This article was originally published on the Patreon website last November 2019, on the 22nd anniversary of Michael Hutchence’s death. If you aren’t familiar with Patreon, it’s a membership-based site that provides a vital platform for people in the creative industries to provide exclusive subscription content services to their subscribers, allowing creators to receive funding directly from their patrons, on a recurring basis or per post.
In other words, remember when you used too buy those newspapers, magazines and specials? I’m sure you like to get paid for the world you do. Well, guess what? So do I. You will find a Patreon link button on this blog, So if you like what you read please spare a thought for journalists, writers and authors whose livelihood has suffered immensely from the way the Internet has fuelled this rampant sense of freebie entitlement. Many of us are suffering in other ways too, but we can be heroes, right?
Two months later and on what would have been Michael’s 60th birthday I’ve decided to make the article available on stevepafford.com. It seems more than timely to pay pen service to a local hero, and an electrifying, flamboyant frontman and focal point of the most celebrated Aussie rock band of all time. And that’s not damning with faint praise. I’m just not sure if I would really classify the Melbourne-formed Crowded House as rock in the testosterone-fuelled narrow definition of the genre. Some people don’t even regard them as Aussie, which you could never level at INXS.
INXS formed in 1977 as a result of various bandly configurations branching out of a cluster of schools in Australia’s French’s Forest, a Northern Beaches suburb of Sydney 15 minutes inland from Manly, from where I write this.
While the Farriss family home in nearby Belrose, as well as the band’s early rented Sydney residence in Newport, are key locations in the band’s early existence, they aren’t the only landmarks in INXS history.
Pivotal to the six-piece’s future, the performance generally agreed as marking the birth of the group took place a little further up the insular peninsula; at a Whale Beach Road house party on the same date Elvis Presley died. The location was a communal hippie-surfer crib on Whale Beach Road, where eldest brother Tim Farriss was living at the time.
Nestled among the leafy hills and high-end housing (George Michael used to rent a house on the same long and winding road, pictured above), it was there on 16 August 1977 when the Farriss band of brothers, Hutchence and his Doctor Dolphin bandmate from Manly, Garry Gary Beers, invited school chum Kirk Pengilly to play their first ever show, for Tim’s 20th birthday.
Tim Farriss is exactly one year older than Madonna, which must thrill him. Though the pedant Pafford in me should point out that international time zone differences dictated that by the time the so-called King died sitting on the loo in mid-afternoon Memphis, it was already 17 August in New South Wales, and the party had long fizzled out.
“I thought the show went really well,” middle brother Andrew Farris said in Jeff Jenkins’ book Molly Meldrum Presents 50 Years Of Rock In Australia. “But I think my dad summed it up the next day: ‘Great show, but everyone was asleep when we left.’ I think everyone might have been stoned.”
Well, why not judge for yourselves? When I started researching this article, I was been scrolling through YouTube and found a recording of that very first Whale Beach gig, at least that that’s what the page purported it to be. However, after a bit of online murmuring suggesting otherwise, the uploader has relabelled said audio accordingly, suggesting that it could be from a 1979 gig at the Alley Cat Wine Bar in North Sydney. Either way, it’s a very early recording.
Already, the band were learning to stick together through thick and, at least in the beginning, mostly thin. Andrew had already broken up a fight between Hutchence – a nomadic, artsy outsider – and the school bully, cementing their friendship. “You form naive friendships when you’re young,” Farriss told City Pagesa. “You have no idea you’re going to end up together in the pointy end of the entertainment industry. You just find yourself there.”
The sextet rented a storefront a short stroll down the coast at Elvina Ave in Avalon to rehearse and record, dashing off versions of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff and Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug as their first try-outs. Three of the lads — Tim and Andrew Farriss, along with the still local Kirk Pengilly (he currently lives very close by in Freshwater) — financed their ambition by working for the Bill Buckle Toyota garage at the Brookvale end of the intriguingly named Narraweena).
