The Sweet Smell of INXS

"There's no real star system in Australia, so why become one?" says Michael Hutchence, lead singer for INXS. "It's futile. They say in Australia that the worst thing you can do is become successful."

If that's the case, INXS, the biggest rock band from Down Under, has done the worst. The band has capped its first decade with its best-selling LP to date, "Kick."

And unlike former Aussie stars like the Little River Band and Men at Work, INXS has captured the ears of the world without capitalizing on its exotic origin. In fact, it would be just fine with the members of INXS if they never saw another reference to Foster's beer or kangaroos in articles about the group.

"I think of us as a band first and Australians second," says Hutchence.

The INXS management office is located on a quiet, tree-lined street in Sydney's King Cross district, a charmingly seedy neighborhood best known for its abundance of hookers, strip shows, runaways and nightclubs.

From here you can see Sydney's famous Harbour Bridge, arching over the bay just on the other side of the high-rises of downtown. The air is clear, the traffic is light and the stress level is typically Australian--low to non-existent. You wonder why INXS would feel the need ever to look beyond its doorstep.

"You can only build yourself to the top of the ladder in Australia and then you're in a situation where you either move overseas or you get pushed off," says INXS guitarist and saxophonist Kirk Pengilly during an interview at the office.

"In our minds we've always felt like we're an international band," continued the bespectacled, loquacious Pengilly, who's kept diaries of every INXS road trip and is the group's unofficial historian. "We live in Sydney and we are Australian, but few of our lyrics are very indicative of Australia. To us it doesn't matter where you come from. And I don't know if the majority of American kids are that aware of where you're from. Music is music."

Around Sydney there is plenty of music to be found. Just about every pub has some sort of live music: country, rock, progressive, punk, metal--you name it. This is the scene that fostered INXS.

"We are what Australian audiences made us," Hutchence says. "You get formed by them. I remember times when you wouldn't dare finish a set and walk backstage. You had to walk straight off the front of the stage into the bar and buy drinks for people.

"I know when a band is Australian. There's a certain way they treat the beat and a particular tongue-in-cheek attitude. There's no preciousness in Australian bands."

Tim Farriss is engaged in one of his favorite pursuits, trolling for sharks in a friend's boat 30 miles miles off the Sydney shore.

Australia, observes the stocky guitarist as he scans the open sea on a picture-perfect day, is "a big melting pot of music. It's so incestuous in a way. There's no such thing really as an Australian rock sound and yet that's one of the most interesting things. This is a great place to cut your teeth, but (Australian audiences) are not the easiest in the world."

INXS--brothers Tim, Jon and Andrew Farriss, Pengilly, Hutchence and Garry Gary Beers--started facing those audiences 10 years ago, woodshedding in the remote West Coast city of Perth for a year before returning to Sydney with a tight act and sharpened songwriting skills. They'd progressed through various musical stages, from progressive rock to ska/punk, and eventually to the distinctive R&B-flavored; mix that can be heard on "Kick."

In one year the group performed 280 gigs, driving across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, working the Queensland circuit where clubs were so hot that tanks of oxygen were kept on stage, gradually building a massive live following that ensured the band a good contract and a longevity that was rare at the time.

And even as INXS was knocking them dead back home, a relatively unknown pub band called Men at Work was rocketing to overnight success in America.

"Literally they were in a small pub in Melbourne one week and a month later they were doing arenas in America," Pengilly had recalled. "I think they were more shocked by their success than anyone else. When 'Down Under' went to No. 1 they were opening for us."

Other Australian rock bands have made a run at worldwide success--the Divinyls, Split Enz (New Zealanders, actually, but generally lumped in with the Australian scene), Midnight Oil. But now only INXS remains a major force internationally. The key, says Farriss, was the right attitude.

"We've had so many fantastic groups that never did anything overseas mainly because they didn't try," says the guitarist, sharpening a seven-inch hook as he speaks.

"They go over for one or two tours and don't do very well so they say, 'We don't want to slog it out over there when we're already big here.' It's a stupid attitude. Bands stagnate unless they leave the country and go through the whole cycle of being the little guy again."

Talk about international.

INXS is based in Sydney, although Hutchence and Jon Farriss live in Hong Kong. "Kick" was recorded in Australia and mixed in London. They shot three videos in Czechoslovakia, and for the making of the "The Devil Inside" video, the band came to Southern California.

While surfers back in Australia are just putting their winter wet suits away for the summer, here in Balboa the beach is deserted. Michael Hutchence is sitting on a balcony of the Balboa Inn, soaking up the weak sun and resting before starting the night's shooting.

The band has been on the road for a month now and word has just come in that "Kick" has risen to No. 20 on the Billboard chart, three weeks after its release. It's welcome news for a group that at first thought it would bypass the American market and concentrate on Europe.

"We never thought of coming to America," Hutchence says. "At first Andrew (Farriss) and I went to England. That's where we thought all good bands went. That was the tradition. We only came here because MTV had just started and American radio had loosened up and stopped playing Led Zeppelin every third song."

Later that night, Hutchence and the rest of INXS wait patiently for the camera crew to set up the lights on the merry-go-round at Balboa. A light rain is falling on the crowd of locals standing around the set watching the proceedings.

"Who's the band?" a bystander asks a pair of bleached-blonde Newport Beach girls perched on a bench.

"INXS," one of them answers. "I think they're from England. Why England? I don't know. That's where they seem like they should be from."

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