Picture the scene… It’s the last day of high school. A carnival has pitched up on the football pitch, as carnivals do. Rydell High bad-boy Danny Zuko, having ditched his leathers for a Letterman, turns to see his good girl gone bad… “Sandy!?” he exclaims.
For there she stands, head to shoulders in tight, tight black. Hair permed, ciggie dangling from her mouth. Sandra Dee is dead. The Pink Ladies gasp, the T-Birds wolf-whistle… “Tell me about it… Stud!”
You’re the One That I Want, by John Travolta (his 1st of two #1s) & Olivia Newton-John (her 1st of three #1s)
9 weeks, from 11th June – 13th August 1978
This record hit #1 a full seven and a bit years before I was born, but very few of the #1s we have met, or will meet, hit the ‘childhood memories’ button quite like this. ‘Grease’ was my favourite movie as a kid (I would sometimes pull a sickie from school just because I fancied watching it), and I still love it as an adult. I can quote from it like no other movie. “A hickey from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card…”, “They’re amoebas on fleas on rats…” “Maraschino… Like the cherry…”
What’s instantly clear is that this record, unlike some earlier soundtrack chart-toppers, works just fine out of context. The lyrics are stock-standard pop, the music a disco-ish reimagining of fifties rock ‘n’ roll: I got chills, squeals John Travolta in the iconic opening line, They’re multiplyin’!
You better shape up, Cos I need a man, Who can keep me satisfied… I guess you could read this as a feminist statement: little, shy, pushed around Sandy is finally in charge. Except she’s had to change her clothes, her hairdo, and her moral standards to get there. To my heart I must be true… she sings. Really, Sandy? Meanwhile, Danny slings the straight-laced Letterman jumper off before the first chorus hits.
Actually, I love the ending to ‘Grease’. I love that Sandy goes sexy. Good guys (and girls) do finish last! I also love the way John Travolta dances as if he’s been whacked over the head, almost slithering after Olivia Newton-John onto the fairground ride. This is the second #1 of the year to have featured in one of his movies, although he didn’t have any singing duties on ‘Night Fever’. One thing this record is missing, sadly, is his ‘Waaaaah!’ after the Feel your way… line. It’s the little things…
‘You’re the One That I Want’ is not my favourite song from ‘Grease’ – it’s not got the bite of ‘There Are Worse Things I Can Do’, the chorus of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, or the laughs of ‘Beauty School Drop-out’, but I can understand why it was the giant hit, the (almost) closing number released as the movie topped the box-office charts. I can also understand why some people think ‘Grease’ is a terrible film (objectively, it may well be). But to ten-year-old me, fake coughing on the sofa, wishing I were Kenickie (or Rizzo), it will always remain a stone-cold classic.
As with Boney M last time, and Wings not so long before, this is one of the best-selling singles of all time in Britain. The 5th best, to be precise. John Travolta has one of the best singles chart records of all time: he’s featured four times, and two of those songs are million sellers. The second of which, from the very same movie, will be coming along in a tick…