INXS could never tear us apart
I haven’t yet watched all the INXS mini-series Never Tear Us Apart, but I almost feel as if I don’t have to. I know the story and have seen enough reviews and op-ed pieces to pretty much give me the picture: struggling band struggles, surfs a few new wave breaks, decides to go big, does in fact go big, does chicks and drugs, comes down hard on the other side whereupon singer then tops himself. So far so rock ‘n’ roll. If ever there was a classic pop fairytale that was it, apart of course from the part where poor sacrificial lamb Michael Hutchence allegedly semi-suicides to make the story a bit sexier at the end. Just ask every band whose singer didn’t make it out alive what that does for your legacy, if not your back catalogue sales.
But strangely for all their billing as The Biggest Aussie Band Ever, if you were to ask many Australians under 40 to name two INXS songs they’d probably squint at you and reach for their Google, because apart from knowing that they were like, um, a totes big band sometime in the prehistoric era (ie last century), right? they appear to have made very little lasting impression on anyone who wasn’t there. Watching Arcade Fire start up a live rendition of “Devil Inside” recently in Sydney it was clear most of the puzzled hipster audience had no idea what the hell the song was. Odd really, because at one time INXS really were the closest thing we had to a genuine Big Band, one that burst from our version of post-punk headlong into the burgeoning new sounds from overseas and ran with them all the way to Wembley. But while the hits did indeed flow like pop champagne, let’s not kid ourselves about their lasting impact – despite their respective singers’ fondness for lethal neckwear, we’re not talking a Joy Division here. Though they had something and certainly came right on time with a bit of punk’s energy, a bit of ska/pop and that kind of purposeful awkwardness that seemed prevalent at the time, they were never particularly cool. Their problem was they were obviously gunning for stardom from the get-go and trying just a bit too hard, which was definitely not cool. After all, punk’s shadow still loomed large in the early 80s and hadn’t the sainted Johnny Rotten himself snarled in “Pretty Vacant” he didn’t care – about anything? Caring was out and INXS really cared: mostly about making it. And make it they did, to use modern sporting parlance, because they just wanted it so much more. And it showed. Once manager Chris Murphy identified the obvious star in Michael Hutchence, everything became one big market to conquer, chart by chart, territory by territory.
Hanging around the periphery of the Australian indie music scene in the early 80s it was obvious most other young bands were cautiously suspicious in their admiration of the fast-rising INXS. They were mostly considered a bit of a sell-out, a bit “fake” but with a certain charm nevertheless, and in possession of some undeniable pop smarts. Though Michael was a shameless tart as a rock star he was impossible to dislike in person – very quiet and diffident offstage in direct contrast to his frontman persona of the slinky sex god, always on show. Soon after the release of their third album in late 1982, I distinctly remember seeing the band perform a couple of tracks on a TV special recorded live at a US showcase and thinking “wow, he’s really been practising this whole rockstar frontman thing”. All of a sudden he was throwing shapes and shimmers like a junior Jagger and really working the crowd – a sunglassed supernova, but somehow, still tantalisingly within reach. Success in the US now began to seriously beckon. Album number four The Swing soon followed (their best), and then of course three years later the massive vanilla-flavoured Kick, which propelled them onto that much vaunted Wembley stage. From that, as with all peaks, there was only one way to go: the familiar dating of supermodels and really being in excess the signs of making it big, then of course the solo projects and acting before the seemingly inevitable crash and burn. Despite that, the songs remain and they’re what is important, because there really were some gems, especially from those early days of 1980-82.
So as Molly might’ve once said, do yourself a favour and never mind the series. Instead, slap on a compilation, shake your mullet and remember what the fuss was really all about.