An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Four: 1975

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Four: 1975

As Olivia Newton-John entered 1975, she was enjoying a new peak of popularity. She began the year with four victories at the American Music Awards, winning in both the country and the pop/rock categories.  Shortly thereafter, she won Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards.  As Lee Kramer took over her management and she relocated to the United States, she launched her first stateside tour to glowing reviews.  Best of all, once Newton-John showed up for her U.S. victory lap, she was able to take satisfaction from the fact that the biggest music market in the world had embraced her sight unseen, a marked contrast to how her talent was minimized in England:

If I were less attractive, maybe they would pay more attention to my talent. They always think you’re playing on your looks. It’s just how I was made. But that old all-beauty-and-no-brains thing is still in existence.

I don’t think of myself as pretty–that sounds maybe stupid, but I mean, if someone said to you, ‘Do you think you’re successful because you’re handsome?’ would you feel uncomfortable? It’s half a compliment and it isn’t.

The one great thrill I had in America was that my music was accepted before I was ever seen, before I was on television, before I did live appearances; therefore I had to hope it was my music and not my face, you know.

She kept the hit streak going with two more albums in 1975, starting with Have You Never Been Mellow.

 

Have You Never Been Mellow

Written by John Farrar

1975

United States:

Pop #1 (1 week) | Country #3 | AC #1 (1 week)

International:

Australia #10 | Canada #1 (3 weeks) | Japan #26 | New Zealand #12

Grade: A

“Have You Never Been Mellow” is a perfect pop record, built around Newton-John’s strengths as a vocalist, particularly her upper range.  It so exemplifies mid-seventies AM radio that it’s easy to forget that it sounding like nothing else that was out at the time.  It also has historical significance for Newton-John, as it was her first hit single penned by her producer John Farrar, who would go on to write most of her biggest hits, including those from Grease and Xanadu.

Farrar later reflected that the song about as he was “desperately trying to come up a song I hoped Olivia liked. I remember being on tour with her in America; all the guys in the band were using ‘mellow’ as their favorite word.”  Farrar’s emergence as a hit songwriter for Newton-John took on new significance given the tragedy surrounding her next hit.

Have You Never Been Mellow

1975

United States:

Pop #1 (1 week) | Country #1 (6 weeks)

International:

Australia #13 | Canada #3 | New Zealand #20 | Japan #4 | U.K. #37

Track Listing:

  1. Have You Never Been Mellow
  2. Loving Arms
  3. Lifestream
  4. Goodbye Again
  5. Water Under the Bridge
  6. I Never Did Sing You a Love Song
  7. It’s So Easy
  8. The Air That I Breathe
  9. Follow Me
  10. And in the Morning
  11. Please Mr. Please

 

Have You Never Been Mellow is the best representation of the sound that made Olivia Newton-John the biggest female star of her era.  Bookended by two million-selling singles that became signature hits, the album effortlessly mixes crossover country with soft pop, largely leaving her folk style behind. The material further stretches her as a vocalist, particularly on the haunting “And in the Morning” and the brilliantly produced title track.  The album isn’t without missteps, particularly the awkward attempt to recreate the “Let Me Be There” formula on “It’s So Easy.”  But it’s a solid collection of songs that showcases the confidence that comes with having several hit records already under the belt.

 

Please Mr. Please

Written by John Rostill and Bruce Welch

1975

United States:

Pop #3 | Country #5 | AC #1 (3 weeks)

International:

Australia #35 | Canada #1 (1 week) | New Zealand #7

Grade: A

“Please Mr. Please” represents several endings for Olivia Newton-John. It was the final of five consecutive gold and top ten pop singles in America, bringing her first period of peak popularity to an end. It was the end of her professional relationship with ex-producer and ex-boyfriend Bruce Welch, who co-wrote the song as a way to process their breakup.

But most tragically, it was the final of her three hit singles penned by John Rostill, the songwriter who also gave her “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know.)”  Like Welch and Farrar, Rostill was part of Cliff Richard’s backing band, the Shadows. An accomplished bass guitarist, Rostill was practicing at his home in England in late 1973 when he was electrocuted to death by his own guitar.  Rostill wasn’t around to see the massive success of his latter two singles for Newton-John.

“Please Mr. Please,” again, is a perfect pop record, despite its lyrical paeans to Nashville, Tennessee and sipping Kentucky whiskey. It’s acoustic guitar hook complements Newton-John’s lilting vocal performance.  She made a lot of solid records in the years to come, but until she was cast in Grease, she wouldn’t get quite this good again.

 

Something Better to Do

Written by John Farrar

1975

United States:

Pop #13 | Country #19 | AC #1 (3 weeks)

Grade: B

“I don’t know where that one came from,” John Farrar later mused about “Something Better to Do,” the lead single from Newton-John’s sixth studio album, Clearly Love. “Sort of a stage, 1940s song. I don’t think I expected it to be a single. I expected it to be a silly song. I remember at the time being grateful just that they found something off that album.”

Among Newton-John’s top twenty American hits, “Something Better to Do” is something of a black sheep. It reached higher on the pop charts than later hits like “Come On Over,” “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Sam,” but unlike those tracks, “Something Better to Do” has been left off of all three major attempts to cover Newton-John’s entire career on one CD.  Farrar’s 1940’s description is apt; it sounds like a prototype for the flashback sound used in parts of the Xanadu soundtrack.

It’s a pleasant record with a beautiful Newton-John vocal, but listened to sequentially after her string of big hits that preceded it, it sounds slight and insignificant, making it understandable how it fell short at a time where radio had five massive predecessors from her to play in heavy rotation instead.

