Coming up from down under, INXS enjoys life at the top.
It's fifteen minutes before show time, and INXS guitarist Tim Farriss strolls over to a visitor in the band's dressing room at the Municipal Auditorium, in New Orleans. "Eric Clapton dies, right, and goes to heaven," he says, moving close to his listener and grinning expectantly. "He meets Saint Peter at the gate. Saint Peter says, 'Come on in. I'll show you around.' So Clapton is looking around, and he sees a group of three people together. He asks Saint Peter, 'Who's that?' Saint Peter says, 'Why, that's Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon . . . and Bono.' Clapton looks at him, amazed, and says, 'But Bono's not dead.' Saint Peter says, 'Shhhhh. That's God – he just likes to pretend he's Bono!' "Farriss crumbles into delighted laughter.
INXS has been on the road in the States for about a week now, and this joke has been making the rounds among the members of the band and their entourage. While not exactly a candidate for an updated edition of Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the story it tells is nonetheless revealing.
Just four dates into the tour, it has become clear that eleven years after the band originally formed in Sydney, Australia, INXS is the newest Next Big Thing. The band's sixth album, Kick – powered by steamy, insinuating hits like "Need You Tonight" and "Devil Inside" – has been riding high on the charts since it was released last fall, and the band's audiences have been larger and more frenzied than ever before in this country.
But as INXS prepares to seize its moment, the group's relentless good times are haunted by a gnawing anxiety. The latest chapter in the six-man band's steady rise has been accompanied by – and is, in part, dependent on – the emergence of singer Michael Hutchence as a sex symbol and media personality, a first-rate crotch throb sought after by fashion magazines, film directors and a universe of teenage girls. Hutchence's starring role in the film Dogs in Space – albeit as a heroin user whose primary activity is crawling around a ramshackle house – lent further credence to the perception of him as a talent independent of the band.
The members of INXS – in addition to Hutchence and Tim Farriss, the group consists of keyboardist Andrew Farriss, guitarist-saxophonist Kirk Pengilly, bassist Garry Gary Beers and drummer Jon Farriss – came together in high school and have remained a tightly knit and unchanging unit ever since. All the members of the band write songs, though Hutchence is the primary lyricist and Andrew Farriss writes most of the music. Tim, Andrew and Jon are brothers – the band's original name was the Farriss Brothers – so at an elemental level the group's ties are bred in the blood. Toughened by years together on the road and blunt in a distinctly Australian way, the boys in INXS don't give much play to airs or pretense. So beyond saying something about the burgeoning success of INXS, the joke also seems an indirect message to Michael.
A few days later, the band plays a date in Dallas. Although plagued by sound problems, the show is a triumph. Reunion Arena is packed with well-scrubbed youths, who respond with deafening enthusiasm to the band's twenty-four-song set. So the postconcert mood on the bus is high-spirited, with beers being cracked open, Bryan Ferry's Bête Noire pumping out of the sound system and the band planning a celebratory night on the town.
Amid the revelry, Hutchence unfurls and passes around a handsome drawing of him that was done by a female fan – and takes a good-natured, though pointed, ribbing. "What a wonderful picture of Jim Morrison," Kirk quips, noting the resemblance between the slender, leonine Hutchence and the Lizard King of an earlier generation – a comparison the singer finds embarrassing. "And look, she's even given him muscles!"When the laughter subsides, Hutchence is again holding the drawing in his hands and, distracted for a moment, seems to be staring dreamily at his own image. "Watch it, mate," Tim Farriss chimes in, not missing a beat. "You don't want God walking around wishing he was you."
You could hardly blame God if he tried to pass himself off as Hutchence these days. An energetic and sexy performer, Hutchence, 28, is quieter and more composed, but no less magnetic, offstage. Articulate, graceful and seductive, he has the ability to make his attention seem like a valuable gift. Throw in good looks, talent and a gig as singer in a powerhouse rock & roll band, and the combination is pretty much irresistible – as was demonstrated one loony Saturday night on Bourbon Street, the main artery of New Orleans's French Quarter.
After the Municipal Auditorium show, Hutchence and his long-limbed companion, Virginia Hayes – an actress who is eight years older than Hutchence and another compelling reason that God might covet a stint as the INXS singer – took off down Bourbon Street with some friends in search of fun. But not too much fun. Hutchence was temporarily on the wagon because of the excesses of the previous night, when, with the rest of the band and members of PiL, the opening act on part of the tour, he got a crippling dose of Crescent City club life. Besides, he likes to be cautious in New Orleans: a few years ago, local authorities, inexplicably unappreciative of his "Jump back, I wanna kiss myself' James Brown imitation when he was hanging out in a club, arrested him on drunk-and-disorderly charges.
