The Number Ones

January 30, 1988

The Number Ones: INXS’ “Need You Tonight”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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To my mind, and for my purposes, there has never been a better karaoke song than “Need You Tonight,” the sole Hot 100 chart-topper from the Australian band INXS. “Need You Tonight” is a great song, but it’s not a complicated one, and it does not require a rocket launcher of a voice. Vocally, “Need You Tonight” requires a breathy and understated delivery. If you don’t have a great voice — and I don’t — then you can get away with just whispering and gasping through most of it. If you’re nervous to sing in front of people, that’s fine, too. “Need You Tonight” is a song driven by nervousness. You can make that work for you.

To sing “Need You Tonight,” all you really need is a deep-enough voice and a sense of rhythm. I am blessed with both of those things, which means I can sigh and hiccup and moan my way comfortably through “Need You Tonight.” I can at least attempt to do all that while looking sexy. I can do that because it’s a sexy song. The only real problem with singing “Need You Tonight” at karaoke is that I can’t be as sexy as Michael Hutchence when I’m singing it. Nobody can.

Michael Hutchence, longtime frontman of INXS, was sex on toast. He was a new-wave Jim Morrison. He looked unreal, impossible — an illusion, a mirage. He was so sexy that it repeatedly got him in trouble. You can’t look as good as Michael Hutchence and have a normal life. Hutchence was never a virtuoso singer, but that didn’t matter. He had presence — the confidence and charisma that comes from being impossibly handsome. If he were young today, Hutchence would probably be an Instagram influencer. In the ’80s, Hutchence did what anyone who looked like him in the ’80s would’ve done. He became a rock star.

Hutchence was born in Sydney, and he spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong. (When Hutchence was born, the #1 song in America was Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear.”) Hutchence and family returned to Sydney in time for him to go to high school, and that’s where he met Andrew Farriss, the man who would become the keyboardist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for INXS. For a little while, Hutchence would mess around in a garage with Farriss brothers Andrew, Tim, and Jon. Some other local teenagers got in on it, too.

It would be a while before the band could gel. In 1976, Hutchence’s parents broke up, and Hutchence went to live with his mother in Los Angeles for a little while. Hutchence came back, but the Farriss parents moved from Sydney to Perth shortly thereafter. Youngest brother Jon was still in high school at that point, so he had to move with them. The other members of the band didn’t want to replace Jon, so they all uprooted themselves and moved to Perth as well. That’s where the band, then known as the Farriss Brothers, first started playing shows.

Eventually, the Farriss Brothers changed their name to the Vegetables. They moved back to Sydney and started playing on the Australian pub circuit. Much of the time, they were opening for fellow Aussie band Midnight Oil, and one of Midnight Oil’s roadies pointed out that the Vegetables was a stupid name for a band. That roadie suggested that they should call themselves In Excess instead. (Midnight Oil’s highest-charting American single, 1987’s “Beds Are Burning,” peaked at #17.) The Vegetables became INXS, and they played their first show under that name in 1979.

Midnight Oil’s manager took on INXS as a client, and he got them signed to an Australian indie. The band released their self-titled debut in 1980, and they started scoring Australian chart hits almost immediately. INXS’ early singles were twitchy, horny new wave. The band eventually got an international deal, and their third album, 1982’s Shabooh Shoobah, was their first to get an American release. The band toured the US a lot, opening for new wavers like Adam And The Ants and the Stray Cats. Hutchence had a face built for MTV, so that helped, too. Shabooh Shoobah went gold, and the single “The One Thing” became INXS’ first US chart hit, peaking at #30.

For a while, “The One Thing” was INXS’ only real US hit, though they scraped the bottom half of the Hot 100 a few times. The super-producer Nile Rodgers heard them and was impressed enough to offer his services. INXS recorded their 1984 single “Original Sin” with Rodgers producing, and Daryl Hall sang backup on it. The song only made it to #58 in the US, but INXS were quickly becoming huge at home in Australia, and “Original Sin” was their first chart-topper there. It had to be a huge confidence-builder. In the years ahead, INXS would incorporate more and more of Rodgers’ sweaty dance-floor dynamics and spidery funk, and they’d move further and further from new wave.

In 1985, INXS went to London to record their album Listen Like Thieves with producer Chris Thomas, who’d been an assistant producer on the Beatles’ White Album and who’d gone on to do high-profile work with Pink Floyd and Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders. INXS and Thomas found a groove together, and Thomas would keep working with them for years. Listen Like Thieves was a hard, brittle plastic-soul album, and it sounded something like Duran Duran playing Young Americans. This, it turned out, was what INXS needed to be doing. Listen Like Thieves became the band’s US breakthrough. It went double platinum, and lead single “What You Need” peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)

Following up Listen Like Thieves was a daunting task. In 1986, INXS rented out the entire Sydney Opera House to use as a practice space, but they still didn’t have all the songs that they needed. When the band was getting ready for a European tour, Chris Thomas persuaded them that they needed to come up with some more hits. At the time, Hutchence was staying at an apartment in Hong Kong, so Andrew Farriss flew out there to meet him.

