Words by Nath Luke
The year was 1987 and I was a spotty 15-year-old heading out for my first big concert. The venue was the Sydney Entertainment Centre and the band was INXS. My memory of that night is, I admit, like me, a little faded. I still remember those huge lights and the massive sax solo in ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. I also experienced for the first time a unique feeling, one which can only come from thousands of people singing every word of a song in unison.
I have chased that experience many times since but what has really stayed with me is the power of Michael Hutchence. His voice, his sexuality and his emotion cut through all the lights, smoke, and massive instrumentals. “Was anyone ever this cool?” I remember thinking. Certainly, my opinion has not changed in the years since, during which I have been lucky to see some of the world’s best frontmen including Bono, Vedder, Finn, Diamond, Barnes, Stipe, Clapton, and Homme. Few compare. For Aussie kids of the '80s like me, Hutchence was our Jagger.
Michael’s passing in 1997 was awful. It also had a strange connection to my fiancé Kym and I, our wedding happening only a week later. Our wedding night was at the same hotel in Sydney where Michael passed.
Years went past and in one of those strange twists of fate, a few years ago this kid of the ‘80s met Chris ‘CM’ Murphy the long-time manager and recent resurrector of INXS. Chris had just moved to Ballina near my own home in Lennox Head. We have since become good friends.
The other day I found myself in a quite surreal and very lucky situation. I was sitting with Chris and his family at their home, having a beer and listening to the test pressing of Mystify – Michael Hutchence. Even Chris’ non-stop energy and noise was muted as the album cranked up. 15-year-old me, trapped back in the recesses of my mind, was giddily excited.
Split into four ‘sides’ the album is its own creation. Mystify sits quite separately to the documentary which shares its name. It brings new releases, spoken word fragments, isolated vocals from the big hits, reworked tracks and interviews to light in a uniquely entertaining experience. It is a genuinely emotional journey.
There are moments when you feel Michael is right in the room with you. He speaks in a number of interviews including the famous in-bed one with love of his life Paula Yates. You hear about him getting to know quirky bandmate Kirk Pengilly. He talks about the process of his songwriting and the power of words sung to millions. He talks to Paula about his haircut. In these tender moments, Michael is softly spoken, funny, warm and heartfelt.
Then, of course, the album steps up and slaps you right in the mouth a few times as a big track drops or you hear Michael’s vocals in full force. You quickly remember that this skinny Aussie bloke was one of the greatest rockers of all time. The rawness and beauty of his vocals, particularly when isolated and stripped back from the backing of the band, are insane.
A highlight for me was hearing Michael talking back and forth with another vocalist in a studio as they work on a track, real fly on the wall stuff. The goose bumps slowly rise as you realise the other bloke is none other than the late, Ray Charles. Ray calls the sound engineer ‘sweetheart’. Michael calls Ray, ‘Mr. Charles’. Ray works out the intonation and then they tear into their amazing duet ‘Please (You Got That…)’ which, banter included, is the second single from the album.
No doubt this soundtrack could have taken the safe route of simply releasing unheard tracks paired with a bunch of big hits. But producers Chris Murphy and Mark Edwards have poured their hearts, souls and obvious love for Michael into the album to create something they think he would have loved. Michael here is presented as a very human way, a bandmate, a friend, an artist, a lover, funny man and songwriter.
I was not particularly surprised that the creators of this album took this very artistic and unique approach. In the years I have known him Chris Murphy has been driven to ensure that INXS becomes fixed in the Australian mind and its musical history as the band of the 1980s, with Michael flying at the front, arms outstretched at the peak of the group’s power. But also, a band of schoolmates, brothers, great songwriters and musicians, from Sydney’s Northern Beaches that pushed the Aussie tall poppy syndrome to one side and who in 1991 played to 75,000 at Wembley Stadium.
So is this a review? Certainly I can say that this is not an album to give a pithy score to. It is however an important work and a great feat to create something that feels genuinely like a fresh new release, from an artist that was at the front of 30 million album sales. Fans of Michael and INXS will love it. Fans of music should not miss it.
I am not too proud to admit that there were a few tears listening to side four of the album when the words of a few of the people who matter the most in this whole story, the Australian fans, shared their reactions to Michael’s passing. “What did he mean to you?” says an interviewer to one fan. There is a pause and the fan says in a wavery voice “I… loved him.”
Me too mate, me too.
‘Mystify – A Musical Journey with Michael Hutchence’ arrives July 5 via Petrol Records.
Words by Nath Luke
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