Despite his own restraint, Hutchence freely encouraged his companions to indulge in hurricanes – the sweet, enormous, paralyzingly potent red drinks that lubricate the flow of tourist street life in the French Quarter. He even stopped for a moment at one of the area's innumerable souvenir shops for a two-dollar blast of laughing gas. A fairly conspicuous sight with his streaked, shoulder-length hair, fashionable black suit and tinted glasses – not to mention the six-foot, blond-haired Virginia, wearing a handkerchief-size dress, on his arm – Hutchence gradually drew a sizable crowd.
"Is that . . . Is that really? No. Tell me, really?" stuttered a young girl to one of the people with Hutchence as the singer stood about a foot away, chatting with the proprietor of the souvenir shop. "Listen, tell him I think he's just the greatest!" Back on the street, Hutchence was stopped about every fifteen seconds for autographs, and he routinely obliged. He finally turned somebody down, saying, as he continued to walk, "I'm sorry, but if I stop and sign one, I'm going to be here for half an hour."
The night then took a surreal turn as two chubby teenage girls ran several feet in front of Hutchence and turned around to face him. As he and Virginia walked toward them – the chaos of the street suddenly framing itself around this Felliniesque confrontation – the girls started singing the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" in unison, pointing at Hutchence and gesturing with their hands in time. The sheer strangeness of that sight was both hilarious and sobering; the group decided to duck into a nearby Houlihan's, and soon afterward called it a night.
"There's one thing that working in Australia a long time doesn't prepare you for, and that is what they call in America 'becoming a star'," says Hutchence with a chuckle between bites of chicken salad the following afternoon in the dining room of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. "We don't really have a star system in Australia. It doesn't exist. There's no use in becoming one, or acting like one, or pretending you're one, because it doesn't get you anywhere. In fact, it's really the worst thing you can do there."
Hutchence's outfit for the day – black pants, black silver-tipped boots, a floppy black leather cap and a white T-shirt emblazoned with Love Hope Honour – argues that even if life in his homeland failed to prep him, the singer managed to get lessons in stardom somewhere along the line. But while he clearly thrives on the attention he attracts, he is convincing when he asserts that fame is not what drives him – or INXS.
Hutchence says, "I think [INXS manager Chris] Murphy said this once to the [record-company] people in America: 'Don't send cocaine, limos and women. It won't make us write better music; it won't make us a better band; it won't give us any incentive.' And it's true. We just don't work that way. Sometimes I think people get an image of us, that we may be that way. We're called INXS [pronounced "in excess"], and we don't fit into the real normal, cleaned-up corporate rock thing. At the same time, we're not a heavy-metal band running around with girls in fish-net tights."
Indeed, the girls who fill the halls, prowl the hotels and crawl the clubs where the band turns up are, generally speaking, a wholesome-looking lot. The blaze of prettiness that comes into view as one of the band's cars pulls out of Municipal Auditorium after sound check inspires Kirk to exclaim, while smiling and shaking his head, "My, there are some cute girls in the world, aren't there."There are indeed, and in keeping with the irreverent spirit of the rocker-in-heaven joke, the members of INXS are definitely not campaigning for sainthood. They don't always just say no when a contraband pleasure comes their way, and they are not above passing some time with all those cute girls the world so thoughtfully provides. Yet they are far from spoiled, jaded rock stars. They've worked too hard and too long to indulge guilt now that the rewards have begun to roll in.
The members of INXS also like to accentuate the positive. Asked about the possible pitfalls of the large halls the band is currently playing – and the even larger ones it will likely be playing in the future – Andrew Farriss, 29, by far the group's most obsessive and intense member, says, "There's two rewards from playing a big venue. The first one is the fact that all those people are standing, sitting, going crazy, whatever they're doing, simply because they like the music. Secondly, it's financial, which is a reward after a lot of years of not having things that we may or may not need. But that comes along, too.
"Money doesn't necessarily have to be that negative. It can also turn into something wonderful. You can provide people with things they don't have. I also think you can put on more shows to provide more people with more entertainment – and there's nothing wrong with that."
Hutchence shares the general feeling of good cheer. "Everybody keeps looking around, going, 'Yeah, yeah, this is it,'" he says. "We don't believe it. It's a strange situation, because lots of my friends say, 'Yeah, but it was always going to happen, of course.' We worked really hard to put ourselves out there. On the other side, so what? Lots of people do that and nothing happens. I guess we're very thankful that we've come from a garage in the beach suburbs of Sydney to three nights at Radio City Music Hall. And we somehow kept our sanity all the way."
