The 100 Greatest Albums I Can’t Remember #3

Watched INXS: the Untold Story again. Shh, I don’t want your pity. Just curious that this rather interesting detail about where Hutch was heading artistically didn’t make the cut. This forgotten footnote landed 15 years ago this week.

by Michael Dwyer

It was never going to be a face value proposition. When Michael Hutchence’s first and last solo album emerged from two years of legal limbo, it came with a truckload of baggage.

“So many people die these days and they’ve got the T-shirt printed up before the motherf—er’s cold,” gripes the self-titled album’s co-producer, Black Grape lynchpin Danny Saber. “I’ve always been turned off by that shit, then I find myself in that situation. What do I do?”

For Saber and Hutchence’s main collaborator, English guitarist/ songwriter Andy Gill, the answer was the same: respect their friend’s vision and proceed with integrity. The music was “95 per cent finished,” Gill stresses. “It’s not like someone found a box of cassettes under his bed and this is some kind of exploitation exercise.”

But if sales figures are any guide, public response has had more to do with morbid curiosity about a fallen star than genuine enthusiasm for his music. The single, “A Straight Line”, peaked outside the Australian top 40; the album debuted at #3 but fell fast.

Saber and Gill agree Hutchence had musical reinvention on his mind, but it’s his lyrics that tempt the imagination. You don’t have to read between the images of pain and violence to see a man taking account of a desperate situation – and to find shreds of meaning in a senseless death.

“This was a man who had made several very successful records and he was very much taking stock of his life,” Gill says. “Even a year or two before I met him I think things were a lot happier and more straightforward. For the first time, he’d come to feel the other side of media attention and he found it very painful.

“When the lyrics were going down I encouraged where he was heading. I thought they were honest, from the heart, autobiographical and in certain respects possibly deeper and richer than I had expected.”

Danny Saber, admittedly not an INXS fan, says he too was thrilled with the depth of Hutchence’s material, although he refuses to be drawn on the subject of the demons driving the singer’s creativity.

“Michael wasn’t no tragic f—in’ figure. He was a fun guy and he was using the drama in his life as inspiration, which is really healthy to me. That’s what you do if you write songs.”

Andy Gill opens up reluctantly on the subject of Hutchence’s ultimately suicidal headspace. “All I would say is that at certain times he would slip into a depressed kinda mood, which happened with increasing frequency during the last year. In those times he would focus on the vindictiveness of the British media and the problem with the legal wranglings about custody of Paula (Yates)’s children.

“It’s quite well documented that Michael took various drugs. In many respects he seemed to handle it very well, it didn’t seem to have negative repercussions but… there was at times a certain element of paranoia which I thought perhaps was slightly drug related.”

Saber counters angrily from the other side of the Atlantic. “I don’t know why Andy’s talking about that shit. When you work with people on an intimate level, that shit’s personal. I’m not gonna say anything negative about what kind of shit went down when we were in the studio together cause that’s a part of life. If people were a little more interested when he was alive, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Nor is that the only hint of strained relations emanating from the posthumous release. Andy Gill gave Bono pride of place on the final track, “Slide Away”, the song most obviously enhanced after Hutchence had sung his last tune. But Joe Strummer was not so lucky with his contribution to “Let Me Show You”.

“That was a very strange night,” Strummer recalls. “I thought I added a bit to the tune but I’ve no way of knowing cause I’m probably in the distance. That was Andy Gill, cause he used to be in the Mekons (Gang of Four, actually) and they hated the Clash. It’s all bad blood in the river. I was a friend of Hutch but not this Andy Gill geezer. He’s turned me down in the mix, the bastard.”

Further insight into the decade’s most mystifying rock tragedy, sadly, will not be forthcoming today. But the two men closest to the artist in his last act of creation are satisfied that his debut solo LP is a fitting final testament.

“Some of the songs were in different states but the key was that the vocals were in place. It wasn’t like some hatchet job,” says Saber. “They were cohesive, good strong songs and if Michael showed up somewhere on an island now and heard these songs he would totally recognise them. It’s not like some of those Hendrix records where they took outtakes and tried to scrape shit out of a barrel.”

“He was a completely natural genius; a totally instinctive, intuitive, great musician and a great songwriter,” says Gill. “When we were working on this record I knew we were making very, very powerful stuff. I just wanted that to come to fruition and to be out there for people to understand. To listen, and to understand.”

An edited version of this story originally appeared in Rolling Stone Australia in December 1999

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