They're Playing My Song

Michael Des Barres - "Obsession"

by Bruce Pollock

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They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Michael Des Barres.


Artist: Animotion
Writers: Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight
Album: Animotion
Year: 1984
Chart Position: #6 US, #5 UK
If asked to sum up his life in a single word, the British actor, musician, singer/songwriter and radio host Michael Des Barres would undoubtedly choose the word "obsession." Talking about his new single, "Can't Get You off My Mind," written by the Hall of Fame songwriter Linda Perry, he is nothing if not blunt. "Most of my life has been lived obsessively, excessively and at a pace that kept me moving towards a moving target," he said. "When that arrow came to rest I no longer was obsessed. My aim has changed somewhat. Passion and honesty mean everything to me. Linda Perry is authentic and she writes great songs."

These include "Get the Party Started" as sung by Pink and "Beautiful" as sung by Christina Aguilera.

"'Can't Get You off My Mind' is a great song about obsessive love. So to come full circle emotionally, has been very rewarding."

The full circle to which Des Barres refers concerns his work with another authentic songwriter who writes great songs, Holly Knight, whose hits include "Better Be Good to Me," for Tina Turner, "Love Is a Battlefield" for Pat Benatar, "Love Touch," for Rod Stewart, and "Obsession," co-written and sung with Michael Des Barres in 1983, which became a massive smash for the San Francisco band Animotion a year later.

Des Barres is not one for comparisons. "Comparison is odious, isn't it? I hate comparisons. They're both very talented songwriters and producers. I'm so grateful to know women that brilliant."

Humility is not something Des Barre comes by easily either. Luckily, he doesn't need it, with an IMDB (which stands for International Movie Data Base, not I am Michael Des Barres) listing that contains approximately 100 entries, from an appearance in the 1960 British TV series Whack-O to a recent guest shot as Marty 'The Cat' Kirsh on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with regular appearances on Suits, Bones, Dead Like Me, Jag, The Gilmore Girls, Charmed, Just Shoot Me, Ellen, Roseanne, The old WKRP in Cincinnati, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, Seinfeld, and Frazier, not to mention 11 episodes as Arthur Field on Melrose Place and eight episodes as Murdoc on Macgyver. You could say it's one of the longest IMDB listings on the entire website. When apprised of how long his listing is, Des Barres took it in stride. "Isn't that interesting?" he said. "My second wife used to say that. It's the longest I've ever seen."

When it was mentioned that with the unexpected success of "Obsession," perhaps fate was suggesting a behind-the-scenes role for him as a songwriter, he nearly doubled over in pain. "Are you fucking kidding me right now? Do you know who I am? I'm the handsomest man in the world? Fuck hits, dude. I'm a communicator. I want to kiss people. I'm a performer. The words are a performance, my friend."

Des Barres and Knight recorded the song as a duet in 1983. Indeed, in their original version, Des Barres scrapped his Rod Stewart rasp for a nearly spoken-word style long on dramatics, evoking '80s rock poets like Jim Carroll ("People Who Died") and Marc Campbell of the Nails ("88 Lines About 44 Women"). The song was immediately featured in the movie A Night in Heaven. Subsequently, the Animotion cover went Top 20 in seven countries. The song has been in Hot Tub Time Machine and Adventureland. It was used by the World Wresting Federation, the video game Grand Theft Auto, MTV's House of Style, and the sit-coms Weeds and Get a Life, somewhat alleviating Des Barres' frustration over not having a hit.

"Frustrated?" he said. "Are you kidding? When those figures started to come in, I was anything but frustrated. What I'm trying to get across to you is, the process is the prize. There's no expectation. If you write anything or do anything with some kind of idea of a result, you're fucked. If you do it because you love it, then you do it because you love it. So you enjoy it in the moment. I'd never really had too many expectations about what I've done. And therefore when it does connect, you're thrilled."

To be rockin' at 60 is pretty thrilling to Des Barres' too. "I have the same enthusiasm today as I did when I was 19, when I started. And it's virtually the same roots I have - Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Muddy Waters - but I've learned how to do it a little better, I think, over the years, culminating in this one, The Key to the Universe.

What's more, I remind him, he's still younger than Bob Dylan.

