427. ‘Summer Nights’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John

Fresh from dominating the singles charts in the summer, the ‘Grease’ soundtrack returns to dominate the autumn too…

Summer Nights, by John Travolta (his 2nd of two #1s) & Olivia Newton-John (her 2nd of three #1s) & Cast

7 weeks, from 24th September – 12th November 1978

I really like this song. I like it more than ‘You’re the One That I Want’. But there are a couple of issues that need mentioning before I start gushing. First, and unlike the earlier hit, ‘Summer Nights’ doesn’t work as well away from the film. Who are all these people singing? Why are all these people singing? Second, the backing track sounds a little bit ‘cheap karaoke’ (though that may be due to me hearing this song performed way too many times at way too many cheap karaoke nights…)

OK. On to the good bits. ‘Summer Nights’ comes right at the start of the film, on the first day back at school after summer. Sandy’s still a good little virgin; Danny’s a horny stud muffin. At least, that’s what they want their friends to think… He got friendly, Holding my hand… trills Sandy… She got friendly, Down in the sa-a-and… leers Danny. He was sweet, Just turned eighteen… She was good, You know what I mean…  Who’s telling the truth? You suspect neither of them.

As a kid, I loved the fact that ‘Grease’ is far filthier than many seem to notice. I couldn’t believe my mum – a churchgoer who once tried to stop me watching ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ – was letting me watch a film with references to ‘hookers’ and ‘pussy wagons’. (And I just noticed, genuinely for the first time, Travolta’s ‘fingering technique’ on the took her bowling line.) How this has become a high school musical standard amazes me. Meanwhile, looking back now, I love how they really nail the teenage boys versus teenage girls dynamic: Tell me more, tell me more… Did you get very far? ask the boys. Tell me more, tell me more… Like does he have a car? reply the girls.

One reason I like this more than ‘You’re the One…’ is that it’s an ensemble number. All the cast get a look in. Marty gets the ‘car’ line. Kenickie gets the song’s most dubious line: Did she put up a fight?! While Rizzo steals the show with her bored… Cos he sounds like a drag… I like the final couplet the best, as they deal purely in practicalities: How much dough did he spend? and Could she get me a friend?

The very end, though, is reserved for our two lovebirds. Then we made our true love vow… Wonder what she’s doin’ now… (Well I got news for you, Danny…) And then comes the iconic ending, where the fun fifties throwback flips to a Jim Steinman rock opera. Summer dreams, Ripped at the seams… followed by Travolta’s strangely camp Ohhh… and a dog-whistle high end note. Drums cascade and the backing singers rise to the occasion.

Here then ends John Travolta’s short but spectacular chart-topping career. Olivia Newton-John will be back, with another duet. I wonder if her three #1s with three duets is some kind of record? Anyway. Both stars also got a #2 solo hit from this soundtrack: ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ for Newton-John and ‘Sandy’ for Travolta. ‘Greased Lightnin’ was also released, only making it to #11 as ‘Grease’ fever abated. And I can’t end without mentioning the ‘Grease Megamix’, a mash-up of ‘You’re the One…’, ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Greased Lightnin’, that made #3 in 1991, and that must have soundtracked every single primary school disco for the rest of that decade. Those were the days…

24 thoughts on “427. ‘Summer Nights’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John

  1. great start to the movie! I may be a bit ambivalent about hearing it much these days, but the video/film sequence is still a delight, and the film is still fab. Yes you’re right, there are lots of naughty lines in it, but it manages to stay the right-side of Teen-flick 50’s nostalgia fun 🙂 Others of the genre have weathered less well from the 70’s, even Animal House & American Graffiti, the other 2 biggies (though one is farce and the other cheese-free).

    Most chart-topping duets? Without too much of a look it up I guess it depends on whether you mean actual duet of 2 people singing together, or the modern endless featurings of hordes of guest stars including rappers contributing 10 or 20 seconds of nothing much to a track to get radio play, oops! George Michael had 2 named chart-toppers with Elton, and with Aretha, plus he had one with Queen that wasn’t a duet vocally? Elton had Kiki, George & Blue (so multiple singers not a single person), 2-Pac (as a sample) and Scissor Sisters (backing vocals, piano and songwriting), so both artists not entirely duets….but more of a strictly-speaking singing arrangement than Rihanna’s numerous chart-toppers with rappers. If they ain’t singing it’s not really a duet, but take your pick cos technically Summer Nights isn’t a duet either (it’s ensemble) and the next one is arguable, it’s more of a multitracked Jeff Lynne on backing vocals than an I Got You Babe answer-reply. You might argue there’s loads of uncredited duets too, inside bands, like John Lennon & Paul McCartney who occasionally troubled the number one spot singing together, or with solo bits together, or with the missus on backing vocals, or with Stevie Wonder (in Paul’s case). 🙂

    • I was going for the angle that ONJ only ever topped the chart as one part of a duet – albeit three different types of duet. Elton, Rihanna, Paul McCartney et al can all claim solely credited #1s alongside their many duets. In that regard she seems quite rare…

  2. Another one of those songs from Grease everyone seems to know and popular for duets. The best part of the song is easily the melody, one of those things that feels like it’s always existed especially as its rhythm has been ripped for other big hits like “Wannabe” and “What Makes You Beautiful.” And I like the differing male/female viewpoints of Danny and Sandy’s relationship. But my main problem is how everything gets too loud and cluttered as it goes along with all the key changes and backing vocals.

    I think the reason people skip over the more racier elements is that Grease came out before the PG-13 rating came out which is what would most likely be in today’s world. It’s easy to be fooled by the PG rating. Plus, there’s a good quote from Tom Breihan who wrote a review of Grease for his Popcorn Champs series reviewing the top grossing films in America by year that perfectly explains the appeal of Grease, “It’s a big, silly, willfully naive set of gestures, set to songs that absolutely refuse to leave your head. That’s its legacy, and how it’s retained its power as a pop-cultural touchstone over decades.”

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  4. I watched it….I was interrupted a couple of times but I saw it…it was ok…not on my favorite list but ok. You were right…better than those awful Elvis movies.

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