Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Newton-John’

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…

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.

It’s remarkable just how mood-enhancing her music remains. I can’t listen to it and not be placed, almost instantly, into a good mood.

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.)

As I noted in my last post, it’s been a cold, cold few days here in the Delaware Valley, and though the thaw is supposed to begin tomorrow (after an ice storm, no less), it’s already begun in my home thanks to the cover art and track listing for Juliana Hatfield’s next album, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John.

Based on the two ONJ songs that Diane and I saw Juliana perform at the Ardmore Music Hall in October 2017, I can say with near-certainty that this set will be sweetly sublime – a perfect antidote to the madness that’s gripped the world for the past year-plus.

In concert, the experience was similar to when we saw 10,000 Maniacs, back in 1992, close their set with Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” or, a few years later, Paul Westerberg conclude his Chestnut Cabaret concert with a rollicking cover of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” The endorphin rush was intense, in other words.

The album is due out on April 13th, and is already available for preorder on the American Laundromat website. There are a myriad of options – vinyl, CD, bonus single, etc. My advice: get the “Xanadu” bundle before it sells out.

(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: