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

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…