The man and his music – A Tribute by Toby Creswell, Music Journalist
As I recall it, the room was in half darkness and the blinds were drawn against the warm, late-summer sunshine. I was ushered into what passed for a suite on the third floor of Albury-Wodonga’s finest hotel. In fact it was one of the few buildings over two storeys in the twin cities. The blinds were drawn not against the sunshine but the gaggle of schoolgirls below who chanted the singer’s name over and over. As soon as anyone went to the window the chorus started up again.
It was the winter of 1985 the first time I met Michael Hutchence and it was obvious that he was born to be a star. Even in Albury-Wodonga he was a prisoner of his fame. There was much more to come. At that point I was only mildly interested in INXS, had rarely seen them play and was not greatly impressed with their first three albums. The Swing in 1983 was the beginning of something unique and by the time of Listen Like Thieves it was apparent that INXS were a band with a momentum all their own.
Hutchence was disarmingly different from what anyone would expect of an Oz rock pop star. He was fiercely ambitious but he took little other than his music with too much seriousness. He was more interested in talking about how much he admired Nick Cave and the Birthday Party than blowing his own trumpet.
Hutchence’s walking on the wild side gave an edge to the pop sensibilities of his co-writer Andrew Farriss. But INXS was essentially a gang in every sense of the word, they were a democracy. “Andrew and I may write most of the songs, but this is a real and,” he said at the time. “It’s not two writers and four dumb musicians.”
At the conclusion of the interview the singer went down to meet the fans and returned with a list of kids who hadn’t been able to get tickets to the sold-out theatre show.
Backstage for this gig was the inside of the semi which carted the PA. The camaraderie around INXS at that time was purely infectious. Although this would have been the ten thousandth or more gig they were buzzing to get onstage. As the intro music started up and the stage manager came to collect them the six players began to pound the wall of the truck and chant “rock & roll” like the legendary Derek Smalls and his crew. Then they went on stage and blew everyone away.
Whatever anyone may say about their songs or their albums, INXS were one of the truly great live bands – a perfect synthesis of all the themes of rock and pop music. Personally, few concerts I have ever seen have been as powerful and as convincing as that night in Albury.
After the show the group found the only nightclub in town and drank them dry of champagne and most anything else. Few groups ever knew how to party as hard as INXS and the catalyst for the party was generally Michael.
INXS went on from Albury to nudge the edge of the American charts with the Listen Like Thieves album. The group had crisscrossed America for three years building an audience and making waves in the American music business. On stage the chemistry of INXS could not be denied and much of it had to do with Michael Hutchence – his enormous energy was complemented by a breathless phrasing in his singing that made the songs sound both vulnerable and sexual. His persona on stage was slightly androgynous, with a loping, feline walk.
The years that INXS put in from 1982 onwards really shaped the group. Touring internationally gave them a broader perspective and while almost all of their contemporaries focussed on the easy rewards of the Australian pub circuit, INXS developed a global view.
Already in 1985 INXS were contenders in the international rock & roll arena. Hutchence then demonstrated that he wasn’t content just to sing and he took the lead role in the film Dogs in Space, written and directed by his friend Richard Lowenstein. Michael took on the role of an inner-city wannabe punk rocker with poor eyesight, indifferent hygiene and loose morals. The film was an astute satire on rock & roll but the humour – especially Hutchence’s character – was lost on the general public.
They were the only Australian group to play Live Aid, their shows having earned them a reputation up with the likes of U2. Although others had sold more albums, no other group had maintained a consistent presence in the US and it’s no coincidence that the breakthrough of INXS was followed swiftly by Midnight Oil, Crowded House and the Church.
That wasn’t enough. Number 11 on the Billboard charts was ten places from the goal. The group came off nine months on the road with Listen Like Thieves and went directly into work on the next album. Over a year was spent working on Kick, writing songs, developing the image and the videos and planning the tour and the promotion.
When the record was released in October 1987 the band was playing a college tour. Over the next year the group would tour the US three times and Europe twice. By the time they returned to Australia fiftytwo weeks later the Kick album had been number one in America and had spawned three top ten singles.
Success took its toll, however, Michael’s personal relationships were the first catastrophe of his lifestyle. Then there was the pressure. By the time the tour arrived in Europe he was travelling separately and he was self-medicating his lifestyle with drugs.
Then came the pay-off. “The whole back catalogue exploded,” says Grant. “The merchandise was phenomenal – millions of dollars. $2 – $3 million. I remember standing on the front steps of the Ritz in Paris and there was a band debate between going to Van Douche or La Cupole – the two most expensive restaurants in Paris. I was going, “Guys, it wasn’t long ago the seven of us were arguing over fish and fucking chips. Does it really matter?”
