An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Nine: 1983-1986

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Nine: 1983-1986

Olivia Newton-John entered 1983 at the peak of her recording artist fame.  “Heart Attack” had just become her fourteenth top ten hit, and sales of Greatest Hits Vol. 2 were strong around the world.  “Physical” had been named the #1 single of 1982, as most of its chart run had been during the Billboard year that runs from December through November.  She’d also had a massively successful Physical World Tour, which despite its moniker, had played only in North America.  Given her success in the home video market with Olivia Physical, which had been the year’s top selling music video release, and the technically advanced nature of her stage show, it was a given that the tour would be filmed for home video release.

Olivia in Concert made its debut on HBO in January 1983, having been filmed in Ogden, Utah the previous October.  Amazingly, Newton-John performed the show while recovering from a cold. As released, the show included nearly the entire set list, leaving only “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “If Not For You,” and a video interlude on the cutting room floor.

It’s an aerobic, upbeat show that captures an artist at the height of their career, and to her credit, it covers her entire career.  Despite her new image as a more aggressive pop/rock singer, she still includes a lengthy country set alongside her movie and roller rink hits. She feeds off the energy from the crowd, which is as loud and enthusiastic as you’d expect at a rock show.  They cheer as much for the familiar hits as they do for “Heart Attack,” which had barely been released when the show was filmed, and she earns multiple standing ovations throughout the set.  Her confident performance allows for some self-deprecating humor as well, making light of Xanadu‘s box office showing (“You mean you saw it? You did? One, two, three, four, at least half a dozen people. Fantastic.”)  35 years later, Olivia in Concert remains the best way to discover the depth and breadth of both Newton-John’s work and her personal charm.

 

The show ran for years on HBO, became her top-selling home video release, and earned her another Grammy nomination for Best Music Video, the same evening she enjoyed her final nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, earning a nod for “Heart Attack.”  In early 1983, Newton-John won the American Music Award for Favorite Female Pop/Rock Artist, a record-extending fourth victory and her first since the mid-seventies.

Greatest Hits Vol. 2 would eventually become Newton-John’s only non-soundtrack release to make the top ten on the year-end album chart, despite it never reaching the top ten in any individual week.  She sent the second new track, “Tied Up,” to radio in early 1983.

Tied Up

Written by John Farrar and Lee Ritenour

1983

United States:

Pop #38

International:

Australia #54 | Canada #43

Grade: B+

“Tied Up” finds Newton-John and John Farrar in fine form, but the song was a little too unconventional to neatly fit on radio playlists in 1983. It was a little too long and the melody wasn’t as catchy as those of his earlier hit compositions for Newton-John. It’s an entertaining record, even if it seems like the odd track out now on Greatest Hits Vol. 2, simply because it wasn’t nearly as successful as the other nine hits on the LP.  Stevie Nicks took a stab at the song for an album that was never released, but Newton-John’s version is the definitive one.

Next up for Newton-John was her cinematic reunion with John Travolta in the romantic comedy Two of a Kind. Newton-John took acting lessons for what would be her first purely dramatic role on screen.  Even though she was adamant that she would not sing in the movie, she did commit to recording four new tunes for the soundtrack.  For the first time in years, she’d collaborate with a new producer, then up-and-comer and future legend David Foster.

Twist of Fate

Written by Peter Beckett and Steve Kipner

1983

United States:

Pop #5 | R&B #28

International:

Australia #4 | Belgium #33 | Canada #5 | Japan #73

Netherlands #42 | New Zealand #22 |  South Africa #5

Switzerland #20 | U.K. #57

Grade: A

Newton-John previewed the Two of a Kind soundtrack with two sides of a 45 targeting different audiences.  The A-side was “Twist of Fate,” which became Newton-John’s fifteenth and final top ten single and set a record at the time for the most top five singles ever by a female solo artist.  A truly great pop single, “Twist of Fate” pushes Newton-John vocally against the backdrop of an early eighties synth-fest.  David Foster’s talent as a producer are immediately evident, as the production is busy without ever getting in the way of the song or Newton-John’s performance. He makes an important choice to preserve the natural warmth of Newton-John’s voice, which stands in contrast to the electronic sounds that accompany her.  She’s rarely sounded better on record than she does on “Twist of Fate.”

