Perms, Mousse, and synthesizers. What more does a pop band need?
Growing up in the Australian bush meant that one didn’t exactly have much in the way of access to popular culture. Record stores (if you could find one) always had a healthy stock of Slim Dusty and Johnny Cash, along with a plethora of those ‘50s rock and roll compilations, but not much in the way of more modern music, which generally meant that one had to wait until a stay in the city presented itself.
In fact, sometimes my father used to take a few blank cassette tapes with him whenever he was in Melbourne, and record FM radio, just so we’d have something to listen to in the car other than the local AM station, which was about as exciting as sheep dip.
So, when I finally got my hands on The Swing, INXS’s fourth studio venture (not that I would have not known that back then), it was as if several Xmas’s had come at once (like I said, this stuff was hard to come by). It also turned out that I was the only one in the whole village who owned a copy, which meant that I was reasonably popular for a while, making pirate copies for my friends (I also had an LP of the original Breakdance soundtrack, a definite bird magnet, hard as that is to believe now).
Eager to crack the American market, the band decided to record their first single, “Original Sin”, in New York, with Nile Rodgers at the production helm, who had produced the likes of Diana Ross and David Bowie, amongst many others. From the moment those big pounding drums announce its arrival, “Original Sin” has “this is the one that’s going to break us internationally” written all over it. However what the song title has to do with its intended subject matter I’ve never been quite able to work out. But hey, I’m sure the last thing on Hutchence’s mind was to compose a pop song based on the writings of St. Augustine.
Having said that, it’s still rather catchy, especially the chorus: “Dream on white boy, dream on black girl”, but a like a lot things ‘80s related, it’s difficult to know whether a song such as this would stand up on its own once all the production values were stripped away (something which could apply to just about the majority of ‘80s pop by the way).
“Melting in the Sun” always reminds me of those long, hot Australian summers in the bush. For once the guitars have a bit of meat on them, although the keyboards, to be honest, are a bit annoying.
“I Send a Message” was the other big hit. Admittedly all the synthesizers sound incredibly dated, and perhaps let the tune down somewhat, now that we’re living in an age where lo-fi outfits such as The White Stripes and The Black Keys are the norm, and which don’t seem to be going away any time soon (thank heavens).
“Dancing on the Jetty” also reminds me of my youth, when we used to go boating on weekends, swimming as well as fishing off the various jetties of which there was no shortage of. Not that I ever danced on one, but the fact that the song had “jetty” in the title was good enough for me to establish an immediate if tenuous connection. At least here Michael was making some attempt to infuse his lyrical expression with a little polemical observation, specifically in the chorus.
“The Swing”, which ends side one, is one of their more hard-edged numbers, built around some energetic drumming by Jon Farriss, and what thankfully sound like real guitars. Hutchence’s lyrics no doubt pertain to some deeper meaning, e.g. “There was a darkness, like an old friend /It scratched and crawled up the wall/Into my life/Into my destiny”. In the hands of Jim Morrison such words might have bordered on the profound, but here they merely come across as some artificial construct.
Side two begins with “Johnson’s Aeroplane”, what was then and remains now to this day my favourite INXS song. It could have something to do with the sad and reflective strings, or maybe the fact that for once Hutchence is finally painting a narrative with his words. “Love Is (What I Say)” is another strong number, with lots of space where it needs to be, and one of those rare moments where all those fake keyboards, courtesy of Andrew Farriss, compliment the melody perfectly.
“Face the Change” once again sees Hutchence in Morrison mode, preaching to the masses about how superficial the industry of fame really is. Interesting that someone who later became addicted to his own Dionysian self-image should be so critical of the very business on which pop organisms such as him used to feed and depend on.
“Burn for You” proved to be another commercial winner for the band even if nowadays all those cheesy synthesizers do make me want to reach for a Rennie. It’s a decent song, true, but listening to it is a little like eating a whole packet of burger rings in less than five minutes. In other words, one is satisfied at the time of imbuement, but left feeling less than sated afterwards.
The album ends with “All the Voices”, another decent guitar/synth driven piece, which sees Hutchence in anthemic mode, singing about “All the people… We can change it”. Yeah right. It’s a nice enough sentiment, but one I think John Lennon did a whole lot better ten years earlier.
There can be no doubting that Hutchence had charisma, like a sort of updated Jim Morrison for the eighties, albeit with a cheap perm and a wardrobe that resembled the leftovers from Mad Max. And as much as I hate to admit it, I used to love this album, for it was the soundtrack to my summer. But now, some twenty years later, my mind has turned to other seasons. Still, nostalgia sways my judgement, to the extent that I am forced to admit that this is one of their most focused efforts, and remains to this day an agreeable, intelligent artefact from an era too caught up in its own sense of self-importance. And while INXS’ strength was always in their singles, this is one record that can be enjoyed as a whole.