The new face of INXS?

There are no instructions in the rock’n’roll rule book on what to do when a key band member dies. The Doors soldiered on after Jim Morrison’s demise but swiftly parted when their first album as a trio flopped. Nirvana simply called it quits when they lost Kurt Cobain. By contrast, The Who declared Keith Moon irreplaceable, but within months were touring with Kenney Jones.

And INXS? "We’ve done it our way," says Andrew Farriss, who was the band’s chief songwriter with the late Michael Hutchence. "If we’d tried to pretend it didn’t matter, rushed out and gotten on with it, it wouldn’t have been particularly healthy because of the people we are."

For the five remaining members of INXS, the loss of Hutchence certainly did matter. This was a band that was closer than most. When Hutchence died alone in a hotel room on 22 November 1997, he left behind a band whose line-up had been unchanged for 20 years. And the ties went deeper than that. Half the band is, indeed, a family, and when in 1978 the Farriss clan - mum, dad, the three boys and their sister - returned to their home town of Perth, the boys’ three bandmates, Garry Beers, Hutchence and Kirk Pengilly, abandoned girlfriends, jobs and homes to follow them. Just to keep the band, then called the Farriss Brothers, together.

Losing Hutchence, says Pengilly now, was more like losing a wife than a workmate. "It was a six-person marriage for 20 years," he says. Each in turn had grown in confidence, felt suffocated by their closeness, tested their bonds and been pulled back into line. They’d suffered each others egos, forgiven one another’s wounds and even overlooked one another’s flaws. So deciding two and a half years after Hutchence’s death to recruit an outsider - former Noiseworks vocalist Jon Stevens - was a step not taken lightly.

But here they are at a unique vantage point in their career, looking both forward and back: a British tour beginning next week in Glasgow with Stevens up front and a 41-song double CD of greatest hits spanning the years with Hutchence. What muddies the waters is the CD’s inclusion of two previously unreleased tracks featuring Hutchence. One of them, Tight, is accompanied by an upbeat video that, through meticulous editing, appears to capture the man himself singing the song. They hope Stevens will understand. Five years on, Hutchence still casts a shadow.

Formed in 1977 in Sydney, there was little in INXS’s early history to suggest the heights to which they would rise. For Hutchence and Andrew Farriss it was a friendship forged in a school-yard fight: Hutchence, temporarily attending Killarney Heights High School, was clad in the red-and-blue uniform of Davidson High and was an easy target for bullying by the grey-clad local boys; Farriss waded in to save him. From that friendship grew a band playing obscure covers by major acts - Steely Dan, Graham Parker, the Tubes. Gradually they began inserting their own songs that fused pop, rock, ska and funk.

Picked up and renamed in 1978 by Midnight Oil manager Gary Morris, then signed reluctantly by the independent Deluxe record label, the band determined early on that if they did become successful, their fame would not be limited to their own shores. Scoring support gigs for artists such as the Go-Gos, Men at Work, Hall and Oates and Stray Cats, INXS adopted a combative approach. "Our attitude was to blow the f***ers off the stage," says Pengilly. Sheer determination got their song The One Thing on to MTV and a US tour supporting Adam Ant where, much to their disbelief, they were mobbed by delirious fans.

"There’d be 80 people outside the bus, banging on the sides, screaming, ripping their hair out," recalls Jon Farriss. They’d be throwing underpants and teddy bears on stage. It was like something out of The Monkees."

A hefty part of their appeal, of course, was Hutchence. Then 23, he was the son of bohemian parents, born in Sydney but raised in Hong Kong and Hollywood. He was shy then, says Pengilly, but steadily developing his on-stage presence, exploiting his raw sexuality and, one might guess from the live footage of the time, carefully studying the stage moves of Jim Morrison. Andrew Farriss, for one, was relieved Hutchence was happy in the limelight. "Michael once said, ‘We don’t want the same thing,’ and he was right," he recalls. "I didn’t ever want to be down the front of the stage saying, ‘Hey, look at me.’ And Michael really did."

The singer was already being seen differently by fans and fellow band members. Pengilly says INXS was firm that Hutchence was a member of the band, not its star. The point rankles still. "The media created that," he says. "It was easy to become caught up in it and there were times when it was out of control."

But like it or not, no-one in INXS could fail to notice that incessant touring was helping to transform their shy buddy into a swaggering, moody rock star. He scored the lead role in Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space movie, began smoking opium with Chinese friends, took to striding out in leather trousers and flowing shirts and riding into the bush on a Harley Davidson. He shocked the pop world with his unlikely romance with the then distinctly uncool Kylie Minogue, bragging that his hobby was "corrupting Kylie". She, in turn, inspired him: when she told him she was dying her hair "suicide blonde", he converted the phrase into a hit single.

"That persona developed slowly, but it was always there," says Pengilly. "All of a sudden he was being invited to modelling shows, he met Kylie and became part of mainstream media play. He liked that."

Hutchence’s metamorphosis and the increasing media attention troubled his bandmates. "From time to time we all felt the same way," says Jon Farriss. "Michael’s personal life became more important than the band or the music. Occasionally there was a lot of discomfort about that."

"It became difficult for Michael," adds Pengilly, "which then became difficult for us. There was only one period where we all lost it and that was towards the end of the Kick tour."

The year 1987, when the hugely successful Kick album was released, was a watershed for INXS. Labouring under an exhausting tour schedule, the band became riven by jealousy and fights. The adulation and pressure were messing with Hutchence’s head, too. He would later tell a British interviewer the hysteria surrounding the album prevented him from seeing where he fitted in. "I started disconnecting and flipping out into my own world that revolved around nothing else but acid house and a boom box. I couldn’t cope, so I retreated," he said.

When INXS took a year-long break after Kick, Hutchence went to France, but also spent long periods in Hong Kong. "For a while he became more distant," says Pengilly. "We all came home to families and carried on life as normal. Michael chose not to live a normal life."

Hutchence also chose that moment - with huge pressure on INXS to repeat the success of Kick - to explore new musical directions with Melbourne techno experimentalist Ian Olsen in an outfit they named Max Q. Andrew Farriss knew nothing of the project until he saw a Max Q video on TV. "I was surprised," he says. "And confused. The timing was just so strange. He was probably nervous about what I’d think about it, so he tried not to let me know he was doing it."

Jon Farriss saw his secrecy as an act of betrayal. "I felt he’d had an affair. In a way it was a time of rebellion for him. He felt trapped and needed to do naughty things. He cut all his hair off. It was a time of soul-searching."

Pengilly adds: "Deep down he had hopes Max Q would be a success. If it had been huge, INXS could have been in trouble. He may have opted to say, ‘I don’t need you guys’. But he came back stronger. He really did realise we were like his family."

As it turned out, Kick’s follow-up, X, outsold Kick in many territories. Though the next album, 1992’s Welcome to Wherever You Are, remains a favourite with the band, they decided against touring it. For the first time in years, sales dipped. With band members now spread throughout Denmark, Hong Kong, Britain and Australia, INXS sought their own "Alcatraz" to record their next album, where no-one could run off to clubs at night. They chose Capri, off the coast of Naples, Italy. It was winter, shops and bars were closed, the island was accessible only by boat and fierce weather prevented anyone coming or going. It would prove to be one of the band’s worst periods.

Pengilly recalls: "There was a bit of a creative battle going on. Michael was very heavily influenced by what was going on in Seattle. He loved Nirvana. He’d put it on in the studio and blow up the speakers with it and he was adamant about drawing some of that influence into what we were doing." One night, things got so tense that Beers says Hutchence threatened him with a knife.

"I don’t think Full Moon, Dirty Hearts was one of our better albums," says Andrew Farriss now. Nor did critics or fans, and there was little to lighten the band’s mood. In 1995 Jill Farriss, the mother of half the band, died of cancer. In March, Hutchence, already all over the UK papers because of his relationship with Paula Yates, was arrested after punching a photographer in London.

Only the following year did it all begin to go well again. Hutchence went to Ireland to escape the glare of publicity and work with Andrew Farriss on their last album, Elegantly Wasted.

Pengilly says Hutchence by now was coping well. "There was shit going on in his life, but it’s all relative. Michael’s life was larger than life, so were some of the problems in it. The tour was fun. It was business as usual." Yet, Hutchence maintained his appetite for drugs. "Michael always liked to live on the edge," says Pengilly. "He liked to experiment. But he was always professional."

For all that, Hutchence’s death came as a shock. He had been rehearsing the previous day with the band. At the end of the day only Hutchence, Andrew Farriss, Kirk Pengilly and the tour’s backing singers remained as they rehearsed vocals with a guitar. Hutchence put on a Pythonesque silly walk then, smiling, bade them goodnight and left.

Pengilly went to a friend’s place where he stayed the night. The next morning he found a message left by Hutchence on his answering machine about 11 the previous night, inviting him to his hotel for a get-together with friends. Pengilly shrugged it off and went to rehearsals. Hutchence wasn’t there, "but that was nothing new, he was always late".

News filtered through that something had happened - a death or drug overdose. It was only later the band learned the truth - from a newsflash on a portable TV left on so they could watch the cricket.

In time, the band began discussing its future. "Within the first year we started getting offers to do gigs," says Pengilly. "We’d look at each other and say, ‘We don’t have a singer. What are we going to do, instrumental versions of Need You Tonight?’" They picked up the pieces: a gig with Terence Trent D’Arby, negotiations with Shirley Manson of Garbage to join the band ("She was very interested," Pengilly says) and, finally in May 2000, an alliance with Stevens. "It was like a ray of sunshine after a long rainy season," says Jon Farriss.

The band has been working on about 30 new songs ahead of the start of their UK tour. Stevens, a singer with a strong R&B background, has already been road-tested on a tour of America, and says it felt natural being on stage with the band. Andrew Farriss says he is under no pressure to be a Hutchence clone.

"Jon’s a great singer, he’s his own man," he says. "We’re all individuals. No-one’s irreplaceable."

It’s now 25 years since INXS was born, almost five since Hutchence died. "The dynamic of what we did before has altered," says Pengilly. "But we’re still the same bunch of guys. You’ll know it’s INXS."

INXS play Braehead Arena, Glasgow, on 5 December.