461. ‘Xanadu’, by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra

Finally. One of the seventies’ best groups top the charts, a few months too late. ELO and ONJ are taking us off to a mythical land…

Xanadu, by Olivia Newton-John (her 3rd and final #1) & Electric Light Orchestra (their 1st and only #1) 

2 weeks, 6th – 20th July 1980

To be honest, this has never been my favourite Electric Light Orchestra song – is it anyone’s? – but it’s still a good slice of Jeff Lynne glam-pop. The wall-of-sound production and the beefy drums take us back to the height of glam, while the tempo and the strings are very disco. It’s a throwback, already, given the spiky, new-wave chart-toppers that we’ve already heard this year.

It’s also nice to hear Olivia Newton-John warbling away on another #1, after her two ‘Grease’ mega-hits in 1978. It’s a song that requires her to sing in a pretty high pitch, but she carries it off. Her Xanad-ooh-ooh… in the chorus, twinned with the piano riff, is an effective hook, while the Now we are here… backing vocals are pure ELO.

Amazingly, this is already the second #1 single to reference ‘Xanadu’ in the title, the lost city in northern China, seat of the Mongol Khans, ‘found’ by Marco Polo… It has now been named twice as many times as any other place. A place… as Olivia tells it, Where nobody dared to go, The love that we came to know, They called it Xanadu…

All very mystical. Except, in the movie that this record soundtracks, ‘Xanadu’ is a nightclub. A roller-disco. (I, to be fair, knew several nightclubs in my youth best described as ‘places nobody should dare to go’, not without a fair amount of alcohol inside them…) I have never seen the movie: it was awarded a Golden Raspberry but has since been reclaimed as a camp classic. Both ELO and ONJ scored further hits from the soundtrack, including the brilliant ‘All Over the World’.

The one thing I can’t get behind with this record is the ending. The soaring, distorted high-note. It reminds me – and this might just be because both involve Olivia Newton-John – of the stupid ending in ‘Grease’, with the flying car. A simple fade-out would have done much more nicely. But what do I know? Jeff Lynne apparently rates this as his best song.

I started this post with the word ‘finally’, and it really did take a while for Electric Light Orchestra to score a UK #1. ‘Xanadu’ was their 14th Top 10 hit, in a run stretching back to 1972. They would only have one further Top 10, before the hits dried up. (To do them justice, I’ll have to do a ‘Best of the Rest’ at some point.) Olivia Newton-John faces a similar chart trajectory – a few more hits before a mid-eighties drought. Meanwhile, Xanadu itself is still waiting for someone to score another #1 with its name, to complete the hat-trick.


20 thoughts on “461. ‘Xanadu’, by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra

  1. Love Xanadu, it was topping the charts when i finished uni, so its a sort of farewell to 3 great years for me. Love Livvie, always have since seeing her in her first film musical Toomorrow. At an RAF cinema after the movie had been quickly withdrawn from the circuit and made unavailable for 40 years. Sci fi alien whimsy badness that has to be endured but i liked the tunes and young Olivia. And the spaceships. A spaceship in a movie is always a plus! Even when its a terrible film….

    And most of all I love ELO from 10538 overture through to jeff lynnes recent stuff my love remained even when they fell out of fashion for 30 years and the critical reappraisal got going following popular opinion revival. It may not be Livin Thing, Mr Blue Sky, or Don’t Bring Me Down but its the equal of most of their big hits, and they all deserved to top the charts slong with many a fab album track. 2nd best band of the 70s, behind Abba and ahead of Mac and Queen. 10CC are 3rd. There I’ve said the unthinkable given the other 2 are nevr out the singles or albums charts:)

    • ELO for me are still a bit new and exciting, as they weren’t part of my parents’ regular rotation – unlike Fleetwood Mac, Queen and ABBA – and I had to discover them myself. Not too up on their albums, but singles-wise they barely put a foot wrong for a decade or more…