While waiting for the cab that would take him to the airport, Farriss thought of a riff. When the cab showed up, Farriss asked the driver to wait for a few minutes. He ran into his house and recorded the “Need You Tonight” riff over a drum-machine beat that he’d already laid down. In the process, he royally pissed off his driver. Farriss still made his flight, and he gave Hutchence the tape when he landed. Hutchence wrote the “Need You Tonight” lyrics that night. It took him about 10 minutes to come up with most of them.

It’s never a good idea to make service workers wait, but that “Need You Tonight” riff is worth some inconvenience. The entire track is a marvel, an itchy-scratchy little throb that pushes you in all sorts of different directions. Farriss’ riff is pretty close to the one that Queen used on their own Chic-inspired quasi-funk smash “Another One Bites The Dust” eight years earlier. The track is spacey and mechanical, but it’s also fluid. Everything clicks into place with everything else: the bone-simple riff, the slow-roll bassline, the rubbery rhythm-guitar line, the shivery ahh of the keyboard. The band kept the drum-machine beat, but drummer Jon Farriss still played over it, adding little embellishments like those perfectly-timed cymbal-splashes. The song is all pocket. Everything rides the groove lightly. Everything dances.

Michael Hutchence dances, too. Some of Hutchence’s vocal affectations aren’t that different from what Michael Jackson was doing around the same time, though Hutchence’s on-beat gasps and yelps are a lot more directly sexual. All of Hutchence’s intonations feel like they’re part of the beat: the whispered “come over here” on the intro, the helium squeak just before the chorus, even the way he seems to half-swallow his words here and there. Hutchence sings most of the song in a flirty baritone purr. He sounds like he’s whispering in your ear. But every once in a while, the intensity jumps up 10 notches out of nowhere, and he sounds like he’s been possessed by sheer appetite: “I’m loooone-laaaaay!”

On paper, Hutchence’s “Need You Tonight” lyrics look ridiculous. They’re all pickup lines, and some of them (“your moves are so raw”) seem like the work of someone who does not speak English as a first language. But Hutchence delivers them beautifully. The intro verse, sung in a half-asleep murmur, seems to be about seizing the day and not worrying about the consequences: “All you got is this moment/ 21st century’s yesterday.” I’ve seen some people theorize that it’s a song about cocaine — about how it makes you sweat, how you can’t think at all. But you don’t need to run game on a coke dealer. You just need money for that. On “Need You Tonight,” Hutchence is in magnetic sweet-talk mode. He is trying to get laid. He’s probably succeeding, too. Hutchence ends the song by cooing, “You’re one of my kind.” It sounds like the ultimate compliment. Who wouldn’t want to be one of his kind?

“Need You Tonight” was an ideal lead single for Kick, an album that perfects the almost-funk approach of Listen Like Thieves. INXS manager Chris Murphy has said that execs at Atlantic were appalled when they first heard Kick. They didn’t think rock radio would touch the album, and they offered Murphy a million dollars to go back to Australia and make another album with the band right away. Instead, Murphy came up with an idea to promote “Need You Tonight” hard on college radio. INXS toured American colleges, and the single took off from there. In the end, “Need You Tonight” got play on rock radio and in clubs, and it even dented the R&B charts.

“Need You Tonight” also had a cool video. For the clip, INXS worked with Richard Lowenstein, the Melbourne director who’d made most of the band’s videos and who’d also filmed the low-budget 1986 sci-fi movie Dogs In Space, which starred Hutchence. For “Need You Tonight,” Lowenstein essentially animated the Kick cover art, making it look like a moving magazine collage. Naturally, Michael Hutchence was always at the center, and it didn’t matter that most of his bandmates looked a little doofy. On Kick, “Need You Tonight” segues straight into “Mediate,” the next track, so Lowenstein made a longer version of the video, using both songs. For the “Mediate” bit, the members of INXS flipped through giant cue cards, paying tribute to the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” bit from DA Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. (1965’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” incidentally, was Bob Dylan’s first Hot 100 hit; it peaked at #39.)

Later in 1988, the “Need You Tonight”/”Mediate” clip won Video Of The Year at the VMAs. By that time, INXS were huge stars. Kick yielded three more top-10 singles, many of which are absolute fucking bangers. (“Never Tear Us Apart“? That’s a song. “Never Tear Us Apart” peaked at #7; it’s a 10.) Critics at the time couldn’t stand INXS, saw them as total lightweights, but it didn’t matter. Kick never got past #3 on the album chart, but it sold steadily throughout 1988, eventually moving six million copies in the US alone. Billboard named Kick 1988’s #4 album; only George Michael’s Faith, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and Def Leppard’s Hysteria sold more that year.

