A new documentary about the life of Michael Hutchence is coming out this summer which made us think about doing an anthology of one of our favorite bands, INXS. Like R.E.M. in our last musical anthology, INXS is a band that was a huge part of our growing up. Also, like R.E.M., they started as mostly an alternative, college band that eventually broke out big. INXS became a worldwide phenomenon that utilized the sex appeal of their incredibly-voiced lead singer Michael Hutchence. They also had a pretty unique sound using a lot of saxophone. They could rock hard, do ballads and even became pretty political at times hitting on social issues in their songs. Although by the end they were in a creative lull, the death of Hutchence in 1997 put any chances of a real comeback out of reach. They tried other singers, including via a reality TV show to name a replacement, but they just couldn’t find their way back to superstardom. But let’s start at the beginning. Their first single was a weird rocker released only in Australia in 1980 called “Simple Simon”. They even made a video. Here is the video before we get into their album work. Sounds very punk.
INXS (1980) – Mike G
There are many rock bands whose debut album makes a statement about their style of music or is even an example of their best work. This is not one of them. I have to be honest, as much as I love INXS, I’ve never owned this album and maybe listened to this once back in the early 90s. It was hard to find this album on a streaming platform – not on Spotify or Amazon Music – but I did find it uploaded to YouTube and checked it out for the blog. The album starts out with a promising catchy tune, “On A Bus”, which features some solid musicianship and decent vocals. I was surprised to read it was not released as a single, but instead the album’s sole single was “Just Keep Walking”, which has a solid guitar hook, but a rather obnoxious chorus. There is even a video for this song:
Wow, Michael Hutchence looks so young here. I love the plastic on the floor with a bland logo of their name. It was interesting to hear a ska influence to their music, like on the chorus to “Jumping”, which has an English Beat feel to it. Throughout the songs, you can tell Hutchence has a good voice, but he had not yet learned how to use its full range. He often stays in a lower octave on the album, making his voice less distinctive. Overall, it’s not a terrible debut album, but it’s obvious the band still was trying to find their defining sound and identity.
Underneath the Colours (1981) – DJ
This is the only INXS album outside of Elegantly Wasted that I failed to purchase and the completest in me is shocked. I had heard very little of this album before preparing for this post. In 1981, I didn’t know who INXS was. None of the singles charted in the U.S. and only one (“Stay Young”) in Australia. I have no personal connection to Colours. Listening to it you hear the promise of what is to come but it just falls short, sounding like any other New Wave band at the time. Their uniqueness had not sprung loose yet. I will say it’s a much better and easier listen than I thought it would be. There is no song that completely stinks. Only “Barbarian” is a complete let down with a silly chorus. Michael Hutchence’s voice is strong but somewhat restrained. His lyrics were still not as mature as they would become. There were three singles released, and they are generally the better tracks. “Stay Young” and “Underneath the Colours” are strong, while “Night of Rebellion” falls a little short. My favorite track, and maybe outside of “Stay Young” sounds the closest to what they will become, is “What Would You Do?”. I am glad I heard it and it’s a good piece of history of the band to see their infancy, knowing where they came from.
MG: I have a vague memory of listening to this album a few times back in the 90’s, but I don’t own it now, so I either regrettably purged the disc/cassette or I had borrowed it. I listened to this again on YouTube for this post, and your description is on-point. “Stay Young” is a solid track and it’s good to hear Hutchence start to stretch his voice to be more emotive.
Shabooh Shoobah (1982) – Mike G
Shabooh Shoobah was INXS’ first album after signing with a major record label. The record company was convinced to sign the band after hearing the song “The One Thing”, which would go on to be their first international top-40 hit, reaching #30 in the US in 1982. In addition, the video for “The One Thing” was added to fledgling MTV’s rotation. The video was standard early-80’s cheese, a mix of the band performing and a really bizarre dinner scene, but it introduced the world to Hutchence’ good looks – an undeniable part of the band’s ascent to superstardom. One thing we have yet to mention is the core of the musicians in the band – the Farriss brothers – who don’t get enough credit for their contributions on drums (Jon), guitar (Tim), and keyboards (Andrew). Along with Garry Gary Beers on bass and Kirk Pengilly on saxophone, they each have individual talent but are remarkably cohesive and seamless as a whole unit. They rarely do solos in the studio, but they (and/or their producers), have a keen ear for when a burst of drums, guitar or sax is needed to punch up a song. There are times on a few tracks where Hutchence is still a bit hesitant and mumbly, but the band musically is mostly tight and composed. An example is “Soul Mistake”, where the music and production are good but the lyrical concept feels unfinished or lost. One thing I love about INXS is their commitment to the entire album, and they end with “Don’t Change”, my favorite album track and one of my overall favorites in their catalog.
DJ: Yeah great book ends, “The One Thing” and “Don’t Change” are two of their best songs. Not one of my favorite albums, although I love “To Look At You” and “The Spy of Love”. Outside of those 4 tracks it’s very spotty for me, more promise than results. I also agree with the band, the Farriss brothers, Pengilly, and Beers are cohesive and do get overshadowed by Hutchence unfortunately.
