Posts Tagged ‘Grease’

1978 was a monumental year in my life, so much so that I’ve littered this blog with posts about it. (Click here for those.) For the uninitiated: I was 12 when the year dawned, and 13 when it faded to black; and graduated from listening to the oldies to the era’s new music during those 12 months.

This day was a Saturday, the first of the traditional start of summer, Memorial Day Weekend. Which meant I slept later than usual, watched Saturday morning TV while reading the morning newspaper, and…who knows? We likely visited the grandparents, or great-aunts and -uncles. Temperatures were in the 60s for the day. 

In the wider world: As with most of the decade, life could have been better: The unemployment rate was a notch below 6 percent, and inflation clocked in at 7 percent. Even if you had a job, in other words, it was difficult to get ahead. Beyond those pocketbook issues, at the end of the prior month, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was discontinued, with the units being integrated into the Army proper. And, though we didn’t know it at the time, the first Unabomber attack took place just two days earlier.

Here’s an entire newscast, complete with commercials, for this day from WJKW in Cleveland:

When it came to popular films and music, America had been gripped by a “Night Fever” for much of the winter and spring thanks to Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees. But “Disco Inferno” was slowly subsiding. Among the movies in the theaters this weekend: FM; I Wanna Hold Your Hand; The End; The Buddy Holly Story; and Thank God It’s Friday. And among the songs on the radio…

Yep, you guessed it. Here’s today’s Top 5: May 27, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) Wings – “With a Little Luck.” The single concludes its two-week run at the top of the charts. I featured the music video for it a few weeks back, so here’s something a tad different: the 1978 UK DJ promo 45. I know some folks hear the song as lightweight, but I hear it as great: A commercial for the London Town album that featured the song spurred me to begin investigating new music, after all.

2) Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams – “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” The oeuvres of these artists are blind spots for me, and unlike the other songs in this week’s chart, I have no memory of this specific song, which clocks in at No. 2. According to Wikipedia, Mathis is the third best-selling artist of the 20th century, behind only the Beatles and Frank Sinatra; and Williams, who has a four-octave range, would go on to win a Grammy in 1987.

3) John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – “You’re the One That I Want.” The week’s No. 3 single is another song that I never grow tired of. Grease wouldn’t open for a few weeks, so it’s success, thus far, was due to its own charms.

4) Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing.” To my ears, the No. 4 sounds a lot like Andy’s older brothers, the Bee Gees. But that’s a conclusion I’ve come to after only a few cursory listens.

5) Roberta Flack & Donnie Hathaway – “The Closer I Get to You.” Rounding out the Top 5 is this sweet love song.

And two bonuses…

6) The O’Jays – “Used Ta Be My Girl.” One of the week’s power plays is this propulsive ode about a lost love, which jumps from No. 54 to 44.

7) Steve Martin – “King Tut.” Debuting on the charts is this catchy novelty tune, which still makes me laugh. Here he is on Saturday Night Live performing it…

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)


The history of rock ’n’ pop music is awash with artists whose careers were propelled by the 45. Aside from best-of collections, their LPs often seemed to be afterthoughts. They generally included recent singles and b-sides, covers of well-known songs and, depending, show tunes. Many a Motown artist followed that basic formula, but it wasn’t unique to them. Many others did, too. There was a reason for that: The 45 was king.

But one need look only at the Beatles’ discography, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, to see the evolution of the album within the rock world – they never released a single from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. (They also released songs only available on 45s, of course, so maybe they’re a bad example.) The gradual growth of the album as a cultural force can also be attributed to the rise of FM radio, where many freeform stations focused on album tracks; the record labels themselves; and economic and social forces larger than the the music industry.

Don’t get me wrong: the single was never deposed from its throne, though its power was muted for the longest time. A casual fan bought the 45 but not the LP, just as today many fans prefer downloading (or streaming) just the hit, while hardcore fans picked up both – especially when the b-side wasn’t included on the album. Or, if the song was from a pricey double-LP movie soundtrack that featured many other artists, one might prefer the single.

The last was the main reason why I picked up “You’re the One That I Want,” Olivia Newton-John’s smash Grease duet with John Travolta, in late June 1978. The album cost about as much as a month’s worth of my allowance! I was 12, soon to be 13, and had recently seen the movie – the first of many, many times that summer – and was instantly smitten with the blonde student from Australia. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was always a high point of the film; it still is. Here’s a 1978 live performance of the song:

Another high point: the introduction of saucy Sandy at the film’s end. (No, it’s not a great movie, per se, but it’s great all the same. I’ve never not watched it and found myself wishing I hadn’t. And in the decades since that summer, it’s safe to say I’ve seen it a lot.)

Now, Olivia had been making music since the early 1970s but – given my age and other circumstances – I was unaware of her. True, like most moviegoers in the summer of 1975, I heard a snippet of “I Honestly Love You” in Jaws. But I was more focused on the shark than the soundtrack.

