The Essentials: Olivia Newton-John – Totally Hot

(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:


One thought on “The Essentials: Olivia Newton-John – Totally Hot

  1. Pingback: Today’s Top 5: Songs for ‘Juliana Hatfield Sings ONJ, Part Deux’ | The Old Grey Cat

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