The incredible story behind INXS’ ‘Original Sin’

As part of a series in partnership with ORGNL.TV – a new content hub by Stolichnaya Premium Vodka – we’re going back to the original source of inspiration for INXS’ breakthrough hit ‘Original Sin’.

It’s not the most famous INXS song, but perhaps the one everyone can agree on. Both now and back in 1983.

Upon its release, ‘Original Sin’ was a game changer – not just for a Sydney six-piece emerging from the endless grind of touring pubs and RSLs, but for Australian music in general. Gone were the fist-in-the-air anthems of 1982 album Shabooh Shoobah, replaced instead by a classy Eastern Asian-flavoured riff and a monstrous, dance floor-filling groove. Gone too was the boyish lyrical romance, Michael Hutchence instead delivering a subtle dose of bittersweet social commentary, and in the process adding yet another layer to the song. But where did ‘Original Sin’ come from? And how would it change INXS’s future?

Andrew Farriss emerges from the crowds milling about Manly Wharf on a grey Melbourne Cup Tuesday. At 54, the keyboardist and songwriter has silvered at the temples, but retains the boyish button eyes and curly crop of hair so familiar from the band’s press photos. Farriss is an almost infamously private individual. Earlier, he called from a hidden number and in person he’s far from gregarious. Rather, it’s intimate: sitting together in one of the wharf’s cafés he leans close, let’s off a wide smile and looks me in the eye, like he’s imparting the club secrets. Farriss talks with affection about the band (half of whom are family) and in particular Hutchence – you quickly get a sense of the depth of their friendship.

Together we cover the background of both ‘Original Sin’’s music and its lyrics, working with Chic’s Nile Rodgers – who at the time was just setting out on a remarkable run of production credits – and receiving death threats in the American south, as well as some of the stories behind the song’s inimitable music video. It feels like a heady trip for Farriss: there are times he rides roughshod over questions just to remind himself of a particular memory or anecdote. ‘Original Sin’ isn’t just about recording studios and chart numbers. Rather, it comes with its own origin story, and found the band at the crossroads between their hardworking, hard-touring past and a stadium-filled future.

Andrew Farriss on ‘Original Sin’

Were you surprised when I wanted to talk to you about this song in particular?

Not totally surprised. But I’ll start at the beginning. As Aussies growing up in the period when we did the great path was never through the United States, it was always through Europe, because everyone thought the British invasion into the United States was the road to Mecca in terms of pop music.

Go to Europe and then go to the States?

Yeah. So what happened with us: We watched a lot of bands – Little River Band, AC/DC, Air Supply, and a bunch of others – and managed to talk to some of them about their experiences. And you heard these stories about what it was like to try to go overseas. Then you also had this manic control thing within the Australian record companies. They’d treat you like Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where you’re to be kept in a cage and not able to spread your wings and have any success in the rest of the world.

We’d already gone overseas as a band in 1982 – our music was being well received in New Zealand. That was a good place to start. We [then] looked at each other and asked what were we going to do with ourselves? Were we going to be an Aussie pub rock band? That would be nice – play the RSLs, call it a day, and then get a real job. Or were we going to take it a lot more seriously? So I think about that time we made this decision that we were going to have a serious crack at it.

Then a series of things happened. Shabooh Shoobah was released in the United States and did really well. MTV was just starting up so we could send over all these videos, which they loved because to them we were kinda quirky. So suddenly we had this big promotional push in the United States and Canada. Europe’s a different story – they liked things about us, but also hated things about us. One review said, “They’re crap, and they’re Australian.” [Laughs] Which sort of sums up exactly how they looked at us, or anyone from Australia.

“We started talking about writing more funky music”

We realised, “OK, we’re getting some reaction from the United States. Let’s go with the US.” Also, around about that time Michael and I had been talking a lot about our songwriting. When we were The Farriss Brothers – before we were INXS, in the early pub years – we used to play all sorts of music. We used to play funk and ‘70s disco. We liked playing that stuff. But what we began to discover is that [with] the roll-your-sleeves-up, cigarette-in-the-mouth, tats approach, there wasn’t much room or breathing space for any other style of music.