Its association with the ill-fated Two of a Kind, as well as it being the only big hit released after Greatest Hits Vol. 2, made “Twist of Fate” something of a lost and forgotten hit for many years. But recent compilations have included it and it made a surprise appearance in a climactic moment during the second season finale of Stranger Things:

 

Take a Chance

Written by David Foster, Steve Lukather, and Olivia Newton-John

1983

United States:

AC #3

Grade: B

The B-side of “Twist of Fate” was serviced to Adult Contemporary radio and became a top three hit on that chart. “Take a Chance” was co-written by Newton-John, and the influence of David Foster as a songwriter and producer will be immediately evident to anyone familiar with his work.  Again, his talent of pushing female vocalists to the limits of their range but not beyond them works wonderfully here, and he manages to get a good vocal out of John Travolta, too.  It’s a sappy ballad, but it sounds better than it is because the production is so clean.

Two of a Kind (Soundtrack)

1983

United States:

Pop #29

International:

Australia #33 | Canada #30 | Japan #29

Track Listing:

Twist of Fate (Olivia Newton-John)

Take a Chance (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)

It’s Gonna Be Special (Patti Austin)

Catch 22 (2 Steps Forward, 3 Steps Back) (Steve Kipner)

Shaking You (Olivia Newton-John)

The Perfect One (Boz Scaggs)

Ask the Lonely (Journey)

Prima Donna (Chicago)

Night Music (David Foster)

The platinum-selling Two of a Kind soundtrack was quite a bit more successful than the film that accompanied it.  The main draw was the four new tracks from Newton-John, all produced by David Foster.  Three were released as singles, while the fourth, “Shaking You,” is among her best ballads.

There isn’t a unifying sound or theme for the project, and the presence of David Foster and Steve Kipner as artists feels more like Newton-John doing a favor than them being needed to make the soundtrack stronger.  But it is impressive how the soundtrack managed to reach nearly every major genre of music in some way.  Journey had a big mainstream rock hit with their contribution, and the Patti Austin track went top five on the dance chart and top fifteen on the R&B list.

The soundtrack is also noteworthy for being the last time that Newton-John collaborated with video director Brian Grant, who was responsible for the earlier Physical video album.  The pair earned another Grammy nomination for the Twist of Fate video collection, which featured clips for all four Newton-John tracks from the movie, as well as the promotional clips for “Heart Attack” and “Tied Up.”  Grant directed all but the “Take a Chance” clip, which was helmed by David Mallet, another pioneer in the fledgling format.

 

Livin’ in Desperate Times

Written by Barry Alfonso and Tom Snow

1984

United States:

Pop #31

International:

Australia #81 | Canada #43

Grade: B+

The final single from Two of a Kind was sent to radio in 1984. Despite an ambitious music video, it got little exposure outside the Twist of Fate home video release that was a popular rental at the time.  “Livin’ in Desperate Times” is unlike anything Newton-John recorded before or since, with a cynical view on human nature and a relentless ambition and drive.  Foster’s production is once again clutch.  The backing track matches the aggressiveness of the lyric but doesn’t overpower Newton-John herself, who gives another great performance, humanizing the woman fighting for her own survival in a cutthroat industry: “The glitter of city lights only cover up a lonely night of strangers slamming doors. You’re hungry and ignored.”

