One And Dones: 'Max Q'

This week, it’s Max Q – the lone collaboration between INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and Melbourne underground legend Ollie Olsen.

In One And Dones, I’m taking a look at Aussie artists who released one cracking album, only to break up or disappear. To paraphrase an old folk song – where did they come from, and where did they go? 

This week, it’s Max Q – the lone collaboration between INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and Melbourne underground legend Ollie Olsen that is long overdue for critical reappraisal. Sparked by their chance meeting on the 1986 film Dogs in Space but doomed by controlling INXS management who didn’t want the project to harm the future of the blockbuster band, it has never been reissued or put on streaming services.

The wildest song Michael Hutchence ever wrote was fictional. In character for the cult 1986 Richard Lowenstein film Dogs In Space, Hutchence yelped a nonsensical ode to Laika, the first dog in space, over gang vocals. The instrumental is an atonal guitar maelstrom that Sonic Youth would proudly stand behind. The same year, Hutchence played to 72,000 people with INXS in support of Queen. By the late 1980s, the INXS frontman had begun to curate dual tracks of his career – independent reverie and reality. 

Max Q is the missing link between the two. It’s remarkable that even after several resurgent waves of interest in INXS following the release of documentaries and TV biopics, Hutchence’s experimental electro-punk side project with Ollie Olsen has still never been reissued or put on streaming services. It unfairly remains a record collectors’ curio, rather than the fascinating piece of historical pop divergence it is.

Dogs in Space had reimagined Hutchence as a musician in Melbourne’s 1970s Little Band scene, and introduced him to its musical director, Olsen, one of the scene’s real life underground heroes. Hutchence was scared at first by Olsen’s apathetic cool, who wasn’t enamoured by his aura of fame.

“At first it was pretty terrifying being around him, but you respect it after a while,” Hutchence told Spin in 1989.

“His honesty is enormous. He taught me a lot about when to say things. Like don’t worry when to say it and how. And he taught me how to know if I’m becoming jaded and to be real careful about all that shit.”

Olsen, at least in retrospect, took a more detached view of Hutchence, telling a biographer in 1999 that he saw a man “caught up on this rollercoaster of fame….[but] there was a part of him that perhaps was on a more spiritual level”. They worked together on the song that ended the lo-fi film, Rooms of Memory, which became a surprise chart hit – Hutchence’s baritone purr given new life by Olsen’s looping synthetic drums and sawtooth melody. But the pop rock monolith Hutchence was famous for had also just released Kick, the 1986 album that is essentially an organic greatest hits collection. 

Olsen, as independent musicians are wont to do, was shuffling through a variety of post-punk bands in Melbourne when he began to write pop songs. Filtered through bands like Orchestra of Skin and Bone and No, they came off as slightly more melodic versions of the same inscrutable music he had always made. Frustrated, he asked Hutchence to help him record a few. A few months later, supposedly in a bout of boredom, Hutchence asked Olsen if he wanted to make an album of it – funded out of the superstar’s own pocket.

Immediately, this caused tension with INXS and their label. Hutchence hadn’t told any of them he was working on a new project, he claimed, simply because he “forgot”. But he shrugged any backlash off – "What's the point in being successful when you can't do what you want?”.

The new band was mostly made up of an assortment of post-punk Olsen collaborators and was named after his dog, a deaf Queensland Blue Heeler with a mental illness, which in turn came from the name for the point when an aerospace vehicle's atmospheric flight reaches maximum dynamic pressure.

Atlantic Records were perplexed by Max Q’s promotional strategy which saw an identikit face on the album cover made up of seven fragments of each band member’s face. The record insert contained a full band photograph, but Hutchence is impossible to make out in a flurry of movement. The singer had a new closely-cropped haircut too, distant from the vanity of the rockstar locks. 

The music was a knotty blend of punk, disco and synth-pop, anchored by a career-best vocal performance from Hutchence. His charisma allowed both the darker lyrics and musical stylings to inflect an almost gothic tone. The instrumental credits were eclectic too, featuring Tibetan Thigh Bone Trumpet (an instrument made from an actual human femur), early MIDI programming and “screams”. Some of the songs were re-dos from Orchestra of Skin and Bone, most notably the single “Sometimes”, but they bore little resemblance to the lo-fi originals.

The chaos of the arrangements pitted against Hutchence’s voice almost resemble a noise-pop version of The Smiths’ Morrissey and Marr – less written in harmony than over the top of each other. Depeche Mode and, at its most oddball, Talking Heads echo through “Ghost Of The Year” and “Everything”. Hutchence makes punk-isms about freedom in gold cages sound outright sultry on “Soul Engine”.