If Kick made INXS superstars, it made Michael Hutchence a sex symbol and a wealthy international celebrity. Hutchence could do anything at that point and he chose to make an album with Ollie Olsen. The Max Q project was out in left field musically, but Hutchence was never happier. Most of the album was recorded in Sydney in a studio by musicians who had struggled for years. Michael was soaking up a new ambience and enjoying the freedom of collaborating with Ollie, who would encourage him to write the music.
The massive success of Kick transcended all boundaries. INXS were, if not liked, at least respected by the nation as a symbol of Australia’s international presence. The tall poppy loppers were a long way off.
Michael was essentially a shy guy who seemed to hide behind his hair, his speech impediment and his retiring manner, because as often as not he was watching and assimilating the passing parade. While he resented intrusions into his privacy, he resisted becoming removed from the real world. He wanted to be able to hold up the bar in a nightclub and talk to anyone. The surprising thing was that as his fame grew his ego didn’t and the oddest thing about spending time around Hutchence was just how regular a person he was.
Having been in a rock band since his teens, Michael was pretty much self-educated. He had a thirst for knowing what was going on – reading the right authors, collecting the right painters. Meeting, as we generally did around alcohol, you could find yourself walking into an involved discussion of Camile Paglia or the like.
Unlike many celebrities, Hutchence knew how to get along in a crowd. He was welcoming and interested and rarely as interested in discussing his achievements as shooting the shit about any issue. While most rock stars are happy just to celebrate their own wealth and fame, Hutchence seemed to be obsessed with the world outside his bubble.
After the Kick tour, INXS and Hutchence needed a break which for him included an ill-advised role in a Roger Corman remake of Frankenstein opposite Bridget Fonda and John Hurt.
INXS reassembled for the X album and made one of their most difficult records. “To be honest it was pretty hard those first couple of weeks,” Hutchence said at the time. “INXS is not sitting around holding hands, it’s not like the fucking Partridge Family. At the same time we were very, very lucky that we’ve stuck together and gone as far as we have.”
The X album didn’t sell in the quantities that Kick had done but it was a respectable, multi-million selling LP that was followed by a world tour that almost lasted a year. While the group had less success in the US than previously, they found a new audience in Europe, and in the UK especially, where the group sold out major stadiums.
By the time INXS made their next album, Welcome to Wherever You Are, in 1992, music was going through a sea change. That year grunge took over the planet. At home the group’s management had adopted an imperious attitude with the industry and the tall poppy shears were being sharpened. Welcome To Wherever You Are was launched in Sydney with a benefit concert for St Vincent’s Hospital which raised more than $600,000 and when the gate numbers fell short of the target, the knives came out.
In England they received the best reviews of their career. It was a difficult, soulsearching time for the band but their commitment remained strong. They had one last album to record for Atlantic in the US, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, and on Capri, an island off the coast of Italy where they cut their most bizarre and edgy album.
While INXS were making strong albums they lacked the new sheen of a Smashing Pumpkins. They played the Big Day Out in New Zealand but remained in a limbo between the old and the new. The last album Elegantly Wasted suffered from a bad cover but contained some of the group’s best ever music, including the soulful ballad “Searching.”
It has become fashionable now to see INXS as a group that was past its use-by date. However, anyone who saw their shows in January this year (1997) or heard their last album will tell you that the band was still making great music.
The sales of Elegantly Wasted, prior to November 22, approached one million copies worldwide and the only other Australian artists who can even remotely match those figures are Silverchair and Savage Garden.
The last time I saw Michael was at the Grand Pacific Blue Room, a Sydney restaurant and bar where the band had taken over the dining room. They showed some scars but they wore them with pride. That evening Hutchence had the usual devilish look in his eye. He seemed to be happy hanging out with his mates, but even then he was keenly feeling the pain of his wretched triangle and proclaiming that ‘Saint Bob’ was the devil incarnate.
The Congregation at Michael’s funeral included not only his family, friends and fans but people of wealth and fame and power. He would have liked the full house. Some of the mourners are voices of generations themselves but each person in that church was united in a terrible grief.
Show business has never moved far from its roots in travelling tents. Every circus has its tightrope act and the higher the wire the better the show. We want to see performers do what we could never do take more drugs, drink harder, seduce supermodels and starlets. From time to time the tightrope walker slips.
No one knows what went on in Michael’s mind on that Saturday morning. Anyway, it’s not our place to judge another man. It’s likely that the pressures of stardom and a mixture of drugs and alcohol affected his judgement, and that morning the tightrope walker slipped. Michael didn’t work with a net.