Soul Kiss

Written by Mark Goldenberg

1985

United States:

Pop #20 | AC #20 | Dance #28

International:

Australia #20 | Canada #21 | Germany #17

Netherlands #38 | UK #100

Grade: B+

Newton-John took a lengthy break from the music industry following the release of Two of a Kind, working on and off on the Soul Kiss record while getting married and enjoying a lengthy honeymoon.  The process of finding material was painstaking, and “Soul Kiss” was the final track recorded for the project.  Penned by Mark Goldenberg, who had previously written songs for the Pointer Sisters and Linda Ronstadt, “Soul Kiss” stands out sonically from the rest of the album it titled, relying less heavily on electronic sounds and more on live instrumentation. That’s a setting that plays better to the warmth in Newton-John’s voice, and the seductiveness of the lyric is subtle enough for Newton-John to deliver it effectively.

The music landscape had changed dramatically during Newton-John’s brief hiatus, and the accompanying videoclip leaned very heavily on overt sexuality, despite her filming it while she was already visibly pregnant, resulting in awkward poses designed to hide the baby bump.  For a pioneer of the music video format, it was the first time where the photogenic star stumbled in aligning the right image to elevate her own music through the use of video clips, an omen for things to come with this particular project.

Soul Kiss

1985

United States:

Pop #29

International:

Australia #11 | Canada #36 | Germany #54 | Japan #5

Netherlands #36 | New Zealand #43 | Sweden #46 | U.K. #66

Track Listing:

Toughen Up

Soul Kiss

Queen of the Publication

Emotional Tangle

Culture Shock

Moth to a Flame

Overnight Observation

You Were Great, How was I? (with Carl Wilson)

Driving Music

The Right Moment

Electric (Europe/Japan Only)

On paper, Soul Kiss seems to have all of the elements to continue Newton-John’s enormous popular success.  The writers of all of her hits are present, with John Farrar (“Magic,” “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You”) and Steve Kipner (“Physical,” “Twist of Fate,” “Heart Attack”) each contributing to four songs, and Tom Snow (“Deeper Than the Night,” “Make a Move On Me”) co-writing three. Farrar, who had produced almost all of her hits, returned in the producer’s chair as well.  Another ambitious video album was planned, and the material pushed Newton-John further in the upbeat and sexualized direction that Physical had started four years earlier.

But where Newton-John and Farrar had always seemed one step ahead of the market before Soul Kiss, they sounded like they were struggling to keep up this time around.  There are several reasons why Soul Kiss simply doesn’t work. The biggest one is the production.  Farrar makes a choice to fully embrace a cold, synthesized sound that is stripped of the warmth that Newton-John’s work had always been defined by.  Instead of having a contrast between her voice and these sounds, her vocals mimic them, making her sound jarringly harsh on most tracks.

The next issue is with the material. Soul Kiss was originally conceived as a concept album that would be accompanied by video clips for each song. So there are a series of tracks that are clearly written with a cinematic video in mind, with Newton-John playing the role of tabloid writer (“Queen of the Publication,”) taxi driver (“Driving Music,”) and…a woman almost molested in her doctor’s office (“Overnight Observation.”)  Only “Publication,” an incisive and prescient satire of the media, works as a standalone song.

By the time the album was ready for release, Newton-John was well into a pregnancy, which made ambitious video clips impossible. What happened instead was the least cinematic tracks were filmed as videos where Newton-John stands or sits in one place for the duration of the clip. Only the planned first two singles got clips with any sort of plot.  This was a blessing in the end for “Culture Shock,” at least, where Newton-John pleads the case to her beau that the guy she’s cheating on him with should move in with them (“I know it’s unconventional. Radical, but practical. Why can’t the three of us live together?”

Newton-John is clearly out of her comfort zone singing many of these songs, although she does her best to undercut the content with flashes of humor.  But even when she has great material to work with, especially the album closer, “The Right Moment,” the production lets her down. The ultimate “What if?” will always be what would’ve happened if she’d continued her work with David Foster for an entire album, rather than going back to Farrar for Soul Kiss.  The album still went gold, but only one single charted, and with Newton-John having her daughter in early 1986, its quick fade most likely came as something of a relief, as she’d go another couple of years before making a final attempt at a contemporary pop album.

