Before Michael Hutchence’s traumatic suicide in 1997, and the multiplying tragedies and indignities that followed (the reality program in search of a replacement singer; the Seven Network miniseries; the death of former manager Chris Murphy; guitarist Tim Farriss’s severed finger; his brother and drummer Jon’s recent association with anti-vaccination protests in Canberra), before all of that, INXS were one thing above all else: a brilliant singles band with a shit-hot frontman.
If you are looking for anything after 1992’s patchy Welcome to Wherever You Are, look elsewhere; INXS were already on a steep descent by then. Deep cuts? Forget it: if it wasn’t a single, it was mostly filler. INXS’s best songs were precision-tooled pieces of audio engineering, ergonomically crafted for your radio, your car, your hips and your ears. Their greatest hits almost all pick themselves – ranking them, however, is another matter. Here goes …
15. Bitter Tears (1990)
A Rolling Stones-lite rock and soul workout, the fourth single from X still shimmied and shook, although the tide was beginning to run out on the band by the time of its release as a single in February 1991 – the song peaked at No 36 on the Australian charts, 30 in the UK and 46 in the US. But as a live act, INXS were at their peak: a few months later, a gravity-defying performance at Wembley would produce the Live Baby Live album.
14. Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain) (1985)
The third single from INXS’s fifth album Listen Like Thieves showcases the group’s command of space, with its clanging opening chords followed by silence. What follows is lean, taut rock, with only a brief rave-up towards the end breaking the tension between Andrew Farriss’s keyboards, which lift the song up, and Garry Gary Beers’s bass, which continually drag it back to earth.
13. What You Need (1985)
The beginning of INXS’s imperial period was kicked off by a leftover. At the end of recording sessions for Listen Like Thieves, producer Chris Thomas didn’t hear the international hit craved by the group and their US label Atlantic. Trawling through demos, Andrew Farriss brought back a groove called Funk Song No 13. The eventual result was the band’s first US smash; Tim Farriss’s hard funk solo provided the blueprint for Kick.
12. Disappear (1990)
The “do-do-do doo-do-do” introduction is one of those melodies that feels like it was always there – it just took Hutchence until 1990 to sing it. It’s so obvious and innately human that if that was all Disappear was, it would probably still have been a hit. The rest is just scaffolding: the churning chorus is almost superfluous by comparison, with the song resolving to the original idea, capturing the daydreaming bliss of being alone with the one you love.
11. I Send a Message (1984)
INXS’s fourth album The Swing was well-named: it’s the hinge-point demarcating the band’s early, skinny new wave from the more assured amalgam of pop, rock and funk that followed. It was also a great booty-shaker, with four singles peeled off. The second, I Send a Message, has endured despite its affectations, including Hutchence’s call of “Hey Timmeh!” to introduce Farriss’s on-point solo. Kirk Pengilly’s saxophone provides both accent and melody, and the whole band sound like they’re having a blast.
10. Beautiful Girl (1992)
INXS’s last flash of greatness, from 1992’s Welcome to Wherever You Are. By then, Nirvana had blown the superstars of the 80s off the map, and INXS found themselves chasing the pack with a notably harder rock sound. But on this lovely, delicate homage by Andrew Farriss to his baby daughter, the band sounded unabashedly themselves. It was the fifth international single from the album, which did it no favours; its comparatively lacklustre chart performance belied its stature as among the band’s most loved songs.
9. Mystify (1987)
The fifth and final single from Kick, with finger-snaps accompanying Andrew Farriss’s barrelling piano chords. Those snaps demonstrate the unshakeable arrogance of a band at the top of its game: everything INXS tried was working, with every part contributing to the incredibly tight whole. The song’s title was taken by the band’s longtime video collaborator Richard Lowenstein for his excellent 2019 Hutchence biopic.
8. New Sensation (1987)
Kick begins with an anomalous song called Guns in the Sky, but that’s really just a scene-setter for New Sensation, which introduces the true sound of the album: relentless Prince-style funk riffs, anchored by a hard four-on-the-floor rhythm. It’s also all about the singer, more than the song. Hutchence is the maximum rock’n’roll star here, his vocal at the top of the mix. The band, laser-focused on chart glory, knows better than to get in his way.
7. Suicide Blonde (1990)
After the jaw-dropping success of Kick, INXS weren’t about to mess with the formula, and the follow-up, X, rehashed it, with diminishing creative returns. It was late 1990, and they wouldn’t have the world’s ear for much longer, but for the time being it was still their oyster. The Stones would have killed for X’s lead cut Suicide Blonde, with its honking harmonica lead-off and fiery vocal; Hutchence’s lyrics are a shallow but grim portent of the darkness to follow. Beers’ death-rolling bass underpins all of it.
6. By My Side (1990)
Hutchence’s lyrics stand out here, as he stares down the contradiction of incomprehensible stardom and loneliness: “Rooms full of strangers / Some call me friends / But I wish you were so close to me.” Here, he made the best use of his lower register, recalling the croon of Iggy Pop circa The Idiot. But the chorus of this big piano ballad was made to be sung at Wembley: three words of longing. In essence, By My Side was Never Tear Us Apart II; tellingly, both songs were played at Hutchence’s funeral.
5. Devil Inside (1988)
With its riff picking up where Tim Farriss left off on What You Need, Devil Inside was both a refinement and a progression. And where What You Need featured Hutchence at his most in-your-face, here, instead, he was sidling up to you and pouring hot wax in your ear. The group was far more effective for his restraint; Farriss’s solo, similarly, is masterful for its economy and sultry tone.
4. Don’t Change (1982)
Earlier singles Just Keep Walking, Stay Young and The One Thing showcased a lean and hungry new wave band nurtured on the competitive Australian pub circuit. Don’t Change, though, was INXS’s first genuine anthem. The video is both naff and brash: the band is young and beautiful, and the lithe Hutchence has perfected his blend of Jagger, Iggy and Jim Morrison moves. Reserved as an encore until the end of the band’s career, Don’t Change has been covered by Green Day and Bruce Springstreen, neither of whom were able to capture its naive charm.
3. Original Sin (1983)
After Don’t Change, this was a quantum leap in sophistication. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers – who pumped up Beers’ bass to an earth-shaking rumble – the first and best single from The Swing served notice that INXS were ready for stadiums. Farriss’s guitar is key here, with sharp funk riffs and serrated counterpoints best heard on the longer album version. And Hutchence’s vocal is sublime, especially on the song’s long, jamming coda: his “Yeah-ahhhhh!” at 4.30 is one of his greatest moments.
2. Need You Tonight (1987)
The drums-and-percussion intro. The whisper – “Come over here”. And then, that killer, chopping riff played by Pengilly, offset by a clipped funk lead by Farriss (another extension of What You Need). Underneath it all, the throb of Beers’s bass at the bottom end. Everything about Need You Tonight is pure desire; Hutchence’s vocal is face-fanning in its carnality. The band’s first and only No 1 in the US, and a No 2 in the UK, this song is – to coin a phrase from another oversexed singer – simply irresistible.
1. Never Tear Us Apart (1987)
It’s a tough call between this and Need You Tonight, but as a classic piece of songwriting, Never Tear Us Apart is INXS’s crowning glory. A large part of its monolithic grandeur lies in its timing. Originally recorded as a blues, it was transformed into a Viennese waltz with dramatic pauses; again, INXS’s mastery of space was at the fore. And in a crowded field, this is Hutchence’s greatest vocal turn: full of warmth and desperation, it’s a love song fit for a million weddings, for a thousand years.