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Flashback Friday: the sensation of INXS’ Kick

I was standing
You were there
Two worlds collided
And they could never ever tear us apart

My father, like his father before him, was a sea-going man; a Captain no less, who would go to sea for many months at a time when I was young. I remember when dad came back from his long stretches on the salty sea and suddenly the house felt alive again with the chaotic energy of two young children who would tangle themselves up in their father’s embrace, rub their fat cheeks against his bristly stubble, and inhale his inimitable, familiar smell. Perhaps more vivid still, is the memory of dad putting on rock music (mostly videos of live sets, and almost always Australian rockMidnight Oil, Cold Chisel, and the like) in the early summer afternoons when he was home, a drink clinking in his hand, the house shuddering and reverberating with the sound. This was happiness, the pure embodiment of it. I still to this day can’t shake the feeling of saturated, heady joy that comes with the memory.

The album that I remember him playing most was INXS’ Kick, released in 1987 and became arguably one of the greatest Australian rock albums ever produced; an album that soared INXS into stratospheric heights and reached platinum six times. According to BBC Music’s Cormac Heron, it’s “a near flawless collection of songs”, with a permanence and relevance that few records can match. And of course, it’s an album tinged with sadness, with the heartbreaking death of frontman Michael Hutchence in 1997, which gutted the band and the Australian public.

It would be easy (well, easy isn’t the word, but bear with me) to write about Kick with a sense of melancholy – like a heavy, grey cloud hanging over your head – knowing that those blissful heights achieved were only a precursor to Hutchence’s long fall into depression, paranoia, substance abuse and ultimately death. But I’m not going to do that. I want to remember Kick in all its unashamedly loud, spine-tinglingly good rock’n’roll glory. So here goes.

INXS comprised composer and keyboardist Andrew Farriss, drummer Jon Farriss, guitarists Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly, bassist Garry Gary Beers and main lyricist and vocalist Michael Hutchence. After the success of their fifth studio album, Listen Like Thieves (1985), in the words of Kirk Pengilly, INXS wanted to create “an album where all the songs were possible singles”. A dozen songs were written and composed for Kick, predominantly by Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence whose previous creations had given the band its strongest songs to date; The Swing, Suicide Blonde and What You Need for example. After initial resistance from Atlantic Records, who “hated it… they said there was no way they could get this music on rock radio” (manager Chris Murphy), Kick was released and catapulted into worldwide popularity, delivering four Top 10 US singles (New Sensation, Never Tear Us Apart, Devil Inside and Need You Tonight).

At just shy of 40 minutes, there’s an almost modest economy about Kick, which makes it all the more delightful to enjoy every perfectly curated song.

Kick opens with Guns in the Sky, an AC/DC-esque, anthemic rock song, with Hutchence grunting and growling against the backdrop of unapologetic, unrelenting power chords. It was this sound that boomed through my house when Dad put his CD on, causing the stairwell to shake and signaling me to run downstairs. I always knew what this sound meant: that the world was good, and the sun was bright, and my family was once again stitched together.

I always held out for New Sensation, with its unmistakable riff and thumping bass-funk backbone; my Dad’s feet would tap, and he’d point at me singing “Live baby live!”:

Live baby live! Now that the day is over
I got a new sensation
In perfect moments
Impossible to refuse

Devil Inside is pure pub-rock perfection, its “live feel” preserved with bare-essentials production and Michael’s characteristically raw vocals, and a divine guitar solo. You can only imagine Michael staring you down the microphone as he growls “every single one of us, the devil inside”.

I was all too innocent for what came next: Need You Tonight. Andrew Farriss recalls playing around with the demo, trying to find the right sound, while a cab waited to take him to Hong Kong. Once he got there, “Michael said, “Give me a pad and a pen.” He sat down and wrote the lyrics in something like an hour.” (Farriss). Those lyrics would become one of the most illicit seductions to ever fall on wanting ears. Literally, if you wanted to know what sex looks and sounds like, watch Michael Hutchence oozing pure sensuality, writhing around on the stage when INXS performed this live at Wembley Stadium in 1991. The spidery fingerwork feels like cold fingers running up naked skin, eliciting goosebumps, while Michael drifts seamlessly between breathy, almost conversational murmuring; “I need you tonight, ‘cos I’m not sleeping… there’s something about you girl, that makes me sweat” and passionate exclamations, “I’m lonely!”. My naivety precluded me from understanding the pure desire that’s encapsulated in this song, but what a delight it was to discover its meanings later in life. I’d understand if you needed to take a break from reading to take a cold shower after this one.

With Mediate, INXS takes us into a more experimental sound, demonstrating the incredible versatility of the band and chameleonic quality of Hutchence’s voice. Mediate is a strange, drifting New Age rap, smoldering amongst a “Brian Eno-type landscape with keyboards, one which was very emotive and gentle, against a hard funk beat” (Farriss). It’s starkly different to The Loved One, the story of a raven-haired beauty walking past Hutchence to which he fell fast and hard. It’s a classic, with lyrics that even Carly Rae Jepsen would roll her eyes at, but its overly simple chorus is given an adolescent genuineness by Hutchence’s emotive delivery.

The theme of suburban opulence is traversed with Wildlife, amidst a celebration of “big, fat ambient drums that exist in the same sonic space as these tiny little drum boxes”, with a swinging groove that builds and layers over the course of the song. The omnipotent drums and swing feel carries through to songs like Mystify and Calling All Nations, although the latter introduces slightly stronger electronic production with its distorted vocals. Kick is big and brash and bold – “straight out rock” as Farriss describes it – with phenomenal saxophone by Pengilly, and Tiny Daggers is pure Springsteen, a bright pub rock sparkler, and if you hang out long enough, you’ll hear one of the last, and equally brilliant, guitar solos on the album.

It seemed fitting to save Never Tear Us Apart until the end, partly because it really was – it was played at Hutchence’s funeral – but also, because it’s an extraordinary, iconic song: Michael’s tender vulnerability laid bare in simple, sweet lyrics, amid an arrangement of haunting orchestral synth, gentle backup vocals and rolling percussion. The lingering resonance of the over-strained vocals “because we all have wings but some of us don’t know why-y-y-y-y-y” still makes my throat go dry. It’s a song that clutches at you and never really lets go.

When I listen to Kick all these years later, I’m immediately taken to that time in my life when the sunlight filtered through the curtains and the joy of this album would resonate through my house. Truthfully, it was never about my happiness (not to say I wasn’t fortunate to have happiness in abundance in my childhood – I thankfully was) but the vicarious experience of this being a moment of my Dad’s happiness. At a moment in my life now, when I’ve lost just a little of my faith, and sadness and loneliness sometimes creeps in, I’ll live and breathe through the memory of sharing these moments with him: kicking back, and listening to good old rock’n’roll.

Read Andrew Farriss’ track-by-track recap of Kick (from which many of the quotes in this piece were obtained) here.