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
Pop #1 (1 week) | Country #3 | AC #1 (1 week)
Australia #10 | Canada #1 (3 weeks) | Japan #26 | New Zealand #12
“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
Pop #1 (1 week) | Country #1 (6 weeks)
Australia #13 | Canada #3 | New Zealand #20 | Japan #4 | U.K. #37
- Have You Never Been Mellow
- Loving Arms
- Goodbye Again
- Water Under the Bridge
- I Never Did Sing You a Love Song
- It’s So Easy
- The Air That I Breathe
- Follow Me
- And in the Morning
- 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
Pop #3 | Country #5 | AC #1 (3 weeks)
Australia #35 | Canada #1 (1 week) | New Zealand #7
“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
Pop #13 | Country #19 | AC #1 (3 weeks)
“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.
Pop #12 | Country #6
Australia #50 | Canada #39 | Japan #3 | New Zealand #34
- Something Better to Do
- Slow Down Jackson
- He’s My Rock
- Sail Into Tomorrow
- Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying
- Clearly Love
- Let it Shine
- Summertime Blues
- Just a Lot of Folk (The Marshmallow Song)
- 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
Pop #30 | Country #5 | AC #1 (2 weeks)
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.
Next: Part Five, 1976-1977
Previous: Part Three: 1974