An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Six: 1978

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Six: 1978

Olivia Newton-John entered 1978 at a career crossroads.  Her recent Greatest Hits album had gone platinum, with a reissue of her #1 hit, “I Honestly Love You,” making it to #48 on the pop charts. But both radio and retail had a cool reaction to Making a Good Thing Better, her first MCA studio album to fall short of gold status.  True to form, Newton-John revisited one of her biggest moments in recent years, following up her hit network television special with another one.

It was her first significant career event in 1978, and it didn’t air until May.  Olivia was another big ratings hit, with a stronger focus on contemporary music than her previous special.  For support, she had two hugely successful artists.  Earning second billing was Andy Gibb, the little brother of the Bee Gees, who performed his #1 hit from 1977, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” as well as his newest and eventually biggest single, “Shadow Dancing.”

As if to demonstrate just how regionally fragmented the global music scene was in 1978, lowest on the bill was the biggest band in the world.  ABBA made their prime time network debut in the United States on the Olivia special, performing three worldwide hits (“Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” “Take a Chance On Me”) as well as “Thank You For the Music,” which all three acts performed together as the reprise of their big finale.

But what about Newton-John?  Without any recent hits to perform, she dug into her catalog and performed “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and “Please Mr. Please,” garnering huge applause but coming off as something of a nostalgia act.  Perhaps the most popular of the three with American audiences, but the least relevant to the current musical scene.

However, in the middle of their remarkable twenty minute group performance, she performed a brand new song that had yet to be released. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” seems like the planned showstopper when you watch the clip today, but it was unknown at the time, one of two new songs that her songwriter and producer John Farrar was contractually obligated to provide for Grease.

The previous year, Newton-John had given in to tremendous pressure from producer Allan Carr to star in the film version of what was then the longest-running musical on Broadway.  Newton-John had seen the show, but had serious doubts about her ability to convincingly play a teenager.  She also remembered the disaster that was Toomorrow and was worried about derailing her music career with a detour into film. She requested a screen test with John Travolta, who made her comfortable enough to attempt the role.

Carr had wanted Newton-John specifically because she was a great singer and her personality seemed a perfect fit for Sandy, the girl next door who is a a quiet, demure beauty throughout almost all of the film.  But the challenge came with the big shift at the end, where she transforms into a sexually assertive vamp.  Again, Newton-John was plagued with self-doubt about whether she could pull off the transformation, but got an idea of how well it had gone the first time she stepped on to the set in what she calls her “Sandy 2” getup:

“I got into that trailer with those guys and they put me into that outfit and the hair and I walked out and the whole crew turned around.

“The look on their faces! I remember thinking: ‘Oh my – I’ve been doing this all wrong’. It was very freeing.

“Not just for Sandy, but for me as well. Because I was always the girl next door.”

Grease was released in June 1978 and became an international phenomenon, eventually becoming the top-grossing movie of 1978 and the biggest movie musical of all time. It did more that just rejuvenate Newton-John’s career.  It redirected it, turning her into one of the biggest pop stars in the world as she embraced a more aggressive sound and vocal style.  The world got their first taste of this new Olivia when “You’re the One That I Want” was released as a single in advance of the film.

You’re the One That I Want (with John Travolta)

Written by John Farrar

1978

United States:

Pop #1 (1 week) | AC #23

International:

Australia #1 (9 weeks) | Canada #2 | Germany #1 (6 weeks) | Ireland #1 (9 weeks) | Japan #25

Netherlands #1 (8 weeks) | New Zealand #1 (4 weeks) | Norway #1 (18 weeks) | South Africa #2

Spain #1 (8 weeks) | Sweden #1 (12 weeks) | Switzerland #1 (7 weeks) I U.K. #1 (9 weeks)

Grade: A

John Farrar wrote “You’re the One That I Want” very quickly, but the end result was anything but a throwaway.  The most successful duet single in music history and Newton-John’s biggest international hit, “You’re the One That I Want” is also the most important piece of music in the film version of Grease.  On paper, the transformation that Newton-John makes from goody goody to leather-clad vixen could be seen as Sandy compromising and cheapening herself for the sake of the man that she’s interested in. In the stage musical, that is exactly what occurs.

But the addition of “You’re the One That I Want” to that pivotal scene transforms it to statement of independence and personal choice.  In the lyric, it is Sandy with all of the sexual power, setting the terms and demands, and Danny following her lead.  In the second verse, he echoes her directive from the first (“I better shape up ’cause you need a man-“, and she cuts him off to sing, “I need a man who can keep me satisfied.”  They repeat this structure again, when he sings, “I better shape up, if I’m gonna prove-” and she again cuts him off: “You better prove that my faith is justified.”