The deep roots everyone in the band shares have helped INXS to maintain that sanity. The Farriss family originally lived in Perth, on the west coast of Australia, and later moved to Sydney, on the southeast coast, where the boys started playing in bands. "Sydney was basically where we all fell in together," says Jon Farriss – who at twenty-six is INXS's youngest member – one afternoon on the band's bus. "The Farriss brothers had all done their musical homework when we were really young – this was in Perth. Just listening to and studying music – we didn't realize we were doing it. We'd huddle around our record players all the time.
"Eventually, when we were capable of producing and arranging, Mom and Dad were exceptionally helpful in accommodating everything we needed. If Kirk's parents or someone's parents were against it, they'd have them over to stay the night so they'd feel really kosher about it. They'd allow us to play until eleven at night so we could develop. We weren't doing sports, and we weren't doing other things. We were really stubborn."
"It seems like we've been playing together so long now I can't imagine anything different," says Tim Farriss, 30, about his relationship with his brothers. "When we were kids, my father bought us instruments and made sure that we could play them, that we got taught.
"When we were really young, we used to stand around with tennis rackets and mime records, the three of us," he says, laughing. "Like 'Don't Sleep in the Subway' and 'Mr. Pleasant,' by the Kinks – and the Monkees, even Herb Alpert!"
Hutchence was born in Sydney but spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong after his father, who was in the import trade, moved the family there. He returned to Sydney for about a year when he was fourteen and became fast friends with Andrew Farriss in high school. He left Sydney again when he was about fifteen and moved to Los Angeles with his mother, who was a makeup artist, after his parents broke up.
"I kept very much to myself in L.A.," Hutchence says about his year there. "It was a bit shocking. I suppose I was more cosmopolitan than your average Ozzy kid because I'd been in Hong Kong and traveled around the world a bit with my parents, but on the whole it was just very different"
His friendship with Andrew helped hold Hutchence together. "The whole time I was exchanging letters with Andrew," Hutchence says. "Even though we were miles away, we were both getting into the same things, getting into the music more heavily.
"The day I got back, I rang Andrew, and he said, 'Yeah, great, come around.' It was funny, because we had both been dressing the same and looking the same and had the same attitudes. Most people fifteen, you split them up for a while and they come back completely different people. We still had a strong friendship."
Hutchence and Andrew hooked up again in a group that included Garry Beers; meanwhile, Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly were playing in bands together. At one point in 1977, as a result of the perpetual breakups and re-formations that afflict so many teenage combos, the five of them got together and drafted jon Farriss as their drummer. Jon, in fact, provided the motivation for the next stage in the band's career. Because he was still in high school, Jon was forced to move to Perth – a beach town about a continent away from the musical hotbeds of Sydney and Melbourne – when his parents decided to return there in 1978. Knowing the value of a good drummer, the band followed him.
"It's ridiculous," Hutchence says, laughing. "We thought, 'This is horrible – we're gonna lose Jonny, and we're gonna have to look for another drummer.' Then we thought, 'Well, maybe we can use this. Perth – apart from a really good blues scene – has no influence. Maybe it's perfect. Maybe we can just influence each other. Let's go to Perth, get a big house – it's really cheap there, great weather.' We weren't going to move to New York to a garret – we were interested in having a good time.
"We all made a pact. It was a Friday, the last day of school. I left home, I left school, and I got into a panel van and drove Mad Max style to Perth across the desert with Kirk. That was it. We just put our hands together and said, 'Let's do it.'"
Once in Perth, the band moved into a communal house and, according to Hutchence, "proceeded to destroy a neighborhood . . . Our house turned into a gig." During the ten months the band members spent in the city, they rehearsed daily and attempted to hone their eclectic sound, which at that point was an unwieldy blend of punk brashness, keyboard-driven pop and dance-inducing, Chic-style funk – not an easy style to categorize.
Once Jon was liberated from high school, in 1979, the group returned to Sydney, took the name INXS and began playing gigs around the city and its suburbs. The band spent two years touring relentlessly in Australia – first in the environs of Sydney, then along the country's east coast and finally across the entire country. The primary place to play in Australia at that time was in the surfer pubs.
