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POP MUSIC : Bound to INXS : After a year away, heartthrob Michael Hutchence is back with the Australian band for another hit album, but no one knows for how long

INXS without Michael Hutchence, the group’s sexy lead singer?

That’s like the Stones without Mick Jagger or U2 without Bono.

But that’s what fans of this hugely popular Australian band feared with the speculation that Hutchence--tired of the long tours and mounting pressures following the international success of the group’s 1987 album “Kick"--wanted out. The rumors were heightened last year when the lanky, curly-haired singer joined some Australian friends to record an album titled “Max Q.”

Unlike INXS’ seductive, funky dance-rock, a marriage of thunderous power chords and dance rhythms, the Max Q brand of rock has a quirky, underground, experimental feel--clearly a detour from INXS’ mainstream approach. “Max Q” did get some critical acclaim, but, according to an Atlantic Records source, it wasn’t a commercial success.

Hutchence admirers weren’t the only ones puzzled by the rock star’s career sidestep. The other members of INXS were in the dark too.

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“I was at a friend’s house one night watching television and Mike came on singing with another group,” INXS’ keyboardist Andrew Farriss volunteered, sitting across the room from Hutchence during an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ That was the first I’d heard of it.”

But the Max Q project may have helped keep the group together--at least for one more album.

After 16 months of touring to promote the “Kick” album (which sold 4 million copies in the U.S. alone) all six members of INXS felt they needed a break early last year. They had been together, touring or recording, for 13 years.

“If we hadn’t taken a break, the band might have broken up,” said Farriss, who also plays guitar and wrote, with Hutchence, most of INXS’ new Atlantic Records album, “X.”

During the time off, all six members of the group plunged into assorted side projects, none of which resembled the work they had done in INXS. The plan was for them all to come back as INXS after the break, but the key to the band’s future rested with Hutchence. Would he find life away from INXS more appealing?

Hutchence, 30, downplays the suggestion that he ever seriously thought about leaving the group, but it’s a question he still seems to be debating. There’s a side of him that rebels against the pressures of being the sexy, high-visibility lead singer of a successful group.

“It’s like being in the Twilight Zone,” insisted Hutchence in a dramatic whisper, emphasizing the otherworldly quality of his experience. “I can step outside myself and look at all this and see it’s sheer madness. Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing it. The pace, the pressure, the people grabbing at you--it’s lunacy.

This seems to be a time of re-evaluation for a lot of pop stars. George Michael recently announced he was going to try to downplay his celebrity by not doing videos for his new album and not touring. John Cougar Mellencamp also announced he is taking at least a year break from the road. And Elton John appears to have moved into a period of hibernation.

Looking across the room at Farriss, Hutchence said with obvious feeling, “I love music and I love working with these guys. . . . I just have a problem with fame. I hate obnoxious, egotistical rock stars. I don’t want to turn into something like that.”

But a lower profile might not have been the only reason Hutchence was attracted to Max Q. He also may have been searching for deeper artistic satisfaction.

Back in the early 1980s, when INXS was just beginning to attract attention in the U.S. with the albums “Underneath the Colours” and “Shabooh Shoobah,” it seemed that the band could evolve into an outfit noted for literate, intelligent lyrics and substantial themes.

But their arrival coincided with the rise of MTV and it was inevitable that the two would connect, given Hutchence’s sexy presence. Not only did MTV turn Hutchence into a rock pin-up, but the sting left their music. The group’s approach became slicker, simpler and more danceable on the albums “Listen Like Thieves” and “Kick.”

Hutchence appears frustrated by the accusations in recent years that INXS’ music is no deeper than the average disco hit.

“Sure it bothers us,” Hutchence said. “We deal with people and issues in an insightful way. There’s more to INXS than danceable music and that damned sex symbol thing.”

Working on Max Q, Hutchence said, “gave me a different perspective on things. I got something out of it. I learned how to sing. I did some vocal explorations. My singing on the new INXS album is much better because of the Max Q project.

“In INXS, for me, there’s always this yearning to do something else, to sample what’s over the horizon. This time I was over the horizon. But I’m back. What does that tell you?”

The true answer to whether Hutchence is going to stick with the band may be tied to the reaction to the new album. Will “X” bring critics back into the fold--and sell more millions?

Whatever the critics decide, (opinion is mixed, see PopMeter) sales are impressive. After just three weeks, the album is already in the national pop Top 5.


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