Cult Heroes No. 11: Silverhead
The latest in our Cult Heroes series deals with the strange story of the band everybody tipped for the big time, only for them to inexplicably split up. The band are Silverhead, who for the first time reveal what actually happened. Check out all the previous Cult Heroes.
Words: Malcolm Dome
So far in this series we’ve had a list of bands and artists who made an impact in their own ways, but were perhaps never really destined for major success. With each one, you can trace why they never got any further. However, the curious case of Silverhead would baffle even Sherlock Holmes. It’s definitely a six-pipe problem, and whatever you stuff into the bowl of that pipe, you’ll still be left scratching your head.
Quite why this band failed to become superstars in the early 70s has baffled everyone for decades. But now, finally and exclusively, we can tell you what happened – and why. Prepare to be amazed, stunned, shocked as the truth is revealed by drummer Pete Thompson.
OK, some background. Silverhead were regarded at the start of the 70s as the British band who would inevitably follow T. Rex and David Bowie into the stratosphere – the glam rockers who had it all. Two albums – 1972′s self-titled debut and Sixteen And Savaged the next year – had laid the foundations for a career that was destined to have us all enthralled.
Fronted by Michael Des Barres, Silverhead also featured the talents of guitarists Rod Davies (who also had a more than decent voice) and Steve Forest (he was replaced by Robbie Blunt for the second album), bassist Nigel Harrison and the aforementioned Thompson (who played keyboards as well).
“We had it all,” insists the drummer, who now lives in Texas. “The glam, the rock’n'roll, the sex appeal, the nastiness. Great frontman, great musicians, great songs. Everything was going our way. And if you saw us live, then you’ll know we could really deliver.
“All of us worked solidly for two-and-a-half years. When we weren’t touring, we were recording. When we weren’t recording, we were rehearsing. We put so much into the band. And it was starting to pay off. We’d won over the British media. We had been to America and supported everyone, played every stadium there. We had both albums in the Top 10 in Japan. We had B.P. Fallon as our publicist, and he worked with Led Zeppelin. Everything was in place. The door was open for us, and all we needed to do was walk through.”
The downturn started when the band were offered the chance to open for Fleetwood Mac on a six-week tour of America. Except it wasn’t the real Mac.
“Do you recall when there was a bogus Fleetwood Mac touring in the States? [They were put together by the Mac's manager Clifford Davies when the band were in turmoil; he claimed he owned the FM name.] Well, that was the one we were supposed to go out and support. But we only did two or three gigs, because promoters were pulling dates as they found out nobody in this version of Fleetwood Mac had ever been in the real band!
“Our management decided to send us to Los Angeles for a couple of months, while they sorted out our next move. Can’t be bad, being forced to stay in LA! Then we came back to England. I went home to Southend and shortly afterwards went into London to have a band meeting about our next tour, a return to Japan. Well, that’s what I thought it was gonna be about.”
Thompson walked straight into one of the most bizarre moments in rock history. Here were Silverhead, about to become very successful, on the verge of making a huge impact, with the world clamouring for a piece of their action, when the plug was pulled.
“I walked into our management office, and Michael just said to me: ‘You’re out of a job, mate. We’re all out of a job!’ Our tour manager sat us all down, read a prepared statement and that was it – the band were over. None of us were allowed to use the name Silverheard, nor even talk about the band in the press. To say we were stunned is an understatement. In an instant we’d gone from being almost the next big thing to nonentities!”
Thompson is still puzzled, because the band were by then making money for their label, Purple Records [owned by Deep Purple], although only Des Barres was directly signed.
“There was talk about Michael being saddled with the band’s debt. But what debt? A lot had been spent on us, but we were out of the red. I’m not even sure if I should be talking about all of this even now, but I don’t give a fuck. It’s about time people knew what happened.”
Thompson has his own theory as to why the band were forced to split up.
“I reckon we were signed by Purple as a tax loss. Which is why so much money was lavished on us. But when we began to have success, that’s the last thing they wanted. So, the decision was made to finish Silverhead. I’m sure that’s the truth. The decision was totally the record company’s.”
At the time, the band were working on a third album, one that never got completed. However, they did have four tracks in various stages of development.
“One of them, James Dean, we recorded at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles at 2am one morning. It was only a demo, but I reckon this was the best thing we ever did in the studio. Actually, that was a crazy night. I ended up with a broken wrist and we nearly got arrested as well.”
Now, nearly 40 years on, the phenomenon known as YouTube has resurrected the band, says Thompson.
“Last year, my wife came across a promo video we did for the song Rolling With My Baby. She put it up on YouTube, and it’s got 25,000 hits in just a few months! [See it below.]
“I don’t even remember doing that video. But it was for a version of the song produced by [Deep Purple drummer] Ian Paice, and released as a single. If memory serves me, we had Elkie Brooks and Suzi Quatro doing backing vocals, as the Silverettes!
“That was the thing about us. We did hang out with the real giants. I remember we did a gig at Dingwalls in London. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page got up and played with us. Joe Cocker was hanging out in the studio for our second album, and he ended up doing backing vocals.”
After the split, it took Thompson a few years to recover.
“I was so angry that I didn’t play drums again for a long time. I got a job in a factory, and lived a normal life.”
Fortunately, Thompson did get back into music, and he’s spent the past 30 years or so working with significant people like Robert Plant, David Byron, Ken Hensley, Pete Haycock (of Climax Blues Band fame) and Robin Trower. Harrison, of course, ended up in Blondie, while Blunt worked on four Plant albums. Davies, now living in LA, has his own band. Forest, who relocated to New York, is no longer involved with music, but has made a name in the money market.
As for Des Barres, he went on to co-found Detective (recording the albums Detective and It Takes One To Know One, both released in 1977) and Chequered Past (one self-titled album, issued in 1984, where he was reunited with Harrison), and replaced Robert Palmer in Powerstation. He’s also been a regular in American TV series like MacGyver.
“Michael’s just being Michael. He’s the only one I’m not in touch with at the moment. But I know Nigel and he did a gig together recently at South By South West in Austin, Texas.” [Among the songs they performed was the Silverhead classic More Than Your Mouth Can Hold.]
All of which brings up the inevitable ‘R’ word. Any chance of a reunion? Surprisingly, Thompson doesn’t rule it out.
“Well, why not? In fact, we’ve all talked about this between us. I think even Michael might be up for it, if the circumstances were right. The songs still sound great, we are now better musicians that before, and more mature. So I think it could work.”
It’s clearly too late for Silverhead to recapture what they had, and grab what they so cruelly were denied. However, surely there’s a promoter or two out there who’d see the value in such a gig or even tour?
“I still think we’d cut it on stage, and it would be amusing to see people turning up with their old Ace Supreme badges!”
If you’ve never heard Silverhead before, prepare to be amazed!
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Tags: B.P. Fallon, Blondie, Chequered Past, Clifford Davies, Climax Blues Band, Cult Heroes, David Bowie, David Byron, Deep Purple, Detective, Elkie Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Ken Hensley, Led Zeppelin, Michael Des Barres, Nigel Harrison, Pete Haycock, Pete Thompson, Powerstation, Robbie Blunt, Robert Palmer, Robert Plant, Robin Trower, Rod Davies, Silverhead, Steve Forest, Suzi Quatro, T.Rex