Obituary: Michael Hutchence
Monday 24 November 1997
Antipodean bands are always treated somewhat patronisingly by the rest of the English-speaking world. INXS, whose charismatic frontman Michael Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney at the weekend, overcame early media resistance to become one of the biggest bands of the late Eighties and early Nineties with sales of 30 million records.
In the space of five years, they went from playing bottom of the bill with Queen (in 1986) to headlining Wembley Stadium (in 1991). Yet, over the course of 20 years, the incessant touring (a reported 3,500 concerts) took its toll on the group. Hutchence's rock-god persona and the constant tabloid focus on his relationships with the singer Kylie Minogue, the model Helena Christensen and, especially, the television presenter Paula Yates shifted the attention away from the band's brand of tight, clipped funk-rock and anthemic ballads. INXS were working hard to recover lost ground with a comeback tour entitled "Don't Lose Your Head" after a track featured in Face Off, the latest John Woo movie starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.
Michael Hutchence always led a peripatetic existence. Four years after his birth in Sydney, his wine-importer father moved his business to Hong Kong. There the young Michael was something of a model pupil at the King George V International School. But when the family returned to Australia in 1972, he found the going tough and was saved from being bullied by classmates when one Andrew Farriss intervened.
The pair became friends; they shared a love for the music of Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. Andrew played keyboards and guitar and Michael sang along. Michael's parents later separated and he followed his mother to California for a couple of years. But he returned in 1976 and soon formed a band with Andrew Farriss and Garry Gary Beers on bass.
At the same time, Andrew's older brother Tim was playing guitar in a succession of groups with Kirk Pengilly (on guitar and saxophone). Joining forces in 1977 and adding their younger brother Jon on drums, the outfit became simply known as the Farriss Brothers and started to tour the lucrative pub circuit. In Australia, the pubs are huge hangar-like venues sometimes packing up to a thousand locals and the band honed their craft playing several sets of rock covers in front of boisterous crowds every night. Perth was an early stronghold and they briefly moved there in 1978.
Returning to Sydney with the monicker INXS, the sextet signed to the small Deluxe label and released their debut album in 1980. After the success of Underneath the Colours on RCA, the band moved to Atco for 1982's Shabooh Shabooh, which became their first album to be picked up overseas by Atlantic in the United States and Mercury in Europe.
"The One Thing" and "Don't Change" were favourites on US college radio in 1983 and INXS gained early exposure on MTV and became minor new-wave stars. The following year, they added a dash of dance and funk to their rocky sound and, under the guidance of the producer Nile Rodgers (of Chic fame), cut the infectious "Original Sin" for The Swing; the track became a Top 60 hit in the US and a major hit in France. Nineteen eighty-five was their breakthrough year, with an appearance live from Australia on Live Aid as well as the heady "Listen Like Thieves", their first Top 15 US hit single and the title track of their fifth album.
The group were moving steadily up the ladder of rock'n'roll success. In the summer of 1986, "What You Need" reached number five in the US and INXS appeared at Wembley Stadium. They were propping up the bottom of a bill also comprising the Alarm and Status Quo and headlined by Queen. Michael Hutchence, part Mick Jagger, part Jim Morrison, all long hair and leather trousers, proved a commanding, exciting frontman and won many a wavering spectator over. INXS were soon catapulted into the superstar category with the mega-selling Kick.
The Roxy Music and Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas was one of the catalysts behind the 1987 album, which spawned four transatlantic hit singles: "New Sensation", "Devil Inside", "Never Tear Us Apart", "Need You Tonight" (the latter their only US chart-topper), won the group five MTV awards and two Grammy nominations, sold nine million copies and stayed in the British charts for nearly two years. Hutchence's gyrating performances and yearning vocals further established him as a sex-symbol and frontman to rival U2's Bono.
Riding their wave of popularity, the INXS frontman had already starred as Sammy No Brain, a drug-crazed punk singer, in the 1987 cult Australian film Dogs in Space (directed by Richard Lowenstein). Two years later, he appeared as the romantic poet Shelley in Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound and concocted the Max Q project with Ian "Ollie" Olsen.
Regrouping in 1990, the sextet stuck to their winning formula with X and its selection of smashes: "Suicide Blonde", "Disappear", "By My Side" and "Bitter Tears". The following year, the group headlined Wembley Stadium and marked time by issuing its concert performance on the Live Baby Live set. But the law of diminishing returns was already affecting their popularity. The US market was losing interest and the group peaked in the UK with the dance-orientated Welcome To Wherever You Are, a number one album in 1992.
INXS had often experimented with club remixes but they now looked to be following in the footsteps of Primal Scream, Happy Mondays and U2. 1993's Full Moon, Dirty Hearts only generated one Top 15 single ("The Gift") and their Greatest Hits collection, although somewhat successful the following year, confirmed the impression that the band was drifting creatively and on a personal level too.
When Paula Yates left her husband Bob Geldof for Hutchence in 1995, the British tabloids declared open season on the new couple. Hutchence was provoked and turned on a couple of paparazzi. His decadent life-style made him an easy target and, with Yates (by whom last year he had a daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily), he considered a permanent move to Australia.
Hutchence should have been a happy man. He owned houses in London, the South of France, Sydney and Hong Kong. But the last couple of years had been a struggle. He had managed to contribute to No Talking Just Head, an album by the Heads (Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame, without David Byrne but with guest vocalists like Black Grape's Shaun Ryder and Deborah Harry).
However he never completed work on his long- rumoured solo sessions and switched from kick-boxing and going to the gym to nights out on the town boozing and popping pills. The recent Elegantly Wasted album had proved a disappointment and the critics routinely rounded on INXS in their reviews. "Ever since the success of Kick, I've been terrified of being lumped in with bands that were popular but are now extinct," Hutchence said. "We come from a generation where there aren't many survivors."
Michael Hutchence will be remembered for his sexual magnetism and animal presence and some of the last 10 years' most memorable hit singles. A 1993 interview with Q's Adrian Deevoy shows the compelling frontman was fully aware of his talent and also of his limitations. "I really am a fucking great rock star," he said.
The others are pretenders. They have choreographers and people to do their hair, make-up artists, managers who tell them what to wear. I've never done that. Ever. Rock'n'roll for me is more than about music. It comes from a thousand years ago and a thousand years in the future, if that makes any sense . . .
Rock'n'roll is the perfect scenario for people who need a lot of attention,who were ignored as kids. It's the most indulged, ridiculous situation. It used to be that as a rock star everyone was happy if you killed yourself.
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