An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Five: 1976-1977

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Five: 1976-1977

With her stardom firmly established in the United States, Olivia Newton-John branched out in 1976 and 1977, releasing more contemplative material and expanding the reach of her music to Japan.  She also took MCA Records to court and actually won part of her case, permanently changing the terms of recording contracts for the artists that followed.

She emerged victorious in her claim that the label only had her under contract for seven years, even if she didn’t produce the two LPs per year that her contract required.  Newton-John and producer John Farrar were struggling to produce those two albums each year, requiring a heavy reliance on covers to complete the projects. 1976 would be the last year that Newton-John released two studio albums. Both of them were very good, but if the best tracks were compiled into one set, it would’ve easily been her strongest work to date.

Come On Over

Written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb

1976

United States:

Pop #23 | Country #5 | AC #1 (1 week)

Canada:

Pop #22 | Country #3 | AC #5

International:

Australia #55 | Japan #94 | New Zealand #3

Grade: A

Newton-John previewed her seventh proper studio album with its title track, a cover of a Bee Gees song that appeared on their album, Main Course.  It’s one of her strongest vocal performances yet, utilizing her lower register without losing her distinctive sound.  The melancholy record would become her final top ten country hit.

 

Come On Over

1976

United States:

Pop #13 | Country #12

International:

Australia #29 | Canada #30 | Japan #2 | New Zealand #12 | U.K. #49

Track Listing:

Jolene

Pony Ride

Come On Over

It’ll Be Me

Greensleeves

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain

Don’t Throw it All Away

Who Are You Now?

Smile For Me

Small Talk and Pride

Wrap Me in Your Arms

The Long and Winding Road

Come On Over follows the same formula of all Newton-John’s Farrar-helmed projects to date: a handful of new songs surrounded by covers of classics and recent hits.  It’s a more introspective album than any she had done so far, with an emphasis on sad ballads that leaned heavily on metaphor.  Besides the two hit singles, the tracks that work best are “Who Are You Now?,” “Don’t Throw it All Away,” and “It’ll Be Me.”

Jolene

Written by Dolly Parton

1976

International:

Australia #29 | Japan #11

Grade: B+

Dolly Parton got a nice boost in her royalty checks when Newton-John covered “Jolene,” which was a bigger hit in Japan than its peak position might indicate.  Come On Over remains Newton-John’s biggest selling studio album there because of “Jolene.”  Her version doesn’t have the darkness of the Parton original, but it does have some impressive vocal runs that extend the running time quite a bit beyond Parton’s classic take.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Written by John Farrar

1976

United States:

Pop #33 | Country #14 | AC #1 (1 week)

Canada:

Pop #22 | Country #3 | AC #5

International:

Australia #93 | Ireland #17 | New Zealand #34

Grade: B+

The lead off single and title track from Newton-John’s eighth studio album is a game attempt to recreate “Have You Never Been Mellow.”  It comes close, with a solid hook and inspirational chorus. The only thing holding it back is the insistence of shoehorning an unrequited love angle in the verses.

Don’t Stop Believin’

1976

United States:

Pop #33 | Country #7

International:

Australia #88 | Canada #56 | Japan #3

Track Listing:

Don’t Stop Believin’

A Thousand Conversations

Compassionate Man

New-Born Babe

Hey Mr. Dreammaker

Every Face Tells a Story

Sam

Love You Hold the Key

I’ll Bet You a Kangaroo

The Last Time You Loved

The strongest of Newton-John’s pre-Grease studio albums, Don’t Stop Believin’ benefits tremendously from being recorded in Nashville with Music City session musicians. There’s a crispness to the sound that is absent from the rest of her work of this time.  That isn’t to say that the album is particularly more country than anything else she put out during that era.  It’s just all played a lot better.

The depth of the material meant she could pull three singles from a studio album in the U.S. for the first time, with the biggest overall hit (“Sam”) being the last one up to bat.  In Japan, she dug even deeper, putting out the absolutely charming “Compassionate Man” as well as the three stateside singles.  The album was further supported by Newton-John’s first network special, simply titled, A Special Olivia Newton-John.

 

Every Face Tells a Story

Written by Darin Black

1976

United States:

Pop #55 | Country #21 | AC #6

International:

Canada #58 | South Africa #5

Grade: B

A rewrite of a Cliff Richard hit, “Every Face Tells a Story” was the least successful Newton-John single in years, to the point that it was the only U.S. A-side from “Let Me Be There” through “Sam” that was excluded from her Greatest Hits collection the following year.  It broke her string of seven consecutive #1 AC hits and nine consecutive pop top 40 hits. Despite its twang, it even missed the country top twenty.   Perhaps it was too great a deviation from her established sound at the time, as it previewed a more aggressive style of singing that needed the Grease transformation to be accepted by the general public.  It’s a good song that she sang well, even if it could’ve benefited from a stronger hook.

Sam

Written by Don Black, John Farrar, and Hank Marvin

1977

United States:

Pop #20 | Country #40 | AC #1 (2 weeks)

International:

Australia #56 | Canada #26 (AC #1) | Ireland #1 (2 weeks) | Japan #57 | New Zealand #16 | U.K. #6

Grade: A

She bounced back in a big way with her best song of the era. “Sam” returned Newton-John to the top ten of the U.K. chart for the first time since “Banks of the Ohio” in 1971, and benefited in America from a powerful showcase on her network special. It’s a gorgeous song given a nuanced, heartfelt reading that still manages to showcase the sheer breadth of her vocal range toward the end.

