Magazine Feature

The Unlikely Story of How INXS Came to Rule the Late '80s With 'Kick'

As Chris Murphy, the longtime ­manager of INXS, remembers it, “I really thought I was fucked.” On an ­afternoon in 1987, Murphy, a ­wisecracking Australian, had ­gathered Atlantic Records’ radio ­promotion, sales and ­marketing ­divisions for an advance listen to “Need You Tonight.” He wanted the song to be the first single off of INXS’ sixth album, Kick. Murphy was convinced it would be the Aussie sextet’s breakthrough -- a real kick in the pants to the pop-music status quo -- but, he says, after a less than enthusiastic reception from the label’s top brass, he went looking for support among its foot soldiers. “I wanted them to storm the castle with pitchforks and say, ‘We must release this album,’” says Murphy.

The response he got was not even close. “After the track finished, no one said anything,” Murphy remembers. “They just stared at their feet and grumbled.”

Murphy was stunned, until the only woman in the room -- and the youngest person there -- blurted out, “This is a No. 1 record!”

That was Andrea Ganis, then a director of top 40 radio promotions at Atlantic. She also recalls the awkward silence, but to her ears, “Need You Tonight” was ­thrilling. “I heard something that I’d never heard before in my life. It hit me on a visceral, gut level. Those guitars were unbelievable,” says Ganis, now an ­executive vp at Atlantic.

Murphy remembers Ganis’ appraisal differently. “She shouted, ‘That’s a fucking hit!’” he says, adding, “Finally, somebody at Atlantic shared my belief in this record. That was all I needed to hear.”

Ganis and Murphy’s instincts proved ­prescient. Released 30 years ago in late October 1987, Kick was a game-changer for INXS and, arguably, the direction of pop music. The album went on to become the band’s highest and longest-charting album, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and remaining on the tally for a record 81 weeks. It yielded four top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 -- “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Devil Inside” and, as Ganis predicted, the band’s first and only No. 1, “Need You Tonight” -- on its way to being certified six times ­platinum by the RIAA.

It also altered the soundscape of the late-’80s mainstream: a muscular mix of pop, rock, funk, dance and even piano balladry that challenged master genre-blender Michael Jackson, who was riding the charts with Bad, and inspired ­contemporary hitmakers such as Maroon 5.

The year before Kick was released, INXS had scored its biggest hit to date, the No. 5 Hot 100 single “What You Need,” from the band’s previous LP, 1985’s Listen Like Thieves, and expectations were high for the Sydney-based band, in no small part due to the bedroom-eyed charisma of singer Michael Hutchence. “He was a cross between Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison,” says Alan Hunter, a VJ ­during much of the ’80s at MTV, a network that played no small role in exposing the act to a wider ­audience. “He had such an ­amazing mystique about him -- and a little bit of androgyny.”

Courtesy of Atlantic Records
A still from the video for “Need You Tonight/Mediate,” which paid homage to Bob Dylan.

?Kick represented a significant leap ­forward artistically for INXS, one in which its sound evolved beyond the ­easily ­classifiable rock of “What You Need” and its 1983 single “The One Thing.” But, says Murphy, not everyone at Atlantic was galvanized by the band’s ­development. He insists that when he first played the album for Atlantic’s then-president Doug Morris, the label boss offered him $1 million to erase the tapes and start over. Morris, adds Murphy, deemed Kick ­“lightweight,” ­telling the manager that “INXS are ­rockers, and this isn’t rock.”

Chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, Morris refutes Murphy’s account. “I thought it was a ­wonderful record,” he insists. “I said, ‘That kid [Hutchence] is going to be a huge star.’ Whatever Murphy told you, I give you my word it’s not true.”

Andrew Farriss, INXS’ keyboardist-guitarist and, with Hutchence, principal songwriter on Kick, also recalls resistance to Kick at the label: “They thought we were all from outer space,” he says. “Their first response was, ‘You can’t put out this record! It doesn’t sound like the hair bands wearing spandex!’”

A product of Australia’s pub scene, INXS had never been an easily defined act. Even Reen Nalli, the former president of Atlantic’s ATCO division, who signed INXS in the early ’80s, had difficulty ­parsing its musical identity. “People would say, ‘They’re a pop band,’ and I would tell them, ‘No, that’s close, but there’s a little pop, some funk and other influences in there.’ I’d get so frustrated and say, ‘Just go see them in concert. You’ll get it.’”

Kick was so radically different from anything being played at the time on the radio or MTV,” says Hunter. “It had a very rhythmic, bottom-heavy sound to it.” But, he adds, “the big question was, What was it trying to be? Dance music? Straight-ahead rock? Some kind of funk-rock hybrid? It didn’t fit in an easy niche. Remember, this was in a year when the biggest albums out there were by Michael Jackson [Bad], U2 [The Joshua Tree] and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.”

Farriss says that when it came time to write and record Kick, INXS’ ­members -- who included two of his brothers, drummer Jon Farriss and lead guitarist Tim Farriss -- set out to make a record that didn’t share any musical DNA with the hits of the time. “Anyone can write a song that sounds ­contemporary,” he says. “We wanted our songs to sound like the future.”

Sherry Rayn Barnett/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
INXS performed on the Top of the Pops TV show in Los Angeles in 1987.

