The sad news came through yesterday that Olivia Newton-John has died, aged just seventy-three. She featured three times on this blog with her three chart-topping singles (three singles that accumulated an impressive 18 weeks at #1!)
As well as these chart-toppers, she scored thirteen Top 20 hits between 1971 and 1982. If you count school disco classic ‘The Grease Megamix’ and a remix of ‘You’re the One That I Want’ (and I definitely do) you can extend that to 15 Top 20 hits over twenty-five years…
For me, personally, as someone who watched my VHS copy of ‘Grease’ at least once a month between 1997 and 1999, one single moment from her career stands out. Red heels. Black lycra. Black leather. Cigarette in hand. ‘SANdy?’… ‘Tell Me About It… Stud.’
From a moral standpoint, Sandy’s transformation at the ending of Grease is dubious at best. But in terms of iconic movie moments few can beat it. (My twelve-year-old heart certainly ‘beat’ it, even if I’d spent the previous two hours of the film wishing I were Rizzo.) ‘Grease’ gave Newton-John her biggest chart success – you can read my posts on ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Summer Nights’ here – along with her ELO collaboration ‘Xanadu’. ‘Grease’ also gave her a #2 smash with the classic weepy ‘Hopelessy Devoted to You’.
She had plenty of success away from Rydell High, though. Her first Top 10 came with a Bob Dylan cover: ‘If Not for You’ making #7 in 1971. She ploughed a country furrow for a few years – some might say her cover of ‘Country Roads’ is the better-known version – before representing the UK at Eurovision in 1974 with ‘Long Live Love’. She later admitted that she hated both the song, and the ghastly dress she was forced to wear. ‘Rolling Stone’ at the time descibed her as a seventies version of Doris Day.
A few years in the British chart wilderness – while remaining extremely popular in the US and in her adopted homeland Australia – ended with ‘Sam’, a #6 in 1977. Then came ‘Grease’ and all that that entailed. Her biggest non-soundtrack hit in the UK was ‘A Little More Love’ – very disco, very ABBA -which made #4 in early 1979.
Then came ‘Xanadu’ – by all accounts a thoroughly ludicrous film redeemed by its Jeff Lynne helmed soundtrack. The title track gave ONJ her third and final #1, as well as a worldwide hit in ‘Magic’.
The third and final video I’m going to embed is not the all-conquering ‘Physical’ (a ten-week #1 in the US which only got as high as #7 in the UK). We’ve all heard that plenty, I’d imagine. No, it’s the 3rd single from the ‘Xanadu’ soundtrack, and a duet with her buddy Cliff Richard – who had helped promote her to UK audiences in the early seventies as a regular guest on his TV show. Here’s ‘Suddenly’, which made #15 in 1980.
She contined to record and perform well into the 21st Century, despite a cancer diagnosis in 1992. Away from music she was a passionate animal-rights campaigner, as well as funding a cancer research centre in Melbourne.
Dame Olivia Newton-John, 26th September 1948 – 8th August 2022