An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Ten: 1987-1992

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Ten: 1987-1992

Olivia Newton-John followed Soul Kiss with a long hiatus from the music industry, with her guest appearance on a David Foster single being her only recording released during the gap between solo albums.  Newton-John remained busy, however, giving birth to her daughter, Chloe and expanding her Koala Blue line of Australian-themed gift shops.  She resurfaced just in time for the bicentenary celebrations in Australia, which inspired her first solo single in nearly three years.

It’s Always Australia For Me

Written by John Caper and Olivia Newton-John

1988

Did Not Chart

Grade: B

Olivia’s sweet autobiographical love letter to her adopted homeland has a lot more in common with her 1989 album than it does with her 1988 one.  It’s pure and personal sentiment that probably resonates better with those from Australia.  But despite her lengthy absence from the recording studio, her vocals are stronger than ever.

The Rumour

Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

1988

United States:

Pop #62 | AC #33 | Dance #17

International:

Australia #35 | Canada #50 | Germany #36 | U.K. #85

Grade: A

Newton-John’s last truly great pop single, “The Rumour” should’ve been a comeback hit.  Written and produced by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, it previews how the album of the same name would focus on more adult themes.  Elton provides some great harmonies, and the backing track sounds more than a little like his own hit from that year, “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.”  But Olivia’s the star of the show here, and she balances frustration with weary resignation as gossip destroys a romance: “We’re no old song. We never stood the test of time. The lies inside the rumour left us far behind.”

Also worthy of note: the non-LP B-side, “Winter Angel,” which is a melancholy sendoff to a child being given up for adoption.  Newton-John co-wrote that one with Amy Sky. Remember that name.

 

The Rumour

1988

United States:

Pop #67

International:

Australia #30 | Canada #97 | Japan #31 | Netherlands #96

Track Listing

The Rumour

Love and Let Live

Can’t We Talk it Over in Bed

Let’s Talk About Tomorrow

It’s Not Heaven

It’s Always Australia For Me (Australia/New Zealand Only)

Get Out

Big and Strong

Car Games

Walk Through Fire

Tutta La Vita

Newton-John’s final pop album remains one of her best studio sets.  The Rumour was very much in step with the pop sounds of the day, but it was light years ahead of what pop artists were doing in terms of content.  Recorded as she approached her fortieth birthday as a new mom and relatively new wife, Newton-John took stock of the world she was living in, and made some powerful statements about it.

“Love and Let Live,” which was originally slated to be the first single and title track, tackled the AIDS epidemic at a time where it was still taboo to even talk about it.  “Let’s Talk About Tomorrow” is the best of her environmental anthems, mostly because it allows space for her righteous anger.  “It’s Not Heaven” deals with the challenges of single motherhood, and “Walk Through Fire” is a stunning ballad that dismisses romantic ideals in favor of the harsh truths of unconditional love.

And listening to the album again, thirty years after its release, her stunning indictments of toxic masculinity and its destructive nature at home (“Get Out”) and in the world at large (“Big and Strong”) are more timely than ever.  More so than any album in her catalog, this one is long overdue for a renaissance.

Newton-John returned to Australia to film Olivia Down Under, an HBO special that featured video clips for nearly every song on The Rumour, as well as a tour of the nation-continent. It’s entertaining and highly recommended:

 

Can’t We Talk it Over in Bed

Written by Irwin Levine and Sandy Linzer

1988

Did Not Chart

Grade: B-

This is one of those pop ballads that is faceless enough for any artist to sing.  But it’s an interesting test case for whether or not radio was ever going to play Newton-John, who had aged out of pop radio by the time of this release.  Newton-John’s version didn’t chart, but a much lesser rendition by blue-eyed soul singer Grayson Hugh was a top twenty hit a few months later.

When The Rumour failed to meet commercial expectations, Newton-John liberated herself from the constraints of the pop music arms race, something she’d been indicating she wanted to do for years.  Moving from MCA to Geffen, she released the first of many passion projects: an orchestral lullaby album inspired by her daughter.  Geffen was new to promoting Olivia, and didn’t have the worldwide rights to her catalog. So we have the strange situation of Warm and Tender having three different lead singles.