Over four decades later, I can’t help but notice that Bill is still in business. I drive past it in my Hyundai almost every week to go food shopping at Warringah Mall across the road. By virtue of geography, Asian cars are pretty popular in Australia. Mini buses too.
There was no question of staying in Sydney, then, not when in 1978 the Farriss family moved more than 2,000 miles away to Perth, the capital of Western Australia. The rest of the group dutifully followed. Still, they’d have to wait for Jon Farriss’ high school graduation before making a serious go of it. So, they wrote songs, rehearsed endlessly, performed in local spots. “We played every bar, party, pub, hotel lounge, church hall, mining town – places that made Mad Max territory look like a Japanese garden,” Hutchence told the Sun Herald in 1993.
They briefly performed as The Vegetables, singing “We Are the Vegetables” as straight-faced as it’s possible to be without looking like a bunch of turnips, before the Farriss Brothers band finally returned to Sydney some 10 months later, where they promptly gained the attention of Midnight Oil manager Gary Morris.
The arrangement didn’t quite work out, but something important happened during their brief, unhappy time together. “I saw a commercial for a brand of jam called IXL; their ad featured a guy who said, ‘I excel in all I do,’” Morris says in Anthony Bozza’s INXS Story to Story: The Official Autobiography. “I’d recently seen the English band XTC when they toured Australia, and I loved their name: XTC – ecstasy. In that moment, I put all those thoughts together. The name needed to be letters, but make a word. I put the IXL jam commercial together with XTC and the concept of a band that was inaccessible and I had it: INXS.”
Certainly fabber than ABBA, right? But because the band members of quarrelled so consistently with Morris over the group’s direction, the timeline on the titular change remains in question.
The name is also said to have come from a member of management at Deluxe Records, an independent label that later signed INXS and was run by a booking agent named Chris ‘CM Murphy. “Our record company suggested In Excess,” Tim told People magazine. The group agreed, he added, but only if they could shorten it to INXS.
Whatever the story, by 1 September 1979, they were ready to debut the new moniker – where ever it came from – at the Oceanview Hotel in Toukley, on the coast of New South Wales. But there was still much to do. It would be some four years before they’d belatedly break through in America. In fact, INXS would split with Morris by the end of ’79. That said, Murphy was there to step in, ready or not.
“The night Morris offered them to me, I told him I’d take them midway through their third song,’ Murphy says in Bozza’s INXS Story To Story. “I stood there thinking, ‘This is pretty funky.’ This kid up front is pretty weird. This band plays really, really well. What Morris didn’t realise was that I only intended to take them on as their booking agent. I didn’t want to be their manager.”
That’s exactly what he became, all the way through to 1995. By then, they had done something considered all but unthinkable. “Before INXS, the idea that any group could graduate to dominance of the world’s airwaves from the sweaty beerhalls of Australia seemed as strange and remote as the country itself,” Andrew Mueller of the Guardian pointed out. “Before Hutchence, the notion that mainstream international rock star was a plausible career option for someone from Australia felt preposterous.”
Hutchence had already took moves from Jagger, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop and transformed into a serpentine, almost supernatural presence, attracting women and trouble in equal measure. “He was always singing to the chicks, not the guys,” guitarist turned saxophonist Kirk Pengilly says, “and that was stepping over the line. Australian pub bands sang to the guys, not the girls. We often had to hide Michael while we packed the gear in the van, because the blokes outside wanted to punch his head in.”
To Hutchence, however, this was progress. ”I knew something was going on,” he said in 1994, “when I was onstage one night and some fella shouted out, ‘You’re a fuckin’ poof!’ The girl next to him turned round quick as a flash and said, ‘He’s had more women than you’ve had hot dinners, mate.’ I thought, ‘Now we’re getting somewhere.’” However, Michael’s sexuality wasn’t totally straightforward, and if the mood took him, he would occasionally experiment with men too. He was just more discreet about it than most.
