Torn apart: The troubled legacy of Michael Hutchence

At this time of year you can whale watch from the deck of Chris Murphy’s Mediterranean-style ranch atop the dunes at South Ballina. Today, though, all eyes are focused inside, on the former and once-again manager of INXS, as he sums up the hour-long recording he’s just played at a specially convened “listening session” in his big open-plan living room.

“Give yourselves a clap for sitting through it because it’s been a long time since any human beings were asked to sit through an actual double album,” he tells the dozen or so people who’ve just heard Mystify: A Musical Journey With Michael Hutchence for the first time.

An odd and occasionally inspired collection of rarities (including a duet with Ray Charles), remixes and spoken-word tracks (featuring audio from interviews, including with Paula Yates), the album is unabashedly a relic of the pre-digital age. It will be available on clear vinyl for $63 or so, on black vinyl for about half that, and on CD. Most boldly, it will be released on Spotify not as individual tracks but as four “sides” – Side A, Side B, Side C and Side D – each roughly 15 minutes long. It’s part of Murphy’s avowed mission to introduce a new generation of listeners to the notion of “the album” as opposed to cherry-picked digital playlists.

A frame of home movie footage of Michael Hutchence and Kylie Minogue as seen in Mystify.Credit:Madman

“My label, Petrol Records, will make probably a quarter of the money we’d usually make out of an album because of what we’re doing on Spotify, but I don’t care,” he says. With his silver mane, big glasses, white shirt and electric-blue tie and sports jacket over jeans, he’s the personification of show-business and, at 64, he’s as sprightly and combative as ever. “Technology is not going to rule how I f—ing present music any more. I’ve had enough.”

By precisely zero coincidence, Richard Lowenstein’s 10-years-in-the-making documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence will hit cinemas around the country the day before the similarly titled record is released. But, says Lowenstein, and despite the label’s claims to the contrary, “it’s absolutely not a soundtrack album. It has only four of our songs on it, it doesn’t have [Hutchence’s side project] Max Q, it doesn’t have our underscore [by Warren Ellis]”.

In fact, the Mystify album doesn’t even feature the song Mystify. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Lowenstein says.

A cynic might, however, hazard a guess that it has something to do with the ongoing battle over the money to be made from all things Michael.

Just last week, that battle took yet another strange turn when the City of Yarra in Melbourne put the brakes on plans to erect a statue to the former INXS frontman, who took his own life in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997. It hasn’t ruled it out for good, but it has decided to halt the process of “community consultation” while Hutchence’s family sorts things out.

Director Richard Lowenstein, left, with Michael Hutchence in 1986. The pair made many music videos together, plus the feature Dogs in Space.Credit:Madman

Lowenstein is speaking in the edit suite of Ghost Pictures, the St Kilda production company he runs with a small group of others, including long-time collaborators Lynn-Maree Milburn and Andrew de Groot, with whom he made more than a dozen music videos for INXS. A frame from his film is frozen on a computer screen; posters for it line the walls. Hutchence looms large in this room, as he does in Lowenstein’s life.

He started thinking about making a film about his friend long ago; in fact, he received three rounds of script development funding for a feature “in the vein of Walk the Line”, but the 2014 miniseries INXS: Never Tear Us Apart effectively put the kybosh on that.

At the same time, he’d been plotting a documentary. It was partly opportunistic – “I had an attic full of material” – and partly corrective. “I would look around and see all these records – be it a documentary or a drama – and I didn’t recognise this person I spent a lot of time with,” he says. “He deserves a proper record of his life, a proper rock-doc biopic that sits there for generations.”

He recorded his first interview, with U2’s Bono, in 2009. “I would interview people as they passed through town or, if I was somewhere where someone was, I’d sit down with them. I’ve been slowly building up an archive of interviews and footage from the past.”

Mystify is a slightly dreamy identikit portrait of Hutchence, composed of found footage – including home movies with Kylie Minogue, shot by Hutchence himself – and recollections by his friends, family and ex-lovers of the man they knew. Its subject drifts in and out of focus, always just beyond the viewer’s grasp, revealed but still something of a mystery to us.

