Olivia Newton-John’s name and face are familiar to generations of crate diggers. You’ll often find the Australian singer cheek-to-cheek with John Travolta, a soft smile on her face in the center of each copy of the soundtrack to the film version of Grease. Or you’ll see her big blue eyes beaming from the covers of the exceedingly successful run of albums that saw her evolve from an easy listening/country-pop crooner into a sexpot pop powerhouse. It was Sandra Dee’s turnaround from the cotton and wool of “Summer Nights” to the leather and nicotine of “You’re The One That I Want” from Grease, but spread out over a decade of hit singles and cultural ubiquity that ran through the ’70s and into the ’80s.
Thanks to the basic cable channels that keep Grease in constant rotation and the endless re-upping of songs from the movie musical in school dance playlists and college glee club songbooks, Newton-John is far from forgotten in the modern pop landscape. It’s the depth of her catalog that is often overlooked as well as the direct line of influence that can be traced from her efforts to those of modern-day artists like Taylor Swift and Adele. That could be potentially rectified by Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, an album that finds former Blake Babies member and acclaimed solo artist covering her favorite songs from Newton-John’s career. It’s a virtual greatest hits album, with all the material on this loving tribute coming from the peak of Newton-John’s popularity via a string of records that, with one exception, went gold or platinum.
While she first found purchase in the Billboard charts with “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” both mid-tempo rambling love songs, Newton-John hit her stride in 1975 with the release of Have You Never Been Mellow, an album that bridged the slowly closing chasm between country and adult contemporary pop. The production of the album, driven by longtime Newton-John collaborator John Farrar, spices up the pedal steel and acoustic shuffle with little psychedelic tinges, like having a small acid flashback while you’re line dancing.
It fit right in with an era of pop music when “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” were both huge singles, but exhibited a versatility that few other mainstream artists were attempting at the time. The title track was a breathy, sensual ode to taking it easy, while “Water Under The Bridge” steps up the tempo with lyrics of strength and boldness, anchored by a filthy fuzz guitar. Newton-John molds her performance to meet each song, going delicate and soft or icy and hard as needed.
She showed off even more sides to her musical personality on her second 1975 album, Clearly Love, and its follow up from 1976 Come On Over. Farrar (who produced both records) and Newton-John play it somewhat safe in the song selection with easy-to-swallow covers like “The Long and Winding Road,” “Jolene” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” but you can hear flashes of their future together with the tantalizingly funky “It’ll Be Me” and the pain-drenched ballad “Lovers.” They were firm steps forward that fit remarkably well in with the sun-baked earth tones that saturated these lovely records.
The title of Newton-John’s 1977 album was perfectly on-the-nose: Making A Good Thing Better. There wasn’t much effort to move the needle forward here, just a reaffirming of her strengths as a performer, be it her shattering rendition of the then-new “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” or a sultry take on the then-popular Johnny Rivers hit “Slow Dancing.” There’s plenty of tasty country tunes for the old school fans, but it was clear that Newton-John was looking for new challenges.
They finally arrived when she signed on to co-star in Grease alongside Travolta, who was already riding a wave of critical acclaim and cultural infamy through his role in Saturday Night Fever. The film and its soundtrack album were, and continue to be, raging successes, netting a bunch of People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globe nods for Newton-John and her showcase solo turn “Hopelessly Devoted To You.”
The wind in her sails, she used the clout she had to, with Farrar’s help, make a more effortless transition into mainstream pop territory with her next album, 1978’s Totally Hot. She hadn’t fully shaken off the vestiges of her country past, mind you. All it would take is a little bit of pedal steel and shuffle to turn “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting” and “Never Enough” into honky tonk hits. The big hit from the album, “A Little More Love,” and the horn-flecked title track have a rock ’n’ roll heart with the blood pumping through by way of Newton-John’s newly found vocal prowess. She sounds more front-facing and forward, in sharp, hi-def rather than the soft focus of the early part of the decade.
Newton-John’s transformation into a full-fledged pop artist was complete when she signed on to star in the precarious roller disco film Xanadu. The movie is, at best, a cultural curiosity, remarkable only for its mixture of styles (including a quick animated sequence by future An American Tail director Don Bluth) and for it being the final film role of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Skip it and go straight for the soundtrack, which is a marvel of disco pop and some perfectly over-the-top tunes from Electric Light Orchestra. Newton-John gets right into the swing of it, with glitterbomb gems like “Magic” and “Suspended In Time” and pure diva moments like the infectious title track, written by ELO’s Jeff Lynne.
In an interview with Billboard magazine around the time that her 1981 album Physical was released, Newton-John admitted that this change in direction was aided by the success of Grease, while also insisting that it was really reflective of her musical interests at the time. “If these new songs were offered to me a couple of years ago,” she said, “Maybe I wouldn’t have attempted them… I’m not deliberately going after any audience. I would have done a country song on Physical if I found one I really liked.”
Deliberate or not, Physical is Newton-John at her most provocative and playful. She attacks the title track (which was originally written for Rod Stewart) and the skittering “Make A Move On Me” with enthusiasm and heat. Even a gentler song like “Recovery” is all about screwing one another to the point of exhaustion. Quite a move for a decidedly family-friendly performer, and one that—with the help of a controversial music video for “Physical”—propelled her into the commercial stratosphere. Was there anywhere to go but down from this point?
That is definitely the case for Newton-John. She had a couple of stray hits in the early ’80s with “Heart Attack” (found on a greatest hits album released in 1982) and “Twist Of Fate” (pulled from the soundtrack to the woeful film Two of A Kind, also starring Travolta). Every album she has released since then has received, in America, at least, diminishing commercial returns. But her continued presence in the music world is definitely one to be celebrated, especially after successfully defeating breast cancer in the ’90s and continuing to perform after receiving news last year that the disease had returned and metastasized in her back.
Newton-John isn’t going to fade away anytime soon, either. She’ll be there on your TV set or in a brewpub movie theater singing “Summer Nights” before too long. And when you flip through the vinyl stacks at your nearest record store, her face will eventually appear before you. What Hatfield’s tribute album does so well is to serve as a reminder of why we should halt our channel flipping for a few or take a chance on a copy of Mellow or Physical. Decades of changing tastes and evolving sounds hasn’t dimmed the impact of Newton-John’s warm, enveloping vocals one bit. She will always be the one that we want, honey.
Robert Ham is a freelance arts/culture journalist and critic whose work has been featured in Variety, Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Portland Mercury, and due to a weird turn of events, FOX News (but don't hold that against him). He lives in Portland, OR with his wife, son and four ornery cats.
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