“You know, he was the girl in the bunk bed at the sleepover, who was, you know, beckoning you upstairs to tell you secrets,” Titanic actor Billy Zane explained of his friend.
The group’s first two albums — a self-conscious, ska-influenced eponymous debut, followed by the more New Wavey Underneath The Colours — made respectable showings in the lower reaches of the Australian ARIA Top 30. Produced by Mark Opitz, 1982’s more assured Shabooh Shoobah, which contained the catchy single The One Thing, shunted up to No.5 but it was hardly earth shattering. Luckily, prince charming was waiting in the wings.
The commercial success of INXS really got going in fabulously funky style in 1983. They started the year as opening act for the dandy highwayman Adam Ant’s first solo tour of America, but their post-punk affectations and New Romantic plumage were now fading to grey, revealing a rock band with funk leanings and pop instincts.
Unashamedly mainstream but always difficult to categorise, when the band decided they wanted some of what David Bowie was having, they nabbed Let’s Dance’s producer Nile Rodgers, for the sleek, angular funk-pop hybrid Original Sin. In its combination of INXS’ road-honed rhythmic poise, Rodgers’ taut production, and the doubled jump of guitars, the track was an impressive advance on the group’s crossover dream. Hutchence’s lyrics were the crowning touch, a bleak reverie on racial harmony that came out of a car ride through Harlem, as lead guitarist Tim Farris remembers.
“I was a huge fan of Nile’s. This is back in the day when we were still all traveling together on one tour bus, and we all had to endure listening to what everyone wanted to hear on the stereo. I put my cassette tape of Nile Rodgers’ In The Land Of The Good Groove album on and forced everyone to listen to it because I was so into it. Singing that ended up being our pre-gig warm up thing, which is quite funny.
”And then of course his work on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was quite sensational at the time. I really like his guitar playing on the Bowie album, which, coincidentally is mainly him. Stevie Ray Vaughan only played the solo on Let’s Dance, that’s all the did. I mean, Carlos Alomar played quite a bit as well, but I know Nile’s playing so well because I’ve got every album Chic ever made. It was really good fun and I’m so glad we did that with him. And then Duran Duran went and used him.”
Keyboardist and main songwriter Andrew Farriss added: “Michael and I put together Original Sin. Nile liked it and we went to [New York’s] Power Station to record. Nile played guitar, Darryl Hall sang backing vocals and a couple of guys from David Bowie’s band put instrumental bits on it as well. No pressure! Back then, coming out of the Seventies, the Chic funk era, you had Talking Heads and Blondie who were real trailblazers who stayed true to their belief – and we thought we wanted to do that, too.”
The thumping corker of a track worked. The Chic mainman raised the band’s profile and gave them their first chart-topper… in their homeland at least.
On the other side of the Pacific, the Americans were warming to them, though. The following spring, INXS enlisted celebrated British producer Chris Thomas (Roxy Music, Elton John, Sex Pistols) to record their next album, Listen Like Thieves. Thomas had been an admirer for a while, as he noted in a 1998 interview with the Mix:
“Oh, they were a great band! I remember before I worked with them seeing them at the Hollywood Palladium in 1984. That gig was incredible; it was one of the best gigs I ever saw by any band. God, they were good! Michael was absolutely brilliant. And the style of their music—it was funk but it was white and rock; a great mixture.”
The end result, 1985’s crunchy, cocksure Listen Like Thieves LP, gave the band a No.11 placing on the Billboard charts, completing their transition into an accomplished albums band. The record was bolstered by a pair of decent sized hit singles in the charmingly demanding title track and, with its hard-edged Stonesy groove, What You Need, which gave INXS their first Top Five smash in the US.
But despite a modicum of airplay on Sky TV’s new Sky Trax video show (and the medium that brought the band, through those two ’85 45s, to my attention), as Crowded House were discovering, the Brits were proving somewhat harder to crack.