Michael Hutchence fencing, in a scene from Mystify.Credit:Ghost Pictures/Madman

“He was very easy to stereotype into the louche rock star who womanised and all that sort of stuff but he was incredibly multifaceted,” says Lowenstein. “That image was just a persona that comes with the long hair and the good looks.

“For a lot of people, especially the British, that’s all they saw. But those who knew him knew there was a very different story. They knew the trouble along the way, the guilt he felt about the fact he was finding success so easily while his brother wasn’t, about the fact his parents were torn apart and why couldn’t he be the glue that held them together. You can see it in [the footage of] the holidays [at his house] in the south of France – he tried to be the glue that brought everyone back together again.”

Lowenstein knew many of the people he wanted to interview for the film through his own friendship with Michael. Even so, they took some coaxing.

“A hell of a lot of people would only talk to me if they could be assured that all the out-takes were totally private, they couldn’t be used in a mish-mash of something, and they would never be heard by anyone other than myself.”

He was happy to give that assurance. But there was a problem: he needed the rights to INXS’ music to tell his story properly, but the only way that was going to happen was if he ceded control of the film – and thus the ability to guarantee what happened with those interviews.

The rights to INXS’ music lie with Murphy’s Petrol Records, which is 50 per cent owned by Universal; before he quit as manager back in 1995, Murphy had struck a deal whereby the band would gain control of their master tapes in 2008. “This is your superannuation fund,” he says he told them at the time. “Do not spend it, don’t buy boats, just put it away.”

INXS manager Chris Murphy, right, with Universal Music Group boss Sir Lucian Grainge.Credit:Murphy Petrol Group

In 2009, and still smarting from the backlash over their reality series INXS Rock Star, the band asked Murphy to come back on board to try to wring some value out of that back catalogue. But, says Murphy, there weren’t a lot of takers.

“I went around negotiating for about a year and quite frankly – I don’t know if I’ve ever said this out loud before – no one was interested.” The one deal he was offered, he adds, “was like something you’d pay for an unproven band, not someone with a back catalogue”.

The cover of the 'new' Michael Hutchence album.Credit:Murphy Pterol Group

So he pulled their music off the market for a while and in early 2010 did a digital-only deal with iTunes for the best-of and live Platinum compilation. Interest spiked but it was the 2014 mini-series (produced by Endemol Shine, with Murphy as an executive producer), and the massive album sales it prompted, that really proved there was life in those old songs yet.

By the time Lowenstein came calling in October 2017, Murphy was playing hardball. “Over nine months of negotiations we got 29 contracts,” the director says. “We started off with 50-50 ownership, a joint venture, and we ended up with them having 95 per cent ownership of the film.”

Despite the fact he’d spent close to a decade working on it, he’d have allowed himself to be cast as no more than a hired gun – so long as he could keep the right of final cut. But Murphy wanted that, too. The deal was off.

Richard Lowenstein outside his St Kilda production office.Credit:Simon Schluter

That's when things turned really sour, says Lowenstein. “We start hearing from the industry that I’ve been sacked from my film, but the film is going ahead. And then we hear of another film that’s been commissioned, The INXS Story.”

It didn’t come to pass, but it forced Lowenstein to do a cut of his film without any original INXS music. It worked, he says, “but it didn’t feel complete”.

What changed it all was the intervention of Susie Hutchence, wife of Michael’s father Kell and step-grandmother of Tiger Lily, Michael’s daughter with Paula Yates (who died of a heroin overdose in 2000). Hearing of the film’s troubles, she put Lowenstein in touch with Tiger, who invited the director to dinner.

“But I’m in Melbourne,” he told her.

“Yeah, but you’re going to have to come to London,” she shot back.

Tiger Lily Hutchence in 2018.Credit:House of Khadi

Lowenstein flew to meet his friend’s daughter for the first time in October 2018. After dinner he showed her the rough cut of his film on his laptop in the basement flat the 22-year-old psychology student shares with a couple of others. “She’s obviously not wealthy,” he says. “It was like walking into the Dogs in Space set, clothes on the floor.”

