INXS are arguably the last survivors of a mini-Australian invasion of 1982-83, enabled by then-mushrooming MTV, if overwhelmed by Australia’s former colonial mother, the United Kingdom. Those of a certain age will remember mega-platinum hitsters Men At Work, the scabrous Midnight Oil, Icehouse, or even Moving Pictures, with their plaintive sad-sack anthem “What About Me?”. These bands have all vanished, along with a vibrant post-punk rock scene aided and abetted by that country’s pub culture, its laddish phallocentric machismo, and a historical embrace of British pop sensibilities.
INXS, formed in 1977, splashed onto the international scene in early 1983, their Shabooh Shoobah album riding high on the charts, propelled by singles like “The One Thing” and college fave “Don’t Change”. The band went from strength to strength during the ‘80s, their ascension culminating with the Kick album, which catapulted them into the global pop stratosphere. Things grew a bit spottier for them in the changing ‘90s, but they managed to continue serving up hits, until lead vocalist Michael Hutchence’s mysterious death in a hotel room in November of 1997.
In June of that year, the German TV series “Rockpalast” filmed the group performing at the famed Loreley Festival, and that concert is the basis of the new DVD INXS:Mystify, which recently dropped into stores. Also present on the disc is an earlier show, filmed in Hamburg in May 1984, as the band was just breaking in Europe.
Not surprisingly, the 21 June 1997 gig was a much larger affair, staged outdoors, and the teeming throngs—curiously subdued—seem to evoke the huge charity concerts which became quite trendy during INXS’ first decade. Hutchence, resembling Bono in a pair of wraparound shades, prances onto the stage, as his mates launch into “Elegantly Wasted”, the band’s final global hit. Vocally, Mick Jagger’s influence is unmistakable in Hutchence’s delivery, and the similarities hardly end there. Hutchence exudes a faintly androgynous, feline presence onstage—Jagger’s trademark—and his forever wiry physique lends him an eternal youthfulness that not all aging rockers achieve.
Next up is the bouncy “New Sensation”, a Top 10 smash from Kick, though never a personal fave of mine, as the tune is now best recalled from its usage in TV spots for Sea World. Hutchence fares better on “Taste It”, his soulful belting enlivening a song probably well-known only to hardcore INXS-philes.
Although I enjoy surprises as much as the next guy, I couldn’t resist reading the track listing before watching the DVD, so I knew that “Heaven Sent”, the debut single from 1992’s Welcome To Wherever You Are was imminent. This raucous, apocalyptic screamer, shamefully snubbed by fans, has always entranced me, and I wasn’t disappointed by the group’s potent reading.
“Never Tear Us Apart”, perhaps dismissed by some as the band’s concession to America’s Adult Contemporary radio format, is slowed slightly to a bass-heavy crawl, and maybe that’s the most intriguing thing they could do with it. “I Need You Tonight” has never been prime INXS, but it helped propel the group to their lat-‘80s commercial peak, and, as is often the case with lackluster studio cuts, it seems more compelling in a live setting.
The brassy, propulsive punch of “What You Need”, from 1985’s Listen Like Thieves reminds one that INXS’ sound has always straddled a line between grungy arena bombast and Eurotrash dance floor slinkiness. Indeed, Hutchence himself has described the group’s music as “a cross between Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin”, and this track certainly embodies this credo. INXS have sought to be simultaneously funky and deliver sledgehammer power chords, and they’ve often succeeded.
Another fine cut from “Thieves, “Kiss The Dirt”, is absent here, and I missed it, but any concert is a tense negotiation between the artist’s desires and the expectations of the mob. I recall—with disappointment - attending a Prince show at Madison Square Garden in 1986, in which His Royal Badness seemed resolute in avoiding the tunes I wanted to hear. When Bob Dylan made the fateful decision to go electric in the mid-‘60s, many of his folk-worshipping devotees nearly came to violence. Dylan’s instructions to his band: “Play louder!” Such attitude—visionary or otherwise—may be an essential component of memorable rock ‘n’ roll, but what established star would have the nerve to pull that off today?
Also included are “The Devil Inside”, “Don’t Lose Your Head”, which believe it or not owes a debt to rap, and “Suicide Blonde”, a putative tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and one wonders how much more need be said about the doomed star. On the snarky side, when Elton John reworked “Candle In the Wind” into a teary-eyed homage to the late Lady Diana, the ever-diplomatic Keith Richards wickedly grumbled, “Elton has a thing for dead blondes.”
The earlier show, presented in May of 1984, and promoting their album The Swing, becomes an instant period piece as one notices the group’s colorful, MTV-inspired threads and fouffy hair explosions. Musically, the track “Just Keep Walking” evokes their quirkier post-punk roots, and we also hear the aforementioned “The One Thing”, a sleek, pulsating hit which introduced the band to US audiences.
The venue is a decidedly intimate one, in Hamburg, a city which earns more than a footnote in rock history, as it was the redoubt of the Fab Four from 1960-62.
Hutchence’s hip-swaying charisma is already in evidence, and the Nile Rodgers-produced opus “The Original Sin” forefronts Garry Beers’ bass work, while hinting at funkier things to come, reminiscent of Queen’s 1980 The Game, Freddie Mercury’s attempt to steer the quartet away from arena metal and onto the dance floor.
Hutchence’s dynamism at Loreley is all the more poignant, considering that the Grim Reaper was fast approaching in his rearview mirror. In hindsight, his demise takes on a tragic timeliness, as the Great Rock Era was poised to yield to a facile, interactive pop landscape dominated by ‘reality’ television, YouTube, and weightless Disney Channel twinks. Unwittingly or not, Michael Hutchence took his own advice to “stay young”.
Like the late—and hilarious—Rodney Dangerfield, INXS seldom garnered much respect from the rock press. Their sound was likely too slick to appease this notoriously snotty constituency. But at their best, they foreshadowed the rock/funk/rap mashups that numerous younger bands would create in their wake. The group has continued to tour and record with a new lead singer, J.D. Fortune—discovered via what else: a reality show!—but despite the ferociously adept musicianship of the band, it would seem that the loss of Hutchence is too great to overcome. On that note, INXS: Mystify will surely be a beloved collectible to all the group’s fans.