 

Making a Good Thing Better

Written by Pete Wingfield

1977

United States:

Pop #87 | AC #20

Grade: C

Newton-John’s most troubled project followed the same pattern as the last two studio albums, with the title track previewing the full set.  Unfortunately, it’s the weakest lead single of her career until this point, with a bizarre choice of arrangement that sounds odd rather than innovative, and too much of a reliance on vocal trills to sell a weak piece of material. In anyone else’s career, this would’ve been the beginning of the end.

Making a Good Thing Better

1977

United States:

Pop #34 | Country #13

International:

Australia #71 | Canada #33 | Japan #3 | U.K. #60

Track Listing:

Making a Good Thing Better

Slow Dancing

Ring of Fire

Coolin’ Down

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina

Sad Songs

You Won’t See Me Cry

So Easy to Begin

I Think I’ll Say Goodbye

Don’t Ask a Friend

If Love is Real

Making a Good Thing Better is the only one of Newton-John’s fifteen LPs from 1973-1985 to not receive a gold certification.  Part of the problem was Newton-John’s acrimonious relationship with MCA at the time, as she was embroiled in a lawsuit over her claims that they were not properly promoting her records.  She could make a fair case that she was selling records in spite of MCA, with her name carrying her records to gold despite her singles not making as big an impact as her first run of hits.

But her name couldn’t save Making a Good Thing Better, which suffers from poorly chosen covers (“Ring of Fire”) and one of the weakest tracks serving as lead single and title track.  As should be expected, there are some undiscovered gems here.  “I Think I’ll Say Goodbye” would’ve sounded refreshing on country radio, and “Don’t Ask a Friend” is in good company among her best ballads of the seventies.  But Newton-John hadn’t reach the point yet where there was a disconnect between artistic quality and commercial success.  The album didn’t do as well because it just wasn’t as good as its predecessors.

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina

Written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber

1977

United States:

#48 (B-Side of “I Honestly Love You” re-release)

International:

Australia #32

Grade: B

Newton-John’s backdoor pitch to star in Evita was sent to radio only in Australia, although it did serve as the B-side to the U.S. re-release of “I Honestly Love You” that promoted her Greatest Hits album.  She sings it beautifully as a song, but doesn’t bring a point of view to the fictionalized version of Eva Peron that Evita is about.  Granted, it was only a concept album then, so definitive stage and film versions had yet to exist.  But in 2018, you can choose between Patti LuPone’s definitive version of Eva as deceiver, Madonna’s deeply sympathetic take, and everything in between, making Newton-John’s recording superfluous.

Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits

1977

United States:

Pop #13 | Country #7

International:

Canada #11 | Japan #5 | Netherlands #24 | U.K. #19

Track Listing:

Take Me Home Country Roads (U.K. and Japan Only)

If Not For You

Changes

Let Me Be There

If You Love Me (Let Me Know)

Have You Never Been Mellow

Jolene (Japan Only)

Please Mr. Please

Something Better to Do

Let it Shine

Banks of the Ohio (U.K. Only)

Come On Over

Don’t Stop Believin’

Sam

Newton-John’s greatest hits album became her first platinum disc in America, despite having no new material, and helped re-establish her at retail as a force to be reckoned with. It’s a strong collection that captures nearly all of her definitive recordings from 1971-1977, and given “Banks of the Ohio” barely scraped the Hot 100, the U.S. version replacing it with “Changes” is hard to criticize.  The additional tracks provided by the U.K. and Japan help the project make more sense in those countries, but even the core 12 track U.S. version can be considered a comprehensive look at her best work of the era.

Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits Volume 2

 

1977

International:

Australia #18 | New Zealand #10

Track Listing:

Changes

Every Face Tells a Story

Let it Shine

Come On Over

Love Song

Have You Never Been Mellow

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina

Please Mr. Please

Something Better to Do

Jolene

The Air That I Breathe

Don’t Stop Believin’

Making a Good Thing Better

Sam

Because Australia and New Zealand had already received First Impressions, Festival chose to release a sequel to her first hits collection, rather than replace it with a more definitive one. Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 has many more hits than First Impressions did, but since the label insisted on fourteen tracks, padding is again necessary.  Bringing back early tracks “Love Song” and “Changes” was a smart choice.   Including her Hollies cover “The Air That I Breathe” was a baffling one.  Still, one could pick up both hits collections in 1977 and have the Olivia Newton-John they needed between the two of them.

Up next: Olivia Newton-John gets a film part that would transform her from fading AC chanteuse to worldwide pop superstar, setting the groundwork for some of the best pop music of the next seven years.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Six: 1978

Previous: Part Four: 1975

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Nice work on this retrospective series, which I continue to appreciate your sharing with us.

    Regarding ONJ’s single “Every Faces Tells A Story,” I am surprised to learn of a U.S.-charted release from 1977-78 that I had been unaware of until now. I remained such a big fan of ONJ during this timeframe, even though her radio airplay was starting to wane, and thought I was fully familiar with all of her U.S.-charted singles. By far, “Come On Over” is my favorite song of hers from this period.

  2. Thanks again for the positive feedback.

    I didn’t know “Every Face Tells a Story” was a single until I got Joel Whitburn’s Pop Singles chart book for either a birthday or Christmas one year. The only sold the top 40 ones in bookstores and it didn’t make it that high, so I assumed there weren’t any singles between “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Sam.”

    The bigger shock for me growing up was the existence of “Making a Good Thing Better.” I stumbled on it in some music store and couldn’t believe there was an ONJ album I had no idea about. Not a song on it I recognized. Seemed like a dream discovery until I listened to it. I never made it past the first side until I eventually got the CD remaster series that was put out in Australia in the late nineties.

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