Tiger Lily has, he adds, received almost nothing from Colin Diamond's Chardonnay Investments, which controls Hutchence’s estate.

“Tiger told me personally she had received £500 in a white envelope from Diamond maybe 10 years ago,” says Lowenstein. “She said she and [her adoptive father] Bob [Geldof] went to a lawyer’s office for the meeting, Diamond was in flip-flops and shorts, and she was handed £500 in a white envelope and she says that is basically all she’s had of her father’s estate.”

He tells me Tiger will receive a share of the film’s profits, should it make any.

Showing her the film was excruciating for him. “It was overlong. I kept trying to whiz it forward and she kept whacking my hand away. At the end she said ‘Phew, that was an ordeal’. But she was approving of it and she said, ‘Yes, you do need my dad’s music’.”

She offered to write an email to the band, their label and their management, though she didn’t think it would do much good. “Next thing you know,” says Lowenstein, “we get an email from Petrol Records – literally 24 hours later – saying how many songs do you want and how much do you want to pay us?”

Finally, they had a deal.

By the late 1980s, INXS were one of the biggest bands in the world.

Like Lowenstein, Murphy says he wants to shine a light on the Michael he knew, rather than the Hutchence of tabloid fame and shame. “Since his death it’s just been a zoo, with people coming out of the woodwork, law cases,” he says. “People tried to drag me into the same zoo, but I said, ‘No, sorry, I’ve got one job to do’.”

Murphy defines that job as taking INXS from band to brand. “My mandate,” he tells me on the deck of his Ballina house, “is to put INXS on the same shelf as, or higher than, ABBA and Queen’s brands.”

When Universal announced it had taken a stake in Petrol Records in August 2016, it said the deal would “lead the way for new audio releases, as well as projects including additional films, theatrical productions, live events and fan conventions”.

By then, Murphy had already begun to prove there was potential in that back catalogue. In 2010, Petrol released the Original Sin album, in which a host of singers joined the band to cover some of INXS’s best-known songs. In 2014, The Very Best collection, originally released in 2011, topped the charts on the back of the hugely popular mini-series, reportedly selling about 350,000 copies.

Future plans include a live Cirque de Soleil-style theatrical show called ElectroSexual; a vinyl re-issue of Dekadance, a collection of 12-inch remixes originally released in 1984 on cassette in a flip-top cardboard case; a cinema release of the remastered concert film Live Baby Live (filmed at Wembley Stadium in 1991, when the band played to 72,000 fans); and an INXS museum to be housed at the X Building, a proposed cultural hub that would be the centrepiece of the development of what is presently swampy farmland opposite Ballina airport.

Oh, and Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ legendary producer George, has been appointed musical director of all INXS-related projects (the band’s digitised masters are kept at Abbey Road in London).

Given all that, the new album seems a decidedly modest affair – albeit one that Murphy concedes is likely to alienate some of the band’s old fans. It is designed, he says, to showcase the voice, the lyrics, the personality of Michael Hutchence.

“We took away all of INXS, all the bits and pieces, and we left Michael there,” he says of the album. “Some of them will get it and some of them won’t. It’s not about your bass line, your keyboard line. It’s done for Michael, that’s all it’s done for.”

The X Building, proposed for a site opposite Ballina airport, would house a permanent exhibition dedicated to INXS, while also serving as an arts hub.Credit:Murphy Petrol Group

The reworked version of Original Sin, which album producer Mark Edwards has slowed down from 130 beats per minute to about 90, “is going to freak out people,” says Murphy delightedly. “That’s a modern beat from Jamaica. After three, four, five listens, this is one of my favourite tracks.”

He concedes that some of the band will likely be unimpressed with what he and Edwards have done to their music in the name of honouring Hutchence. But if it sells, their protests will surely be dulled by the sweet smell of royalties.

“INXS will make a fortune out of it,” says Murphy. “They’ll be sitting at home having pina coladas or whatever they’re doing, and the cheques will keep coming in the mail.”

The documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence is released nationally on July 4. The double album Mystify: A Musical Journey With Michael Hutchence is released on July 5.

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