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At the 1996 BRIT Awards, INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence gave an amiable fist-pump as he announced the winner for Best Video, Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” Moments later, Noel Gallagher, clutching the BRIT and smiling cocainely, sneered, “Has-beens shouldn’t present fuckin’ awards to gonna-bes.” At the time, the slag was simply on-brand petulance, all part of the Gallagher brothers’ calculated and successful anti-charm offensive, yet it hit a nerve. INXS’ most recent album, the grunge-bandwagoning Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, had come out in 1993, marking their longest period of dormancy amid no small amount of personal turmoil; in a year and a half, Hutchence would be dead.
Nearly 22 years later—and 11 since Oasis were gonna be anything but broken up—the insult is still a cheap shot, but it also feels in league with a broader cultural dismissal of a band whose legacy feels more complicated than a mere 15-year run of singles. From 1980 to 1984, INXS were a likeable, unassuming Australian pub band turned New Romantic synth-pop strivers with a handful of good songs and one perfect one. From 1987 to 1997, they minted hits seemingly at will behind a swaggering, came-with-the-frame picture of a louche rock star, filling stadiums before riding diminishing returns to a tragic end. In between, they made one pivotal album that mined the hookiest qualities of the former iteration while laying the groundwork for the latter. Stacked with eminently catchy songs from top to bottom that sound evergreen in ways that evaded so much pop music from the same era, Listen Like Thieves is a classic “verge album”—think Fleetwood Mac, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, R.E.M.’s Green, or U2’s The Unforgettable Fire—a mid-career highlight where a fully formed, fully confident band finds its footing at the precipice of something much bigger and maybe just beyond their control.
By their fifth album, INXS were known entities, products of and grist for the nascent MTV juggernaut thanks in large part to frontman Michael Hutchence’s basic-cable charisma and moves like Jagger. Shabooh Shoobah, from 1982, introduced the band via the video for “The One Thing,” in which a black-tie banquet erupts into a bacchanalian food fight, replete with shots of Hutchence eye-fucking the camera and a woman defiling a fig. Their following album, 1984’s The Swing, went double platinum in Australia, thanks in no small part to marquee assists from fellow blue-eyed soul purveyor Daryl Hall and, more crucially, Nile Rodgers’ production on “Original Sin.” The album was a conscious effort to further blend rock and funk and at least indirectly channel Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. The Farriss brothers—guitarist Tim, keyboardist and songwriter Andrew, and drummer Jon—along with multi-instrumentalist Kirk Pengilly and incredibly named bassist Garry Gary Beers, had spent years grinding in bars and clubs across Australia, but the producer enlisted for the follow-up to The Swing didn’t hear any of that grit, or Hutchence’s obvious sex appeal, in those records. A couple hit singles aside, the album didn’t do huge numbers in the U.S. or the UK.
“To me, The Swing had nothing to do with what the band was doing live,” famed producer Chris Thomas said in the band’s 2005 memoir. “That album doesn’t sound like a rock’n’roll show at all. The gig I saw at the Hollywood Bowl was a dangerous concert—grown women were throwing themselves at the stage. I hadn’t seen a gig that exciting or a band having that kind of effect on people in years.” Thomas worked on the White Album and Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, then went on to produce four Roxy Music albums and Never Mind the Bollocks, as well as all three Pretenders albums, culminating in 1984’s crossover Learning to Crawl—a dream CV to take on a band navigating the moat between mannered new wave and swing-for-the-fences rock, and he held that spot for the three-album run that definitively reinvented INXS.
What Thomas was implicitly advocating for over the course of three months in Sydney’s Rhinoceros Studio was an album built out of “Don’t Change.” The final track on Shabooh Shoobah and the band’s usual set-closer, it’s the kind of feel-good, brawny U2 anthem that U2 have spent decades trying to write. Still driven by Andrew’s keyboards, “Don’t Change” felt leaner and less fussed over, destined to be covered by, among many, many others, Bruce Springsteen, a man who also spent a lot of time in 1984 and 1985 thinking about what rock songs for the masses should look like.
The song’s DNA is evident in “This Time,” about as uplifting a breakup song as anyone will ever require, from the isolated-riff intro to the slow but cathartic build. “Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)” and the title track follow similar scripts; they don’t necessarily sound like “Don’t Change,” or like one another, but they share a penchant for climactic escalation tricks—a head-fake key change here, an extra-soaring chorus there—that pulled off the even neater trick of not sounding like tricks and not being overly laminated in studio polish. There was an ease to the songs that belied their ambition.
