Throughout the 1980s, INXS went from being an inexperienced Australian pub rock band to global superstars. It’s been over two decades since frontman Michael Hutchence died in 1997, but their songs Never Tear Us Apart, New Sensation, and Need You Tonight are still staples on classic-rock radio stations and at karaoke clubs. The remaining members of INXS had a difficult time moving forward after losing Hutchence, finally calling it quits in 2012.
They did try to keep going, though. They put out two records with different singers and even launched a TV competition to find their next new vocalist (remember Rock Star: INXS in 2004?). The thing is, Hutchence’s shadow was hard to step out of. He did, after all, have an unmistakable voice and a unique presence and not to mention a very shy personality that only fueled the fans’ curiosity. It turns out his shyness had a deep backstory…
This is the tale of INXS and their enigmatic lead man…
INXS consisted of three brothers: Andrew (keyboards), Jon (drums), and Tim (guitar), Farriss. Then there was Garry Gary Beers (bass), Kirk Pengilly (guitar and saxophone), and of course, Michael Hutchence as the lead vocalist. It all began when Andrew convinced his fellow high school classmate, Michael, to join his band, Doctor Dolphin.
In 1977, Tim, Andrew’s older brother, invited Andrew, Michael, and Garry to join him and his schoolmate Kirk in their own band. Tim and Kirk had been making music together since 1971 – they performed either as an acoustic duo (as Kirk and Tim) or in a four-piece band (called Guinness). Once they got the younger Farriss brother, Jon, onboard, they formed The Farriss Brothers. They made their debut in 1977 at Whale Beach, near Sydney, Australia.
The band briefly called themselves The Vegetables (for whatever reason) and sung a song called We Are the Vegetables. But one day, during a chance meeting in the parking lot of the Narrabeen Antler, a pub in New South Wales, Tim was approached by Gary Morris, the manager of the band Midnight Oil.
The Farriss Brothers/The Vegetables had started regularly supporting Midnight Oil and other local bands. Morris told the guys that a member of the Oil’s crew suggested they change their group’s name and had suggested INXS. The inspiration came from the English band XTC and Australian jam makers IXL. Although it reads as “in excess,” Morris wanted them to market themselves as “inaccessible.”
Here’s something not every fan knows about the band’s early days. During his brief period as INXS’s manager, Morris tried to sell the boys on devout Christianity. The man had many ideas as a manager, but that doesn’t mean that all of them were good. Kirk divulged that Morris wanted to turn the group into a Christian band. And they even seriously considered the idea, albeit briefly, before rejecting it.
Morris apparently embraced the faith after attending a Billy Graham crusade. “He wanted us to write songs about Christ and to promote a drug-and-alcohol-free and a no-sex-before-marriage proper Christian lifestyle,” Garry Beers wrote in the band’s official autobiography. Let’s remember that these guys wrote and performed Devil Inside and Original Sin.
Their first performance as INXS was in 1979, at the Ocean Beach Hotel in Umina, New South Wales. By the end of that year, after passing on the Christian rock idea as well as on Garry Morris himself, the band hired Chris “CM” Murphy as their new manager. They continued performing on the Oz pub circuit.
Murphy proved to be an adept business manager and negotiator, and, by 1980, the band had signed a five-album record deal with Deluxe Records, an independent label out of Sydney run by Michael Browning, the former manager of AC/DC. INXS remained an exclusively Aussie phenomenon until their third album, 1982’s Shabooh Shoobah. It was the album that gave the group their first rankings on the Billboard Hot 100 and made them go global. The One Thing and Don’t Change” reached #46 on the Billboard 200.
The band was now on the world stage. Their fourth studio album, 1983’s The Swing, was recorded in New York City with producer and former Chic bandleader, Nile Rodgers. Rodgers was a key player in shaping their song Original Sin, which later reached #58 in America while becoming their first #1 single in Australia.
First, Rodgers asked his friend Daryl Hall to sing backup on the chorus. Then he told Michael to change the line “dream on, white boy/dream on, white girl” to “dream on, black boy/dream on, white girl.” Rodgers said, “I come from an interracial couple… Psychologically that makes it a bigger statement.” He said that Daryl Hall’s manager thought it was too controversial: “But I think the record would have been bigger had I not talked them into changing the lyrics.”
When INXS played their sixth album, 1987’s Kick, for Doug Morris, the president of Atlantic Records at the time, his response was less than encouraging. As manager Chris Murphy recalled, Morris “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 told them, “I’ll give you $1 million to go and record another album. This is not happening, this is sh*t.”
Ouch. But again, Morris wasn’t always on point. It turns out that he couldn’t have been more wrong about the album. Kick reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and contained four Top 10 hits, including the #1 single, Need You Tonight.
While INXS were close to completing their album Kick, producer Chris Thomas told them that they still needed a few more songs for it to be complete. He convinced Andrew to meet up with Michael in Hong Kong, where the singer had an apartment. Together, they came up with some new material.
