Part Fourteen: 2020-2022
A lot has transpired since this feature originally wrapped up in 2019.
The most significant development, of course, was Olivia Newton-John passing away in August 2022 at the age of 73, prompting a global outpouring of grief that both surprised and comforted her family, friends, and fans.
But Newton-John kept working until almost the end, recording new material for a duets project that will release in two volumes in 2023. The first volume will feature both the Chloe Lattanzi and Paul Anka duets covered in this entry, as well as her final recording, a duet with Dolly Parton that will be reviewed separately following this post.
Finally, the mission of this feature has been aided greatly by Newton-John selling her catalog to Primary Wave. This has led to the first meaningful reissue campaign of her entire career, with deluxe CD and vinyl editions of two of her landmark albums and her two greatest hits collections already released and a promise of more releases in the future.
Newton-John made it clear in her final years that she saw her cancer center as her actual legacy, with her musical accomplishments simply being the vehicle that allowed her to do so much good work around cancer treatment and research.
But her musical legacy is pretty damn good in and of itself, and the duets project and reissue series guarantee that this retrospective will continue for many years to come.
A quick formatting note: starting with this entry, I’ll be embedding the Spotify singles and albums instead of using YouTube clips and typing out track listings. Regardless of how you download or stream music, Primary Wave has done an excellent job at getting her catalog back online. For now, we’re just covering the deluxe editions that have gotten physical releases, but you can listen to or purchase nearly all of her work through online music platforms now. That alone is a huge development for preserving her legacy.
“Window in the Wall” (with Chloe Lattanzi)
Written by Tajci Cameron, Eddie Kilgallon, and Tom Paden
Recorded and released during the peak of the global pandemic, “Window in the Wall” felt eerily appropriate for its time, despite it being a cover of a song that had been written back in 2016.
It works well enough as a mother and daughter duet, with Lattanzi giving a tender performance that demonstrates a versatility that is apparently hereditary. Newton-John’s vocal is rough around the edges, which is likely a reflection of how far along her illness was when she recorded this track.
It’s isn’t among the best of Newton-John’s healing recordings, but it’s as well aligned with her values and her positive spirit as anything she’s ever recorded.
“Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (with Paul Anka)
Written by Paul Anka
I wish there was a way to discuss her recording output during this time without talking about her being terminally ill, but that reality was seeping through everything. This was supposed to be the single that launched her duets project, but completion of it was delayed due to complications surrounding her illness.
Which is shame because this is one of her best duets from the latter part of her career. “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” was the ultimate teenage love song, all plaintive and earnest and dramatic. Having it performed by two singers in their seventies transforms it into a poignant plea for companionship late in life. Newton-John and Anka complement each other very well here, and this was the perfect Anka song for them to perform together.
Physical (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Primary Wave launched its Olivia Newton-John reissue campaign with a deluxe edition of Physical, which was the most commercially successful, culturally relevant, and artistically significant studio album from her lengthy run as a bona fide pop star.
The core album has never sounded better. There is no remastering approach that pleases all ears, but for me, the Primary Wave team is doing a wonderful job overall. This is an album I have been listening to for nearly forty years myself, and I heard musical elements that I never noticed before. Acoustic instrumentation is more distinct, and Newton-John’s vocals have greater clarity without any accompanying loudness. Aside from a drop-off at the beginning of “Landslide,” it’s hard to fault the work done here by the remastering team. I should note that they used the wrong master tape for “Carried Away,” but as far as I’m concerned, the version here is better than the original, so I can’t complain.
The bonus material is pretty strong, even if the multiple single edits and remixes get a bit repetitive. It’s a joy to have a high quality version of the single remix of “Livin’ in Desperate Times,” which blows the album version out of the water. The inclusion of the Greatest Hits Vol. 2 singles (“Heart Attack,” “Tied Up”) and all of the ONJ tracks from the Two of a Kind soundtrack, as well as her hard to find duet with Barry Gibb (“Face to Face”) make this a fully complete documentation of her recording output from this time period.
They took something of a kitchen sink approach to this project, wedging in a bonus DVD that includes the Grammy-winning Physical video album and the 1983 Olivia in Concert film. They bit off more than they could chew with this part of the package. The video quality is disappointing, and by shoving both full length home video releases on to one DVD, there was no room left for the Twist of Fate video collection, which featured clips for all four Two of a Kind soundtrack cuts and both Greatest Hits Vol. 2 singles. Since those six tracks are included on the audio portion, they would’ve been better off just having the two music video collections on the DVD and saving the concert film for a separate release (which is currently rumoured to be in the planning stages anyway.)
But let’s be clear here: Physical was the peak of ONJ’s pop career. It’s one of the best pop albums of the eighties. It’s never sounded better, and the bonus material adds significant value to an already outstanding remaster of the album. Like all of the deluxe editions released so far, this is the definitive version of this landmark album.
“Valentine (25th Anniversary Remix)” (with Jim Brickman)
Written by Jim Brickman and Jack Kugell
Jim Brickman found great success with “Valentine” in 1997, but it was Martina McBride doing the vocal when it went top ten on the country chart and top five on the adult contemporary chart. Brickman also recorded a version with Olivia Newton-John that same year, and a 25th anniversary remix was released to commemorate the collaboration.
Martina McBride did a nice job on this track, but her vocal pales in comparison to Newton-John’s. That’s no slight against McBride. It’s much more of a reflection of Newton-John’s peerless phrasing and her flawless interpretive skill, especially when she is singing a ballad like this. She brings a delicate touch to the lyric while also giving it more gravitas by singing it from the perspective of an older woman.
