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INXS: New Sensation

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"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.


     

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