While waiting for a taxi to the Sydney airport, Andrew came up with a guitar riff. He needed to record it, so he rushed to record a demo, complete with a drum machine – all while his frustrated taxi driver was looking at him through the window. After 40 minutes of fiddling around, Andrew got into the car. He made his flight, met up with Michael, and played him the tape. Michael loved it and added some lusty lyrics within minutes. That song was Need You Tonight, and, in January 1988, it became INXS’s first and only #1 song in the US.
In 1988, INXS headlined a rather diverse gig called Calling All Nations, which featured the Smithereens, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Iggy Pop, and Guns N’ Roses. As the date of the gig approached, Guns N’ Roses wanted to back out. Michael and Andrew Farriss met Axl Rose and Slash before the show, where Michael offered Rose some tips on handling success.
“There is always going to be someone greater than you – always,” he told Rose. “And you know what? So what, man. That doesn’t matter. Just do fine work and enjoy yourself. Believe me, that’s what it’s all about.” Guns N’ Roses ended up cutting their set short. But after the show, most of the bands celebrated in a post-gig party that fans could only dream of attending.
When it came to making music, Michael naturally had it in him. In the early days of INXS, he absolutely loved recording. “He was always the first person to arrive at the studio,” Chris Thomas said. “He was watching everything. He was the one who had a real idea of where things should go. He really did have an instinct for the whole thing.”
Thomas explained that Michael wrote most of the lines for the songs along with the actual tune that he sang. According to Thomas, Michael wasn’t just writing words; “he was writing melodies.” He managed to impress the one and only Bono, who remembers asking Michael “what his definition of rock & roll was,” the U2 singer recalled. Michael’s response was “liberation.”
When he was 14, Michael’s mother decided to leave his father, and so she took Michael with her, leaving his younger brother Rhett with his father. It devastated the family. The brothers only found out when they came home from school one day and saw that their mother, Patricia, had packed up all their things. Michael was the chosen one,” as their half-sister Tina put it.
Patricia and Michael went to the United States together, leaving poor Rhett crying at the airport. They were in the US for a year and a half. Rhett was raised by seven nannies while his mother and brother were away. According to Patricia, she had previously asked Michael if he wanted to come with her, and he said yes. “He kept it a secret, as I did,” she said. According to Michael’s personal manager, Martha Troup, it was a decision that haunted Michael.
Michael had a relationship with “Loco-Motion” singer Kylie Minogue, and the way he picked her up was corny, to say the least. But it actually worked. In the documentary, Minogue recalled how she met Michael in 1989. As a fellow singer, she asked him how he took care of his voice. He told her that he had these “magical drops for your throat” that he apparently used and would be willing to share them with her.
Not long after they met, Minogue left for Hong Kong to focus on her own career. He asked her out to dinner there, where he was staying, but he made her wait. “Eventually, he rocks up two hours late,” she described. “He takes me out, and there’s clearly something between us.” The two started dating and would see each other on different parts of her Asian tour.
Oasis’ Noel Gallagher ended up stomping all over Michael’s spirits on stage in front of thousands of people. At the Brit Awards in 1996, when the popularity of INXS had already waned, Michael was the one to present Oasis with the trophy for their hit, Wonderwall.
In their acceptance speech, the notoriously rude Noel said, “Has-beens shouldn’t present fu%^&ng awards to gonna-bes.” Michael walked off the stage with a bit of swagger, but he looked hurt nonetheless. “That crushed Michael,” Martha Troup recalled. She said it was “devastating, that moment in his life.” She explained how it felt for him – to go from being world-renowned to being “has-beens” was really hard on the band, especially Michael.
Michael had a tumultuous relationship with TV host Paula Yates, the mother of his daughter. Their relationship weighed heavily on the singer. Paula and Michael connected during the mid-‘90s. In fact, she even interviewed him for her TV show, The Tube. They weren’t married as Paula was married to someone else: Boomtown Rats’ lead singer and Live Aid organizer, Bob Geldof.
By 1994, the affair was uncovered by the British press, and the public scrutiny was intense. Michael even assaulted a photographer who was following them. Paula and Gedolf separated in 1995, and their divorce was finalized a year later. Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence (Paula and Michael’s daughter) was born in 1996.
Almost two decades after their first gig as INXS, Michael Hutchence was found dead on November 22, 1997, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sydney. He was 37 years old. The coroner’s report signified suicide by hanging. There were drugs, alcohol, and anti-depressants in his system at the time of his death. At the time, Michael had been in a depressed state for a few reasons.
There was an ongoing custody dispute with Paula Yates. There was also a dispute between Michael and Yates’s ex-husband, rocker and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof. Yates questioned the cause of Michael’s death, suggesting that he had died from autoerotic asphyxiation.
To make matters more complex, his other ex, model Helena Christensen, revealed (in the latest documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence) that the singer was suffering from wild mood swings. Apparently, the mood swings were the result of brain damage he incurred when a cab driver punched him outside a restaurant in 1995.
The last person to see him alive was actress Kym Wilson, as the two had partied in his hotel room the night before. The last person to hear his voice, however, was Michael’s ex-girlfriend Michèle Bennett. According to Bennett, Michael was crying and told her that he needed to see her. Bennett arrived there at about 10:40 am, but there was no response. His body was found by a hotel maid at 11:50 am.