  2. I have seen Xanadu myself and I can see why it got a lot of backlash in its time and why it’s been reappraised today as a camp classic. It’s a colorful trainwreck with a plot that doesn’t make much sense to bad acting even with legend Gene Kelly here in his final screen role. But the music is easily the best part and it was enough so that Xanadu was turned into a Broadway musical in 2007 and apparently got good reviews then. Considering that it came out in the midst of the disco backlash, it’s easy to see Xanadu’s failure as a bad case of timing with people quickly turning against a movie about creating a roller disco. It’s still a ridiculous movie but you can see why critics and audiences in 1980 were easily dismissive of Xanadu. But despite the film flopping hard, the Xanadu soundtrack was a decent hit going double platinum and launched five Top 40 hits with the biggest one in America being Olivia Newton-John’s sickly and forgettable “Magic” which spent the whole month of August 1980 at #1. The title track wouldn’t hit its #8 peak until a couple months later. Aside from the obvious Jeff Lynne backing vocals, there isn’t much about “Xanadu” to suggest that it’s a collaboration with ELO. In terms of the soundtrack hits, “Xanadu” is easily a better song than “Magic” mostly for its fun energy and Newton-John happy sounding delivery that goes well with the magical production which is played towards the end in celebrating the opening of the Xanadu roller disco. It’s not an all time favorite but not a bad song when it comes on. The failure of Xanadu didn’t damage Newton-John’s career a whole lot aside from largely abandoning her acting career. “Magic” wound up as her biggest hit in America until the end of ‘81 when “Physical” became a cultural phenomenon tying Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” for the most weeks at #1 at the time at 10 weeks and was named Billboard’s biggest hit of 1982 and the biggest song of the entire ‘80s. Nowadays, “Physical” is Newton-John’s biggest cultural impact that doesn’t have to do with Grease or Xanadu. And she continued having hits for a few more years after until her mainstream moment ended and until recently was still performing while also battling breast cancer many times becoming an activist for breast cancer awareness in the process. As Tom Breihan said, “She seems like a nice lady, and she had a hell of a chart run.”

    • I’m glad that someone has watched ‘Xanadu’ so that I don’t have to… I think that this does have an ELO feel to it, beyond just the backing vocals, though they are the one thing that shouts ‘This Is ELO!’ I haven’t listened to the whole soundtrack, but I do prefer the next single from it, ‘All Over the World’, to ‘Xanadu’. And yes, ONJ does seem like a very nice person, and it is a vary hard feat to get through fifty odd years in showbiz and to seemingly be universally liked!

      • Admittedly, the ELO Xanadu hits I like more including “All Over The World” which gets used in a montage scene of Gene Kelly trying on different clothes. With ONJ, the only other single she released from the Xanadu soundtrack was the Cliff Richard ballad collaboration “Suddenly” which is used in the scene when ONJ’s character Kira and Sonny are skating around a photography studio. As Breihan pointed out in his “Magic” review, the ONJ part of the soundtrack is all over the place musically where she even dabbles in big band jazz in a scene where she dances with Gene Kelly and collaborates with the Tubes in a scene that mashes together big band jazz of the ‘40s with the Tubes playing a more rocking ‘80s type song in showing the old and new visions for the club colliding.

        Now listening to “Xanadu,” I guess you can feel more of an ELO feel in the music but it’s always felt largely like an ONJ song to me. I just found out though that like “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “When I Need You,” we have the film composer James Newton Howard playing synthesizer here which further explains the cinematic feel of the song.

  3. ELO are one of those acts that you don’t tend to notice a lot of the time but when their songs are on you immediately recognize them and how good they are. They were a consistent hit machine in the late ‘70s with “Evil Woman,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Shine a Little Love,” etc. Can’t go wrong with those songs. Unfortunately, they never got to #1 in America with their biggest charting hit 1979’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” peaking at #4 but Jeff Lynne got to #1 as a producer in 1988 with George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You.” After ELO disbanded, Lynne had a great second career as a producer notably for Harrison and Tom Petty. It was those connections that led them to form the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison in the late ‘80s before Orbison died but not before Lynne co-wrote and produced his posthumous #9 hit “You Got It.” And when the Beatles Anthology series was released in 1995, he produced the two new Beatles songs from it, the #6 “Free As A Bird” and #11 “Real Love.”

  4. ELO – the ultimate guilty secret who were grossly uncool for too many years until 2014 when Jeff Lynne made one of the biggest comebacks of all time. Olivia – the one who genre-hopped with ease, from country-pop in the early 70s to ‘Grease’ and then disco. ‘Xanadu’ may have been a tad cheesy, and probably not the record both 70s icons might like to be remembered by, but they did deserve their moment of No. 1 glory together (although Jeff has sung it in concert in recent years). Ironic that Top of the Pops was off our screens while it was at the top because of industrial action. Seeing them together on our TV screen – even if only miming to the backing track – would have been a treat.

    • I had read about the few weeks in 1980 in which TOTP wasn’t aired… I wonder if that had any say in what was #1 during that time…? Namely Don McLean’s sludgy previous #1, and the next after this (which I like, but which doesn’t scream #1 to me…)

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  7. Xanadu and the album came out just before my 14th birthday. I was enthralled by the movie even though, in retrospect, it is cheesy as all get-out. I was also a Michael Beck fan. I had this album at one time…don’t remember what happened to it.

    This is also a large part of my high school history. In my junior year of high school, I was in the HS pageant (Feb. 1983). My maternal grandmother had sewed professionally for the public and I had her fashion a dress similar to the pink one Olivia wore in the movie (and printed on the back of the album). As talent, I sang Suspended In Time on stage (as best as I could…removing her voice from the track proved extremely difficult for the technicians). I basically sang with an Olivia echo (not really realizing that from where I was standing). I so loved Olivia. I have a picture of it (me), too.

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