An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective
Part Two: 1972-1973
As her international fortunes begin to waver, Olivia Newton-John enjoys her first big breakthrough in the United States.
Angel of the Morning/Just a Little Too Much/If We Only Have Love/Winterwood/My Old Man’s Got a Gun/Changes/I’m a Small and Lonely Light/Why Don’t You Write Me/Mary Skeffington/Behind That Locked Door/What is Life/Everything I Own/Living in Harmony/I Will Touch You
After the relative success of her 1971 debut album, If Not For You, Olivia Newton-John had difficulty building on its strengths. Her 1972 sophomore set, Olivia, failed to chart anywhere in the world, and produced one minor hit with “What is Life.” The album simply isn’t as good as her first one, despite its attempts to repeat the formula. After “If Not For You” borrowed from George Harrison’s interpretation of the Bob Dylan song, she recorded two compositions from Harrison himself, but neither had the innocent charm of her breakthrough hit.
Part of the trouble is her attempts to push her vocal performances before she had the interpretive power to back up the more ambitious vocals. She ends up oversinging most of the material here, with almost theatrical performances undermining interesting tracks like “My Old Man’s Got a Gun” and “Behind That Locked Door.” She’s at her best when things are stripped down, like on the beautiful “Mary Skeffington.”
The best track on the album came from her own pen. “Changes,” a tender acoustic track about the realities of divorce, wasn’t released as a single, but it is so effective that MCA Records eventually included it on her 1977 Greatest Hits collection, and Newton-John has often included it in her set list over the years.
What is Life
Written by George Harrison
Ireland #18 | U.K. #16
Newton-John’s cover of the George Harrison hit is competent but ultimately redundant, adding nothing original to the source material.
Just a Little Too Much
Written by Johnny Burnette
Even less necessary is “Just a Little Too Much,” a cover of the fifties rockabilly hit that failed to chart anywhere. It’s among the most egregious examples of the Olivia tracks that are oversung to the point of irritability.
Music Makes My Day (Europe)/Let Me Be There (Australia)
Take Me Home, Country Roads/Amoureuse/Brotherly Love/Heartbreaker/Rosewater/You Ain’t Got the Right/Feeling Best/Being On the Losing End/Let Me Be There/Music Makes My Day/Leaving/If We Try
Music Makes My Day is a step up from Olivia. There are still a few too many covers and Newton-John is still finding her voice on record, but there’s a reason that her big breakthrough in the United States can be found on this album. Her producers were finally realizing how great she sounded doing country-flavored material, and the album’s two singles – “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Let Me Be There” – weren’t just hits. They were Olivia Newton-John hits, songs that are instantly recognizable by that unique combination of distinctive vocals and airy production. She still had another album of European schlock in her, but the foundation of her superstar career can be found here.
Take Me Home, Country Roads
Written by Bill Danoff, John Denver, and Taffy Nivert
Ireland #5 | Japan #6 | U.K. #15
Hampered only by a too long choral introduction, Newton-John’s reading of the seminal John Denver classic is essential listening. With her vocal front and center and a lilting guitar to match it, she finally sounds comfortable being herself on record. (Note: The single was not released in Japan until 1976.)
Let Me Be There
Written by John Rostill
Pop #5 | Country #7 | AC # 3
Australia #11 | Canada #5 | New Zealand #11
Newton-John’s career began in earnest with “Let Me Be There,” thanks to label MCA’s canny idea to release it to the country market. Newton-John was completely focused on her career in England at the time, and her surprising success in the States would soon prompt a major career move. “Let Me Be There” was a multi-format hit for Newton-John despite her never coming over to promote it, and it being released in a paper sleeve. Newton-John would later remark that she was relieved that Americans embraced her sight unseen, proving that it was her voice, not her beauty, that they were responding to.
“Let Me Be There” is a great record, not just because of Newton-John’s performance, but also the irresistible bass vocal harmony from Mike Sammes. Using the approach that Shania Twain and “Mutt” Lange would later hone to perfection, Newton-John and co-producer Farrar used country instrumentation with pop arrangements, making records that sounded distinctive but still not out of place in either format.
“Let Me Be There” was the first of fifteen top ten U.S. pop singles for Olivia Newton-John, a record at the time, and the first of five consecutive million-selling singles.
Let Me Be There (U.S.)
Pop #54 | Country #1 (2 weeks)
Let Me Be There/Me and Bobby McGee/Banks of the Ohio/Love Song/If Not For You/Take Me Home, Country Roads/Angel of the Morning/If You Could Read My Mind/Help Me Make it Through the Night/Just a Little Too Much
Let Me Be There is easily Newton-John’s strongest album release to date, because it’s really a compilation album, with tracks culled from Newton-John’s first three album releases. It features four of her five international hits up until this point, with “What is Life” not really being missed. The covers included were also among her strongest, with only “Just a Little Too Much” being of questionable quality. It was probably tacked on their for its twang.
Let Me Be There was certified gold in the United States, part of a string of fourteen album releases from 1973 to 1985 where all but one reached that sales milestone or higher.
Next up, Newton-John goes up against a Swedish pop quartet in the 1974 Eurovision contest, and soon after, relocates to the United States, where she has suddenly become the most popular female vocalist in the country.
An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective
Next: Part Three, 1974
Previous: Part One, 1966-1971
Keep it up, I’m loving this! Part three soon please!!!
I was surprised that she covered Don McLean’s “Winterwood” on the “Olivia” album. She sang it well.
Given what we have now, with women unable to even get arrested on country radio, it just seems very bizarre in retrospect that Olivia’s simultaneous presence on the pop and country charts back at that time should have caused the kind of uproar it did. The powers-that-be that existed in Nashville then simply didn’t know how to handle the presence of someone in their territory who wasn’t American, let alone “country” in the strictest sense of that term. Indeed, it seems like Olivia was really a kind of unwitting participant in it all.
All seems mighty quaint in this day and age, doesn’t it?
She had absolutely no idea what country music was. The concept of a genre was completely foreign to her. She was just recording music that she liked. Once she understood, she always made a point to show respect to the genre and even at the peak of her pop success, she always included a lengthy country block in her live sets.
The only one I’m familiar with is the last one listed – Let Me Be There US version. We had it on vinyl and 8-track. Such a great voice.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the bass singer on Let Me Be There. I know it made the song sound more country flavored at the time, but it’s also aged the song – and not in a good way.
Loved her covers of If You Could Read My Mind and Take Me Home Country Roads.