"It was very rough," says the thirty-year-old Beers as he relaxes before the Dallas show in his hotel room. "You'd turn up at a venue, and the band would walk up and say, 'Could you fill in on bass? Because our bass player got beaten up last night.' You'd ask why, and they'd say, 'Oh, well, it was his turn!' They were really very much beer barns that we used to play in."
"Some of them are really big, and some of them are really small," says Tim Farriss, "and we just used to play in them every night of the week – it seemed like for years. A pretty rowdy bunch. If you don't cut it, they'll let you know really quickly. Rough, too, always fights. The bands that used to come out of those places when I was growing up as a kid were bands like AC/DC and Angel City. It was heavy rock – I guess it's what heavy metal's supposed to be."
Proving its own mettle on these grueling tours, INXS gained a formidable audience, which it parlayed into an Australasian record contract. The band recorded its 1980 debut album, INXS, for about $7000 during rushed sessions on the graveyard shift of a Sydney studio, and Underneath the Colours followed in 1981. The albums weren't released in the U.S. until three years later. Things were progressing nicely at home, but INXS still felt it had some decisions to make.
"We actually sat down around a table in '82 with Chris and said, 'Do we want to be a band that's going to just play the pub circuit in Australia and take that as far as it goes, or do we want to start trying to break into the international market?' " says Kirk, who is twenty-nine. "So the thing we tried, which really no other Australian band had tried, was we started working overseas before we were big in Australia."
That type of foresight has become a salient characteristic of INXS. "We steadily grew into realizing that if we don't make decisions, if we don't plan, other people will for us," says Hutchence. "That's rock & roll. It's too easy for other people to exploit you."
INXS began to gain an American audience in 1983 with the release of its album Shabooh Shoobah and the single and video for "The One Thing." The band undertook a massive tour of the U.S. in March, including a performance in May at the Us Festival, in California. The band members met Nile Rodgers, one of their idols, at one date on that tour, and he invited them to record with him in New York. The result was "Original Sin," which Rodgers produced; the song was released as a single in 1983 and included on The Swing, the album the band released the following year. A tune with an infectious groove, a swelling chorus and a controversial story about interracial love, "Original Sin" called still more attention to the band.
But INXS's major stateside breakthrough didn't come until "What You Need," the driving single from its 1985 album Listen Like Thieves, was released in early 1986. Both Listen Like Thieves and Kick were produced by Chris Thomas, and on those records the band focused the disparate elements of its sound with a remarkable force. After The Swing, INXS's most studio-oriented album, Thomas encouraged INXS to go for a sound that more closely approximated its live shows. The band's decision to allow Hutchence and Andrew Farriss to write eleven of the twelve songs on Kick also contributed to that album's cohesiveness. "We understood that Andrew writes the best music, and Michael obviously writes the best lyrics, because he sings them," says Beers. "So we left it totally up to them."
The band was in Australia and then on tour in Europe and consequently was unaware of the anticipation that Kick was creating in the U.S. Tim Farriss says, however, that he noticed a change in the response to the band the moment he stepped onstage for the first gig. "The first date in Miami, I just couldn't stop grinning," he says, grinning once again. "Going out onstage . . . Jesus, I just couldn't get the grin off my face."
With its funky rhythms and slamming rock backbeat, INXS's music is primarily physical – a fact that's nicely echoed in Hutchence's lyrics and sturdy baritone – and desire is unquestionably its central theme. In a song like "Devil Inside," which Hutchence has been dedicating to Jimmy Swaggart, Hutchence seems to posit sexuality as the great – and potentially dangerous – human equalizer.
"It surprises me that people are so outraged that Swaggart gets busted," Hutchence says, his evident anger curiously incongruous amid the calm peach tones of the Royal Orleans dining room. "It's incredible how people are raised above and become pious individuals and everybody looks up to them and they have complete faith. It's wonderful to have faith, but I don't drink the pope is any better than anyone else. By addressing the devil – and I don't believe in the devil, it's a metaphor – and not trying to achieve the angel, we're all a lot better off."
Hutchence has studiously avoided becoming a "spokesperson for his generation" with his lyrics. "I'd rather articulate my own position on things in an interview than in a song," he says between drags on a cigarette. "Because I think it can be a compromise. I'm not a great political lyricist, and I don't claim to be. I don't like knee-jerk politics. Anybody can read the front pages and write down, 'It's bad, it's bad, it's bad.' This is probably the most educated, conscientious generation in history. They're not stupid. Why tell people something they read in the newspapers last month?
"We don't make any great claims to change the world, but hopefully somewhere in our lyrics we are prodding people. I mean, don't listen to 'Guns in the Sky' and go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's my political bit for the day,' and then have a beer and go out. Buy books, really read the newspapers, really watch TV, watch what the government's doing."
