Monday 20 November 2017

Michael Hutchence, after 20 years

Twenty years ago, Alison & I and the rest of the world awoke to the news that Michael Hutchence was dead.  There was a lot of confusion with the announcement - he’d been found in a hotel, nobody quite knew what had happened, there were issues with Paula Yates and Bob Geldof - but the fact remained he was gone and it took us all a while to process that information.

Although I’d known their music since the Kick era, I didn’t see them live until the Summer XS gig at Wembley in July 1991 (which I wrote about here) and I was blown away by the experience.  When I started seeing Alison the next year, I discovered a fellow fan and together we saw them at DeMontfort Hall in Leicester in 1993 for the Get Out Of The House tour (which I wrote about here) and then at the NEC in Birmingham on the Elegantly Wasted tour.  Seeing him in the flesh, there was something about Hutchence, the way he carried himself and moved, the sheer magnetism of the man, that transcended what you were seeing.  I’d never experienced the sensation before (and haven’t since).
Michael Kelland John Hutchence was born in North Sydney, New South Wales on 22nd January 1960, his father Kelland was a businessman, his mother Patricia a make-up artist.  The family moved to Brisbane (where younger brother Rhett was born, Michael also had an older step-sister Tina) and then to Hong Kong, where an aptitude for swimming was curtailed by a broken arm.  Around this time he began to show an interest in poetry and, at 11, made a recording of Christmas carols for a toy manufacturer.

When the family returned to the Northern Beaches area of Sydney in 1972, Michael attended Davidson High School where students didn’t take kindly to his British accent and it was Andrew Farriss who broke up a fight between Hutchence and a school bully.  The became firm friends and when they discovered a mutual love of music, Michael joined Andrew’s band, Doctor Dolphin.  After Michael’s parents separated in 1975 he briefly moved to California with his mother and step-sister, before returning to Sydney and reconnecting with Andrew.
The Farriss Brothers 1977
from left - Kirk Pengilly, Jon Farriss, Tim Farriss, Michael Hutchence, Andrew Farriss, Garry Gary Beers
In 1977, Andrew and Tim Farriss decided to join forces and create a group from the remnants of their old ones with Tim on lead guitar, his former band mate Kirk Pengilly on guitar and saxophone, Garry Gary Beers on bass and younger Farriss brother Jon (who was still at high school) on the drums.  Michael, who couldn’t play an instrument, would sing.  The Farriss Brothers, as the new band was called, made their debut that year at Whale Beach on 16th August.  In 1978, Mr and Mrs Farriss moved to Perth, Western Australia and took Jon with them - when Michael and Andrew finished secondary school, they joined Kirk and Garry and drove across country to join them, aiming to give the band a chance.

"Andrew was the singer, the front guy of all these bands. I really started when he didn’t feel like singing anymore. He gave me the mike, one day and said, “Do you know this song? Just sing for a while, while we try out this drummer."
- Michael interviewed in 'Sky Magazine', UK, 1990

Ten months later, the band returned to Sydney, recorded a set of demos and supported Midnight Oil on the pub rock circuit.  They also changed their name to INXS (on the advice of the Oils manager Gary Morris) and made their debut at the Oceanview Hotel in Toukley on 1st September 1979 where, even then, Hutchence stood out as journalist Jenny Hunter Brown wrote, “[he] echoes the late Jim Morrison, he’s fit [and] a fine dancer.”

Gaining a manager, Chris Murphy, they released their first single Simple Simon/We Are The Vegetables in May 1980 followed by their debut album INXS (which I wrote about here) which appeared that October.  Their first top 40 Australian hit, Just Keep Walking, was released in September.

The band’s second album, Underneath The Colours, was released in October 1981 (touring commitments meant they began work on it in the July of that year and had finished it by August).  At the time, Hutchence said, “Most of the songs on [it] were written in a relatively short space of time. Most bands shudder at the prospect of having 20 years to write their first album and four days to write their second. For us, though, it was good. It left less room for us to go off on all sorts of tangents”.

"We played every bar, party, pub, hotel lounge, church hall, mining town - places that made Mad Max territory look like a Japanese garden."
- Michael interviewed in the 'Sun Herald', Australia, 1993

Shabooh Shoobah was released in October 1982 and the single, The One Thing, gave them their first top 30 hit in the US charts and, crucially, was their first video to show on MTV.  They toured the album in the US, supporting a variety of acts and gaining ever more exposure.  The Swing was released in April 1984 and included the Nile Rodgers produced Original Sin (which I wrote about here) that became their first number one hit and did well around the world, except for the UK where it was largely ignored.  After touring Europe, the UK, the US and Australia for most of 1984, the band recorded Listen Like Thieves with producer Chris Thomas in March 1985 (which I wrote about here) for release that October.
With Michelle Bennett in 1985
At the 1985 Countdown Awards in May, Michael shared for “Best Songwriter” with Andrew and walked away with “Most Popular Male”.  In July, INXS performed at the Oz for Africa concert (in conjunction with Live Aid).

