“How can I call myself a straight man,” a barback asked me and my friend, “if I would rather look at Michael Hutchence than all these pretty girls?” He returned to his duties, collecting empty glasses and wiping down the bar, and we were left to ponder this question alone. A TV in the bar was playing the video for “Disappear,” the second single off 1990’s X — undoubtedly one of INXS’s most sensual tracks and videos, in a long line of such tracks and videos. The answer, of course, is that Hutchence’s charms know no bounds.
It’s this that INXS is known for. From “The One Thing,” their first U.S. single, through the massive hit “Need You Tonight” and into their minor ’90s singles, Hutchence’s sexuality is at the forefront. He had the feminine moves necessary to creating a Jagger-esque, feline presence. That sexuality — so prevalent in every single one of INXS’s videos, which were essential to their rise — at times overshadowed the virtuosic songwriting and Hutchence’s own singular voice, which could simultaneously snarl and tempt. In 1988, during the peak of their popularity, Rolling Stone wrote:
The latest chapter in the six-man band’s steady rise has been accompanied by — and is, in part, dependent on — the emergence of singer Michael Hutchence as a sex symbol and media personality, a first-rate crotch throb sought after by fashion magazines, film directors and a universe of teenage girls.
INXS put earnest perversity in a salable package, giving listeners an unapologetic, smart salaciousness that couldn’t be placed squarely in the “serious” alternative category or among pure pop. On their first two albums — not initially released internationally — INXS and Underneath The Colours, they were already displaying a prowess, writing songs like “In Vain” and “Stay Young,” which still sound relevant today. As their fame got bigger and their sound became slicker, though, they were never considered a serious band.
But among musicians, at least, there seems to be a desire to revisit and restore INXS. Beck made KICK the subject of his Record Club in 2010, with St. Vincent, Liars, and Os Mutantes. Arcade Fire covered “Devil Inside” in Australia last year. Brandon Flowers and Bruce Springsteen have both separately covered “Don’t Change” recently, and Courtney Barnett performed KICK in full in 2012 — just her and a guitar. In June, Seattle radio station KEXP had a fundraiser with many local artists performing the songs of, solely, INXS. Bradford Cox says the new Deerhunter LP will sound like INXS, and Pledge Music teamed with T-shirt designer Astrella to release a previously unheard Hutchence solo track called “Friction.”
We now have enough distance from Hutchence’s death — not to mention the strange spectacle of the surviving members of the band going on a Dave Navarro–hosted CBS reality show called Rock Star: INXS to find a new lead singer — to properly assess INXS. We’re ready, culturally, to take them seriously.
INXS’s sound morphed over the years, moving from the ska-lite of their 1980 eponymous debut through the post-punk of Shabooh Shoobah into the perfected pop-rock of KICK and toward the alternately harder and more mature sounds of their mid-’90s albums. They struggled in the ’90s to maintain relevance, as they had been marked as an ’80s band and their, dare I say, excessive sound didn’t work as well in a world taken over by grunge. But they never sat back and relaxed, always knowing their grip on relevance was tenuous, and it’s evident on every album.
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