I’m pretty sure that “Need You Tonight” by INXS was the last song I fell in love with through commercial radio. I would never have admitted it, and I couldn’t have articulated why, but oh yes, in middle school this track hit me exactly where I lived. It still sounds as fresh today as it did back in the eighties.
I resisted liking the song because of what I imagined it representing. I mean, watch this video with the sound off, these guys look like incredible douchebags. As a teenager I was very invested in the idea of purity in music, and INXS was the exact opposite of pure. The band was and is a capitalist venture above all else. I hadn’t yet learned that commercial music can be incredibly good, and that pure artistry is no guarantee against awfulness.
“Need You Tonight” was INXS’ biggest hit, but before it dropped there was concern on Atlantic Records’ part about its commercial prospects. Here’s a quote from the band’s manager Chris Murphy, courtesy of the wikipedia:
They hated it, absolutely hated it. They said there was no way they could get this music on rock radio. They said it was suited for black radio, but they didn’t want to promote it that way. The president of the label told me that he’d give us $1 million to go back to Australia and make another album.
This quote makes Atlantic Records seem like racist schmucks, but in fairness, it is kind of amazing that INXS managed to pass off such a pure techno song as rock. The beat is programmed on an icy-sounding drum machine. The guitar lick sounds like it was copied and pasted in Pro Tools. The band had to play the song to a click at shows so the sequenced synth stabs would line up. Aphex Twin produces more organic-sounding tracks than this one. This is nothing against INXS at all — quite the opposite. Their techno-futurism is what makes their song still sound terrific all these years later. Props to producer Chris Thomas, who, by the way, had his first professional studio job playing for some band named the Hollies, and had his second playing keyboards on the White Album, at age 21. I might be just a little bit jealous.
The production isn’t the only reason “Need You Tonight” sounds so hip. It has no chord progression. Like the best Michael Jackson songs, it’s a modal groove. The guitar part and vocal melody are clearly minor, but the synth stab is a major chord. The lyrics are hip too. They don’t rhyme, at all. Michael Hutchence is in a dialog with himself, his low whisper calling, his higher open-throated belt responding. It’s called songcraft, kids. Unfortunately, this song’s pop-cultural context gets in the way of its full enjoyment. Music videos are a terrible way to learn about how music works. What do kids think when they see a drummer miming along with the beat from a drum machine, and miming totally the wrong drums at that?
I’m very surprised to learn the song hasn’t been sampled more. How has Kanye West or someone not wanted to jump on this beat? I could only find two hip-hop tracks that use it. Big Pun and Beenie Man use it on “Make Me Sweat” from the soundtrack to How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which is okay, but not too special. Someone named Professor Green has a tune called “I Need You Tonight” which is pretty dumb. The last word in INXS samples has not yet been spoken. Get to it, MCs! I did find an interesting cover version by St Vincent, and a pretty excellent mashup by DJ McSleazy, who combines it with Neneh Cherry’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
(DJ McSleazy’s mashup of Michael Jackson and the Charlatans is good too.)
I feel obligated to say something about Michael Hutchence’s death, which came at the end of what seems to me like a pretty unhappy life. But you know what? I don’t know anything about it, except what it says on the web, and who knows how much of that is true. Also, I don’t care. I really just like this song.