In 1986, he starred as Sam in Dogs In Space, written and directed by longtime INXS video collaborator Richard Lowenstein and provided vocals for four songs on the soundtrack, including Rooms For The Memory.  Before starting work on their next album, INXS toured the country with Australian Made, featuring alongside Jimmy Barnes, Models, Divinyls, Mental As Anything, The Triffids and I’m Talking.  Barnes collaborated with INXS on a cover of Good Times which later featured on The Lost Boys soundtrack.
By now, Michael was living in Hong Kong so he & Andrew between them wrote all the songs for the next album on separate continents.  Again produced by Chris Thomas, Kick (which I wrote about here) was released in October 1987 and took the band to worldwide popularity, becoming a top 10 hit in Australia (no. 1), the US (no. 3) and the UK (no. 9).  Accompanied by well made videos (Hutchence was a natural on film and even though the band was always stressed as being six blokes, he got the lions share of attention) that enraptured MTV, the band toured the album heavily during 1987 and 1988 and, in that year, it swept the MTV Video Music Awards (Need You Tonight/Mediate won in five categories).

INXS were on top of the world and Michael was increasingly popular, a fact helped by his being good at his job.  Ian McFarlane wrote in the Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, “He was the archetypal rock showman. He exuded an overtly sexual, macho cool with his flowing locks, and lithe and exuberant stage movements.”  Lowenstein said, in interview, “"He would flirt with everybody - women or waiters in restaurants [and] he had a magnetic effect on men as well as women, [helped by] the direct eye contact that he gave everyone. He wanted to seduce everyone, if not physically then metaphysically.”

Jenny Morris, a longtime friend of the band who provided backing vocals for The Swing and Listen Like Thieves, said in interview, "People assume Michael was nothing but this big-headed rock star but he never became that.  He was always incredibly interested in other people, no matter how big a celebrity he was.  There's a reason why men and women loved Michael - it was because he gave everyone the time of day.  He'd look you in the eye and you knew that he was listening to you and that he was interested in what you were saying."
The Kick era
from left - Andrew Farriss, Jon Farriss, Kirk Pengilly, Michael Hutchence, Tim Farriss, Garry Gary Beers
On a band break following the end of the Kick tour, Michael collaborated with Ollie Olsen on the Max Q project and also appeared in Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound, directed by Roger Corman.

Having always enjoyed the company of women - Michael shared a 10-year relationship with Michelle Bennett and they were still close when he died - as his popularly increased, so did the attention on his private life, which he found difficult to understand.  That only increased when he began dating Kylie Minogue, accompanying her to the premiere of her 1989 film The Delinquets (for which she wore a platinum blonde wig - apparently, Suicide Blonde was written with her in mind).  Kylie later said of their romance, “I guess I was at the perfect age, I was 21 years old, to get the butterfly wings and go out into the world and we collided at that time and I guess he just fast-tracked some of it. Anyway, it was a glorious time, [he was] responsible for so many firsts. I loved it.”  For his part, Michael said, "She's a really bright, really nice person. And I certainly didn't corrupt her. If anything, our relationship made her more independent.”  Although they split up amidst press reports of his womanising, they remained good friends until his death.
With Kylie Minogue (left) and Helena Christensen
INXS released X in September 1990 and, although a big success with two hit singles (Suicide Blonde and Disappear), it wasn’t as popular as Kick.  In July 1991 the band headlined the Summer XS gig at Wembley stadium and Michael won ‘Best International Artist’ at the 1991 Brit Awards, with INXS taking ‘Best International Group’.  Whilst dating Kylie, the photographer Herb Ritts introduced Michael to Danish model Helena Christensen in 1991 and they began a relationship that would last for four years and was, by all accounts, solid and committed.
Summer XS, Wembley Stadium, July 1991
Welcome To Wherever You Are was released in August 1992 and although it received good reviews (I really enjoyed it), it wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors and the band didn’t tour it.  The same year, riding a bicycle home from a Copenhagen nightclub, he was involved in an incident with a taxi driver, which ended with him falling and hitting his head.  Michael waited several days before seeing a doctor and, a result, his fractured skull and severed nerves left him with only about 10% of his senses of taste and smell.

“Ever since the accident, he was on a slow decline,” said Richard Lowenstein in interview.  “One night in Melbourne, he broke down and sobbed in my arms, saying ‘I can’t even taste my girlfriend any more’.  For someone who was such a sensual being, this loss of primary senses affected his notion of place in the world and, I believe, damaged his psyche.”  In an effort to keep on top of increasing bouts of depression, Michael became reliant on Prozac, growing increasingly sensitive to criticism and conflict.  Whilst recording on the Isle of Capri, Michael was said to be difficult to deal with emotionally and at one point threatened to kill bandmate Garry Gary Beers who later said, “over those six weeks, Michael threatened or physically confronted nearly every member of the band.”  Lowenstein said, “I’d never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behaviour or violent temper before [the accident].  I saw all those things after it.”