Unlike Paula Yates of course.
Kick, one of the most staggeringly accomplished albums of 1987, was when it exploded. The result of their rising ambition and continued collaboration with Chris Thomas, their sixth studio set was an irresistible, sensuous blend of rock, funk, pop and blues.
No genre was out of bounds. Originally written as a piano-based rockabilly number, Never Tear Us Apart transformed into a grand, dramatic ballad, featuring one of Hutchence’s most impassioned vocals.
Unlike a lot of INXS songs, which fall apart when played by another band, the song has become a rock standard and reality show staple. “There’s so many different versions I can’t even remember them all,” says Andrew Farriss. “But there’s a couple that stand out to me. Tom Jones and Natalie Imbruglia covered it as a duet, which was incredible. And Joe Cocker recorded it. I was always a huge fan of his and I couldn’t believe it when he did that. I was just like, ‘wow’.”
At this point in time they really could do no wrong. The LP peaked at Number Three on the Billboard charts, and crucially, No.9 in Britain. Incredibly, though, their American record label initially refused to release the album. In the sleeve notes for the set’s 30th anniversary deluxe edition in 2017, then manager Chris Murphy, recounts a nail-biting encounter with Atlantic Records president Doug Morris when he first took the tapes to New York.
“He put his feet up on the desk and closed his eyes from the minute the record went on to the minute it finished. When it stopped, he said, ‘I’ll give you a million dollars to go and record another album’.”
Luckily, wiser heads prevailed, and the irresistible anthem swagger of Kick produced an enviable four Top 40 hits in the UK, but even better, yielded four Top 10 US singles: New Sensation, Never Tear Us Apart, Devil Inside and the chart-slaying No. 1, the slinky, eternally groovy Need You Tonight that seems to have become a bit of an influence on Dua Lipa’s latest offering.
A whole decade after that first gig, to the wider UK public INXS were seemingly the new sensations they merrily sang about. Though it’s fair to say that the band peaked in the Kick / X era of the late Eighties and early Nineties.
There were plenty of other bands who also ‘fell victim’ to the 1990s. No doubt, the Aussie sextet themselves had a hand in that, with some questionable decisions after seventh album X.
Maybe that romance with the prancing pop pixie Vylie Minogue didn’t help.
During their Summer XS tour of 1991 INXS headlined a day-long all-star shebang, playing to front of 74,000 people at the hallowed ground of Wembley Stadium in London. It was six years to the day Live Aid had been staged at the same venue, and was also the only time I saw INXS with their original frontman.
San Franciscan rockers Jellyfish opened the show (no, I can’t remember them either, and I was there), along with fast-rising indie-dance outfit Jesus Jones, widely-acclaimed British soul-rocker Roachford, hairy Irish munchkins Hothouse Flowers, and the icon of peroxide that is Debbie Harry. This was during her ‘Dirty Harry’ so-so solo era that saw the former and future Blondie figurehead appear on stage resplendent in kinky boots, whips and leotard but not exactly on her finest form.
“The whole band was on fire that night”, bassist Garry Gary Beers recalled in 2019. “Michael was so good, he sang his heart out and gave every person in the crowd a night to remember for all time. He truly had that amazing ability to make the biggest shows as intimate as the pubs we grew up in musically.”
At one point during their show-stopping headliner, Hutchence harangued Tim Farriss to “play the fucking riff Timmy”, which led to Farriss being nicknamed The Riff Meister, and later The Riff Sherriff. The moment was captured on record and longform concert video entitled Live Baby Live, an epochal moment in the band’s chronology, even if they were no longer new sensations.
A celebration of INXS at the very pinnacle of their commercial success, the album featured highlights from many gigs on the tour, not just in London but Paris, Dublin, Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro, Montreal, Spain, Switzerland, Melbourne, Sydney, and US shows in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Las Vegas. The accompanying film, directed by David Mallet, captured the entire Wembley performance, with the use of no fewer than 17 cameras.
