Australian Rockers INXS Struggle Without Singer

By | July 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM

For the first time in almost four years, one of Australia’s most successful rock bands, INXS, is playing a few shows in North America.

But the crowd at their recent Los Angeles stop consisted of about 70 Rhino Records employees and a few reporters, just two of the band’s six members were on stage, and the bespectacled singer looked nothing like Michael Hutchence, the group’s charismatic vocalist.

Hutchence committed suicide in November 1997, and his bandmates are having a hard time deciding whether to carry on. In the meantime, they have released a two-CD anthology, “Shine Like It Does,” via reissue specialist Rhino. The mini-concert by Andrew Farriss and Kirk Pengilly at Rhino headquarters was designed to rouse the troops and stir up some media coverage.

Making new career plans has not been easy for five fortysomething Aussies who sold more than 25 million records during their 23-year career.

Band members say no one had any inkling that Hutchence was so distraught about his personal life that he would hang himself in a Sydney hotel room. As they were still grieving, INXS (pronounced “in excess”) was dumped by its label.

Plans for a comeback U.S. tour this summer with Australian singer Jon Stevens as guest vocalist crumbled after fellow Oz rockers Midnight Oil pulled out of the package.

Just as Queen could never replace Freddie Mercury or the Doors Jim Morrison after the untimely deaths of those colorful singers, it seems INXS may have lost the formula that generated seven U.S. top-10 singles and seven MTV Video Music Awards.

Then again, hard-rock compatriots AC/DC became even bigger after Brian Johnson stepped in to replace the late Bon Scott 20 years ago. This is the scenario favored by Farriss, the soft-spoken keyboardist who wrote most of INXS’ music for Hutchence’s lyrics.

‘ROCK THE SOCKS OFF’

“We still, I think, have the ability to rock the socks off live,” Farriss said. “INXS is still that live act. I say that as modestly as I can, but I believe it’s true.”

Farriss, 42, and Pengilly, 43, chatted with Reuters in a Rhino boardroom minutes before their performance.

“I don’t know yet that it’s necessarily a closed door on the future. And artistically, as well as creatively, we still all have capabilities within the group,” Farriss said.

Pengilly, the guitarist and saxophone player, nodded in agreement. Whatever the group decides will be by unanimous vote, he said later, and there is still no consensus.

Pengilly was complimentary about fill-in vocalist Stevens but said the singer did not yet have all five votes. (The group is rounded out by Farriss’ brothers – guitarist Tim and drummer Jon – and bass player Garry Gary Beers.)

As substitute vocalist, Pengilly knows that it takes a lot to fill the shoes of Hutchence, who graduated with honors from the Mick Jagger School for Young Rock Stars. Hutchence’s stage swagger, pouting stare and hard-living lifestyle made him one of the biggest names in rock music of the last 20 years.

With Pengilly on vocals and guitar and Farriss alternating between guitar and keyboards for the Rhino gig, the duo performed three songs acoustically: “Mystify,” “Shine Like It Does” and “Never Tear Us Apart,” a ballad played at Hutchence’s funeral. Pengilly forgot the lyrics to the latter song and had to start over but the industry crowd did not seem to mind.

DVD, DOCUMENTARY IN WORKS

The songs on the “Shine Like It Does” album were released previously, but early tracks like “We Are the Vegetables” and some remixed versions of songs are harder to obtain. The comprehensive liner notes tantalizingly refer to unreleased demo and live versions but the compilers did not include them on the album. (Atlantic released a single-disc compilation in 1994 after the group left that label.)

Farriss said a planned DVD would offer more rarities. The group has just signed with movie studio Columbia TriStar to produce a career documentary, and Pengilly has kept a diary throughout the years and plans to write a book eventually.

With such hits as “Original Sin,” “What You Need,” “Devil Inside” and “Heaven Sent,” Farriss sees the new package as a fitting tribute to Hutchence’s talents.

“He’s an awesome singer and great songwriter and he deserves to be seen in that light, not as someone that necessarily got in a moment they couldn’t get out of,” he said, referring to a U2 song, “Stuck In A Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of,” that U2 singer Bono co-wrote for his pal Hutchence.

Farriss likes the song and is working on his own tributes, but “knowing Michael since he was a teenager, probably my songs are generated more toward not so much the nature of how his life ended but how his life was.”

The generally accepted story is that Hutchence was so despondent over child custody fights involving his girlfriend, Paula Yates, and her former husband, Bob Geldof, that he took his own life. Hutchence had been hounded by the British tabloids but evidently opted not to share his turmoil with the bandmates he had known for most of his life.

“Whenever he was with us he was fine,” Pengilly said.

“We all went through, at different stages, all the different emotions that you go through after a death: anger to sadness to even joy,” he added. “You go through them all. With everyone it affects everyone differently. The period of time that it takes to get through that differs. I think most of us are pretty well out the other side now.”

When this year’s U.S. dates fell through, INXS and Stevens toured small venues in Australia. They also played during the closing ceremony at last year’s Sydney Olympic Games. A year earlier, fronted by soul singer Terence Trent D’Arby, they helped inaugurate the Olympic stadium.

INXS will get into the “nitty-gritty” of making future plans within the next few months, Pengilly said, adding his “gut feeling” is that the band will continue. “If INXS calls it a day, that would be it for me,” he said.

INXS paid its dues playing to Australia’s infamously rowdy pub crowds, and Pengilly said he has no desire to start from scratch with another bunch of musicians.

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