Perhaps most critically, the album was mixed and mastered by Todd Terry and Paula Jones in New York City. Terry is known for his impact on the development of Chicago House, after he blended it with the burgeoning hip-hop beats of his native New York City. He deepened the synth-driven sound of the Max Q synths, mediating between them and the punk that refused to disappear from the players’ palette. An incredibly rare Japanese edition of the album contains revelatory remixes of “Ghost Of The Year” and “Zero-2-0” by Terry – the former of which sounds like the transition into the 1990s New Order wished they could have made.

One of the strangest qualities of Max Q is its obsession with Reagan’s America. Hutchence, who had never approached politics in INXS, was delivering diatribes against a politics of fear, with Olsen’s co-writing direction. “Way Of The World” was Olsen and Hutchence’s self-proclaimed manifesto, with the latter describing it as being about "fear as a weapon, the conspiracy theory Ollie and I share".

The pious foundational values espoused by American culture were easy to grasp and denounce for Hutchence, who could turn the government, religion and capitalist fervour into singable bogeymen. Back home, the flaws in the sweeping reforms of ever-popular Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke were more nuanced; cultural criticism of the intellectual larrikin was not sexy enough to sing about, nor would anyone want to hear it. It would have made for a more subversive soundtrack to 1984 than Eurythmics.

In interviews around the release, Hutchence projected an identity crisis. He obsessively brought up a hatred of rock stardom and decadence – “Rock stars are horrible people. Being a street cleaner or a baker are more honorable professions,” he told The Los Angeles Times. And yet, he relentlessly affirmed his commitment to INXS and the singular nature of the Max Q experiment.

Max Q is a one-shot deal. The band isn’t going to tour and doesn’t exist beyond this album,” Hutchence said in the same interview.

“This album is a meeting of the alter egos. Ollie is this underground musician living out his pop fantasy. That’s his alter ego. I’m getting a chance to do something totally different, working with underground musicians. That’s my alter ego thing.”

He added, with resignation: “Looks like I’ll have to be a rock star a little while longer.”

Recent interviews with Lowenstein seem to indicate that Hutchence was hiding that he still wanted the record to be a hit, despite using Max Q as a means to “recharge” after ten years with INXS.

“Michael wasn't going to get a recharge by sitting on a beach for a year, or raising a family like the others did. He would recharge by exploring new things, and doing something without the constraints of the commercial world and the record company watching his every move,” Lowenstein told blog Money Into Light last year.

As Hutchence foretold, Max Q “broke-up” in 1990 – though without a single live show played, it felt like a perfunctory move. Olsen, perhaps inspired by working with Terry, moved on to making psy-trance with Third Eye, and Hutchence brought dance schtick back to INXS on 1990’s X, albeit in a piecemeal fashion alongside their more popular singles like “Suicide Blonde”. 

Olsen never again approached the brief level of infamy he had during his tenure with Max Q, but he had no intention of doing so either. He announced a brief retirement from music in 2019, only to reverse it this year with the rerelease of the complete Whirlywirld discography in June. His Bandcamp page is filled with a litany of abstract, electro-acoustic sound experiments with titles like “Cognitive Dissonance”. He has never tried to return to the Max Q material either.

INXS hagiographies refer to Max Q as “commercially unsuccessful”, but the album still went gold in Australia, selling at least 35,000 copies. They were also (somewhat inaccurately) nominated for Best Breakthrough Artist at the 1990 ARIA Awards and won a staggering 13 Rolling Stone Magazine awards. This is an enormous success for someone like Olsen; the metric of comparison to INXS album sales doesn’t quite make sense, particularly during the time period. Pre-Nirvana, independent music was not yet an advertisable aesthetic – left-field moves by those in the major label domain weren’t automatically seen as interesting. 

The simple binary of indie and mainstream in a crossover like Max Q doesn’t happen anymore because the very notion of “indie” music has become almost meaningless in its misappropriation. Public relations for major labels use the word to advertise a certain, undefinable tone in the music of the stars, despite being – very obviously – not actually independent. Taylor Swift’s folklore was a case-in-point – every music editor declared Swift had “gone indie”. At least The New Yorker had the grace to put it in scare quotes

The cultural appeal of Hutchence and Olsen’s collaboration was in that once forbidden collision of indie and mainstream; church and state. It was so strange and brief, that it felt more like an extension of Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space fantasy of Hutchence – pop fiction.

Main Image Credit: Max Q

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