 

Reach Out For Me

Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

1989

United States:

AC #32

Grade: B+

The most successful of the three was the U.S. lead release, a beautiful cover of the Dionne Warwick standard, “Reach Out For Me.”  Warwick was a huge influence on Newton-John in her formative years, and her reverence shows in this respectful interpretation.  More so than any other track on Warm and Tender that took the same approach, “Reach Out For Me” works as a love song reimagined as a commitment of love from a parent to a child.

Warm and Tender

Written by John Farrar and Olivia Newton-John

1989

Did Not Chart

Grade: B

The entire project is understandably sentimental, but the Japanese lead single is the most personal one, as it’s co-written by Newton-John herself and name checks daughter Chloe in the lyrics.  That specificity limits the universality of “Warm and Tender,” but she delivers a gorgeous vocal that makes for a pleasant listening experience just the same.

When You Wish Upon a Star

Written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington

1989

Did Not Chart

Grade: B

The European lead single was this Disney cover. Again, Newton-John sings it beautifully, and it already fits perfectly into a lullaby album as is.

Warm and Tender

1989

United States:

Pop #124

International:

Japan #43

Track Listing:

Jenny Rebecca

Rocking

The Way You Look Tonight

Lullaby My Lovely

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Sleep My Princess

The Flower That Shattered the Stone

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Warm and Tender

Rock-a-Bye Baby

Over the Rainbow

The Twelfth of Never

All the Pretty Little Horses

When You Wish Upon a Star

Brahm’s Lullaby (Intro)

Reach Out For Me

Brahm’s Lullaby (Reprise)

Warm and Tender remains Newton-John’s last studio length project produced by John Farrar, and it again reinforces how well he understood the strengths and nuances of her vocal talents.  The orchestral arrangements create the warmth that always works better for Newton-John’s voice, and the contrast between this and their previous project together (Soul Kiss) couldn’t be greater.  This album is the finest showcase of her vocal talent in her entire catalog.

It’s a shame she didn’t release a full standards album around this time, as enough years had elapsed between the Linda Ronstadt trilogy for her to give it a go on her own.  Much like Ronstadt’s own take on a “make contemporary songs into lullabies” from a few years later, the most interesting moments of Warm and Tender are the songs not originally written as lullabies. Maybe that’s just because it’s such a treat to hear one of the great voices of her generation tackle standards from the generations that came before her.  Remove them from the context of a lullaby album, and “Reach Out For Me,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “The Way You Look Tonight” still sound amazing.

The Grease Megamix (with John Travolta and Cast)

Written by Warren Casey, John Farrar, and Jim Jacobs

1990

United States:

Radio Songs #25

International:

Australia #1 (5 weeks) | Austria #26 | Belgium #8

Canada #49 | France #14 | Germany #42 | Ireland #4

New Zealand #7 | Netherlands #3 | Norway #5

Spain #1 (12 weeks) | Sweden #35 | U.K. #3

Grade: B

It’s “You’re the One That I Want,” “Greased Lightnin’,” and “Summer Nights” spliced together.  Gains points for not putting a horrific drum beat behind it.  Loses points for putting the songs in non-sequential order.  It was never released commercially in the United States, but became a big airplay hit in 1996 after being included on a Pure Disco compilation CD.

Grease: The Dream Mix (with John Travolta and Frankie Valli)

Written by John Farrar, Barry Gibb, Louis St. Louis, and Scott Simon

1991

International:

Belgium #28 | Netherlands #11 | U.K. #47

Grade: D

It’s “Grease,” “Sandy,” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” spliced together.  Loses points for being completely unnecessary.  Loses more points for putting a horrific drum beat behind it. Loses even more points for the songs being in the wrong order.  Loses still more points for not including “There Were Worse Things I Could Do.”  This one’s a mess.

