The Sweet Success of INXS

The Australian band kicks its way up the charts in the States with pub-rock funk

Australian rock sextet INXS performs on the TV show 'Top Of The Pops' in Los Angeles, California in 1987. Credit: Sherry Rayn Barnett/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

"What are they staring at?" asks Michael Hutchence, returning the glances of several curious locals in Obecni Dum, a magnificent art nouveau restaurant in Prague. "Haven't they ever seen a guy in pancake makeup and seventeenth-century clothes?"

Although Czechoslovakia has a legacy of fine filmmaking, it is not yet wired for MTV. So as the members of INXS — singer Hutchence, 27, guitarist Tim Farriss, 30, keyboardist and guitarist Andrew Farriss, 28, drummer Jon Farriss, 26, guitarist and saxophonist Kirk Pengilly, 29, and bassist Garry Gary Beers, 30 — film three videos for their latest album, Kick, in Prague, the Czech capital, crowds assemble quietly in the November frost to watch, though few have any clue who the band is.

By the time INXS leaves, the band will have spent $150,000 on the videos. With two more videos already in the can, it will cost as much to make the videos as it did to record the entire album. Stockpiling videos is part of a scheme to break INXS as a multi-format band, and the strategy makes sense. INXS, which has been together for ten years without a lineup change, is a handsome, stylish band, and its songs are received as favorably in dance clubs as they are on rock radio. The week of the filming, the first single from Kick, "Need You Tonight," rose into the Top Twenty-five of the American charts, while the album rocketed to Number Seventeen. Already the world's top Australian group, INXS is aware that its next few singles could lift it into the stratosphere of pop stars.

"Great things rise to the top," says Hutchence, who goes on to express his disdain for snobbish groups that deliberately avoid commercial success. "They're fuckin' wankers! A great Abba song is just as worthy as a great Joy Division song. We don't need record-company people standing around going, 'C'mon, guys, write a hit.' It's in the band already."

Later that afternoon, while Richard Lowenstein, the twenty-eight-year-old Australian who has directed several of the group's videos, sets up a shot in Prague's Jewish Cemetery, the six musicians take a coffee break. Some German tourists, who've been watching from the sidelines, tentatively approach the band, and one youngster, speaking perfect English, asks Tim Farriss if he likes Metallica. Farriss, whose taste runs more to Cameo and L.L. Cool J, shakes his head no.

"Poseur," spits the kid.

According to Michael Hutchence, if the members of a heavy-metal band dared to bring their lipstick and spandex to Australia, crowds would beat the hell out of them. Although the best-known Australian exports are such frothy popsters as the Little River Band, Olivia Newton-John and Men at Work, the country's chief musical tradition is the tough pub-rock snarl of AC/DC, Angel City, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel. The first Australians were British outcasts, Hutchence explains, and pub rock is the sound of a country that "started off as shit."

"It is a macho kind of thing," says Tim Farriss.

On the North Shore of Sydney, near where INXS grew up, any band could play in a pub. But, says Hutchence, "it takes a lot to get a thousand red-eyed, drugged, been-surfing-all-day-in-the-sun people interested." Thus, he says, "fuck you" is one of the prime exchanges between pub rockers and their audience. "'Fuck you!' 'Ay, this band's great!"'

After growing up in comfort in Hong Kong, Hutchence moved to Sydney with his family at age fourteen. He and Andrew Farriss began to "hang around living rooms and record obscure music on this four-track recorder and try to impress girls with this bullshit. When we were sixteen, we'd have dinner parties and put on some strange jazz, when everybody else was listening to Deep Purple."

Andrew's older brother, Tim, was a Christian-youth-group leader until a copy of Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure "changed my life." He began playing in bands with Kirk Pengilly and Garry Gary Beers but soon joined up with Andrew and Hutchence. The youngest Farriss brother, Jon, began playing drums in the band when he was barely a teenager. The six of them played in local pubs, as the Farriss Brothers or as the Vegetables, performing a mix of Roxy Music covers and "terrible originals."

INXS had pub roots, but the band members were also fans of Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone. "Somehow, the twain met in our heads," says Hutchence, "and we started mixing it together. Nobody [in Australia] had done that." Renaming themselves INXS — a moniker suggestive not only of excessiveness but inaccessibility — they began opening for the likes of Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel and often found themselves dealing with the hostile side of pub audiences. "I had no faith in what we were doing," says Andrew. "I never saw the thing lasting."

"We were so unprofessional," says Hutchence, laughing. "But the strength was there that was necessary to carry it through." They averaged 250 to 300 shows per year.

After two mediocre albums, INXS recorded "The One Thing" in 1982 and finally got a contract in the U.S., where the song became a hit. INXS's 1984 album The Swing featured the Nile Rodgers-produced "Original Sin," a controversial song with an interracial theme, which many radio stations balked at playing. The band's mixture of Sly Stone and AC/DC continued on Listen Like Thieves, which included the break-through hit "What You Need." "That Run-D.M.C.-Aerosmith song ["Walk This Way"]," says Hutchence, "is, in a sense, just an extreme version of what we've been doing for years, mixing rock and funk."

As the video crew sets up for a late-afternoon shoot in Prague's Old Town Square, where Russian tanks ended Czechoslovakia's brief experiment with liberalization twenty years ago, the members of INXS duck down the narrow side streets and huddle in a restaurant. Troy Davies, the crew's stylist, drops in to tell them that they're due back on the square in fifteen minutes and that Hutchence is needed on the set immediately. "It's always me," sighs the singer, wrapping himself in a fur coat he seems born to wear.

As lead singer, lyricist and long-haired sex symbol, the charismatic Hutchence is ambivalent about INXS's increasing popularity. The pressure of stardom has already contributed to the end of a long relationship with his girlfriend. "It's a worry, in a way," he says late one night, his tongue loosened by some potent Russian brandy. "The worst part is if it starts interfering with my credibility as a singer. Then I'll get worried and do some crazy shit like Dogs in Space."

Written and directed by Richard Lowenstein, with a $2.5 million budget, Dogs in Space is a chaotic tribute to the postpunk music scene in Melbourne in 1978. Hutchence plays Sam, an odious local celebrity who spends most of his time crawling around on all fours, grunting and sniffing around for drugs, sex and the TV set. "Ain't no glamour role," Hutchence says, his pinup pout breaking into a smile.

Many people thought Dogs in Space was a bad career move, says Hutchence. "The nature of the advice was 'Look, you just had big records in America, you've got girl fans, you've got a certain persona, and you're going to trash all that with this movie, shooting up smack and vomiting."'

The film had an October première in several American cities, but even in New York it closed after only three weeks. (It will be re-released in January.) Choosing Dogs in Space over more flattering roles is characteristic of Hutchence's professional perversity. "I scare the hell out of myself," he says. "I hate sure things. If someone told me tomorrow 100 percent everything that was going to happen to me, I'd do my best to fuck it up. Even if it was good."

Hutchence's strong defiant streak magnifies his physical resemblance to Jim Morrison. In New Orleans, where the city fathers will allow almost anything if you've paid your bar tab, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He claims he has quit drinking, because "it became a problem," but he needs little encouragement to sample the Eastern European booze. Band members still talk about how Michael lost his temper when they opened for the Kinks in Pittsburgh — "We may as well have been in a communist dancing band, doing Russian marches," he snorts — and stormed into the audience to confront a heckler. After he and the heckler were separated, INXS got an encore.

More recently, Hutchence was arrested for "public irresponsibility" in Australia. "Here's what happens when you don't wear condoms," he announced onstage, as he simulated ejaculation with a bottle of Evian and threw buckets of rubbers into the crowd.

"God, I'm such a fucking Australian," he says, grinning.

After the long, dull days of filming in the Eastern European frost, the band and the crew spend their evenings in the hotel bar, giddily sampling iced vodka and thick Czech brew almost until the morning wake-up calls. Late one night, Jon Farriss — described by one writer as a "Hunkarama supreme" — is drunkenly redecorating the lobby. (The next morning, he will be so ill that he'll miss an entire day's filming and nearly require hospitalization.) Tim Farriss, the only married band member, spends the evening in his room, drinking with Michael Hutchence, and Andrew Farriss sequesters himself in his room, meditating his way out of a depression.

Andrew, who writes most of INXS's music, is a brooding loner in a band of merry extroverts. Hutchence calls him "extremely sensitive" and notes that "the world is a very perplexing place for him." This makes it tough for Hutchence, the band's main lyricist, to collaborate with him on songs. "Andrew just locks himself away and takes his phone off the hook. He doesn't leave his house for weeks on end. Then I send the telegram man around to break down the door."

Oddly, Andrew's music rarely showcases his keyboards. Perhaps as a result, he's prickly about receiving proper songwriting credit. When Kirk Pengilly discusses his rhythm-guitar style with a reporter before going off to film a scene, the normally reticent Andrew approaches the writer and says, "I just want to mention that I wrote those guitar parts."

Later, Andrew talks about doing a solo record of instrumental music that is more "compassionate" than his writing for INXS. "Because there's so much rock going on every night of your life for three months, you start going, 'What is this "rock" stuff anyway?' I'd like people to relate to INXS as something more than meaningless Muzak."

INXS's commercial breakthrough is exciting because it coincides with these increasingly lofty aspirations. During the Kick sessions, Michael and Andrew talked about pushing themselves into new territory, and Michael came up with "Guns in the Sky," the booming antiwar song that opens the album. Andrew says, "Michael was saying, 'I want to make this song as hard as possible, as simple as possible, so the message is the thing you're listening to, not the complexity of the music."'

"It's great to see you," Hutchence sings in "Guns in the Sky," his sultry baritone breaking into a wail at the litany of small talk. "I'm running late/Da da da/Love your hair/Da da da/Lend me a ten. . . . Well I'm sick of it, it's a load of shit."

Inspired by this distaste for the mundane, Hutchence believes that INXS will continue "kicking down doors," scrambling hard rock and funk, writing provocative songs and taking its music to the top of the charts.

"The Top Forty could be so much better," he says. "But there's no bands left. There's U2. And R.E.M. I think we're included in there."