Four months have passed since Billboard dropped the bomb in its 1990 year-end issue announcing that rock, for seventeen years the dominant genre on the top album charts, had lost its title to rap and danceable pop. So far, the music biz is still waiting for the other dancing shoe to drop.
Mick Jagger and Bono have not yet signed on for choreography lessons from Paula Abdul. Bruce Springsteen has not recruited L.A. and Babyface to produce his next album, and at present, there's no talk of AC/DC adding an M.C. to its ranks. And yet, as sure as the Stones and Rod Stewart finally succumbed to disco at the close of the Seventies, you can bet your last Who reunion tee shirt that every rock band with an eye on the Top 40 will be looking for a way to retool its sound to make it more palatable to today's remix-fixated pop fans.
It's not an easy adjustment for the average rocker to make. Crunchy, raunchy guitars, long the hallmark of the classic rock 'n' roll record, don't work on Top 40 radio today--except maybe as a quick sampled sound bite to signify you've just passed the chorus in a rap tune. And those smashing, bashing drum fills, the kind that wild men like Keith Moon made a staple of rock, sound downright dated amidst today's bass-boosted microchip backbeats.
But if rock is indeed a pop Edsel in a Fahrvergnugen world, 91's success-seeking bands will have to bite the proverbial chart bullet and put a little dance-floor thump into their arena-scaled bombast. This year's model will be pumping up the beat and turning down the Marshalls. The music will have to kick out the Jimmy Jams like a cross between MC5 and M.C. Hammer and get the feet dancing while keeping the fists pumping.
The new rock will have to sound a lot like . . . well, ironically, the very thing INXS has been cranking out for almost fourteen years now.
"I don't know if rock bands are discovering that that's the way to survive now," says Kirk Pengilly, guitarist and sax player in the enduring Australian combo, during a stop in Minneapolis on their current tour. "But it's something we've been doing from the early days. Our music has always been a kind of fusion between dance music and rock. It seems to be becoming more common now, with bands like Faith No More and others that are mixing dance beats with a rock sound. But it's certainly nothing new for us."
Indeed, INXS' stripped-down, groove-oriented rock has always stood in contradiction to the band's name, a clever bit of shorthand that would make a fitting vanity plate for the limo of an over-the-top heavy-metal band. On hits like "Need You Tonight," "What You Need," "New Sensation," and the band's latest, "Disappear," common rock guitar histrionics and wailing lead vocal effects are eschewed for lean, mean rhythm patterns and simple, repetitive guitar hooks. It's an effective blend of funk and rock that INXS began mining long before the chart analysts started suggesting rock bands get on the good foot or die. But Pengilly scoffs at the suggestion that he and his five bandmates, who've remained intact as a unit since INXS' formation in the Sydney pubs back in 1977, were ever any kind of musical visionaries.
"I think we play like we do simply because we were brought up listening to a wider variety of music than most kids do here in the States," says Pengilly. "In Australia, the radio stations have always placed more importance on the quality of a song rather than what category it falls into. They don't have this segregation in radio like they do in the United States."
While he admits it's nice to be recognized as a band with a sound for the Nineties--a full decade after introducing that sound on its debut album INXS--Pengilly hesitates to herald his band as the future of rock 'n' roll.
"You can't really predict which way rock's gonna go," he says. "Right now, it seems to be losing ground to dance music. But I don't know if that means it's dying. I just think that finally American ears are becoming a little more open."
For a band that professes to have stumbled into style after years of simply plying its trade with little or no regard for fickle American tastes, the INXS of the Nineties is a Madison Avenue marketer's dream. From the band's hip hybrid sound to lead singer Michael Hutchence's well-practiced Jim Morrison mannerisms, to its catchy product-package name ("We're always in court with companies trying to use the INXS name for a line of clothing or whatever"), INXS could be the invention of a bunch of trendy ad types sitting around a record- company conference room like the suspender-clad engineers in those late-Eighties Nissan commercials.
In truth, INXS' first product development sessions were held, innocently enough, in the garage of three school-age siblings, Tim, Andrew, and Jon Farriss, who, together with pals Pengilly, Garry Gary Beers, and Michael Hutchence, forged a shared vision of the band that Pengilly insists still stands fast today.
"I think we all shared a common goal right from the first time this line-up played together," he says. "We were all quite confident with the chemistry of the band and felt that if we just stayed together and kept at the unique sort of music we were playing, eventually we would make it."
Pengilly credits the tight, economical sound that's become INXS' trademark to the band's uncommon zero turnover rate. "I think simply because the six of us have been playing together so long, we've developed an ability to almost think together," he explains. "It's a bit like the thing with twins, where you have natural similarities and kind of think the same thoughts. If we're learning a new song, we usually only have to go through it two or three times before everyone's got it. There's a bit of musical telepathy going on most of the time."
That telepathy apparently extends to the band's all-the-right-moves marketing decisions, which the bespectacled multi-instrumentalist insists are more the result of dumb luck than any grand trend-tracking schemes.
"None of us really has any business backgrounds," says Pengilly, who claims only the bandmembers and their manager, Sydney's C.M. Murphy, maintain complete control over INXS' image and product. "We've just learned as we've gone along--including our manager, who hadn't really done anything on an international scale until we hooked up with him. We made quite a few mistakes. But at least we've never had anyone else to answer to but ourselves."
If there's one aspect of this thoroughly modern rock band that seems at all quaint today, it's INXS' insistence on touring almost incessantly to deliver its music live. By the 1985 release of the triple-platinum Listen Like Thieves, the group had already played more than 1,500 live gigs, from Buenos Aires to Boise. Their sweep of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1988, winning in five categories for their Richard Lowenstein-directed "Need You Tonight" clip, did little to convince them they could leave the luggage at home and tour by tube. On the band's current tour, in support of its seventh album X, Pengilly expects to be on the road for twelve full months.
"I guess in some ways it's less necessary for us to tour now," he admits. "In the early days, it was the only way to let people know what we were really all about. But now I think the long tours are creating too much of a gap between our recordings. I mean, it was three years between Kick [INXS' top-selling album to date] and X. We enjoy playing live, but I think it may be a little less important for us now."
"After the next album, which should be out early next year," Pengilly proposes, "we'll probably take it a little easier." What's a light workload to these down-under road hogs? "Oh, we'll probably tour only nine months out of the year then," Pengilly laughs, a little wearily. "Ten months at the most."
INXS will perform at Desert Sky Pavilion on Saturday, April 6. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
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"Our music has always been a kind of fusion between dance music and rock."
The new rock will have to sound like what INXS has been cranking out for fourteen years.
INXS could be the invention of a bunch of trendy ad types.
The name would make a fitting vanity plate for the limo of a heavy-metal band.