I Need Love

Written by Steve Kipner and John Lewis Parker

1992

United States:

Pop #96 | Dance #44

Canada:

AC #29

International:

Australia #89 | U.K. #75

Grade: B+

Newton-John previewed her Back to Basics hits collection with the first of four new tracks, this one produced by disco legend Giorgio Moroder.  If the dance beat sounds a little dated today, her performance doesn’t.  She sounds utterly compelling as an older woman who has lost interest in one night stands (“I know I could take you home tonight, but I don’t want to wake up with you wishing I was alone”), especially against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic (“Times are different than before. Good things are worth waiting for.”)  Again, radio had no interest in playing a woman now over forty, but Newton-John did her best to promote this single anyway, performing it everywhere from the World Music Awards to the Arsenio Hall Show.

Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971-1992

1992

United States:

Pop #121

International:

Australia #15 | New Zealand #7 | U.K. #12

Track Listing

US:

United States  | EJ: Europe and Japan # | AN: Australia and New Zealand

Deeper Than a River (US, EJ, AN)

Not Gonna Be the One (US, EJ, AN)

I Want to Be Wanted (US, EJ, AN)

I Need Love (US, EJ, AN)

If Not For You  (EJ, AN)

Banks of the Ohio (EJ, AN)

What is Life (EJ)

Take Me Home, Country Roads (EJ)

Let Me Be There (AN)

If You Love Me (Let Me Know)  (US, AN)

I Honestly Love You (US, EJ, AN)

Have You Never Been Mellow (US, EJ, AN)

Please Mr. Please (US)

Don’t Stop Believin’ (AN)

Sam (US, EJ, AN)

Summer Nights (with John Travolta and Cast) (US, EJ)

Hopelessly Devoted to You (US, EJ, AN)

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

A Little More Love (US, EJ, AN)

Deeper Than the Night (US)

Magic (US, EJ, AN)

Xanadu (with Electric Light Orchestra) (EJ, AN)

Suddenly (with Cliff Richard) (EJ)

Physical (US, EJ, AN)

Make a Move On Me (AN)

Twist of Fate (US, AN)

Soul Kiss (AN)

The Rumour (EJ)

Warm and Tender (Japan Only)

The Grease Megamix (AN)

In 1992, Newton-John was planning a massive worldwide comeback, which included her first tour in ten years.  The plan was to release a hits collection that showcased her stellar catalog, alongside four new tracks that would hopefully re-establish her as a contemporary hitmaker.  The result was Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971-1992.

One of the recurring themes of this feature has been how Newton-John was a global superstar with regional hits, and the three different worldwide releases of this collection indicated just how true that was.  One can forgive U.S. audiences for being completely confused by the title. “If Not For You” and “Banks of the Ohio” were hits in 1971, but weren’t included on the stateside collection, which didn’t go any earlier than the 1974 hits “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” and “I Honestly Love You.”

Making room for the new tracks limited the ability to include more than thirteen or fourteen older hits, but they did a good job of selecting the right tracks for each market.  Perhaps assuming that most casual fans had one or both of the two Greatest Hits sets (three in Australia), there was an emphasis on including tracks that hadn’t been on a hits collection yet.  The U.S. got “Deeper Than the Night,” “Summer Nights,” and “Twist of Fate,” the biggest hits not included in previous compilations.  Europe and Japan got “The Rumour,” and Australia got “Soul Kiss” and “The Grease Megamix.”

As four the new tracks, all four of them were solid additions that recalled different eras of her hit career.  “I Need Love” fit comfortably among her dance hits, “Not Gonna Be the One” and “Deeper Than a River” recalled her years of dominating the Adult Contemporary charts, and her Brenda Lee cover, “I Want to Be Wanted,” would’ve fit perfectly among her cosmopolitan country tracks from the early days.

No matter which version you picked up, Back to Basics was the best representation of Newton-John’s catalog that existed until the reissue boom of the early 2000s. Fittingly, the U.S release eventually became her fifteenth and final gold album.

It will forever remain a mystery how the Back to Basics era would’ve played out if Newton-John had gone through with the tour and was able to continue promoting it, but shortly after its release, tragedy struck.  The same weekend her father passed away from cancer, Newton-John herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. The tour was canceled as she went into successful treatment, and the course of her musical career was permanently altered, as her new lease on life gave her a dogged determination to only record music that she was passionate about moving forward, commercial considerations be damned.

