Los Angeles Times

Good Fortune For INXS

Special to Merge

"Easy, Easy" was the first song INXS performed with their new lead singer, J.D. Fortune. But the last 13 years have been anything but.

"It's been mayhem," says bassist Gary Beers.

Granted, he's referring to only a short part of that time, the four-and-a-half week schedule on which the band's latest album, Switch, was recorded. But it's also an apt phrase for a topsy-turvy period that saw the Australian band's popularity nosedive, their original lead singer commit suicide, and his initial replacement flake out.

Sure, they came out on top with their hit reality TV show/audition process Rock Star: INXS, a largely sold-out North American tour that lands in Reading on Feb. 15, and "Pretty Vegas," their first top-40 hit in 13 years. Still, getting there was not half the fun.

First, the declining record sales. The sextet's 1993 CD, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts was their first CD in a decade not to go gold; the 1997 follow-up Elegantly Wasted met with similar indifference. And let's not forget that year's Elegantly Wasted tour, a sparsely-attended affair that former manager Chris Murphy deemed "the last f@cking straw."

And then, of course, the camel whose back was broken by that expurgated straw: lead singer Michael Hutchence, whose appetite for sex and drugs put the 'excess' into 'INXS.' When those highs got too low on the eve of the tour's Australian leg, Hutchence committed suicide.

Suddenly, the band who hit it big with "Never Tear Us Apart" had, in fact, been torn apart.

Five years later, the quintet moved on with fellow Aussie Jon Stevens behind the mike, but a year later he too decided to move on ... sort of.

Last year, Stevens, perhaps taking the title of the band's 1993 song "Viking Juice" too literally, warned Fortune on Australian TV that he was about to be "raped and pillaged."

So it was back to square one for the band. Fortunately, waiting on that square was reality TV guru Mark Burnett.

"The show was Kirk's idea," says Beers, acknowledging the ingenuity of guitar-playing bandmate Kirk Pengilly. "It was quite a while ago, before we tried Jon. We said, 'We're an international band; what can we do to find an international singer?'

Australia is so isolated that it would have cost us a fortune to do a worldwide audition."

So Burnett and CBS picked up the tab, and instead of losing a fortune, the band gained a Fortune. Like many great matches, it wasn't exactly love at first sight.

"We weren't too impressed with J.D. at the beginning," says Beers, 48. "But we knew he was it a few weeks before the finale when, in one of the workshops, he did his usual 'naughty boy' thing and wrote 'Pretty Vegas.' And we're sitting there with [co-host] Dave Navarro, looking at the footage, and Dave turns and says, 'It's out the window now. He's the guy.' That song did it."

Indeed, the Nova Scotian won the crown on Sept. 20, leaving 7,000 hopefuls and 14 other finalists in his wake.

Instead of a celebratory trip to Disney World, however, it was straight on to another reality show: Bootcamp: INXS.

In order to make Switch's Nov. 29 release date, the group commandeered four studio control rooms and laid down their parts simultaneously, more or less from scratch.

Add tour rehearsals, press duties and the tour itself, and Fortune has had just Christmas week to himself.

Any buyer's (or Beers) remorse? "J.D. augments the chemistry of the band and that's something we thought we'd never be able to replace," says Beers.

"We feel like a family again."

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