Michael Hutchence, representing his band INXS, didn’t appear on the cover of Smash Hits until the latter half of 1989. By then, INXS had been together for over ten years and had released six albums, making them one of the most established acts to make their debut on the cover. The reason for their low profile in Smash Hits was their lack of chart success in Britain, the UK being one of the last major territories to accept the INXS sound. Their first album was released in their native Australia in 1980, and they were successfully broken to the American audience in 1983. But it wasn’t until the release of the single What You Need in 1986 that the band scored a hit here.
It wasn’t that INXS were ignoring the UK, as Hutchence told Record Mirror (23 August 1986): “We want to come back to England as soon as we can. But our commitment around the world is so great, it’s often difficult fitting everywhere in.” Certainly their albums had had different levels of popularity from country to country, requiring them to increase or decrease their promotional activity in each territory as necessary. In the early 80s, they concentrated on their home market, releasing a string of reasonably successful singles including four Top 40 hits from their breakthrough album Shabooh Shoobah (1982). That album was the one used to launch them in America, with lead single The One Thing making #30 on the Billboard Hot 100. But fourth album The Swing yielded several Top 10 singles in Australia, saw them score their first hits in Canada, New Zealand and continental Europe, and heralded the arrival of INXS as a truly international band – all without a hit in the UK. “It used to be traditional for [Australian] bands to go to England but they don’t do it anymore,” Hutchence told Record Mirror in another interview (14 June 1986). “If you thought you’d be OK as far as the critics go, you’d come here and live for as long as it took to get to know the writers. It was the same with people going to Los Angeles. But neither happens on a serious level anymore.”
Hutchence put breaking America down to media like MTV. “We went to America at a time when you didn’t have to play American music or be [fellow Australian] Olivia Newton-John to get played. MTV had taken hold and the radio programming was different. If we’d gone two years earlier we wouldn’t have had a chance.” Such were the changes in the US music scene in the 1980s that it wasn’t necessary for INXS to permanently relocate to the States; they were able to remain resident in Australia as a base but still get their music heard. Fifth album Listen Like Thieves went platinum during the 80s (it was certified double platinum by the RIAA in 1997) and What You Need gave them their first Top 10 hit. Here, the single was one of several from the album that were hits, while falling short of the Top 40 which would have got them played on charts shows on the BBC’s Radio 1 or Top Of The Pops.
An increased presence in the visual media could only have helped promotion, as Hutchence found himself regularly featured in lists of the sexiest men in rock – but this was attention he was keen to deflect. “I’m not a hunk, I don’t look at myself in that way. I’m not obsessed with peering in mirrors,” he said. The marketing department at INXS’s record companies appeared to have been instructed to play this down too: just look at Mercury’s hideous sleeve for What You Need, with an image taken from the garish and unflattering promo video for the song. Not that the packaging was always unattractive. The artwork for their first two albums was stylish and eye-catching, featuring designs inspired by British artists. The cover of 1980’s INXS was an homage to the Noel Coward (1899 – 1973) painting Two Nuns (the nuns are still present in the INXS version but the other figures have been altered), and 1981’s Underneath The Colours used a detail from the lithograph Folk Dance by Cyril Power (1872 – 1951).
NEW SINGLES on sale from Apr. 4
BIG COUNTRY (Stuart Adamson) Look Away (Mercury BIGC1)
INXS (Michael Hutchence) What You Need (Mercury INXS5)