So when we went to the US we sort of felt, “What are we going to be? What is it that we’re trying to do, songwriting-wise?” Were we wanting to solve the world’s problems, like U2? And we thought, what we can do is talk about social situations without coming to some sort of judgement – that’s not our place as artists, I don’t think. It’s only your place to point out things.

To provide a reflection rather than solutions?

Yeah. And I think that’s what Michael was doing when he constructed the lyric for ‘Original Sin’. We were on a tour bus in the United States and we saw a bunch of kids playing in a schoolyard. In Australia, back then there was less of a cultural melting pot, but the US has always encouraged that. So when Michael saw that, we started talking about writing more funky music. Because things were beginning to shift. You had bands like Talking Heads, you had Blondie coming out with ‘Rapture’. People were beginning to experiment, and we all knew how to play it.

So I put the music together – all the riffs and so on to create pretty much what we now know as the final song – just at home on a drum machine, with the guitar parts and keyboard riffs. I played it to Michael and he said, “Let’s use that!” and I said, “OK, what do you want to do with it?” He said, “Because it’s funky, I think the lyrics should reflect some sort of universal theme that everyone can relate to.” So we got into this idea from what he’d been observing. He was saying, “Dream on. Just keep dreaming, because that’s what it’s going to take.” That’s really the theme of the song, what it’s all about, then matched to that funky thing.

When did you start thinking about getting Nile Rodgers involved?

We’d already been listening to some Nile Rodgers stuff, like Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove and then his earlier stuff. We were aware he was recording with David Bowie at the time, making ‘Let’s Dance’. So we put some feelers out to Nile. He came to one of our shows in Canada, came backstage and I remember almost falling off my chair.

He said, “Hey, I loved the show, man. It was really good. I’ve seen you guys on MTV. I’m a fan of the band and what you’re doing is different.” And we were like, “Cool! Guess what? We’ve got this song.” [Laughs] He said, “Give me a copy of what you’ve done.” So we gave him a copy of the ‘Original Sin’ demo. And the next minute we found ourselves rehearsing in Florida, then going into The Power Station in New York City, literally just after David Bowie and his band had left the studio. We walked straight in and the best part was the engineer who had worked on a lot of those albums with Nile, Jason Casaro – he was there too. When I listen to ‘Original Sin’ and compare it to other recordings, geez that sounds good. At the time there was this cutting edge of people who were really good at what they were doing, and two of them were sitting in that room.

INXS recording ‘Original Sin’ with Nile Rodgers and Daryl Hall

They’d come off this amazing run of albums and I think we knocked over ‘Original Sin’ in just three takes. We’ve worked with some amazing producers but the thing with Nile, he’d have this little button in the control room with which he could talk to us. And he’d push this little button and talk to us while we were actually playing.

Into your headphones?

Yeah. So as you’re playing you’d hear him saying, “That’s great,” or “Boom!” or, “Love it!” This kind of stuff. And what that does is break down that headmaster-sitting-in-his-office thing and it makes you think that the producer is with you. “He’s with us. He’s into it.” And it makes you play better. It’s simple psychology.

I heard that he recorded it without you guys knowing. Is that right

He probably could have [Laughs]. His way of capturing stuff is very much, “Does anyone want some doughnuts and coffee?” and while you’re saying yes, he’s recording it. Because he knows, being an old funk man, that some of the best attitude comes when you don’t know you’re doing it.

The guitar riff …

I wrote that riff and showed it to Nile. He said, “That’s awesome.” He went and got his guitar, and played on the recording with my brother, Tim. They both played Tokai Strat[ocaster]s, I think, which was something that Nile and Tim were both really into. If you listen very carefully, you can hear my brother on the one side playing the riff, and Nile on the other. It’s just this nice big chunky-stereo, funky-riff thing going.

So it’s not duplicated? It’s actually the two of them playing?

Yeah. It was the two of them playing. The thing is, I was so flattered over the years that my brothers wanted to play my riffs. I get a kick out of other people using them. But the lyrics: I was very, very, very aware that that was a fantastic lyric of Michael’s. I think it touched a nerve in America, which is so hard to do these days. Suddenly they went, “These guys are serious.” We were talking about racial disharmony and trying to strike that chord.

