The British-Australian Dame with a remarkable career has died at 73
Because of my age, I didn’t learn Olivia Newton-John’s music from the beginning.
Her early ‘70s folk-pop – huge on not just the pop charts, but also the U.S. Easy Listening, later Adult Contemporary chart (10 #1s!), and the country chart as well (seven top 10s!) – didn’t come to my attention until, largely, after her impressive 15-year run of U.S. hits.
I really started to become cognisant of top 40 music in its moment just after the turn of the ‘80s; I was almost 11 in late 1981, when “Physical” detonated like a proverbial bomb, dominating the national pop consciousness like little before it. It spent 10 weeks astride the Hot 100 – at the time, a record-tying stay at #1 – and is, according to Billboard, the biggest single of the entire decade. With the ascension of “Physical”, her hits from the previous year’s Xanadu (flop film, smash soundtrack: a trio of top 20 pop/top 5 AC hits) were firmly in recurrent/gold radio rotation, and then of course there were the hits from 1978’s Grease, which seemed to always be in the musical ether.
But the ONJ that I knew, loved, owned, was the early ‘80s au courant pop hitmaker. She was never hip, but she was (through early ‘84) always big, racking up eight top 20 singles in the first half of the decade, six of those top 10. And they sounded firmly of their moment, the likes of not just “Physical” and the ebullient “Magic,” but the frantic “Twist of Fate” and the thumping “Heart Attack” – not to say anything of the relative flops “Tied Up” (#38) and the coke-jittery “Livin’ in Desperate Times” (#31), to these ears overeager to please and sounding like it.
VIDEO: Olivia Newton-John “Heart Attack”
I still had time for the legend as the hits were drying up, too. Her last top 40 pop hit, 1985’s “Soul Kiss” (#20 pop and AC) tries a bit hard to epitomize “sultry,” but still works on me. The next year, she contributed vocals to uber-producer David Foster’s “The Best of Me,” which whiffed on the pop chart (#80) but was a massive AC hit (#6) and early VH-1 staple. It’s elegant creamed corn, beautifully spotlighting ONJ’s sterling voice. The title track of 1988’s The Rumour was written for her by no less than Elton John and Bernie Taupin (and co-produced by John, who also added backing vocals and piano) – but it couldn’t make it to the top 30 anywhere, let alone the Hot 100, where it stalled at #62. It’s a contemporaneous cousin to Elton’s smash “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” but I guess by this point the Newton-John brand was a bit stale for pop radio programmers. (A shame.)
VIDEO: Olivia Newton-John “The Rumour”
And I’ve not even touched on her ‘70s: what a decade. Three Grammys, a controversial CMA Award for Best Female Vocalist, two U.S. #1 albums, and hit after hit after hit. At one point across 1974-76, she topped the Easy Listening/AC chart with seven consecutive singles, and during the same era she went top 10 country five times. Starting with 1973’s “Let Me Be There,” she enjoyed five top 10 pop singles in a row, too, but then didn’t crack that echelon again until 1978’s Grease phenomenon, managing only mid-table pop hits through the mid ’70s. (Also worth noting: that film’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” made it to #20 country!)
Those early-mid ‘70s records are fascinating, especially viewed through a contemporary prism, because in a lot of ways she was one of the first major female country-pop crossover stars – concurrently with Linda Ronstadt. (Both Taylor Swift and Shania Twain clearly took notes.) Her first hit, a 1971 cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” (#25 pop/#1 AC) cribs from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass version, heavy on the slide guitar; ‘75’s “Please Mr. Please” (#3 pop/#1 AC/#5 country) goes for the then-popular jukebox trope (the phrase after the titular one is “Don’t play B-17”). (Also cf., whaddaya know, Ronstadt’s take on James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox,” from the same year.) And her albums of this period were loaded with country covers, from “Help Me Make It Through the Night” on ‘73’s Let Me Be There to “Jolene” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on ‘76’s Come on Over, with “Ring of Fire” on ‘77’s Making A Good Thing Better for good measure. ONJ’s initial country success may have been not entirely intentional, but she clearly loved Nashville and country music, and made that evident in her song selections and arrangements.
AUDIO: Olivia Newton-John “Let It Shine”
About Grease, I’ll just admit I’m not a fan and leave it there, though I do find “Devoted” fairly pretty. But the sheer breadth of the rest of Newton-John’s hit-making career, from the folky countryness of her early hits to the mechanistic pulse of her mid ‘80s work, frankly leaves me in awe; she really could – and did – do it all. And one more thing about her that I’ll always hold dear: in the infamous video for “Physical,” the overweight men working out around her in the gym who miraculously turn into oiled-up muscle hunks, leave with each other, not her. In 1981. That made a huge mark on my then-nascent gay brain, and bless her for including it. (As Tom Breihan shares in his The Number Ones entry on the song, MTV apparently cut off the ending, originally, because it was “too gay.” But it eventually returned.
After fighting breast cancer on and off for 30 years, Newton-John died on August 8th, but left a massive imprint on music that won’t soon (if ever) be forgotten.
VIDEO: Olivia Newton-John “Physical”
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