"I get pretty terrified, to be honest, when I’m on tour. You really have to muster a lot of ego to go out there, which I find rather draining. In fact you have to muster an enormous ego to go out and be bigger than a huge crowd of people. It’s hard enough to do that with four or five people, let alone 20,000. You know sometimes I just want to curl up on stage and lie there for a while - it’s weird."
- Michael interviewed in 'Sky Magazine', UK, 1990

With Paula Yates and Tiger Lily
Full Moon, Dirty Hearts was released in November 1993 and struggled to find its place in a music world increasingly focused on grunge.  The band took time off, though Michael remained in the public eye as he started work on a solo album.  His relationship with Christensen ended when he renewed a friendship with Paula Yates, which began in 1985 when she interviewed him on The Tube.  She interviewed him again in 1994 on The Big Breakfast and they began an affair, ending her long marriage to Bob Geldof, who was still highly regarded by the British media.  Scrutiny was intense, Michael assaulted a paparazzi photographer and the bitter custody battle between Yates and Geldof was held very publicly.  They divorced in May 1996, two months before she gave birth to Michael’s only child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily who he described as “just what we ordered”.

INXS reconvened in April 1996 to work on the band’s 10th official album, after a greatest hits which was released in October 1994.  Elegantly Wasted, recorded in Canada, was released in April 1997and enjoyed less commercial success than Full Moon, Dirty Hearts had (though I thought it was far superior).  INXS went on a 20th anniversary world tour to support it (we saw them at the NEC on 17th June), the final leg being a homecoming series of dates in Australia in November and December.  By then, however, relations between Yates and Geldof (over custody) and Geldof and Michael (the latter convinced he and Yates would lose Tiger Lily, following the discovery of opium in their London home) were getting worse.  Depression was eating at Hutchence from other sources too - the falling success of the band, his estrangement with his mother, a sense that that there was a gulf between him and his bandmates (most of whom had settled down in Australia) and a growing sense that, creatively speaking, INXS had peaked.

He arrived in Sydney on Tuesday 18th November, checking into the Ritz Carlton in Double Bay and met his bandmates for rehearsals on the Thursday and Friday, the latter of which were filmed.  After taking his dad to dinner, he went back to the hotel and met an old girlfriend, Kym Wilson, there with her new partner.  Reportedly stressed because Geldof had refused Paula permission to bring two of their daughters to Australia for the Christmas period, there were angry phone calls between the two men, before he rang his New York agent, Martha Troup and Michelle Bennett.  Although his first call to Bennett was missed, she picked up the second, at 9.54am.  Hutchence was crying and wanted to see her, so she went to the hotel, arriving at 10.40am but he didn’t answer.  Assuming he’d either gone out or gone to bed she left a note at reception for him and went home.

Michael’s body was discovered by a hotel maid at 11.50am on 22nd November 1997.  He was 37 years old.
When his death was announced later that day, it came as a shock to most and, sadly, the British tabloids went into meltdown with Michael quickly became known more for seducing Kylie Minogue and stealing Paula Yates from ‘Saint’ Bob than his music.

His funeral was held at St Andrew’s Cathedral on 27th November, his coffin carried in by his INXS bandmates and brother Rhett.  Cremated at Northern Suburbs Crematorium in Sydney, his bizarre family situation - estranged from his mother and step-sister and with Paula Yates making some terrible decisions in her grief - meant his ashes were divided between his dad, mum and Paula & Tiger Lily.  His INXS friends joined his father, brother, Michelle Bennett and other old friends on a yacht in Sydney Harbour on 21st January 1998 - what would have been his 38th birthday - where, after swapping stories and as a Maori singer sang Amazing Grace, his father and brother tipped Michael’s ashes overboard.

On 6th February 1998, after an autopsy and inquest, the New South Wales State Coroner Derrick Hand presented his report which ruled Michael’s death was a suicide, while depressed and under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

His solo album, Michael Hutchence, was released in October 1999 and included the song Slide Away, a duet with old friend Bono, whose vocals were recorded after Michael’s death.

Paula Yates died on 17th September 2000 of an accidental heroin overdose, her body discovered by 4-year-old Tiger.  Bob Geldof filed for custody and, despite proceedings organised by Michael’s mother and step-sister, gained it, allowing Tiger to grow up with her half-sisters.

Kelland Hutchence died of cancer on 12th December 2002 while Patricia (since remarried) died of cancer on 21st September 2010.

"Death Of A Rock Star" in The Independent
Story To Story: The Official Biography, by INXS and Anthony Bozza


  1. His story makes me sad. So talented and gone too soon. You are very well informed - some of this I didn't know, and I grew up with INXS!