There were good and bad times in the 1970s, and plenty of in-betweens, but mostly – for those of us shielded from the bad and in-betweens – just good. We browsed the Internet of its day, the newspaper, each morning while eating breakfast, always skipping the front section for the sports and entertainment pages, and left for school not long thereafter. We hung out with friends in the holding pen that was the school cafeteria, trading jokes, gossip and sometimes homework, and muddled our way through the day until we were free again.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, as I wrote in this remembrance of Donna Summer, I often found myself with friends playing variations of football or baseball in the street up from my house, or basketball in a driveway or at the park. A radio tuned to a Top 40 station provided the soundtrack to most of those games. It was rare, in that timespan, for an Olivia Newton-John song not to be among the featured tracks. Check out these stats: From 1978 and “You’re the One That I Want,” the hit Grease duet with John Travolta, through 1983 and “Twist of Fate” (from her Two of a Kind movie reunion with the former Danny Zuko), she scored 13 Top 20 hits, including three No. 1s.
She was hot, in other words. Totally hot.
Anyway, my introduction to her came in 1978 via Grease, about a month before I turned 13. I bought the “You’re the One That i Want” single at K-Mart, traded a friend some not-so-valuable baseball cards for the Grease soundtrack late that summer, and received Totally Hot that Christmas. Somewhere in there, though it may have been the next year, I also picked up the 45 of “I Honestly Love You” and her Greatest Hits album. Both received much play on my Realistic stereo. The soundtrack to Xanadu did, too – how could it not? I even saw the movie in the theater, though only once – unlike the multiple times I saw Grease.
Of course, ONJ is not considered “cool” by some folks, who invariably classify her music as “saccharine” or confine it to the “guilty pleasure” territory. (Not me, mind you. I’ve always subscribed to the John Lennon philosophy of “whatever gets you through the night/it’s alright, it’s alright.”) Which is why, when devouring Juliana Hatfield’s memoir When I Grow Up in 2008, I was pleasantly surprised to see Juliana reference Olivia as someone she listened to as a kid, alongside other such “sweet-sounding” and “nicely groomed” singers as Marie Osmond, Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann (circa ’Til Tuesday). I was surprised again, in 2012, when she didn’t dismiss my question/suggestion that she cover ONJ for her then-current covers project. She’d considered it, she said, but didn’t think she could pull it off. (See the full exchange here.)
Six years later and it’s obvious that she now believes she can. The track list for the Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John album reads as a near-perfect one-CD best-of, in fact. (The only change I would make: swapping out “Suspended in Time” for “Come on Over.” But I’m sure other fans would make other changes. You can’t please all of us all the time, you know?) In the announcement, Juliana notes that “I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John. Her music has brought me so much pure joy throughout my life. I loved her when I was a child and I love her still. Her voice and her positive energy and her melodies have stood the test of time and they give me as much pleasure now as they ever did. Listening to her is an escape into a beautiful place. She has inspired me so much personally and I just wanted to give something back; to share some of these tremendous songs, reinterpreted, with love, by me.” (If you haven’t already, head over to the American Laundromat site and pre-order her album. It’s gonna be great.)
And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs for Juliana Hatfield Sings ONJ, Part Deux (aka, Songs for an Imaginary Sequel).
1) “Every Face Tells a Story.” The second single from Olivia’s 1976 Don’t Stop Believing album hit No. 55 on the pop charts, No. 21 on the country charts, and No. 6 on the adult contemporary charts.
2) “Come on Over.” I tipped my hand above, I’m sure. Written and recorded by the Bee Gees for their 1975 Main Course album, Olivia’s cover was released as a single in 1976. It rose to No. 23 on the pop charts, No. 5 on the country charts, and No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts.
3) “Making a Good Thing Better.” The title tune to Olivia’s 1977 Making a Good Thing Better LP didn’t do so well, chart-wise – No. 87 on the pop charts, No. 20 on the adult contemporary charts – but is wonderful, nonetheless. (That said, in some ways – especially the opening – it’s almost stereotypically adult contemporary.)
4) “Landslide.” The second single from Physical failed to make the Top 40, let alone the Top 10 – a true surprise given that it’s as catchy as all get out.
5) “The Promise (Dolphin Song).” It’s sometimes assumed that Olivia was just a singer. In truth, she’s written a fair number of songs – including this sweet one from her Physical album. (It was also the b-side on the “Physical” 45.)