The film has been recently restored from the original 35mm negative to Ultra HD 4K, and a theatrical presentation was recently screened at selected cinemas in Australia and New Zealand, with Europe and the Americas to follow any day now. Check INXScinema.com for local listings.
I was lucky enough to get a preview of the upgraded concert footage earlier in the year and can confirm that it’s exceptionally good. A lot of love has gone into the project, which is exciting. They’ve converted the film negatives from 4:3 to 16:9 with careful shot-by-shot reframing, for the full cinematic experience.
The audio for the film has been painstakingly remixed in Dolby Atmos by Giles Martin and Sam Okell at Abbey Road, who’ve also overseen a new deluxe audio package as well. Both the 3LP vinyl and 2CD editions feature unseen imagery from the show, new essays from the band and sleeve notes by hairy broadcaster and uber INXS fan Jamie East, who was also in the crowd that day.
Speaking about this show, the band’s bassist Garry Gary Beers remembers “The whole band was on fire that night but especially at our ‘pointy end’ – Michael was so good as he sang his heart out and gave every person in the crowd a night to remember for all time. He truly had that amazing ability to make the biggest shows as intimate as the pubs we grew up in musically.”
INXS released a further three studio albums with Hutchence at the helm, and, 20 years after that first gig, performed their last “live” concert with him during their North American leg of the Elegantly Wasted Tour on 27 September 1997 at the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre in Burgettstown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
There were only 6,500 people there for the B94 “Summer Stretch” concert with INXS, Amy Grant, Savage Garden and 10,000 Maniacs.
Two years and four days earlier I’d caught an even more challenging show at the same venue, when the Gothic shock of David Bowie’s Outside Tour ’95 rolled into town, not in the slightest bit amiably supported by Nine Inch Nails and Prick.
On the morning of 22 November 1997, Hutchence was found dead in his hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton in Sydney’s Double Bay. At the time of his death, on the eve of the band’s 20th anniversary homecoming tour, the increasingly erratic and emotional frontman hadn’t slept for between 36 and 48 hours, had a large quantity of alcohol and cocaine in his system, and was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Bob Geldof.
His death was at his own hand, and was reported by the New South Wales Coroner to be the result of suicide by hanging from this fifth floor door. He was two months shy of his 38th birthday.
On a personal note, one of the more telling things about his death was certain reactions to the news, not least of all mine. Hutchence became embroiled in a soap-operatic affair with the British television celebrity – and wife of Bob Geldof – Paula Yates, with whom he had a child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily.
Despite having seen INXS live, and, later in the mid ’90s, studying the curious way he walked through London’s Mayfair with a female companion that wasn’t Paula or the unceremoniously dumped Helena Christensen (his demeanour was far from the swaggering, posturing rock star his public image suggested, that’s for certain). He and Yates had become tawdry tabloid fodder on an almost daily basis.
Indeed, at the time our paths collided Hutchence had just been snapped punching one of the paparazzi photographers that were stalking the couple—Diana style— so approaching him was the last thing on my mind. (It only transpired in the recent documentary Mystify that Michael’s increasingly aggressive and unpredictable behaviour was the result of frontal lobe damage stemming from a head injury during an alteration with a taxi driver in Copenhagen in 1992. Talk about a vicious circle.)
When I heard the news of his death on the BBC, the words INXS didn’t even register. It was a slightly surreal moment, but because he had become one half of the Michael and Paula show, my brain didn’t connect the man with the same person I’d witnessed owning Wembley Stadium eight years earlier. Only when my father visited later that Saturday and piped up “Shame about Hutchence, eh?” did I start to put the puzzle back together and thought about all the great music he had left behind.
