The Swing, by INXS
1984, WEA Mercury. Producer: Nick Launay and Nile Rodgers
In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Swing, the 1984 album from INXS, is an album that to me defines an 80s sound. It’s got lots of synthesizer, clamoring digitized drums and a pinched guitar sound. These are characteristics I usually dislike, but INXS really makes it work. The songs are catchy and a bit funky, and the Tim Farriss guitar is always interesting and clever. Singer Michael Hutchence has an amazing presence, even on record. He belts and moans and burns on every song. It’s an album that’s not like a lot of others that I love, but I’ve loved it ever since I borrowed it from my sister’s old cassette box.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 70.
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The 80s were a muddled time for rock music. Wholesale technological and cultural changes were under way, and a shiny playground of new sounds and styles – synthesizers, digital production, MTV – left performers and listeners unsure of where things were headed.
Since its 1950s inception, there were two key postures of rock music and musicians clearly at odds with each other. On the one hand (as I’ve written before), it was a genre obsessed with sticking around FOREVER! Since 1958, when Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” the Immortality of Rock Music has been a rallying cry. The Who, Neil Young, and AC/DC are among the Classic Rockers who shouted it loud[ref]Well, Neil actually sang it quietly.[/ref], and countless others followed with the same message. The Italian heavy metal band Maneskin recently won the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, and announced “Rock and roll never dies[ref]In even MORE rock-and-roll-style news, the band is being forced to take a drug test because of allegations about their performance![/ref]!”
On the other hand, rock and roll musicians have constantly pushed the boundaries of its sounds. The Beatles and James Brown shook things up in the early 60s, then psychedelia and prog-rock and funk took things in even wilder directions. An attempt to return to the simplicity of early rock and roll by the 70s punk musicians (i.e. The Ramones) only succeeded in whetting the public’s appetite for more new sounds. True artists are always looking to expand their horizons. Some of the acts that grew out of the punk scene even took the radical step of abandoning their guitars! Then hip-hop bubbled up and confused everyone, as the sounds were nothing like rock and roll, yet the attitude and spirit captured it perfectly.
This all begged the question of the 80s: if hip-hop is the new rock and roll, has rock and roll died? If something changes so much that it’s no longer recognizable, does it still exist[ref]This reminds me of a joke that I thought was peak hilarity as a 7 year old. “TED: This is the axe Washington used to chop down the cherry tree. FRED: Really? Why, it looks brand new! TED: That’s because over the years we’ve replaced the handle three times and the axe head twice.” Classic.[/ref]?
The upshot of this philosophical conundrum was that many 1980s rock bands, fearing being tossed aside, felt forced into the snarling, drooling maw of technological breakthroughs. If you didn’t want to die (as you’d claimed you never could) you HAD TO have a big gated-drum sound. You HAD TO have a Fairlight CMI synth providing “color.” You HAD TO have lush, clean rhythm guitars behind over-processed guitar riffs and solos. Boomer rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Steve Winwood hopped right in. Formerly heavy rock bands, like Def Leppard and Aerosmith, polished their sound almost beyond recognition. Even rock and roll heroes like The Replacements relented. (About the only band who never capitulated were AC/DC, who have always sounded like AC/DC, even up through last November’s release Power Up.)
Frankly, that 80s sound never really worked for me, and I don’t have a great variety of Favorite Albums from the 80s. There are 30 on my list, but 11 of those are from 1980[ref]London Calling, Get Happy!!, Making Movies, Pretenders, Zenyatta Mondatta, and Empty Glass.[/ref] and 1981[ref]Give the People What They Want, Ghost in the Machine, Moving Pictures, Fair Warning, and Songs in the Attic.[/ref], and sound very 70s-ish. Also, fifteen of the thirty are from 7 artists[ref]Elvis Costello, The Police, Prince, R.E.M., The Replacements, XTC and U2.[/ref] with multiple records on the list. To me, that “80s sound” was sterile and precise, rather phony, and very different from rock and roll.
But as a great poet once wrote, all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. The key, I believe, is that the machinery has to be part of the band’s internal conception of themselves as an artist. If you’re a guitar band and you try to throw some synths over your songs, it’s gonna sound shitty. But if you’re a band who’s had synths from the very beginning, the sound can really work. The Big 80s sound of The Swing, by INXS, really works for me.
Australia’s INXS were perfect for the MTV 80s. They were six handsome men (I guess dorky guitar/sax man Kirk Pengilly is handsome?), with a lead singer, Michael Hutchence, who was particularly sultry. Their sound was guitar rock, but with a strong dance beat and lush synth parts. They really popped on MTV, and I recall waiting all afternoon hoping the channel would play “The One Thing,” a great song with a video that, well, was quite appealing to the 14-year-old me. (It’s kind of a dinner party. Kind of.) By 1989 they were enormous, but throughout the early part of the 80s they seemed to struggle to gain traction. They were “too rock” for pop radio, and “too pop” for rock. My sister, Liz, owned several of their early cassettes, and that’s where I first heard The Swing. My eldest sister, Anne, had the magic milk crate of 70s LPs. Liz had the attache case of 80s cassettes[ref]That cassette box is also where I found The Fine Art of Surfacing, and The Boomtown Rats aren’t too dissimilar from INXS, really.[/ref]. I became a fan of The Swing right away.
The opening track was produced by Chic mastermind and 80s uber-producer Nile Rodgers. He perfectly captures the band’s sound on “Original Sin.”
It’s got dance-track drumming from Jon Farriss, Andrew Farriss’s catchy organ riff, a pumping bass groove laid down by Gary Garry Beers, and funk guitars from Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly. Then there’s Michael Hutchence, who half purrs, half groans as he smolders all over the song. It’s basically a dance song, with great lyrics about bigotry that remain relevant 35 years on, sadly. I like the simple, shrieking guitar at 1:04, and I also like Beers’s bass sound on the second verse, where he walks up between Hutchence’s lines. There are little sax squawks from Pengilly, and metallic guitar stabs, and of course shimmery, atmospheric 80s synth. The result is a song that sounds like its own genre, a mutant dance/rock hybrid.
“Melting In the Sun” tries to pull off the same trick, but it’s not quite there. Maybe it lacks Rodgers’s funk touch? It’s got a groove, and there are some impressive bursts of guitar sounds from Tim Farriss. The lyrics are rather indecipherable. Mostly it’s a decent song that gets us to the next awesome song, “I Send a Message.”
By the band’s huge 1989 album Kick, the world was ready for riff-based dance-rockers like “New Sensation” and “Devil Inside.” On The Swing (and earlier), INXS established the blueprint. “I Send a Message” is a case in point. After a nice build-up, a riff that seems adjacent to Lee Dorsey’s “Working In the Coal Mine” is pushed throughout the song, while Hutchence finds a catchy melody to moan and growl over. It’s a song about missing a lover, and it’s bouncy and catchy. It’s got all kinds of electronic, synthetic sounds, and for some reason I love it! At 1:45 Hutchence asks Timmy to play it, and he obliges with a simple, sparse solo that fits perfectly. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
While I think of INXS as kind of a guitar band, they aren’t the type that has flashy solos or crunching power chords. But Tim does get to show off his stuff on “Dancing On the Jetty.”
You wouldn’t expect it from the gentle opening, but it turns into a dance stomper pretty quickly. There are lots of cool harmonics and little riffs from both guitarists, and at 2:49 Tim turns in an angry, atmospheric noise solo that would make Lee Ranaldo proud. The chorus is sing-along catchy, and its lyrics try to offer some respite from the daily news of brutality and strife. My downstairs neighbor in college loved this song. He’s the first person I met who I bonded with over our enthusiasm for The Swing.
The album title track begins with the most 80s-ish drums I’ve ever heard. I sprouted leg-warmers just hearing them. The lyrics are about life moving forward, but there’s not much life to the song as a whole. At 2:18 there are some more weird guitars, but they don’t really lift the song beyond its 80s plod. However, “Johnson’s Aeroplane” offers something different on The Swing.
It’s a bouncy shuffle that’s an ode to hard-working Australian farmers. The song leans heavily on Andrew Farriss’s synthetic violins, and at 2:05 sax man Pengilly plays a nice, distorted solo that almost sounds like a guitar. (I believe INXS were the last popular rock act to have a sax player as an integral part of the band[ref]Not counting the horrible mid-90s swing-dance/ska revival thing. Yeesh.[/ref].) It’s a nice little song that really breaks up the album.
The 80s drums and synth-bass sound is prominent in “Love Is (What I Say).” It’s got a very catchy chorus, and moves along quickly. It’s an organ-heavy number, and Hutchence sells the thing, his voice as strong as ever on lyrics that, I guess, are a love poem? “Face the Change” is a funk-riff groove number. Beers’s bass is up and down and everywhere. In fact, it’s so snaky, it may be a synth. Jon Farriss can definitely lay down a groove, and Pengilly gets another sax solo. I don’t know what Hutchence is singing about (well, “change,” I guess), but he definitely makes it sound great.
Along with the opener, “Original Sin,” the band hits another dance-rock peak with the fun, driving “Burn For You.”
Once again, I simply MUST point out the very-very 80s touches. First of all, the sampled tribal drum rhythms that open the song, which predate Paul Simon’s Graceland by a couple years. Then, at about 0:50, the synthetic tootles. Those vaguely train-whistle-ish hoots were everywhere in that decade. (For some reason I associate them with movie soundtracks.) It all makes for a nice crescendo to the main track. There’s a great beat, and the background singers on the chorus with Hutchence (1:16) sound great. In the third verse Beers’s bass starts making the song pump a little harder (2:10). It’s a song about desire, and who wouldn’t want Michael Hutchence to tell them “Light me, and I’ll burn for you”? From 4:30 to the end, it gets kind of weird, as Jon Farriss starts playing strange beats, leading up to a creative ending.
The album ends on a low note for me, with the mishmash that is “All the Voices.” It’s got a great message of unity, the chorus is catchy, and there’s a bit of guitar I like, but to me it really sounds like a kitchen-sink of a song.
The Swing is a definitive album for “the 80s sound.” It’s got hooks, synths, drum triggers … everything you hope to hear if you’re into that nostalgia. But for me, it’s the songs that really make the record great. I was an 80s teen who didn’t like the 80s sound, but even I liked this record. I still do. It’s fun and catchy, and when the hits come, they really come hard.