasn't as if he signed me to Swan Song without knowing me. So his attorney called and said, "Michael, do you want the masters?" Of course, I want them. And then [Detective drummer] Jon Hyde's sister, wonderful, smart businesswoman, took over. And here we are. We made those two records back to back, loved them. We did a live record, which is also going to come out, which nobody's heard. But in terms of being able to enjoy the moment, that was difficult, because [back in the '70s] one was under the under the cloak of drugs and that minimized the enjoyment of it. It didn't take it all away. There were some moments that were absolutely magic, and fortunately, we captured in the studio. But there were also a lot of issues. We spent an enormous amount of money on it. It was a million-dollar record, literally, and in those days that's a lot. We sat around waiting for the muse to come, doing various substances that did not improve matters. So this [reissue] to me is a rebirth of rock 'n' roll in my spirit.
Listen to Detective's 'Got Enough Love'
Why do you think the music and sound on the Detective debut hold up so well?
I think it's because there's so much emotionality, so many different parts of your psyche on that record. Every song on that album has a particular chapter in the book that we were trying to write about our souls. Who are we? What cultural kind of music do we want to play? Oh, let's find out. So all those songs are things we found out about ourselves, and I don't know anybody's ever described a record like that.
The song "Recognition" almost has a Little Feat sound to it.
You described that perfectly. I loved [Little Feat singer and guitarist] Lowell George and was very close with him. Miss Pamela was very close to him. And I love that country-funk kind of slide [guitar] thing, and Monarch could really play that. He really loved that. I mean, he was amazing. They all were amazing.
Andy Johns is a renowned recording engineer and producer. He's made a lot of great-sounding records. What was his mojo?
What he brought to Exile [on Main St.], which was two things: the pragmatic tone and sound of what he wanted to capture, and also how to explain to the band how it happens. Exile is my favorite album. I do believe that Andy was tremendous. He was very quiet and he would never say, "Oh, no, no, no!" or "That’s so great!" and shit like that. He would nod his head if he dug it. So there was a real relaxation in that control room. And the secret to Andy Johns, and the secret to any record, is the groove of the thing — the feel you get — and he knew when it was right. And Jon Hyde… Well, you've heard it [Hyde's drumming]. I mean, Zeppelin went crazy for Jon Hyde’s playing. It's extraordinary. And once we had that pocket, which we got pretty quick, the songs grew from that groove, and Andy created an atmosphere within which we could get to that groove.
Listen to Detective's 'Recognition'
What singers first made you want to become a singer?
I was first introduced to the blues when I was really young in boarding school. Sonny Boy Williamson captured my imagination, as did Robert [Plant]. If you listen to Robert, it's very like Sonny Boy. Same thing with the harmonica, very similar. But what I really loved was funk — James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett — and Sam Cooke, for all of the smoothness. Simply put, you've got to feel it.
I read the Detective debut was recorded at the Record Plant and Sound City studios. Does that sound right?
I remember the Record Plant. I don't remember going anywhere else, but then again it's a world that... I was in this beautiful home, a limo would arrive, I would fall in the back of it, I would be taken somewhere, put my headphones on and I'd sing. I didn't know where I was. I didn’t care where I was. It was all about living that life, and now, looking back, it was miraculous. Because at that time there was so much money around, and the Zeppelin camp, it was just insane being around them and the way we were treated in terms of the financial aspects of this excursion. I mean, it was insane. So I never really knew where the fuck I was. I do now, however. [Laughs]
How involved were Jimmy Page and the other members of Zeppelin in the recording of the first Detective album?
There was no input from the band. They were going through a lot of different difficult moments. Robert's son [Karac, who died at age 5 after an illness] and all of that stuff was going on. And there were certain elements that were negative in a sense, difficult to deal with. ... You're the biggest band in the world, it's a very difficult place to be. I mean, what do you do? Where do you go? Who are your friends? But we were sort of a byproduct of all that, their desire to get away from that, and they just trusted us. They came to rehearsals at S.I.R. in L.A. and went, "That's fucking great," and disappeared for a year and we carried on. And then we went to the Record Plant, and I spent a lot of time in the hot tub with close, intimate friends. But they [Zeppelin] didn't come in and do anything. Bonzo [Zep drummer John Bonham] is not playing the drums [on the Detective album], you know? [Laughs]
Listen to Detective's 'Grim Reaper'
What was it like being a band on Swan Song Records?
Well, first and foremost, Swan Song was a mess. They had Bad Company with Paul [Rodgers], they had Stone the Crows, they had the Pretty Things, they had Dave Edmunds. But we could never get hold of anybody that could really help. Now, they were a vanity label of course. Atlantic [Records, Swan Song's distributor] was mom and dad, and we didn't like mom and dad. We never associated ourselves with Atlantic, and therefore there was no infrastructure for that band to be successful. End of story. There was no guidance, and our managers, shall we say, were also under the spell of various substances that perhaps were not healthy. So we were in the middle of a maelstrom of substance abuse, and no connection with anybody who really was the father figure who would steer us. All the great bands have had a great manager. Andrew Loog Oldham [early Stones manager] is the perfect example of that, and Brian Epstein, of course. There's certain people that really illuminate the band and created the atmosphere within which they could flourish. The great icons of management. But we didn't have a great icon of management. We had a great icon of coke.
This is kind of a different question. You mentioned Zeppelin manager Peter Grant earlier, and it's said that Peter could be menacing when it came to the band's business dealings. Later on in your acting career, if you were portraying a villain like Murdoc on MacGyver, did Peter Grant at all inspire or inform those performances?
He was a gangster. He was a guy who if you didn't do what he wanted, you'd get hurt. And it's so interesting you bring this up because I've never ever been asked about that connection, between Peter Grant and Murdoc. That brings a tear to my eye. That's an incredible question. He was a giant of darkness that shone a light. It was a strange equation of a guy that would kill you with his left arm tied behind his back but would save you by breaking away that left arm and catching you as you fell. He was something else, man. And the power of Peter Grant seeped into all members of Led Zeppelin and it became this cabal, and nobody could come in that they didn't want, and nobody could leave.