Clearly Love

1975

United States:

Pop #12 | Country #6

International:

Australia #50 | Canada #39 | Japan #3 | New Zealand #34

Track Listing

  1. Something Better to Do
  2. Lovers
  3. Slow Down Jackson
  4. He’s My Rock
  5. Sail Into Tomorrow
  6. Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying
  7. Clearly Love
  8. Let it Shine
  9. Summertime Blues
  10. Just a Lot of Folk (The Marshmallow Song)
  11. He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother

Newton-John’s sixth studio album sounds as rushed as it was, the result of a contractual mandate that she releases two studio albums a year. It relies too heavily on covers, giving the album an overly familiar sound. It has some highlights, particularly the twangy single, “Let it Shine,” and the even twangier “He’s My Rock.” But the album has so many ballads that they all blend into each other, making even strong songs like “Lovers” feel samey.

Newton-John made a guest appearance on John Denver’s single “Fly Away,” which she replaced at #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart with her double A-sided second single from Clearly Love.

Let It Shine

Written by Linda Hargrove

He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother

Written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott

1975

United States:

Pop #30 | Country #5 | AC #1 (2 weeks)

International:

Canada #17

Grade: B+ (Let it Shine)/ C (He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother)

Newton-John’s talents as a country singer truly do shine on this Linda Hargrove cover, which features a vibrancy missing from the other two singles from Clearly Love.  But the less said about her Hollies cover the better. It’s too self-aware for its own good, although it at least avoids the painful histrionics of Neil Diamond’s take from five years earlier.

Up next, Newton-John gets her own network television special, sues her record label, and returns to the top ten of the U.K. singles chart for the first time in six years.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Five, 1976-1977

Previous: Part Three: 1974

 

10 Comments

  1. Given how much grief Olivia was getting for what was then the country music establishment for being a “foreigner” impinging on their territory, it is amazing, and more than a little amusing, to think that “Please Mister Please” and “Let It Shine” now seem far closer to traditional country than a lot of the stuff that gets played on what passes for country radio these days…or, for that matter, a lot of what Nashville had out even back then in 1975-76.

  2. I think it was 1975 when I first heard of ONJ with “Please Mr. Please” and the “Mellow” song. I have a cd “Olivia, Back to Basics, the Essential Collection, 1971 – 1992”. Good stuff.

  3. I’ve loved reading these this portion of Olivia’s career is truly underrated. Please Mr Please being my favorite.

  4. OK Part 5 please! Sorry to nag, but I’m loving the depth you go into these posts. Bravo!

  5. It’s coming! Definitely by the end of the weekend. It’s a big one because she released three studio albums and two versions of a hits package, sued her record label, and had a hit TV special.

  6. This retrospective series has been nothing short of excellent so far! Thank you for the obvious care, attention, and meticulous research you’ve put into it. As a long-time ONJ fan, I have often lamented that many people now seem to think it was Grease that started her career, being woefully unaware that she was a major commercial success long before that. This series helps slake the thirst for intelligent analysis of her long and varied career.
    I know that she veered away from country music in the 80s, but I’m really hoping you will cover her fascinating and rather odd 80s trajectory, which ranged from having the biggest hit of the decade and being the pre-Madonna queen of pop, to barely being able to scrape a chart placing; and from producing a near-perfect pop album with Physical, to unexpectedly making an album of standards and lullabies with Warm and Tender.
    And then, of course, there’s Soul Kiss…

  7. Thanks for the great feedback, and I’m glad this is being received as it was intended, even if it’s taking forever to get it posted.

    The eighties will definitely be covered. Most of her best music came out from 1978-1983, as far as I’m concerned. We had HBO as a kid, so it was her concert that they played every other day that exposed me to her music in the first place. My sister had both Greatest Hits cassettes, but mostly played Vol. 2. She only had the first one for “Please Mr. Please.”

    Regarding Soul Kiss, I remember getting it for Christmas along with my first stereo when I was 6 years old, because I’d seen the clip for “Toughen Up” once on HBO. Another case of me playing the first track and being completely confused by the rest. I have an appreciation for that album now but was way too young to be listening to it then. I can only assume that “girl next door” image she could never shake is what made my parents assume the album was appropriate for me to own in the first place.

  8. I’m with you on 78-83 being her golden period! I’m still constantly delighted by the range and variety of her output then. I think the Physical album is a masterpiece – I love its whole aesthetic including the album artwork and video material, and the music, production – and her performances – are outstanding. It became slightly overshadowed by the title track, of course. Anyway, more on that when you get there!
    It was her HBO concert that cemented my fandom, too – having been enchanted by Grease on videocassette, and catching a glimpse of the Let’s Get Physical special before then. That ‘82 concert is a marvel.

  9. What an absolute delight of a series. Been a fan from the minute she uttered the words ” Im going back to Australia I might never see you again ” in the opening of Grease. I was 7. It wasn’t until I was 16 and I happened to over hear Let Me Be There on the radio at an Aunts place by then I could pick her voice a mile away – that I discovered she had a back catalogue so to speak, I took a job after school so I could buy every album I could get my hands on. I love how this series validates her as an artist and it seems more and more people are doing so, and eschewing the whole Grease was the beginning of her career. Well done, can’t wait to read the rest. To be honest you needn’t stop at the 80’s Grace and Gratitude, Liv On are also well worthy of a write up. Anyways – thanks!!

  10. Thanks, Kereti! What a great discovery story. The feature will cover those albums you mentioned, and will likely end with 2017, unless something else is released this year unexpectedly. I’d like to get the feature done by the end of the summer.

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