Remembering Olivia Newton-John

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

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.

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…

424. ‘You’re the One That I Want’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John

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…