She really had a remarkable career for someone who projected such girl-next-door sweetness and general affability.
Her transformation from goody-goody high-school sweetheart to spandex and leather-clad bad girl in the blockbuster film of the musical Grease was a revelation. Her scorching duet with John Travolta, You’re The One that I Want, was inescapable in the summer of 1978, number one for nine weeks. It was released months before the film had even hit these shores, yet the nation was transfixed by the clip of a sexed-up Newton-John driving Travolta (the hottest leading man of the hour, fresh from Saturday Night Fever) into ever-wilder paroxysms of desire at a fairground. It was a transformation all the more startling because it shattered her own butter-wouldn’t-melt public image.
Olivia Newton-John was very pretty, with a high, clear and melodious voice, but few who watched her goofing about with Cliff Richard on British Saturday night TV in the early seventies would have bet on her future superstardom. She projected an engaging innocence, even naivety that was completely natural. The story is told that, when she first arrived from Australia as part of the duo Pat and Olivia, she performed in Paul Raymond’s Revue in Soho primly dressed in a frilly, high-collar frock, oblivious to the fact that they were working in a strip club.
Bruce Welch of the Shadows discovered her, fell madly in love and produced her early recordings. She was a resolutely middle-of-the-road artist, who found a niche singing lightweight country pop. She effectively broke up the Shadows, when Welch decided he wanted to spend more time with her than with his bandmates.
Welch was so devastated when she ended their relationship in 1972 that he attempted suicide, though they remained friendly throughout her life. “Everyone fell in love with Olivia,” he once told me. “She has such a beautiful voice, and I found songs that I thought would suit it, in an American singer-songwriter vein, acoustic guitars and harmonies. She had a lot of success with those songs, she was always grateful, and I’m very proud of her.”
She made some strong song choices along the way, having a hit with a sweet and lilting version of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You and a lightly funked-up take on George Harrison rocker What Is Life? In Britain and Australia, she also scored with the folk murder ballad Banks of the Ohio, playing with the same dynamic of darkness and light that would one day transfix the world.
She carved out a country pop career in the US in the mid-70s and seemed a surprising choice for the co-starring lead role in Grease. She was 28 when was cast as 17-year-old schoolgirl Sandy, far too old for the part (and, indeed, six years older than Travolta). But her innate quality of blushing, fresh-faced loveliness made it seem practically typecasting, and she played the role with perfect comic timing, and when she appeared post makeover in the climax getting hot and bothered with her co-star, she achieved some kind of pop immortality. You’re The One That I Want was a global international hit and remains the fifth best selling single of all time in the UK.
The success of Grease pushed her to some bolder choices. For many, the ultimate Newton-John pop song is probably Physical from 1981. The production is pure soft-rock eighties, with a slinky, horn and guitar-laden groove reminiscent of Hall & Oates, whilst a seductive Newton-John insists “let’s get physical/Let’s get animal/Let me hear your body talk”.
The playful video of a leotard-clad, headband-sporting Newton-John driving a gym full of buffed-up semi-naked men to distraction was deemed too sexy for MTV, but it didn’t stop the track spending 10 weeks at number one in the US. And while her follow-up film role in the musical fantasy Xanadu was a box office flop, its worth investigating it for her roller disco title song with ELO.
Over her long career she made country albums, pop albums, religious albums and new-age mystical albums, and sold over 100 million records.
Her musical legacy may be fairly bland and unexciting, but for everyone who ever saw Grease (which, I’m guessing, is most of us), who sang along to Summer Nights and fell in love with her portrayal of Sandy, Olivia Newton-John will always have a very special place in our hearts.