I wouldn’t say the the band had nosedived into obscurity, but a combination of commercial decline and the ensuing front-page “love quadrangle” ensured that the words INXS were no longer uppermost in people’s minds. Their last significant album was Welcome To Wherever You Are (1992) which included the relative hit Bitter Tears.
As the band struggled to keep their sound unique (Michael had become enamoured by the Nirvana-led grunge movement, to the consternation of his bandmates), they tapped Ray Charles and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde to participate on their album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts (1993). Elegantly Wasted (1997) was the last album with Hutchence on lead vocals and resulted in a minor hit in the title track.
The third and final time I witnessed Michael in the flesh was at the 1996 Brit Awards at London’s Earls Court, an edition of the annual backslapping awards ceremony that became infamous for a number of reasons: someone asked Celine Dion the immortal question “Why the long face?… to her face. And as the Outstanding Contribution recipient and show-closer, David Bowie’s star turn in high heels was utterly overshadowed by Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion of Michael Jackson’s nauseating “I am Jesus” performance, which the self-appointed “King of Pop” only agreed to on the condition they create a special award for him to be presented by Hutchence’s nemesis “Sir” Bob Geldof.
An already uncomfortable looking “alternative Michael” presented Oasis with a trophy for Wonderwall. In his acceptance speech, Noel Gallagher, who I’d watched get increasingly intoxicated all evening, responded in typically inarticulate fashion, “Has-beens shouldn’t present fucking awards to gonna-bes!”
Hutchence slunk off with a hint of his trademark public swagger but looked embarrassed. “That crushed Michael,” latter-day manager Martha Troup recalls in the new film Mystify. “That was devastating, that moment in his life. They were massive worldwide and to go completely the other way was really hard on them and really hard on Michael.”
While their biggest hits remain staples on classic rock radio and at karaoke clubs from Adelaide to Aberystwyth, it’s fair to say the band has had a difficult time moving forward. In the early 2000s, the lads revved the machine up again, with two middling albums and a succession of short-lived vocal replacements.
In an unedifying, undignified twist of fate, I caught them as opening act for the newly reunited Blondie at Wembley Arena in 2002. Oikish rookie Jon Stevens was the hapless poor soul anointed to step into Hutchence’s espadrilles, though he had the demeanour of someone who would have been far happier throwing another shrimp on the barbie.
Instead, with accusations of mercenary tendencies, his bandmates took a rather large leaf out of the Brian May-Roger Taylor book of business tricks. They simply couldn’t fathom allowing the going concern to cease trading and promptly threw him to the wolves. He survived three and a half years.
Despite the much-hyped launching a TV competition to find a new vocalist (Rock Star: INXS aired in 2004), Hutchence’s shadow has loomed large over the band, to surprise of absolutely no one. That’s because the singer boasted an unmistakable voice and a unique presence, not to mention a shy offstage personality that just fueled fans’ curiosity even more. Beyond the personal loss of such a talented performer, the band lost a huge part of what was their unique sound and style. His talent is irreplaceable.
It’s often hard to capture and document what contributes to a superstar’s talent and mystique and making that relatable to the average person. But the newly released Mystify, does a reasonably good of doing just that. The documentary was written and directed by Richard Lowenstein, who was a close friend of Hutchence’s and a director of many of INXS’ music videos, and it makes one wonder where INXS would have gone had Hutchence stuck around, and where Hutchence would have gone as well. He was already dabbling in acting, and early in his life wrote poetry.
Mystify reminds us that for many of these talented, unique individuals, their aura and mystique is closely wrapped in addictions, personal losses and struggles with depression. When the surviving members of INXS saw his film, Lowenstein told Guardian Australia, he saw “all these people still incredibly damaged, not by the ups and downs of being in a band with Michael Hutchence, but the damage done by his departure. He’s left this huge hole in everyone.”
Whether we like it or not, we’re the unwitting benefactors of the personal demons that clung to Hutchence.
Though some of us don’t know why.
Steve Pafford, Manly, Sydney