Text by Julia Masi
Images from the Internet
© 1985 FFanzeen
The following article/interview with the band Chequered Past was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #13, in 1985. It was written by Julia Masi.
Their music is their passion. Drumbeats so precise they jumpstart the heart, and aggressive guitar riffs that accelerate the pulse, played by five dynamic personalities that form the mutual admiration society of Chequered Past.
As their name implies, Michael Des Barres (vocals), Clem Burke (drums), Nigel Harrison (bass), Steve Jones and Tony Fox Sales (who share rhythm and lead guitar duties), all come from very diverse cultural and musical backgrounds. Yet they have so much respect for each other that just doing a telephone interview with these guys could induce insulin shock.
“If I wanted to be in a band with my favorite guitar player, I’d want to be in a band with Steve Jones,” comments Nigel. “If I wanted to play the drums, I’d want to play like Clem Burke. Clem is my favorite. And it goes throughout the whole band like that.” Nigel seems like his voice rings with such warmth you can hear him smile. And Michael is too hip to lie.
“Everybody always asks,” offers Michael, “’How can a Blondie, a Sex Pistol, an offspring of Soupy, and a Detective come together and play music?’ And it just occurred to me this morning that the common thread that each guy has is power, energy, excess, strength and drama. All our attitudes are the same. The manifestations of our attitudes may appear to be different, but the core of the group is that we like to deal in power; strength. And the closeness of the group, everyone has been through so much shit that we’re very supportive of one another.
“A common thing with all of us is that we’ve been unique to whatever environment we’ve been in. And we’ve survived this ridiculous pressure that we’ve put on ourselves and that we’ve found ourselves in.”
In the beginning, Chequered Past formed for fun and played mostly top-forty cover songs. Their first gig was, according to Nigel’s calculations, on September 26, 1982, at the Peppermint Lounge, two years before the date of our interview.
“We are primarily a live band,” explains Nigel. “To me, making records is secondary. The main thing is the instant communication you get from clubs, whether there are 28 people in the clu8b or 17,000 people.
“The greatest part of a love affair is the first year, or the first week, or the first night. It’s the same with music and people in bands. Their best music comes out in the first few years.
“To really keep a band together truly as a band, you have to keep playing as much as you can. And not take a year off because someone wants to buy a country home or something, which is what happens in most successful bands, unfortunately.
“This album was just a trial run. I think every day we’re getting more in focus as to what we want to be, as opposed to what people expect us to be.
“This is our idea of what the ideal band, or what we think the ideal band will be. I’m not saying we particularly captured it on this record, but we will.”
Their album, Chequered Past, on EMI, offers their weakest cut, “How Much is Too Much” as the fist single. Most of the songs were written by Michael and Steve, except Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, which they perform with such a verve you’d swear it was written for them. Michael particularly enjoys this song, “because it’s chequered. The lyrics are so appropriate to the band” ‘Lord, it’s the same old tune/Fiddle and guitar – “Michael pauses. Like most professional singers, he can’t remember the words unless he sings them. And after three attempts to recite the words he sings every night, he bursts into song: “’-Where do we take it from here/We’ve got rhinestone suits and new shiny cars/Where will we take it from here?’ The second verse is really cool. I goes, ‘Ten year on the road doin’ one-night stands/Dreaming my young life away/Tell me one more time so I’ll understand/Are you sure Hank a-done it this way?’ And the last verse is, ‘Lord, I’ve seen the world with a five piece band/Looking at the back side of me/Singing my songs/One of his now and then/Are you sure Hank a-done it this way?’” He laughs, “It’s really crazy. And he loves it. Waylon loves it.”
They’ve been considering this song as a possible single and video. “We’ve spoken to both Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. about the possibilities of being in the video, or getting involved. And they were so overjoyed at the fact that we’d even do a Waylon song, let alone call them up,” recalls Nigel. “It’s one of my favorite tracks. I like anything that’s against the grain, with a slant. I think a Blondie and a Sex Pistol doing a Waylon Jennings song about Hank Williams is interesting. I’d like to do more of that. Also, on stage, that song has taken on a whole different light. We allow for a certain spontaneity that comes from playing live.”
On stage, they are a lot more powerful than any band could be on vinyl, but their record does allow you to appreciate Michael’s lyrics. His songs are very structured and one of his goals is to tell the truth to his audience. His song, “Underworld,” is a short biography of the band.
“’Underworld’ is just an expression of rebelliousness, I think. Each guy sings a verse. Tony’s verse is, “Temptation in the City of Lights/Growing up in the glare of the spotlight/Daddy’s throwing pies on TV/Now I’m a prodigal celebrity.” And Steve’s is, “Always sound better on a stolen guitar/Could always go faster in a stolen car,’ about his experiences. And mine is, “Daddy was an aristocrat.’ I was raised by a very rich family. And just how all these ridiculous backgrounds all end up in the same area. We are all outside of our own environment. We all find ourselves together and we are all underworld, underworld being a euphemism for the other side.”
If anyone ever had an unusual background, it is Michael. While his father’s position offered many privileges, his mother “was so ridiculously eccentric. She was the main influence in terms of bohemia. She turned me on to Billie Holiday when I was nine. We used to sit around drinking red wine.
“I was educated by the most decadent institutional system in the world, which is the British Public School System, which trains you to be the leader of men – and play cricket.”
Leadership training should prove useful to the lead singer of a band, but Michael doesn’t see his position as that of a dictator. “One thing I’ve learned about leadership is that you’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to be kind. You’ve got to care about each other. To get fame is such a silly thing. My main desire is being sensitive to the needs of others. Because I’ve spent so long wanting it for myself; my needs were always so callous.
“I don’t believe in rock’n’roll stars. It’s an outmoded concept. I believe in the arts. And I believe in communication. To be a good, true artist you have to communicate. That’s what art is all about: if I’m communicating me, that’s important. It doesn’t matter who the me is. If they’re true to themselves and they communicate to one other person, then an artistic act has taken place. The whole idea of the benevolent superstar bestowing his thoughts on El Salvador to a 15-year-old audience sucks.”
For years, Michael wrote and performed as the androgynous fantasy character he created. The character was based on Turner in performance, and was an outlet for Michael’s obsession with the destructive superstar mythology. He grew up idolizing men like James Dean, Lord Byron, Errol Flynn, and John Barrymore, and the rock’n’roll stage seemed like a viable way to turn himself into a strange creature of his imagination. “It was at least two years before I could sing and I’d been in a band already.”
During that period, he claims to have been more interested in “finding the definitive earring” than in perfecting his music. He became lost in his alter ego and became a victim of the nasty clichés of rock’n’roll.
Eventually, he realized what was happening to him and decided to abandon this character. “When I finally came down to earth I had to talk about what was happening to me.
"I believe one creates one’s own experience. I live my life through principles and for the first time in my life I have some moralistic view of how I should behave. And it’s quite simple. I guess when I started to love myself a little, I started to get a handle on how to treat other people.
“Our little lot is sort of unique because we really do care for another; we support one another.”
Both he and Nigel enjoy being on the stage because it fosters their creativity. “Just the five guys being on the road, you get more of an identity,” says Nigel. “The songs come out of nowhere. We’ve already got about four new songs. And we’re really looking forward to making another album.”
Hopefully, the Chequered Past will have a long, bright future.