Des Barres doesn't miss a beat. "And I'm older than Justin Bieber," he says.
Michael Des Barres:
Holly Knight and I were signed to Mike Chapman, who produced my solo album, I'm Only Human, and Holly was in a band called Spider. She was then a fledgling songwriter and Mike thought it might be cool if he put us together. I had just gotten off heroin and was the obsessive person that I remain to this day - it's just that now I'm obsessed with good vibes and wheatgrass, so my obsessions have changed, but I'm still a compulsive. In those days I was getting off narcotics, so the word obsession was being thrown about a lot in my life. How do you deal with an obsession? Which gave me the idea for this lyric. But I knew I couldn't just write about drugs, because I wanted to write something that would reach a wider audience than just junkies - which wasn't true of my earlier career. So I tied in the idea of romance and a love story. I'd seen a movie called The Collector about this man who kidnapped a girl and kept her. So hence the line, "I will collect you and capture you. Like a butterfly."

We were working at Holly's house, rather than Mike Chapman's office. I've never worked in an office. I try to avoid offices. Orifices, yes, offices no. What's interesting about a new collaborative effort is that you bring your best game. It's like a first date. You want to be the best you you can be. And that's what I brought to the couch. I was going to say table, but in this case it was a couch. We really started to work right away. The niceties of life - the small talk - was not the mood one wanted to set for that song. As a writer, I'll write down a couple of notes each day. Hopefully every hour. Preferably titles. And then I expand it when I collaborate to include the intricacies of the story. In this case I had an outline of what I wanted to say, but it just so happened it coincided with what Holly had also in her vault of ideas. So we put this together real quick. It was the first thing I laid on her and she picked it up. If she hadn't, we would've gone somewhere else.

I was on guitar; she was on the keys. She's also a very interesting guitar player because when she does write on guitar, she'll just play the bass string, the low E-string. So she just gets a beat. She played the bass line on the low E-string, I played the guitar, and we got that groove, which is so catchy. There was no struggle, no argument. None of that. I think the best work I've ever done as a singer or an actor is in one take. Because you're not thinking, you're just doing it. And as a result there's a great deal more honesty and authenticity to that song and that moment and that feeling. With the spoken word aspect I wanted it to have a certain drama to it. I wanted it to be listened to. So we put it on the phone right away to Mike, and I think we were in the studio within hours, because it's an obvious piece. It's "Who do you want me to be to make you sleep with me?" I mean, how codependent is that?

Unfortunately, even though Holly and I put it out as a single, there was no entity that would support just one song. "Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, singing his one song..."

But our version came out on the soundtrack for a movie called A Night in Heaven. By the time I heard about the cover, a year later, it was almost #1. I was in the Power Station [The band, not the record studio - they had a hit with "Some Like It Hot" and played Live Aid] and we were kind of busy, but it shot up so fast. I felt very happy about it. I never got to meet Astrid Plane, but Bill Wadhams [of Animotion] and I have crossed paths. He's a beautiful guy, very grateful to the band. And they did a terrific job. The song gave them a career, which I was also very happy about. They got a significant reputation, and they had a couple years on top. That's a wonderful feeling, to be somehow responsible for that.

Holly went on to have a great career as well, but it was as if our relationship began and ended with that song. As for me, the phone has never stopped ringing. The phone has been ringing since I was 16. You could say "Obsession" played a part in it. You could also say that playing Murdoc on the biggest show on television played a part in it. You could say that my performance at Live Aid played a part. Look at the IMDB. There's the impact. The proof of the pudding is in how much work I've done.

March 18, 2015.
You can pre-order Michael's new album The Key to the Universe at iTunes.
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Comments: 3

  • K.c. from NhThe first time I (finally) got to see the movie "To Sir, With Love", I was shocked to discover that the boy with the obsession for sunglasses was actually Michael Des Barres! Then I re-watched it last week, and look what article I find today!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaMr Des Barres does a pretty good a radio show for SiriusXM. His version of Obsession with Holly Knight is really creepy. I don't mean that as a criticism, But he sounds like he really is well, Obsessed.
    I actually like it better than the Animotion version because it is so dark.
  • Cl from Ccs Great history!!
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