Even when being interviewed about Soul Kiss, she already had an eye on doing music that wasn’t tethered to the current pop landscape:

“Musically, there are a lot of things I want to do for fun. I’ve always wanted to do an oldies album, but a lot of people have done them recently, so I’ll have to wait a little bit. I’d like to do another country album. I’d like to do an album of songs that I’ve written. These are all things that I’m going to do one day. It’s just finding the time.”

Toughen Up

Written by Terri Britten and Graham Lyle

1986

International:

Australia #69

Grade: B

The second and final single from Soul Kiss was originally written for Tina Turner.  The empowering lyric is one of the strongest found on the album, and the reggae sound has stood the test of time in a way that most tracks from the set have not.  A stronger video clip might have made a difference in its chart performance.

The Best of Me

Written by David Foster, Jeremy Lubbock, and Richard Marx

1986

United States:

Pop #80 | AC #6

International:

Canada #32

Grade: B

Newton-John returned to her AC roots with this collaboration.  David Foster had originally recorded the song by himself on an earlier album, but revived it as a duet as he took another crack at pop stardom.  Newton-John sounds great. She’s easily the best part of the record, as Foster is a pretty generic singer.  He just doesn’t use her enough on the track.  If you’re going to pair yourself with one of the best singers out there, let her take the lead.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Ten: 1987-1992

Previous: Part Eight: 1981-1982

 

3 Comments

  1. Great recap and comments. I wonder if the Soul Kiss songs could be improved with a stripped down acoustic version. Only in my head, I suppose.

  2. It’s not exactly a stripped down version, but she performed the song for the first and last times on a handful of dates in Chile and Japan back in 2010:

    The crowd losing it when she does the breath after the bridge is great. The song sounds better with live instrumentation.

  3. Another excellent analysis of a pivotal point in ONJ’s career. This was a key era for me. I really only became a fan in early ’83. I had rented Grease umpteen times from the video store and seen the Physical TV special in passing so I knew she was good, but I was utterly won over by Live in Concert (where most of the country segment was edited out for UK broadcast). I still think that performance stands up today.

    In the days before the internet, I had no idea when her next album was going to land, although I read that one was imminent in one of my mum’s magazines. I listened religiously to the Top 40 chart on the radio and watched Top of the Pops avidly in the vain hope that she would suddenly appear with new music.

    Where she *did* suddenly appear for me was on the first day of a week-long holiday, when I walked into a record shop and saw the Soul Kiss LP on the shelf. It did take me a moment to recognise her…

    No holiday has ever passed more slowly – I couldn’t wait till it was over, so I could go home and play the record. I have to say, on first playing it, I almost wished I could go back to the holiday. You’re quite right – the coldness of the production is really jarring. I’ve grown to like it more over the years, but I too have played the “what if?” game. A whole album with Foster could have been amazing, and I also wonder what might have happened if her team had stuck with the original plan (according to old fan newsletters) of calling the album Queen Of The Publication and releasing Toughen Up as the first single. I always thought it was stronger than Soul Kiss, and far more radio-friendly, and a Billboard articles confirms that both ONJ and Farrar wanted it to be the first release from the album.

    There are quite a few “what ifs” in this period, actually. In late 1984 she recorded a guide vocal on a pleasant David Foster song – ‘Finding Each Other’ – which was then recorded by Naoko Kawai (duetting with Steve Lukather) on her album 9 1/2. I’ve heard a snippet of ONJ’s demo version and it’s every bit as good as you might imagine. She also passed on singing ‘What About Me’ with Kenny Rogers, which eventually became a No.1 A/C hit in the US (and Top 20 Billboard hit), apparently because she didn’t want it to compete with her duet with Barry Gibb, ‘Face To Face’, which didn’t get a single release in the end. Sigh…

    By the way, she did work with Brian Grant again on her 1988 TV special, Olivia Down Under, and of course the video for The Rumour that same year. But that was a far cry from the days of Olivia Physical…

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