Michael was said to have been in a good mood in the days before he died. But he began to spiral when Paula said she couldn’t see him. INXS was in Australia, rehearsing for a tour when Paula told Michael that she was coming to visit with their daughter and her other kids from her marriage to Gedolf.
But on the day he died, she told Michael they would only be coming in December due to issues with Geldof. Michael then reportedly called Geldof and begged him to allow his ex-wife to travel. Michael spoke to his friends and managers, telling them how upset he was about not being able to see his daughter.
The incident Helena Christensen was referring to was something that happened in Copenhagen in 1992 when she and Michael were getting pizza during a bicycle trip. They had stopped to eat when a taxi driver told Michael to move. He then got out and punched Michael right in the face. It was with enough force to send him to the ground, knocking him out unconscious.
“There was blood coming out of his mouth and ear,” Christensen remembered. “I thought he was dead.” Michael was obviously taken to the hospital, and when he came to, he was belligerent and insisted on telling the staff that he should be dismissed. He was out of commission for about a month. Until…
Eventually, a surgeon discovered that Michael had a fissure in his skull and that his nerves were torn. As a result, he lost his olfactory senses, and he could no longer smell anything. “He did not want me to tell anyone,” Christensen said. “He didn’t even want me to tell my parents.” From that point on, she said, things became really heavy for him.
His bandmates noticed how different he seemed. He was not the same Michael they knew before the incident. Now, he was more aggressive – something they noticed when they began working on their 1993 album, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts. Bono recalled how Michael confided in him, telling him he felt different after the attack.
“I think he was very, very traumatized,” Bono stated. He confessed to Bono that it had changed everything for him. “What was just sweet insecurity became deep insecurity. He kind of lost his way and forgot who he was.” But before the incident, Michael was considered very shy. When the album Kick became a sextuple-platinum megahit, he had to get over his shyness pretty much overnight.
He had to figure out a way to navigate all the attention he was suddenly getting. What had begun as fantasy was suddenly really happening to him, and he wasn’t comfortable with it. He explained in an interview once: “So, I sort of invented that [big] persona with the necessity of getting through it. I enjoyed it, but I had to create something that kept me inside as well.”
The head trauma was apparent in more ways than one. Not only was his behavior different, but his musical taste had changed as well, and he began changing the way that he made music. For one, he started to fall in love with grunge music, much to his bandmates’ disappointment. During the making of Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, Michael strayed from the typical INXS sound.
As guitarist Kirk put it, “He was just very erratic in his behavior but also in what we were trying to do musically.” He said that Michael got “sucked into the grunge thing.” There were a lot of times where Michael would just stop everything and go, “Hey, listen to this. This is what we’ve got to be doing.” He and Kirk would have huge arguments as a result.
After Michael’s death, the rest of INXS took about a year off before returning to the stage. Carrying on proved to be difficult for them. When they came back in 1998, they did so with Jimmy Barnes (of the group Cold Chisel) as their lead vocalist. The year after that, they enlisted singers Terence Trent D’Arby and Russell Hitchcock for a concert in Australia.
From 2000 to 2003, Jon Stevens (of the band Noiseworks) took the front stage, and in 2005, the group chose to use reality TV to find their new frontman. Rock Star: INXS became their auditioning process. The winner was a Canadian singer-songwriter named J.D. Fortune, and he got to tour with the band from 2005 to 2011.
The last leading man to grab the microphone on the INXS stage was Northern Irish singer-songwriter Ciaran Gribbin, who joined them in 2011 and stayed until their final show in 2012. That final show was noteworthy, too. In November 2012, during their last show of a tour that they had spent supporting Matchbox Twenty, INXS announced to the audience that they were calling it quits after 35 years.
It may have seemed to be an unceremonious and not-so-glamorous finale to their career, but the show was in Perth, Australia, where the band had lived in the late ‘70s. In some ways, it was like they had gone full circle and ended where they had begun. INXS ended the concert with their beloved song Don’t Change, with Rob Thomas helping out on vocals.
The documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, made by the late singer’s friend, Australian director Richard Lowenstein, is about Michael’s life story. Through home videos and personal recollections, it shows just how much there was to the mysterious lead singer.
For one thing, Michael’s own family was surprised to hear that he wanted to be a frontman, considering he was so introverted. Tina Hutchence, his half-sister, recalls when Michael and his brother Rhett had to participate in a fashion show. Michael, who was nine or ten, was visibly uncomfortable. Tina had to push him out in front of the audience. But once he got on that stage, he started enjoying himself. You could say that “a star was born” at that moment.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), INXS sold 30 million units in America alone, meaning they were the highest-selling Australian musical act in the US, after AC/DC. INXS sold more than 60 million records worldwide and were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2001. Michael’s solo album was released posthumously in 1999.
He started working on the album in 1995, two years before he died, making the time to record songs in between INXS sessions. He last worked on it three days before his death. The last song he ever recorded was Possibilities. The album also includes Slide Away, a duet with Bono. Bono’s vocals were recorded after Michael’s death.
INXS wasn’t the only group to come out of Australia to have a massive impact in the United States. Of course, I’m talking about AC/DC. The Aussie group has a story of their own…