Part Seven: 1979-1980
Coming off a successful world tour and her biggest studio album in years, Olivia Newton-John entered 1979 at a new height of stardom. Over the course of two years, she would participate in a high profile charity event, collaborate with fellow hitmaker Andy Gibb, record a third network special, and return to Hollywood for her second major film role, the cult classic, Xanadu.
While she continued to release singles from Totally Hot in 1979, the biggest career event for Newton-John that year was the Music for UNICEF Concert: A Gift of Song. The organization had received a big boost from George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh earlier in the decade. The 1979 event coincided with the International Year of the Child, and was used to raise money to combat child hunger around the world.
Featuring such big stars as ABBA, Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, and Donna Summer, Newton-John performed twice on the telecast, doing a solo number called “The Key” and a duet with Andy Gibb, “Rest Your Love On Me.” The latter track received limited release as a single in some parts of the world, but other versions of it found success on the U.S. country charts. The Bee Gees took it to #39 in 1978, and Conway Twitty covered it in 1980, earning his 25th #1 country single with it.
Although both Newton-John tracks featured on the accompanying album released in support of the concert, neither track were serviced to radio in the United States or Newton-John’s other major markets. However, MCA continued to support Totally Hot, which became her first studio album in America to be certified platinum.
Deeper Than the Night
Written by Tom Snow and Johnny Vastano
Pop #11 | Country #87 | AC #4
Pop #18 | AC #7
Australia #74 | U.K. #64
After the international success of “A Little More Love,” the disco-flavored “Deeper Than the Night” was the obvious follow-up. Released during a time when dance music was in its first golden age, Newton-John made her debut in the genre seem effortless. While many records of that time sound a bit dated today, “Deeper Than the Night” still sounds fresh, mostly because the disco elements are used to enhance the record but do not dominate its sound. The focus remains on the lyric and her strong vocal performance throughout the track.
“Deeper Than the Night” wasn’t quite as successful as the four big pop hits that preceded it, but it’s a pop gem worthy of rediscovery.
Written by John Farrar
Belgium #16 | Canada #92 | Netherlands #46
Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round
Written by Adam Mitchell
Pop #82 | Country #29 | AC #25
A double-sided hit that catered to her oldest and newest audiences. “Totally Hot” is a bit on the nose in its declarations of a new Olivia Newton-John, sounding more like a deliberate showcase of her new sound than a natural one. It’s still got a great groove to it, and she fully commits to the attitude that the lyric demands.
However, the paean to her country audience is the more successful side. “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round” is the antithesis of “Please Mr. Please.” The heartbroken girl of that 1975 classic is trying to avoid the song that reminds her of her lost love, but the girl in “Dancin'” wants to keep dancing so she doesn’t have to think of the past at all. Her biggest fear is that the music will stop and in turn, her thoughts and memories will catch up with her. So keep the music playing, and any partner will do.
1980 brought with it a new studio album from Andy Gibb, which featured two collaborations with Olivia Newton-John: the previously released “Rest Your Love On Me,” and the second single from the set, “I Can’t Help It.”
I Can’t Help It (with Andy Gibb)
Written by Barry Gibb
Pop #12 | AC #8
Pop #32 | AC #3
Australia #62 | Spain #23
The radio dial was saturated with the Barry Gibb sound for nearly a decade, and “I Can’t Help It” is one of the less noteworthy compositions of his that became a hit. It features the signature groove and complex harmonies that the Bee Gees had spun into gold, and it’s a credit to Newton-John’s talent as a vocalist that she could play the role of the Gibbs’ long lost sister, pulling off those notes without any noticeable difficulty. Both Newton-John and Andy Gibb do their best to elevate the material, but the song itself is pedestrian, which might be why the best moment of the track is their vocal ad-libbing toward the end of it.
The pair performed the song on Newton-John’s third network special, the high rated Hollywood Nights, which aired directly before that year’s Oscar ceremony:
Newton-John had wisely turned down a role in Allan Carr’s follow up to Grease, the pseudo-biopic of the Village People, Can’t Stop the Music. She signed on to Xanadu after reading a brief treatment of it, and took roller skating and tap dancing lessons to prepare for her role as Kira, the daughter of Zeus who comes down to earth to inspire the opening of a big band/New Wave fusion roller disco.
The movie went through repeated script changes throughout its production, making an already difficult plot line even harder to follow along with in the film. Xanadu definitely struggles because of its disjointed screenplay, but the choreography from Kenny Ortega was innovative and the music was strong enough to become the first soundtrack to produce five top twenty pop hits and later its own successful Broadway musical. That Tony-nominated hit preserved the entire soundtrack, but only five lines of dialogue from the original film.
Newton-John told Billboard in 1981: “I certainly wouldn’t die of overexposure in Xanadu. Not enough people saw it. I don’t regret it or anything I’ve done. I learned a lot and the music was successful. I would’ve been upset if the music flopped.”
Over the years, Xanadu developed into a cult hit in its own right, making more than twice its box office revenue in home video sales. In the nineties, Xanadu made a surprise appearance in the hit NBC series, Friends:
In the United States, MCA issued two singles, one from each side: “Magic” by Olivia Newton-John, and “I’m Alive” by ELO. Both singles sold a million copies, and Newton-John’s went to #1. In the rest of the world, the collaboration between ONJ and ELO on the title track was issued. It went to #1 in many countries, giving Olivia Newton-John the unique distinction of topping the charts around the world with two different singles at the same time.