Despite being wary of political lyrics, Hutchence wrote the bruising "Guns in the Sky," the opening track on Kick, as a protest against nuclear weapons in space. The video for the song specifically flashes the letters S.D.I. – for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars system – in case viewers might otherwise misunderstand the song's intent.
Hutchence says the inspiration for "Guns in the Sky" was "pure anger." "I wouldn't call it a political song," he says. "I'd call it an anger song. I was reading that they spent $2 million a minute on arms in the world in 1987. Two million dollars a minute. How much money did Live Aid raise? Seventy million dollars? So in an hour . . . That's when I started getting angry!"
Hutchence's view broadens further when he's asked about what he foresees for INXS in the future. "I suppose if we end up in a position of power – that's what kind of happens, whether you want it or not: we are now in a position of power – we can be movers and shakers," he says. "And I hope somewhere along the line in the next couple of years, we will be somehow using this to benefit people other than ourselves or more than just the audience on the night. Use this power to get something done in Australia and in different areas all around. At the moment we're talking to Amnesty International about this big tour that's coming up. We're hoping to work out some time to do some shows for them."
Still, more locally, there is the question of Hutchence's stardom and its impact on INXS. The rest of the band went on to Dallas after the New Orleans show, and Hutchence stayed behind to do an interview. As he boarded the bus, Tim Farriss said to Hutchence, only half-jokingly, "Say hello from the band in the interview."
"It seems that everybody else is trying to separate him from the band," Tim had said about Hutchence earlier that day in New Orleans. "It's not something he wants, and it's not something we want. We've tried to do everything always as a band. There is no leader in the band. He is the frontman, sure, and we understand the responsibilities that go with that and the necessity for a focal point. But we are a band. We've been together for ten years with the same guys. With the success, we don't want people to forget that."
Asked about the situation with Hutchence backstage in New Orleans, Pengilly grows thoughtful and says, "Up until the release of this album, we've always been pushed as a band. I don't know how that changed. It's the American way, really: it's easier to focus on one person than six. I don't think it worries anyone – because it hasn't got out of hand."
Beers points out that "Michael has gone out of his way to make us all realize that INXS is his number-one priority. I feel more confident in him than ever. When we have time off, which isn't that often, he throws himself into his films or whatever. But when we talk about it, he's so positive about INXS and so willing to do things to better INXS – he seems more unified as a part of the band than ever."
Anyone who's seen one of INXS's shows on the current tour – which will travel around the world for the rest of this year and into 1989 – would find it hard to disagree. Even as Hutchence is an undeniably riveting frontman – to the point of stripping to black shorts and a midriff-baring shirt for the encores – the other band members are all given their shots in the spotlight. And as Hutchence himself cavorts onstage – prancing like a younger, less caricaturish Mick Jagger – he seems to make a conscious point of connecting physically with each of the other guys, whether draping his arm over Andrew's or Tim's shoulder or climbing up onto the drum riser with Jon.
"These people aren't backing me up," Hutchence says. "INXS isn't about me. It's about six people."
Hutchence hopes to do more acting eventually, but the other band members aren't lacking for extracurricular projects themselves. Both Jon and Andrew were nominated in the Producer of the Year category of the Australian Record Industry Awards for their work with other artists last year, and Pengilly is considering making a solo album and writing a book based on his conscientiously kept diaries of the band's history. Beers hopes to work on a record with Sean Kelly, a former member of the Australian band the Models, when he gets back home.
And Hutchence is not unaware of the sacrifices the other members of the band have made. Fondly remembering Andrew as the frontman of all the bands he was in in high school, Hutchence says, with a self-deprecating reference, "He was always the singer. He's taken a major step backwards as far as the limelight goes in INXS. He's never been a publicity slut."
And as INXS has become the new sensation of the music world, Hutchence says he feels as if the band were "in the garage again." "Sometimes we think, 'How'd we get here without being a pack of assholes?'" he says, laughing, as Sunday afternoon draws to a close and the dining room empties. "It's pretty rare. That's what it's about: respect for your position and appreciating it. I mean, we all consider ourselves lucky.
"And I know we're going to keep going," he says earnestly. "We may burst our own bubble, but I don't think we're going to let anybody else do it for us. We strongly believe in ourselves. We've got a lot more to say, a lot more to do and a lot more songs to write. It feels like a new beginning, in fact – which is great."
This story is from the June 16, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.