Grease, in other words, was my introduction to her. And Totally Hot, the LP she released in November of 1978, cemented my fandom. Just as, in Grease, sweet Sandy morphs into saucy Sandy, Olivia underwent a metamorphosis of her own that year, though I wasn’t aware of it: from adult contemporary to pop-rock.

Some folks reading this, I’m sure, are arching an eyebrow and/or snickering. At some point in time it became hip to dismiss “adult contemporary” music as manipulative musings aimed at the overly washed; pop as lightweight dross; and pop-rock as diluted pablum. One need only to flip through the history books – or the red and blue versions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide – to see what I mean.

But me, I’ve never cared about what others thought of my likes and dislikes. As evidenced by my blog, I enjoy many styles of music – from rock to pop to disco to country to R&B and more. Prog-rock, however, bores me to tears, and a lot of punk is just noise to my ears, but if someone enjoys either – hey, more power to them. (As John Lennon sang, and they may be the most profound lyrics he ever wrote, “whatever gets you through the night/it’s all right, it’s all right.”) Commercial music, such as ONJ’s, can light a life as much as any other.

Anyway, I’d argue that the lead single, “A Little More Love,” is the utter definition of pop-rock in its purest, best form. It possesses a catchy rhythm, cool guitar licks, and a seductive vocal.

(It also has a lyric I often sing to my cat: “It gets me nowhere to tell you no.”)

The second single, “Deeper Than the Night,” is equally as brilliant:

But two hit singles, both of which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, do not make a great album. What makes Totally Hot essential – to me, at least – are its other eight songs, which include the propulsive opening salvo of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting”…

…the inviting “Talk to Me”…

…and “Borrowed Time,” which – like “Talk to Me” – was written by ONJ…

…and, of course, the funky title track.

Some songs, such as the country-flavored “Dancin’ Round and Round” or Eric Carmen-penned “Boats Against the Current,” would’ve been at home on her more adult contemporary-styled albums, such as Making a Good Thing Better (1977), Don’t Stop Believin’ (1976) or Have You Never Been Mellow (1975), but work just as well here. Sweet and saucy aren’t mutually exclusive, as Grease made it seem.

I’ll close with this: That picture up top? That’s my original copy of Totally Hot, which I received for Christmas ’78. Despite the many albums lost and/or traded in through the years, most notably during the run-up of Diane and I moving in together in 1990, I never parted with it. And while I don’t usually play the LP – I bought the Japanese import CD years ago, and generally listen to my ALAC rip of it – I’m playing it now. At the end of a bad day, it lifts my spirits. There’s no better thing I can say about an album than that, I think.

The songs:

 

Grease_45

Thirty-five years ago the Village Mall became my second home.

At the time, it was an indoor shopping experience. A Woolco – where my parents bought me Elvis’ Golden Hits not long after the King died in 1977 – anchored the end that’s now a go-kart race course and, in addition to the ever-present Acme, it was home to an Eric movie theater, a bookstore, music shop, pizza place and the pet store where my family adopted a fine feline we named Riley. (True story: we were once awakened at 3 a.m. by a police officer who lived up the street from us. He’d staked out his home to see who – or what – was digging up his flower bed. Turned out it was that darn cat! And he couldn’t wait until morning to alert us to that fact.)

Now, I think it’s safe to say that summer break is a glorious time to be a kid; and that stretch of 1978, when I turned 13, certainly was for me. As I’ve written before (and likely will again), it was when the music bug bit me big time. Little by little, I sold the collection of comic books I’d painstakingly amassed over the previous few years back to the same comic-book store in Hatboro where I’d bought them, then rode my bike to Joe Celano’s music shop and flipped through the racks in search of vinyl gold. The sounds I initially sought, by and large, were from the bubbly sonic stew of rhythms and rhymes that I first heard simmering in the saucy Top 40 brew served by WIFI-92. And that summer it all played out in a phrase: “ Grease is the word….

Grease: My memory tells me that I saw it a dozen times within a month, all at the Eric, sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own, but that number may well be a stretch. The reason for the obsession: Olivia Newton-John. Like many young men of the era, I became smitten with her even before she donned the tight leather pants for the film’s end. I picked up the single of “You’re the One That I Want” at K-Mart one weekend with my parents, and eventually traded a friend for the double-LP soundtrack. (And, after listening to it once sans moving pictures, never listened to it again until buying the CD decades later and remembering why – it’s mostly Sha Na Na filler.)

Anyway, I’d love to transition to something profound and make that movie a magical coming-of-age metaphor, but I’m afraid I have to settle for something more mundane. I was but 12, about to turn 13. I had no worries larger than my allowance, which comic books to sell, which 45s or LPs to buy, and whether Superstar Billy Graham would win back the WWWF championship from bland Bobby Backlund.

That’s not to say all was rosy, mind you. As awful as the economy has been since 2008, the inflation and unemployment rates throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s bear witness to the fact that being an adult with adult responsibilities was tough back then. But whenever I watch Grease, as I did this morning for what must have been the 50th time, I do so through the eyes and ears of that young kid whose life was insulated from larger concerns. No, it’s not a great movie, and may not even be good, but to me it represents all that is good, and for reasons that never appear on screen.