40 Years Ago: INXS Heighten Expectations With ‘Underneath the Colours’
INXS were rising figures in their home country – but not yet superstars – when they decided to shift focus.
Their self-titled debut had barely crept into the Australian Top 30. INXS followed that up with an offbeat cover of a song by the Loved Ones, an Australian R&B-inflected rock band – and quickly scored their first-ever Aussie Top 20 single.
"I think it's a classic in itself," singer Michael Hutchence said of "The Loved One" single in an 1981 interview with Countdown's Molly Meldrum, "and we like defying convention."
INXS proved it after releasing Underneath the Colours on Oct. 19, 1981, by abandoning their local focus to seek fame and fortune in the wider world. But first they'd head right back to the studio after releasing "The Loved One," quickly recording a batch of 10 new songs before hitting the road again.
Producer Richard Clapton described them as an unstoppable creative engine at this point. "The first time I saw them, they were playing a gig to nobody in Paddington. Their attitude was amazing," Clapton told the Daily Mail in 2014. "They had amazing work ethic."
The songwriting partnership between Hutchence and guitarist Andrew Farriss was solidifying at this point, as they created a musical backbone for Underneath the Colours. But INXS were still rawer than the group MTV viewers would one day fall for, with a flinty attitude that leaned more toward punk-funk.
Listen to INXS' 'The Loved One'
"Most of the songs on Underneath the Colours were written in a relatively short space of time," Hutchence says in Ed St. John's Burn: The Life and Times of Michael Hutchence and INXS. "Most bands shudder at the prospect of having 20 years to write their first album and four days to write their second. For us, though, it was good. It left less room for us to go off on all sorts of tangents."
They were also becoming better acquainted with the requirements of studio work, and that meant Clapton captured more polished performances.
"The first album was cheapie, but with this one we had time to spend," Hutchence told Rip It Up magazine in 1982. "On this album, we looked at things from a straight studio perspective, as opposed to the live feel of the first one. The production was played down quite a bit, though, so the songs are still quite raw in a strange sort of way."
Still, tour duty called. INXS were given only a matter of weeks to complete Underneath the Colours, leaving multi-instrumentalist Kirk Pengilly feeling like their best studio work was still ahead.
"It was very difficult for us," he later lamented. "We'd toured the first album and then we had to come up with a follow-up. We weren't really prepared for it, and I think the album suffered a bit because of that."
Local fans rallied around their sophomore release, giving INXS a gold-selling No. 15 hit Down Under. The lead single "Stay Young" almost broke into the Australian Top 20, too. They were on the cusp of something much bigger, but nobody back home had any idea just how big.
Watch INXS' 'Stay Young' Video
INXS promptly left the domestic Deluxe label, working out new deals with WEA Australia at home, Atlantic in the U.S. and Mercury in Europe before releasing 1982's Shabooh Shoobah, their first album to be distributed overseas. "We actually sat down around a table in '82 with [INXS manager] Chris [Murphy] and said, 'Do we want to be a band that's going to just play the pub circuit in Australia and take that as far as it goes, or do we want to start trying to break into the international market?'" Pengilly told Rolling Stone in 1988. "So the thing we tried, which really no other Australian band had tried, was we started working overseas before we were big in Australia."
Neither INXS nor their second album would arrive in the U.S. until 1984, after the band had broken internationally. By then, INXS' sound was already becoming more straightforward, a modern dance floor-facing blend that traded slickness for those early albums' grit.
Hutchence would eventually have to push back against the idea that they were just another party band. "Sure, it bothers us," Hutchence told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "We deal with people and issues in an insightful way. There's more to INXS than danceable music and that damned sex-symbol thing."
Underneath the Colours served as a reminder of where they'd begun, back when INXS' music took as many chances as the group itself did. The album brought INXS to the front porch of worldwide fame, but make no mistake: They earned it by rushing through the door.
"We steadily grew into realizing that if we don't make decisions, if we don't plan, other people will for us," Hutchence told Rolling Stone back then. "That's rock 'n' roll. It's too easy for other people to exploit you."