I can verify that the Channel Seven mini-series INXS: Never Tear Us Apart is an accurate representation of the hair, clothes and anguished rock posing that were their metier in 1980. At the time I was starting out in a band called Serious Young Insects; we shared the bill with INXS on their second trip to Melbourne. It was clear these guys wanted it bad. The music was still a bit of a mess — a bit ska, a bit new wavey, and Timmy’s Stones-like licks were dreadful — but they imposed their enthusiasm and will on the audience. And they had that singer. “INXS have cracked the Melbourne market,” our agent proclaimed as 150 people squeezed into Martini’s. The Seven mini-series embraces this mindset: crack markets, conquer territories.
We shared the bill with them several times over the next couple of years. Back stage in St Kilda our drummer asked Michael Hutchence where the toilet was. “You turn left and just keep walking.” He uttered the words as if he was earnestly delivering the chorus from their 1981 single, Just Keep Walking. But without the self-aware irony. With that we went our separate ways. The Insects headed for the toilet. INXS headed for Wembley.
INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, which concludes on Sunday night, buttresses and re-positions the popular culture mythology of this world-conquering band but doesn’t go deep. Supposedly telling the “inside story”, a rushed series of vignettes reduces it to art direction, clothing and hair — where they were and what they were wearing.
The depth and complexity of the lives of these six young men are not rendered here. Bands are messy and complex; stable personal lives are painfully trashed, left outside the bubble of inter-band tensions about music, politics and control. Cliques form. Resentments seethe. Band members end up in therapy. I know this as my next band was Boom Crash Opera, a band which, not unlike INXS, sought to conquer the world. While they toured South America we toured the south island of New Zealand. There were rumours of sacks of excess cocaine being cast off hotel balconies, but these were probably apocryphal and told by roadies who wished they were with INXS in Buenos Aires rather than BCO in Picton.
The story of Michael, the Farris Brothers, Kirk and the other guy is reduced to key plot points: the decision to go “original”, the brothers promising their parents to look after little Jonny, acquiring Chris Murphy as a manager, the first US tour, the first No. 1, the hotel room parties, clouds of cocaine, truckloads of topless women, etc. Notably, Murphy (co-executive producer of this mini-series) appears throughout, allowing himself to be portrayed as a head-kicker.
In trying to give a broad sweep of events it diminishes detail and depth. Huge swathes of time are swept aside by reflective voiceovers. The quest for success in rock and roll is a war of attrition — can you keep heart, mind and band together while trapped on a bus with (usually) smelly (usually) men for two years straight? We see 1983 in two shots: lounging bus bodies and Andrew sounding like a pre-schooler poking away on a Casio writing Original Sin. No drama there.
Early in our career BCO were dubbed “the next INXS”. Despite this (or because of it), Murphy offered us a publishing deal. It was for the entire universe forever. Just like the mini-series, he was an overwhelming force of nature. He said: “Don’t wait. Make an album now. Tour, tour, tour.” It sounded like “tora, tora, tora!”. Somehow we sensed we were being circled by a shark so we found our own. Rivalry simmered between our hefty new management, who used to manage Cold Chisel, and Murphy. The deal was suitably tempered. We signed.
INXS probably had no knowledge of this. They were off conquering the United States. Occasionally they flew in for award ceremonies and we sat next to them. Dale, our singer, and Michael might have shared a beer and secret singer’s business. I might have exchanged pleasantries with Kirk. Like Never Tear Us Apart, it was all surface, no depth. There were no Rococo hotel suites full of topless women. Rock’n’roll decadence is not plush velvet. It’s cubicle No. 2 at Springfields, mind the spew. I never saw INXS there. We were invited to concerts that were much bigger than our own. Michael had turned into a real rock star.
While the live performance scenes in NTUA are exceptionally well staged and integrated with stock footage (“Hello Wembley!”), the writing and studio scenes are awkward. Andrew’s musical abilities seem goofy. Maybe his hilarious two-note guitar overdub on Need You Tonight is a sly dig at the expensive studio noodling that used to go on. More likely it is a ham-fisted portrayal of “minimalist genius”.
In my experience, big-budget ’80s recording was laborious. Albums dribbled to a conclusion with band members losing interest and drifting off to different continents. There was no chipper Timmy going “well chaps, this is our best album ever“. In a voiceover at the end, Jon says “it was always about the music”. Despite the visceral soundtrack, the INXS in NTUA is not about music.
I related to INXS’s mission to conquer the world and still have great respect for what they achieved. I also understand that a large part of that brief is to manufacture a group mythology: a public image of a united gang with attendant values, a clear message and similar haircuts. Look at the cover art for Kick — there’s even a skateboard on it. We know nothing of the schisms and personal tribulations of U2 or Midnight Oil, but we have a sense of each band’s ethos: U2’s focus on empathy and justice with big video screens and sunglasses; the Oils’ passionate ochre-coloured leftist politics. The styling and the message mesh. Who is the bass player? Who cares — it’s a band/brand. Occasionally the brand allows conflict to give texture to the endeavour; it worked for Mick’n’Keef. Too much conflict and the band breaks up without conquering America: think Liam’n’Noel. The key to Rock’s war of attrition is to “keep the band together” — the title says it all: Never Tear Us Apart.
I have my suspicions that NTUA is a marketing exercise in myth building, its aim to reinforce and deepen the band’s story by infusing it with Michael’s decline, stitching his death — something private, real, and painful — into the group’s narrative and then … cut to Wembley for the finale.
Michael was an exceptional rock star. INXS made great pop/rock. And no one should underestimate what they pulled off. But the story told here shows no trail-blazing aesthetic (Radiohead), no spiritual or political anguish (U2) and no incisive conflict or co-dependencies (The Stones and everyone else); it’s about acquiring fans, developing markets and conquering territories. Unless it’s actually about Michael. Public acclaim/private anguish is an all-too-familiar trope. It’s obvious. Why pretend it’s about the band when it’s about Michael?
Our manager ran Murphy’s record company for a while. We moved our business into his offices. Eventually we fell out. Towards the end of the ’80s, before it went south, I went to the INXS Christmas party (no cocaine, no topless women; bread and dips). I had just dipped my pita into some babaganoush when Murphy buttonholed me and fired up about my career/the industry vibe/our relationship/conquering territories/annexing countries — pretty much how he’s depicted in the mini-series. My eyes began to water as I realised the babganoush was wasabi. Overcome, unable to speak, I fled.
Postscript: Garry Beers’ ex-wife Jodie and their two daughters now live happily with Peter Maslen, the drummer from Boom Crash Opera. Real life is much messier than NTUA.