As well constructed as the song is as its own musical piece and as the pivotal musical sequence of the film, it would only work if Newton-John was able to transform herself vocally.  She uses the record to not only liberate her character, but her own musical identity.  It’s a seductive, fully realized vocal performance completely unlike anything she’d put on record until that point.  Because it was more in harmony with her own personality, she was able to leave her own girl next door image behind, and not just her character’s.  “You’re the One That I Want” is a great pop disc in its own right, but it’s significance in terms of Newton-John’s career cannot be overstated.  It’s the beginning of the best run of mainstream music that she ever recorded.

 

Grease (Soundtrack)

 

1978

United States:

Pop #1 (12 weeks)

International:

Australia #1 (11 weeks) | Austria #1 (2 months) | Canada #1 (7 weeks) | Germany #1 (5 weeks) | Japan #1 (3 weeks)

Netherlands #1 (14 weeks) | New Zealand #1 (16 weeks) | Norway #1 (17 weeks) | Spain #1 (19 weeks)

Sweden #1 (16 weeks) | Switzerland #1 (14 weeks) | U.K. #1 (13 weeks)

Track Listing:

LP1:

Grease (Frankie Valli)

Summer Nights (John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and Cast)

Hopelessly Devoted to You (Olivia Newton-John)

You’re the One That I Want (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)

Sandy (John Travolta)

Beauty School Drop-Out (Frankie Avalon)

Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Stockard Channing)

Greased Lightnin’ (John Travolta)

It’s Raining On Prom Night (Cindy Bullens)

Alone at the Drive-In Move (Instrumental)

Blue Moon (Sha-Na-Na)

LP 2:

Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay (Sha-Na-Na)

Those Magic Changes (Sha-Na-Na)

Hound Dog (Sha-Na-Na)

Born to Hand-Jive (Sha-Na-Na)

Tears On My Pillow (Sha-Na-Na)

Mooning (Louis St. Louis and Cindy Bullens)

Freddy, My Love (Cindy Bullens)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Queen (Louis St. Louis)

There are Worse Things I Could Do (Stockard Channing)

Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise) (Olivia Newton-John)

We Go Together (John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and Cast)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing (Instrumental)

Grease (Reprise) (Frankie Valli)

Grease is interesting in that it was a hugely successful stage musical, but the film version’s biggest and best moments were mostly written for the film.  The soundtrack produced four major hits, three of them original: the two John Farrar hits penned for Newton-John, and the Bee Gees-written Frankie Valli title song.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t great tracks on the soundtrack from the stage musical.  “Summer Nights” became the final big hit from the soundtrack, John Travolta had a minor hit with “Greased Lightnin’,” and Stockard Channing did a killer job on both “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and “There are Worse Things I Could Do.”

There were more great moments than could apparently fit on one LP, which ends up the soundtrack’s greatest weakness, as there wasn’t enough strong material to fill up a second one.  So we have Sha-Na-Na, Cindy Bullens, and Louis St. Louis doing pedestrian covers of fifties hits and leftovers from the stage version, two instrumental tracks, and a bewildering reprise of “Grease” to close out the proceedings.  If it had come out in the CD era, Grease could’ve had a tighter track listing, preferably one that was sequentially ordered to line up with the events of the film.

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Written by John Farrar

1978

United States:

Pop #3 | Country #20 | AC #7

Canada:

Pop #1 (2 weeks) | Country #14 | AC #2

International:

Australia #2 | Belgium #1 (1 week) |  Ireland #1 (1 week)

Netherlands #1 (4 weeks) | New Zealand #6 | U.K. #2

Grade: A

John Farrar completed “You’re the One That I Want” quickly, but he labored intensely over “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” barely finishing it in time for its inclusion in the film.  Newton-John returned to the set to film its performance, after all of the other actors had completed their work, adding to the lonely isolation of her film performance.

More so than any of the new songs written for Grease, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” feels like something from the era it is intended to portray, sounding like a lost classic from Brenda Lee or Lesley Gore.  Notice that it also has a bit of twang? It also serves as a nod to Newton-John’s country fan base, and the gorgeous record became her highest-charting country single in two years and her last to hit the top twenty.  “I Honestly Love You” was the #1 single, but thanks to its visibility in the film, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is still her most popular ballad.