INXS toured hard behind Kick, and it took them a few years to follow the album up. X, the band’s 1990 album, went double platinum in the US, and it sent two singles into the top 10. (“Suicide Blonde” peaked at #9. It’s an 8. “Disappear” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) After that, though, INXS fell off. The band’s next three albums all did disappointing numbers in the US. 1997’s Elegantly Wasted, the last album that INXS made with Hutchence, didn’t even make the top 10 in Australia.

Hutchence, meanwhile, was going through some stuff. He was out in tabloids a lot, drinking and partying and dating a series of beautiful and famous women. He tried to get an acting career off the ground, but that didn’t pan out. A 1995 solo album flopped. In 1992, Hutchence got into a fight with a cabdriver in Copenhagen, and he wound up with a fractured skull. (Seems like cabdrivers hate INXS.) In the mid-’90s, Hutchence started seeing the British TV presenter Paula Yates, who was still married to rock philanthropist Bob Geldof at the time. Yates and Geldof separated in 1995, and they got into a nasty public custody battle. Hutchence and Yates had a kid together in 1996, but the international nature of the custody battle meant that Hutchence sometimes couldn’t see his own kid, which sent him into a tailspin.

In November of 1997, Michael Hutchence died in a Sydney hotel room. He’d hung himself from his doorknob with a belt. The death was ruled a suicide at the time, but there’s been persistent speculation ever since that Hutchence actually died in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident. Maybe it’s just that Hutchence radiated sex so powerfully that it’s hard to believe he could’ve died in any sort of non-sexual way.

When he died, Michael Hutchence was 37 — one more pop superstar cut down when he wasn’t far from his prime. If you look at this column, you’ll see way too many stories like that one. Just look at the past few entries in this column: George Michael, Whitney Houston, George Harrison, Michael Jackson. They all lived different lives and died different deaths, but they’re all gone now, and they all died relatively young. Pop stardom is a dangerous line of work.

INXS actually continued on after Hutchence died. For a while, they played with a series of guest singers, including Terence Trent D’Arby, an artist who will soon appear in this column. A New Zealander singer named Jon Stevens briefly served as INXS’ singer, but he wasn’t in the fold for long. Then, in 2005, INXS found a new singer through perverse means. The band starred in an American reality show called Rock Star: INXS, a competition series dedicated to finding a new singer for this band. The whole spectacle was gross and also compulsively watchable, and INXS ended up with a Canadian guy named JD Fortune as their new singer. The thoroughly generic rocker “Pretty Vegas,” INXS’ first single with Fortune, was actually a decent-sized hit, peaking at #37.

Fortune had a turbulent run with INXS, and he finally parted ways with the band in 2011. INXS played their final show in Sydney in 2012. A year later, a miniseries called INXS: Never Tear Us Apart dramatized the band’s whole story and did monster ratings on Australian TV. INXS won’t return to this column, but I look forward to the day when I can get slightly drunk and sing “Need You Tonight” in public again.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: On “Make You Sweat,” a pretty great song from the soundtrack of 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Big Punisher and Beenie Man used a sample of “Need You Tonight,” and Beenie Man also lifted the whole chorus. Here’s that song:

(Big Pun’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Still Not A Player,” peaked at #24. Beenie Man’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “Dude,” peaked at #26.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2009 and 2010, Beck did this thing called Record Club on his website. Every once in a while, he’d bring in a bunch of musician friends, and they’d cover entire albums, spending only one day on each LP. (I actually interviewed Beck about that whole project at the time.) One of those albums was Kick, and Beck did that one with St. Vincent and with members of Liars and Os Mutantes. Here’s the Record Club version of “Need You Tonight,” with St. Vincent singing lead:

(Beck’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Loser,” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Kylie Minogue, one of Michael Hutchence’s exes, covered “Need You Tonight” on her 2014 tour. Here’s a video of her singing the song in Liverpool:

(Kylie Minogue’s highest-charting US single, her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion,” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Justin Timberlake also covered “Need You Tonight” on his own 2014 tour. Here’s a video of him singing the song at Rock In Rio:

(Justin Timberlake will eventually appear in this column. I genuinely think I’m better at singing “Need You Tonight” than Justin Timberlake is.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Dua Lipa used the “Need You Tonight” riff on her 2020 single “Break My Heart”; Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss both got writing credits. Here’s the “Break My Heart” video:

(“Break My Heart” peaked at #13. Dua Lipa’s highest-charting single, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)

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