Written by John Farrar
Pop #1 (4 weeks) | AC #1 (5 weeks)
Pop #1 (2 weeks) | AC #1 (1 week)
Australia #4 | Austria #20 | Germany #36 | Japan #43
Netherlands #13 | New Zealand #4 | South Africa #5 | U.K. #32
As noted above, the United States got their first taste of Xanadu with “Magic,” a stunning pop record that fully realized the ethereal sound that Newton-John and songwriter-producer John Farrar were looking to achieve. Again, their collaboration was successful because it incorporated new musical elements without turning over the entire record to those new sounds. They exist to be in service of Newton-John’s vocal and Farrar’s lyric. “Magic” is pop reinvention at its best, refreshing the sound of an established artist without sacrificing the elements that made her a success in the first place. So you get a record that sounds both fresh and instantly familiar, and both of its time and timeless.
Xanadu (with Electric Light Orchestra)
Written by Jeff Lynne
Pop #8 | AC #2
Pop #9 | AC #2
Australia #2 | Austria #1 (4 weeks) | Germany #1 (2 weeks) | Ireland #1 (6 weeks)
Japan #22 | Netherlands #1 (5 weeks) | New Zealand #8 | Norway #1 (6 weeks)
South Africa #20 | Spain #1 (6 weeks) | Sweden #3
Switzerland #2 | U.K. #1 (2 weeks)
Newton-John scored her biggest international hit outside of Grease with her collaboration with Electric Light Orchestra on “Xanadu.” The lyrics are nonsensical, but then again, Xanadu was more of a vague ideal than a concrete ideal even in its original form as 19th century poem. What this record achieves is bringing two every different artists together and combining the best of their talents. Jeff Lynne’s production is dazzling and otherworldly, and with Newton-John at the mic, he has a vocalist that can not only match but elevate his musical ambitions. Anyone who ever questioned Newton-John’s range and technical ability before “Xanadu” could only look like a fool after it. As the record fades on her high notes, so does the relevance of all those early critics who compared her to a loaf of white bread.
Australia #1 (6 weeks) | Austria #1 (2 weeks) | Canada #2 | Germany #1 (1 week)
Japan #6 | Netherlands #1 (3 weeks) | New Zealand #8 | Norway #1 (9 weeks)
Spain #1 (2 weeks) | Sweden #1 (3 weeks) | Switzerland #1 (2 weeks) | U.K. #2
Magic (Olivia Newton-John)
Suddenly (Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard)
Dancin’ (Olivia Newton-John with the Tubes)
Suspended in Time (Olivia Newton-John)
Whenever You’re Away From Me (Olivia Newton-John with Gene Kelly)
I’m Alive (Electric Light Orchestra)
The Fall (Electric Light Orchestra)
Don’t Walk Away (Electric Light Orchestra)
All Over the World (Electric Light Orchestra)
Xanadu (Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia Newton-John)
Why was Xanadu successfully resurrected as a Broadway musical, despite being widely panned as a film? Because the soundtrack provided the proof of concept that the film failed to deliver upon. Featuring two sides of great songs, with eight of the ten being released as singles somewhere in the world, the talents of both artists and their associated songwriters were showcased at a creative peak.
The film’s boldest idea – that a connection could be made between the disco and New Wave sounds of today and the big band sounds of yesterday – inspires some of the disc’s finest moments. Farrar and Newton-John lovingly recreate the golden age of musicals with “Whenever You’re Away From Me,” a charming duet with her Xanadu co-star Gene Kelly. Many other tracks, particularly the ELO side of the soundtrack, showcase the innovation of the burgeoning electronic sounds of the time.
Having retro sounds and current ones sound great next to each other is impressive, but the jaw-dropping accomplishment is when they are fused together. “Dancin’,” Newton-John’s collaboration with the pioneering San Francisco band the Tubes, fuses both sounds together. At first, “Dancin'” alternates between Newton-John singing an Andrews Sisters type number with the Tubes doing full glam rock, but the final minutes of the track bring both performances together seamlessly. It’s a travesty that the film failed to fully capitalize on what was achieved in the studio here, but it doesn’t undermine the sheer breadth of what was accomplished musically.
Elsewhere, the album features two of Newton-John’s biggest hits (“Magic,” “Xanadu”) as well as two of ELO’s (“I’m Alive, “All Over the World”), as well as “Suspended in Time,” one of her most heart-wrenching ballads. The only thing keeping the album from a full five stars it what it’s missing: the three great tracks from the film that were relegated to B-sides: Newton-John’s “Fool Country” and “You Made Me Love You,” and ELO’s “Drum Dreams.”
Suddenly (with Cliff Richard)
Written by John Farrar
Pop #20 | AC #4
Pop #60 | AC #14
Australia #37 | Ireland #6 | New Zealand #30 | U.K. #15
In a sign of professional reciprocity, as well as acknowledgment of a great talent, Newton-John used her newfound status to showcase Cliff Richard, who was instrumental in her early success in the United Kingdom. They collaborate beautifully on “Suddenly,” a solid love ballad that is only guilty of sounding a bit ordinary when put up against the boundary-pushing and heightened creativity of the rest of the Xanadu soundtrack. It’s still a great record, but sounds like just a very good one coming after “Magic” and “Xanadu.”
Suspended in Time
Written by John Farrar
Japan: Did Not Chart
A song so sad that Newton-John herself was reluctant to perform it when she resumed touring, only Japan was lucky enough to have “Suspended in Time” issued as a single, replacing “Suddenly” as that country’s third ONJ release from the Xanadu soundtrack. Newton-John sounds heartbroken but not fragile, capturing a deep longing and feeling of hopelessness while also being self-aware enough to mourn her own responsibility for things getting so dire. Check it out now and find out what longtime Newton-John fans have known for decades. Her best ballad of all time isn’t “I Honestly Love You,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You, ” or “Sam.” It’s “Suspended in Time.”
Next: Part Eight: 1981-1982
Previous: Part Six: 1978