“I think it touched a nerve in America, which is so hard to do these days”

When the medicine’s so good it helps the message slip down that much easier.

Totally. We actually got a death threat. We were playing live in Austin, Texas. Somebody threw a pistol on stage with a note saying, “You’re gonna need this.” That’s when we knew it had pushed a button and affected people. As opposed to, “Let’s just rack up another award or sell a platinum album.” Suddenly it became, “Hang on. We’ve pushed a social button.” And in a strange way, that set the tone for what we then recorded later on. That was a very significant recording.

It went straight to the top of the charts here, right?

Chart-wise it went to number one in Australia, number one in New Zealand, it went to number one in France and Argentina.

The synth riff that drives the whole thing. It has a very Eastern Asian feel to it. Where did that come from?

This is hard to explain now, but in that early ‘80s period there was this fascination with that part of the world. You had Bowie’s ‘China Girl’, The Vapors with ‘Turning Japanese’. There was a lot of interest in Asia. And bands were interested; they wanted to tour Asia. You’ve gotta remember that Michael had grown up in Hong Kong for part of his life, so there was another connection. We thought, “Why not go to Asia? Why not get interested?” So I started messing around with those sorts of sounds and tones.

And you shot the video in Japan, which was unusual to say the least.

The video was really interesting for ‘Original Sin’. Because both Michael and Garry [Gary Beers, bassist] rode Harleys and enjoyed riding. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to go to Japan and shoot a video.”

So it was the band’s idea?

Oh yeah. When we got there, there was a Japanese bikie club – I don’t know who they were – but they were cool and kinda crazy at the same time, and they really wanted to be a part of the video. We knew at the time: “This is pretty weird. We’re recording a funk-rock track in Japan – with Harleys.” That just wasn’t what bands did. We were still stuck in a rock era, smashing fists in the air. So we knew what we were doing was very different. We were buying clothes that looked a bit weird, so we were trying to think outside the square.

Most people don’t know this story: for the LP [1984’s The Swing we also recorded ‘I Send a Message’. We shot videos for both songs in Tokyo. And for ‘I Send a Message’ we asked to shoot the video in Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. It’s 800 or 900 years old and they’d never let any Western artists in to shoot any kind of video in there. So we approached them and they said, “We’ll do it.” And we thought, “Why us? A bunch of 20-somethings from Australia?” But it gets stranger: Michael and I are sitting there and the head monk asked to speak to us. A very impressive looking man, he comes up to us in his purple robe and we asked him, “Of all the people in the world, of all cultures, why us in this very spiritual, immensely important place in Tokyo?” And he looks at us and says, “Because I love to play the trumpet.” And he leans down, pulls out a trumpet and just starts blowing away [Laughs].

We were looking at each other. That was the reason?! It made absolutely no logical sense. But at the same time it meant everything. We weren’t in there to cause anyone any harm; we had a song that was trying to help people. We just wanted to expose something that we thought was amazing and beautiful to the rest of the world. And he was like, “I’m into this.”

The song’s full of hooks. And it’s from an album that almost overflows with hooks. Was the writing coming easily to you at that stage?

Yeah [Laughs]. From 1977 to 1982 was a really tricky era for us. To survive in the Aussie pubs you couldn’t really deviate from this fist-in-the-air style of thinking, otherwise you wouldn’t get a gig. So you had to [choose] between playing that game and entertaining people, or starving or getting another job or going overseas. So we’d walked this tightrope in Australia and I think that was the other thing we noticed: sadly enough, we didn’t get much credibility as musicians until we went overseas and started bringing people and influences back down with us. People would do a double take: “Sorry, who did you just work with?” You can’t work with those people if you’re just sitting on your arse in Australia.

“We didn’t get much credibility as musicians until we went overseas”

I think the other thing that defines the song is all the details: the half-fills, Kirk [Pengilly]’s punchy sax. Those sorts of touches. Everything leaves you wanting more, in a sense.