Summer Nights (with John Travolta and Cast)

Written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs

1978

United States:

Pop #3 | Country #20 | AC #7

Canada:

Pop #3 | AC #3

International:

Austria #1 (1 month) | Australia #6 | Germany #4 |  Ireland #1 (3 weeks) | Japan #46

Netherlands #1 (1 week) | New Zealand #3 | Norway #2 | South Africa #10

Spain #18 | Sweden #3 | Switzerland #7 | U.K. #1 (7 weeks)

Grade: B+

Some of the details might be dated, but there’s something timeless about “Summer Nights,” with its conflicting memories of a romance. Who knows how many gender studies essays have been written about how the guy brags to his friends about non-existent sexual conquests, while the girl romanticizes an apparently innocent summer fling?  It doesn’t have the vitality of the new material written for the film, but “Summer Nights” is still very entertaining.

A Little More Love

Written by John Farrar

1978

United States:

Pop #3 | Country #94 | AC #4

Canada:

Pop #2 | AC #5

International:

Australia #9 | Belgium #5 |  Germany #34 | Ireland #4 | Netherlands #4

New Zealand #7 | Norway #6 | Sweden #12 | U.K. #4

Grade: A

Nothing subtle about the imagery surrounding “A Little More Love” and its parent album, Totally Hot.  This is a new Olivia Newton-John, and in case you forgot, she’s rocking the black leather you last saw at the end of Grease.

But the image change wouldn’t have mattered if Newton-John and John Farrar hadn’t provided an incredible song to back it up.  Taking on the role of the other woman, “A Little More Love” is a surprisingly gritty record, with Newton-John waiting “alone in the heat” for the man that has her trapped “in the spell of your eyes, in the warmth of your arms, in the web of your lies.” Longtime fans who remembered the sweet voice that sang “Have You Never Been Mellow” must have nodded knowingly when she wondered aloud, “Where did my innocence go?”

Innocence isn’t all that interesting, but the character Newton-John created with her challenging, conflicted vocal performance on “A Little More Love” is nothing if not compelling. Farrar’s production dips a toe or two into the disco sound of the day, but is grounded by a relentless bass track that reinforces the seediness of the song’s lyric.  Anyone making the case that this is the best 3 1/2 minutes that Newton-John and Farrar created together wouldn’t get a protest from me.

Totally Hot

1978

United States:

Pop #7 | Country #4

International:

Australia #7 | Canada #5 | Japan #9 | Netherlands #5

New Zealand #18 | Norway #4 | Sweden #9 | U.K. #30

Newton-John closed out the best year of her career with her strongest studio album to date. Totally Hot is a confident, fully adult record that completes the transition from AC chanteuse to pop siren signaled by Grease.  She covers Eric Carmen (“Boats Against the Current”) and the Spencer Davis Group (“Gimme Some Lovin'”) without breaking a sweat, and contributes two solid compositions of her own: the contemplative “Borrowed Time” and the dance-flavored “Talk to Me,” which would’ve been a better third A-side than the title track was.

The two big hits, “A Little More Love” and “Deeper Than the Night,” are among her career bests, and the quite long opener, “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” pushes her further vocally than anything she’d done to that point.  There’s even a great country song in “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round,” which would be her final country hit the following year.  For all of her success in the seventies, one could’ve picked up her 1977 Greatest Hits album and had all of the essential Olivia Newton-John up until that point.  With Totally Hot, she became an albums artist for the first time, and moving forward, you’d need the studio sets and the soundtracks if you wanted a complete collection of her strongest work.

Newton-John took a victory lap across Europe, Asia, and Australia to close out the year, with her successful Totally Hot World Tour showcasing both her new sound and her classic hits.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Seven: 1979-1980

Previous: Part Five: 1976-1977

3 Comments

  1. The play GREASE was immensely popular while I was in college and I saw several theatre productions of it. The movie was pure saccharine and while the additional songs served as effective star vehicles for ON-J and Travolta, they massacred the essence of the play.

    I enjoyed the songs but not the movie.

  2. I’m a life-long ONJ fan, but I have always been and will always remain Team Xanadu. I think the John Farrar songs for both movies are great, though.

    I appreciate Grease for it being that vehicle for ONJ. It gave her the confidence to make more aggressive and ultimately more interesting and compelling music. The confidence it gave John Farrar is a big part of that, too. He took more chances as a writer and producer post-Grease, and she was the only beneficiary of that. He did put out a solo album of his own in 1980 and tried to replicate the magic with Stevie Nicks and Cher, but his writing is just uniquely suited for ONJ’s voice.

    I’d love to do a feature someday on those perfect singer-songwriter combinations, like Dean Dillon and George Strait, or Matraca Berg and Trisha Yearwood. I’d probably need your help to research it, Paul!

  3. I’d start with Dallas Frazier and Connie Smith – she recorded (I think) 69 of his songs !

    I retire in a few months – it sounds like an interesting project

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