I like the very concept of INXS the way they began. Just a bunch of normal, music-loving dudes wanting to write and play songs of their own. Young, strong, intelligent, not afraid of grizzling tons of hard work in seedy Australian bars. Not caring much for experimentation of any sorts, although keeping their eyes open to new influences so as not to sound like yer average mid-Seventies barrom rockers, or, God forbid, Foreigner. It’s a nice, clean, healthy, and even potentially fun concept.
And to be fair, on their debut album they manage to nearly pull it off, no doubt due to having most of the songs polished and rehearsed before they ever had a chance to arrive at a recording studio. Besides, this isn’t just some new starry-eyed (or drunken-eyed, whichever you prefer) ragamuffian outfit blindly copying New Wave stereotypes and glossing them with radio-friendly varnish. From the very beginning, there is a purpose and a conviction to Michael Hutchence’s voice that makes you want to pay attention – even if those purposes and convictions might either dwindle or get modified with time. He’s got a pretty unique voice for his time… meaning there’s absolutely nothing about it that would make it special, and that’s exactly what makes it special. In an age populated by brawny scruffy Joe Strummers, effeminate whiny Stings, hiccupy paranoid David Byrnes, and jerky eccentric Andy Partridges, Hutchence certainly stands apart from the crowd.
As for the music, it’s yer basic pop-rock, just with an exaggerated ska influence. Ska, not reggae, meaning there’s very little ground for improvisation or “stretching out” of any sort – no, these boys are working fulltime in the three-minute pop song department. Don’t think I’m complaining about the musicianship, though. The band rolls along as tightly jelled as possible (well, after all, there’s, like, three brothers in it, so what else could you expect?). Guitars and keyboards do sound occasionally dated – particularly keyboards, with the thin wimpy Farfisa tones immediately giving away the Cars’ influence – but that’s “dated” in a decent way of speaking.
Lyrically, Hutchence and the boys are usually vague and ambivalent, occasionally embracing the most basic boy meets girl themes, but more often going off on various social-related tangents, none of which really make me jump up and shout “there goes a new branch of popular philosophy!”. In fact, on some of the songs they almost seem to be catering to the Midnight Oil crowds, except they could never even try to reach the heights of “politicalisation” achieved by the former. But then again, who needs two socially conscious human-rights promoting bands on Australian territory? So Hutchence is playing a much more individualistic emploi than Peter Garrett; certainly there’s a lot more “I” in his lyrics than “we“. Of course, Peter Garrett never committed suicide either, so remember that too much “I” in your lyrics can be dangerous, little boys and girls.
The exact same approach applies to my favourite song on here. Maybe you could measure these guys’ songwriting talents with a table spoon, but not based on the evidence of this song. The introductory sax riff (just as minimalistic as the guitar riff in ‘On A Bus’) is unforgettable, the main melody is menacing hard rock, and thenthe chorus goes ska, and it’s all over in a two-and-a-half-minute flash and the lyrics are again confused and ambiguous and you’re sort of “eh? what was that all about?” but the sax riff, man, I wish I could have written that one. Sometimes I quietly dream the very instrument must have been invited for that sort of things, except every time I do that, Miles Davis comes up and whops me on the head with the thing.
People who claim to be in love with INXS because of the deepest depths of the soul of Michael Hutchence usually like to single out ‘Learn To Smile’ as a major highlight. My guess is it’s because it’s the closest thing to a ballad on an album which otherwise lacks the tender balladry aspect altogether – in true New Wave fashion, of course. Well, I wouldn’t go as far as to red-circle it, but it is quite assuredly a notable song as well. But they have extended it by means of a generic keyboard solo and… well, formally speaking, five minutes is too long, especially on an album whose best stretches are generally short, compact and straight up to the point.
If anything, sometimes they’re too straight up to the point. If you thought ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ was the weak link on the White Album, you’ll probably be annoyed a-plenty with all the ska choruses. Especially those that act like they do not belong in the song at all but want to steal the spotlight anyway. ‘Jumping’, for instance, begins like this stealthily creeping jungle predator, with ominous sax growls and threatening distorted guitar rhythms and brawny, intimidating vocals, and then all of a sudden you get the same kind of chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka and a ‘jumping jumping all night long jumping jumping it’s up to you’ chorus which might be useful if you’re playing hide-and-seek but otherwise might feel totally out of place. ‘Roller Skating’ begins all hot and funky (yes, this is the song featuring immortal lines like ‘I see a girl/She’s roller skating/I don’t know her/But she makes me feel like roller skating’ – for a long long time, the only thing I remembered about this band), but then it’s ska time all over again.
On the other hand, if you thought ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ was the White Album‘s high point, all these ska choruses will be perfectly nice and catchy. The only really really stupid ska ditty on here, I think, is the aptly titled ‘Body Language’, a song released two years before the Queen composition but every bit as obnoxious in a class of its own. Fortunately, it’s only two minutes. And it’s still catchy in a way, just sort of dumb, even by this record’s standards.
Not that this record’s standards are that low. Nobody knows it exists because who the heck cares about non-hit Australian-only albums when you can restrict yourself to caring about commercially successful worldwide smashes. The boundless wisdom of the All-Music Guide only awarded it two stars out of five, and that’s a pretty unencouraging incentive to let it go back into print. But I gotsta tell you, my limited experience says it’s one of this band’s best releases, and a fine 1980 pop album in its own rights.