The Swing (1984) – DJ
One of my favorite INXS albums, it’s the album that almost gives them the sound the world would come to love. The album did not make any waves in the Americas but was huge in their homeland. Ironically they recorded some of the album in New York City. Their biggest hit off the album, “Original Sin”, about apartheid in South Africa was recorded there. I was stunned to find out Daryl Hall sings the chorus with Hutchence. It’s a fantastic hall-of-fame track. With the exception of the track “Johnson’s Aeroplane”, I like every song on here and “Burn for You” is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a cool song, with some female voices used in the chorus and a lot of synthesizer. INXS has a kind of R&B sound mixed in with new wave and that makes them a very unique sounding band and this album is a great example of this. “I Send a Message” and “Love is (What I Say)” are also two strong tracks. The album rocks: no ballads, straight on rock with a dance vibe. It’s still a raw album and they haven’t fully got there yet but it’s coming…
MG: The drums and bass work on “Orginal Sin” stand out, and you can hear a new confidence and range to Hutchence’s vocals. “Dancing on the Jetty” is a highlight for me – carrying a socio-political message in the lyrics, but still crafting a catchy tune with great music – and it has one of their best guitar solos from Tim Farriss. Definitely a solid album you can listen to from start to finish.
Listen Like Thieves (1985) – Mike G
If I had to pick just one INXS album to have in my collection, this would be the one. Although Kick is a notch higher in several aspects, not the least of which is commercial accessibility, I prefer the slightly less-perfect production and song line-up of this album. Once again it starts off strong with “What You Need” – which is a song that I should be burnt out on from overplay but still hooks me every time with its opening drum cascade that flows right into a killer bassline. One thing that struck me doing this anthology was how strong the bass work was from Garry Gary Beers (had to write his name again). Perhaps listening to these albums on Bose noise-canceling headphones drew this out more. The next ten tracks on the album roll one good song into another, and I feel like they form a cohesive whole, more than any of their other work. Even though there are 11 songs, the album clocks in at only 37 minutes, which surprised me as I always felt it was longer. There’s really no ballads on this album either – “This Time” being the closest perhaps. Even the token instrumental track, which used to be an album staple for most bands pre-mid ’80s, is interesting and seems to fit. They end the album strong, avoiding any second-side filler with the horn-heavy “One x One” and the drum-driven rocker “Red Red Sun” to close it out.
DJ: My favorite overall INXS album despite it’s choppiness. “Red Red Sun” kills it. The title track is brilliant. “Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)” is a crowd pleaser for this group and I won’t get into why. We talk musicianship but can’t pass over the writing not just Hutchence’s lyrics but the fact that each member contributes to the music, which is not an easy process.
Kick (1987) – DJ
What can I say about Kick that hasn’t been already said? This is one of the greatest albums of all-time. This is where INXS went worldwide. I can say I first heard this album in its entirety at my first ever party and I drank Sun Country Peach wine coolers in excess. The album was played over and over again. Of course, I was familiar with the hits but I got to hear the non-single tracks. The album opens up terrifically with the hard-rocking “Guns in the Sky”- one of the best openers on a record. There is a great transition to their hit “New Sensation”. “Need You Tonight” maybe their biggest hit and it’s still a great song. Hutchence for the first time oozes sexuality in his singing, especially in “Need You Tonight” but you can even hear it on their remake of a remake “The Loved One”, just listen to their original. Much more passion on this record. An overplayed song but also one of the best is “Never Tear Us Apart”, again Hutchence is totally in control of his voice and the live version on Live, Baby, Live is off the charts. I don’t love every song, I downright hate “Mystify” and not a huge fan of “Devil Inside”. “Mediate” is gimmicky, the music video was a play on an old Bob Dylan video, and I want to rhyme everything with masturbate since I am still a 15-year-old. But the non-single tracks like “Kick”, “Wild Life”, “Calling All Nations”, and “Tiny Daggers” are pretty good and round out the album well.
MG: I actually had to replace my cassette of this album after it broke from overplay, and then later bought it on CD. In retrospect, you have to hand it to the band for starting off their album with a blatant attack on Ronald Reagan – who was immensely popular at the time. That took some balls, and I don’t recall any backlash at the time (thankfully no social media then). It’s an all-time great album, no doubt, although my track take is different than yours: thought “Never Tear Us Apart” was a bit too syrupy, but liked “Mystify” and “Devil Inside”.
Bonus Non-album Single: “Good Times” (1987) – Mike G
Right after we published our recent post on songs from movies, I regretted not including this track, so now I get to right the wrong. This is one of my favorite soundtrack/80’s/INXS/Jimmy Barnes songs. It’s one of those songs that takes me back to a specific place and time – hanging out with a few friends on a summer night, driving my parents Oldsmobile with the windows down, and playing this song as we headed to a party. The song has little to do with the plot of The Lost Boys, but it’s one of those upbeat songs that will get any party going.
DJ: Always one of my favorite INXS tracks. A hard one to find unless you wanted to buy The Lost Boys soundtrack which I did not. Little known fact, Jimmy Barnes sang one of his best songs penned by Neil Finn called “Blue Hotel”, the only other Barnes song I know.
Part II – coming soon…