When she sings that “All of my life I have been waiting for all you give to me, you’ve opened my eyes and shown me how to love unselfishly,” it’s with the joy of a woman who has waited a long time for a love like this, and she feels the deepest gratitude because it has finally arrived.
If Not For You (50th Anniversary Edition)
Even though If Not For You received a limited release in 1971 on Uni Records, Olivia Newton-John’s debut album might just as well have not existed for her large fan base in the United States. Several tracks were repurposed for the 1973 MCA compilation Let Me Be There, her gold-selling country album that effectively supplanted If Not For You as her debut release. Until this 50th Anniversary edition, If Not For You was only readily available as an Australian import, as part of the bargain bin reissues put out by Festival Records in the late nineties.
So I can’t give Primary Wave enough credit here. I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted a 2 disc deluxe edition of If Not For You would be the next reissue following Physical, let alone that it would be even more ambitious in scope than its predecessor. If Not For You is a solid debut album on its own, showing Newton-John’s exquisite taste in material was there from day one, even if her producers were more instrumental in selecting material back then than they would be down the road.
Primary Wave’s strength in showcasing acoustic instrumentation in their remastering approach really shines here, as the organic arrangements of Newton-John’s selections from the songbooks of Bob Dylan, Leslie Duncan, Kris Kristofferson, and Gordon Lightfoot are all driven by acoustic elements. It’s remarkable how developed her interpretive skills were at this point, though she had been actively recording for a few years before she had this album greenlighted, so she wasn’t as inexperienced as most singers are when they go in to record their debut album. The best moments here foreshadow her later success with country (“Banks of the Ohio”) and ethereal pop (“Love Song”), and her breakthrough hit version of “If Not For You” remains the most compelling version of the oft-covered song.
But it’s the bonus disc that really stuns. We get a selection of tracks from her ill-fated Toomorrow film project, alternate versions of songs that differ greatly from the versions originally released, and even transfers of rare acetates that a fan bought off of eBay and shared with the Primary Wave team. The bonus disc runs longer than the core album, with 17 tracks spanning from her 1966 debut single (“Till You Say You’ll Be Mine”) through the non-LP B-sides of her singles from If Not For You. Taken together, we get both her debut album and the journey leading up to it, filling in the gaps of her musical development with a depth and breadth usually reserved for only the world’s biggest rock bands.
Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits (45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Primary Wave followed If Not For You with deluxe editions of Newton-John’s multi-platinum hits collections from 1977 and 1982, released in a combined package for the Japanese market and released separately in the United States and other major markets.
The approach taken by Primary Wave was to gather every track that appeared on the North American, European, and Australasian versions of Greatest Hits, which was titled Greatest Hits Vol. 2 in Australia. Though this approach leaves out a handful of major singles from the era that didn’t appear on any of these editions – “What is Life,” “Long Live Love,” and “He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother” – it’s still by far the most complete documentation of her pre-Grease hitmaking days, featuring twenty tracks that more fully tell the story of her growth as an artist and her international success than any other compilation has done.
For American fans who stuck to the hits collections, the thrill of discovery comes from the eight tracks not included on the U.S. edition. We get her smash cover of the murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio,” her stunning cover of the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe,” and her hit versions of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” which were her biggest singles ever in Japan. Because Primary Wave is so good at showcasing acoustic guitar in their remastering, all of these tracks, as well as songs like “Every Face Tells a Story” and “Please Mr. Please,” have never sounded better.
Her black sheep album Making a Good Thing Better even gets its day in the sun, as the collection closes with that album’s title track as well as its centerpiece, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” which was the backdoor pitch for Newton-John to star in the film version of Evita. The U.S. version of Greatest Hits was already stacked with classic performances, including her five consecutive million-selling singles from 1973-1975. The expanded track listing better tells the story of this era, while reminding listeners that before Grease, she was already a superstar.
Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
The standalone version of Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 technically released the first week of 2023, but the audio is identical to what was included in the combined hits package released in Japan in 2022, as well as the truncated vinyl edition that surfaced as a Target exclusive for the 2022 holiday season.
Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 doesn’t expand to a full twenty tracks like the reissue of its predecessor, as it is limited to what was originally released on the U.S. and international versions. The ten track U.S. edition was Newton-John’s biggest seller as a solo artist, and the deluxe edition adds four tracks from her two studio albums covered by the collection: “Deeper Than the Night” and the title track from Totally Hot, and “Landslide” and “The Promise (The Dolphin Song)” from Physical.
“Deeper Than the Night” was the most significant omission from the U.S. edition, so its presence is especially welcome here. But by limiting themselves to what appeared on the original releases, Primary Wave missed the opportunity to make this collection as definitively representative of its era as the first expanded hits collection by adding “Summer Nights,” “I Can’t Help it,” and the singles from Two of a Kind (“Twist of Fate,” “Take a Chance,” and “Livin’ in Desperate Times.”)
That being said, it’s impossible to fault what is here: her blockbuster movie hits (“You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Magic,” “Suddenly,” and “Xanadu”), as well as the big hits from her two best pop albums. “A Little More Love” might be her very best single, and while “Physical” remains her biggest chart hit, “Make a Move On Me” keeps getting better with time and is probably the best hit single from her landmark Physical album.
For those who prefer Olivia Neutron Bomb, it doesn’t get any better than Greatest Hits Vol. 2, which was the best hits collection from an A-list pop diva until The Immaculate Collection came along eight years later.