I agree. There’s a synchronicity to it. That’s a very good recording and the band played really well. And one of the things I’ve always loved about playing with INXS, both live and in the studio, is that when we were asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat or step up, we usually did it. I don’t know why or how. We’re usually slackers when there’s no pressure. [If] you’ve got some expectations in front of you, it’s amazing what you can do. But that works in a lot of areas in life. Absolutely: Kirk’s sax playing and the harmonies that Kirk and Jon [Farriss] did with Michael are really cool as well.

Wasn’t Daryl Hall [of Hall & Oates] involved in the vocals as well?

This track gets more interesting the more I think about it. We were doing vocals and I remember Nile thinking that he wanted a punchiness on one of the higher vocals. So he makes a call and Daryl Hall walks through the door. And I said, “Isn’t that Daryl Hall?!” and Nile was like, “Absolutely. ” Wow! Hall & Oates were massive as an international act. The next thing he’s singing and I’m just pinching myself because there’s a huge rock star in America singing our funny little song.

You were choking on your doughnut.

Yeah! The doughnut choke [Laughs]. That’s where the humanity part of it kicks in. I can still remember listening to that recording and exactly what I felt. I listened to it in the hotel and got really excited: I’d never heard anything like it.

So why didn’t Nile produce the rest of the album?

[Sighs] Boy, that’s an interesting question. We’d already committed ourselves to working with Nick Launay, and Nick did his own thing. And I think that makes this a pretty quirky sort of album. But I remember sitting with Nick and watching his reaction to ‘Original Sin’ and he was going, “Woaaahh.”

He knew he had a job ahead of him?

He sure did. But I think that was healthy too.

It pulled him out of his comfort zone?

Because it stops the headmaster business: “We just went and did this. What are you going to do?”

So even though Nile produced just the one song his stamp’s on that whole album, in a way.

Yeah, it is. In a sense too, the songwriting that I was doing was all around the same period. Michael was conscious that ‘Original Sin’ couldn’t stick out like dog’s balls. It had to fit in. So we deliberately steered the rest of the album in that direction and not being completely off-centre with that one particular song.

Did you ever work with Nile again?

No. I would’ve loved to do that. But you’ve gotta imagine this too: the funk-rock thing was very embryonic in that period [but] maybe two or three years later, would come that heavy rap and hip-hop, which then caused a completely different movement. So I think why we didn’t do another album with Nile was probably because it’s only in recent times that Nile’s become re-recognised for being the amazingly innovative guy he was and always will be. He’s suddenly recognised for that. And fantastic – so he should be.

So where does this song sit for you in the INXS discography? Is it a favourite?

Yeah, I’d say it is. And also, during that time I spoke about before from ‘77 to ‘82, we had some difficult years. We were literally starving at some points, and we didn’t know if anything was going to go anywhere. You’re just trying to pay the rent and survive. So by the time ‘83 rolled around, a bit of money was rolling in. We were playing good gigs, record companies were taking an interest, exposure on MTV was a game changer for us. We started to get better offers everywhere we went. And what that meant was, as songwriters Michael and I began to feel we could try things outside of that safety zone. And that continued. We tried to keep pushing our sound.

It reached #58 on the US charts. That was a success, but it almost feels low considering how iconic the song has become.

We’d had Top 40 hits before that. But as I touched upon before, the US didn’t react well to the song because radio didn’t like it. So it was amazing that it made it onto the charts at all. Because at that time in the United States it was a highly controversial recording.

And besides the effect it had on the album, did the song change the band?

Yeah, I think it did. We were already making it, but I think with ‘Original Sin’ it was more that we felt that – as Michael used to say – we wanted to make music that mattered. And in the end I guess we did. The only other thing I’d probably say is that all the guys in INXS are really proud of that recording and understand its significance, in a sense. And also, as Aussies, listening to it back here I remember being really pleased, because I knew it didn’t sound like anything anyone else had ever done before. It was completely leftfield.

Do you like looking back on your work like this?

Most of our records, I think stand the test of time. Some of them sound quirky and of an era. But, so what, everything does in the end.