Even the songs that managed to not be huge hits were as catchy as the ones that were. The smoldering “Same Direction” and “Shine Like It Does,” the brassy “One X One,” and ripping closer “Red Red Sun” were stripped of the kind of studio gloss that might have been applied on past records, and have aged better because of it. Pengilly’s saxophone flourishes nearly save the instrument from punk-rock punchline status. While The Swing’s “Original Sin” and “Dancing on the Jetty” broadly gestured at social issues (institutional racism and war and strife, respectively), Listen Like Thieves had no particular flag to wave or message to send beyond the one that would propel them for the rest of their career: Michael Hutchence fucks.
As much as INXS operated and presented as a proper tight-knit and deeply skilled band, with shared songwriting credits and half its members literal kin, they thrived once they figured out how to nudge Hutchence even further front and center without disrupting the balance, and once he fully embraced it. (“I really am a great fucking rock star,” he told Q in 1993.) But before he shacked up in a French villa with Helena Christensen or corrupted Kylie Minogue or took a guy on tour with him for the express purpose of supplying ecstasy, Hutchence had to shed the last of his new wave chrysalis, grow out his mullet, embrace tank tops, and lean into the whole disco-Morrison thing. “What You Need” was that nudge.
The first song on Listen Like Thieves was the last one recorded for the album, a quick cure for what was diagnosed as I-don’t-hear-a-single-itis that wound up changing the band’s lives forever. Thomas had Andrew dust off a demo labeled “Funk Song No. 13,” which contained the slinky two-chord guitar riff to what would very quickly become “What You Need”—an eminently danceable no-brainer that landed in the Top 5 in America, cast Hutchence’s casual lustfulness as a halo around the band, and cemented Hutchence and Andrew Farriss as the band’s principal songwriters.
Of all the members of INXS, Andrew was the one who seemed the least like Hutchence, and the least likely to be the driving force behind a libidinous multi-platinum rock band; his brothers were naturally hammier and looked the part, while he seemed content to be the introvert tucked behind stacks of expensive-looking keyboards. (His floppy safari hat in the “Don’t Change” video should go down in the annals of Why Didn’t Anyone Say No to This?) But the duo’s chemistry was recognized and elevated as the band’s secret weapon.
Thomas returned to produce 1987’s Kick, which, not all that implicitly, was built out of “What You Need,” particularly in regard to blockbuster lead singles with crystalline, ambiently funky guitar riffs and the word “need” in the title. (Rather than leave anything to chance, 1990’s X featured basically a third iteration of this rollout plan with “Suicide Blonde.”) Doubling down on the use of Hutchence’s face as the band’s identity, Kick sold tens of millions of copies and established the visual aesthetic that would define INXS until Hutchence’s death. Kick wears some of the sonic pockmarks of its era in a way that Listen Like Thieves doesn’t, and made INXS both a bigger success and a bigger target. If anyone wanted for any reason to scoff at the spectacle of a tousle-haired rock god whose shirts all appeared cursed with non-functioning buttons lounging in the south of France with supermodel girlfriends, INXS provided. Hutchence’s charm, however, lay in the fact that he seemed in on the gag; excess was baked into the band’s name. And he was just vexingly likeable. If anyone used that spectacle as an excuse to dismiss the workmanlike ease with which they churned out hit after hit, that is understandable, but a shame.
Though they didn’t have the impact of the three they made with Chris Thomas, the band’s final albums with Hutchence yielded songs that outlast the legacies of the albums themselves. “Heaven Sent,” from 1992’s Welcome to Wherever You Are, is as good a pop song as any made in the past 30 years, and yet it somehow feels like an afterthought in their own estimable discography. INXS’ rise to massive global financial concern wasn’t without its collateral damage: At the height of American Idol mania in 2004, the surviving members recruited a new singer via network TV reality show; 2005’s Switch, with JD Fortune, mostly just furthers the argument that Hutchence’s chemistry and charisma can’t be recruited.
Which is why Listen Like Thieves feels like a moment worth preserving—a snapshot of a band finding its voice and its lane in real time and figuring out how to do something that seems nearly beyond comprehension 35 years later. There are no heirs apparent. The 1975 have the big-tent ambition and certainly the look, but are complicated and navel gaze-y in a way INXS never seemed interested in. The Killers have the chart success but a decidedly Mormon interpretation of sex appeal. Coldplay have to work too hard to convince you that they’re any fun. Spoon have the songs and the hooks and the decades of consistency that make them easy to overlook, but not the actual hits. (Oh god, is it Maroon 5?) But the notion of sex, drugs, and dance-oriented, innocuous, hugely popular rock’n’roll as a formula for a decades-long career in some ways died with Hutchence. This almost sounds like a backhanded compliment now but it should be a badge of honor: INXS were a very good band that was very good at their job and that no longer really exists.
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