With the rest of the band’s blessing, Kick was the first INXS record written by Farriss and Hutchence without input from the other members. The two booked a trip to Hutchence’s native Hong Kong in search of inspiration for “an album in which every song could be a single,” says Farriss. There, they often worked ­independently, coming together regularly with ideas that ­eventually evolved into songs. “Hutchence’s instrument was his voice; he couldn’t explain what he was thinking in musical terms,” says Farriss. “He would say things like, ‘It needs to feel like this.’ And I’d try to translate that into notes.”

The duo returned to Sydney with a cassette tape full of bare-bones songs, and fleshed them out in a studio with the band -- which included, in addition to Hutchence and the Farriss brothers, Kirk Pengilly (saxophone, guitar) and Garry Beers (bass) -- guided by Chris Thomas, who had produced albums by Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols and Elton John.

If there was initial resistance to Kick, it dissipated as the label geared up for the album’s release. Senior regional ­promotion manager Rick Sudakoff says his team planned a “double barrel” push for top 40 radio “right from the get-go. Everybody at Atlantic knew it was going to be huge.”

But Murphy, who says he was nervous the label wouldn't give the album the marketing push it deserved, claims that he took out an insurance policy of sorts, by hiring a team of independent ­promoters and marketers to generate early buzz for the record. “We did it backward,” he says, “by targeting college radio.” He adds that he also sent the band on the road to ­preview songs for Kick -- with the ­intention of building demand -- before the album was released.

“That’s such bullshit,” says Nalli of Murphy’s ­contention that he hired an indie promotion team. Nalli, who was working as a consultant to Atlantic at the time Kick was released, agrees that college radio was targeted -- “we went after it like it was pop radio,” she says -- but insists the heavy lifting was done in-house. “My team worked their butts off to get those songs on ­college radio,” says Nalli. “And it paid off.” That said, she calls Murphy ­“brilliant” for helping Atlantic to promote the album long before its official release, then adds, “I taught him everything.”

When Kick was released, Jackson’s Bad held the top spot on the Billboard 200. On the Hot 100 dated Jan. 30, 1988, “Need You Tonight” knocked “The Way You Make Me Feel” -- the third single from Bad -- out of the No. 1 spot. In late February, Kick peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, topped only by George Michael’s Faith and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The ­follow-up single, “Devil Inside,” spent two weeks at No. 2 on the Hot 100; “New Sensation” and “Never Tear Us Apart” would rise to No. 3 and No. 7, respectively.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage
INXS’ Andrew Farriss, Beers, Jon Farriss, Hutchence, Tim Farriss and Pengilly (from left) show off the Moonmen they won at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards.

MTV also played a significant role in the selling of INXS, but Hunter says the push started long before Kick. Beginning in 1982, he recalls VJs “being called into meetings with executives, who told us there was an arrangement between Atlantic and the network. We were going to see if MTV could break a band.” INXS, he says, served as a guinea pig, and indeed, heavy video rotation of its debut U.S. single, “The One Thing,” in 1983, helped drive the song to No. 30 on the Hot 100.

“We were always getting pressured to talk up the band,” says Hunter, and though Kick was released as he was leaving MTV, he recalls in-house discussions about ­“programming the hell out of [videos for] the album to see if it can have an impact.” (Judy Libow, then a promotion vp for Atlantic, says that no such arrangement existed, saying MTV was simply “part of the marketing puzzle.”)

MTV’s attention certainly didn’t hurt, and the video for “Need You Tonight/Mediate” -- the visuals for the latter song a spoof of Bob Dylan’s cue-card-wielding “Subterranean Homesick Blues” scenes from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 ­documentary Don’t Look Back -- won five Moonmen at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1988.

One thing all parties agree upon is that Hutchence's rock-star charisma was the biggest factor in INXS’ global success. “If I knew nothing else about Kick, I knew that this kid was going to be a star,” says Morris.

Hutchence’s stardom would be brief. He committed suicide in 1997, hanging himself at age 37 with his belt in a room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sydney just days before INXS was set to go on tour. Hutchence reportedly was distraught at not being able to see his 16-month-old ­daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, whom he had fathered after a long affair with Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof’s wife, Paula Yates. He reportedly was despondent over an injunction filed by Geldof -- as part of a custody battle with his ex-wife Yates -- that kept mother and daughter from traveling to see him. (Yates, who died from a heroin overdose in 2000, offered another theory in a 60 Minutes interview: that Hutchence had died from autoerotic asphyxiation.)

From left: Hutchence, Yates and Tiger Lily in Sydney in 1996.

Since its release, Kick has sold 6 ­million copies (based on RIAA certification ­figures and Nielsen Music sales data). That ­number should grow with the Nov. 13 ­reissue of an expanded ­anniversary ­edition of the album. The ­surviving members of INXS have toured with three different replacement singers since their bandmate’s death -- one hired from a 2005 reality-show competition -- but never again came near the success they had when Hutchence was their frontman. They officially announced their retirement at a concert in Australia in November 2012.

Murphy ceased managing the band in 1995 but continues to develop and license projects that involve INXS’ music as chairman/CEO of Petrol Records. (An ­off-Broadway musical and documentary on Hutchence are in the works.)

Thirty years after its release, at a time when the unstinting creativity of hip-hop has overshadowed rock, Kick still mostly lives up to its name. “If Shawn Mendes sang ‘Need You Tonight’ in 2017,” says Murphy, “it would be huge.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of Billboard.