Deeper Than a River

Written by Diane Warren

1992

United States:

AC #20

Canada:

AC #18

Grade: B

Yes, it sounds like a lost Celine Dion track from the early nineties, and for good reason.  It’s written and co-produced by “If You Asked Me to” and “Because You Loved Me” tunesmith Diane Warren.  It’s the weakest of the four new cuts on Back to Basics, but it still gave Newton-John her biggest AC hit in six years. If she had continued making commercial pop music, this style would’ve been her way forward.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Eleven: 1993-1999

Previous: Part Nine: 1983-1986

3 Comments

  1. Another great summary of a fascinating period in ONJ’s career – a period that was more than a little frustrating for avid fans.

    There seemed to be a real mismatch at this his point between her aspirations and those of her record company and management. I agree that The Rumour is a great pop song – but as it was written and produced by an entirely different team than the other songs she recorded at this time, it didn’t really work as a representative of the album it was designed to herald. A shame, since The Rumour is an undeniably good album.

    It’s telling that, despite the fact that Love And Let Live was due to be the original lead single, MCA picked Can’t We Talk It Over In Bed as the follow up to The Rumour. Clearly, Physical’s long shadow was still at work, and the record company were intent on associating “Olivia” with “sex”. (They did it again with I Need Love!)

    Another couple of “what ifs” emerge for us here – what if they had jut let her make the “issues” album she obviously wanted to make, without trying to commercialise it? Or, what if she had made a full album of commercial The Rumour-quality pop songs? We’ll never know, but we do have an interesting record to enjoy. And yes – what a contrast to Soul Kiss!

    I never really took to Warm and Tender, finding it far too twee for my tastes (and by this point I was REALLY thinking “what are they doing to her career??”) but I can enjoy parts of it now for the reasons you outline. As for a collection of standard-types songs, I prefer her later effort, Indigo: Women of Song.

    The biggest “what if” of all is, of course, what if she hadn’t become ill and had to cancel that comeback tour…although I Need Love had already stalled on the charts by that point, so it’s not clear how successful the comeback would have been. Again, they were pushing the sex angle, when Not Gonna Be The One or I Want To Be Wanted would have been better leads (and arguably more comfortable for her).

    For me, the idea that radio refused to play her because she was over forty has always been a bit of a red herring. Tina Turner and Cher were both huge at this point, and others of Olivia’s 70s peers, like Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon, made significant chart impacts during the same period – and they’re all older than ONJ. The real issue was, I think, a perfect storm: too-long delays between projects; confused marketing; poor promotion; and – compared to her heyday of just a few years earlier – lower-quality material overall.

    With that said, there are still a number of gems to be enjoyed. I just can’t help but hanker after that ultimate “what if” – the pitch-perfect late 80s ONJ pop album that never quite materialised.

  2. What a wonderful retrospective. Thank you so much for doing such a thorough job. I have been a huge ONJ fan since Grease. The first time I actually saw her on TV she was wearing a prairie dress while singing “Let it Shine” under a big red neon sign that read OLIVIA. I thought she was American and that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. By the time Grease came around, I was 15 and went to see it a least half a dozen times that summer. My mom bought the soundtrack and I got the Greatest Hits albumn for my birthday that August. When I got my first job at 17, I went back and bought all her pre-Grease country albums. Like others who have posted, I too often wondered “what if” this song or that song had been released as a single or in a different order. Don’t get me started on the missed opportunity that was Back with a Heart. To this day, I buy everything she releases, from GAIA, G&G to Liv On. I’m eagerly waiting for her autobiography later this year. I’ve seen her in concert many times and would love a show from her that was not a greatest hits show but rather a B-Sides and other fan favorites tour.

  3. She probably should’ve courted the AC format more aggressively with The Rumour, since that worked so well for Ronstadt and Simon at the time. She chose to compete on the contemporary pop field instead, which put her up against Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson instead of her generation of artists who were enjoying a strong second wind by appealing to older audiences. She did the same thing with Back to Basics by pushing “I Need Love” first. AC was willing to play her, so it was a big missed opportunity.

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