Category Archives: 1970s

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:

 

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Today’s Top 5: July 7th, 1979

Thursday night found us at what sometimes seems like our home away from home, the World Cafe Live in West Philly, to see Rickie Lee Jones. If I’ve done my math right, it was the seventh time that I’ve seen the jazzy singer-songwriter, who’s long been a favorite. Though she had a cold, she delivered a solid set that was accented by spellbinding moments – especially on “We Belong Together.”

That’s not my video, I hasten to add. We were in the front row, where experience has taught me that the upward angle guarantees the overhead stage lights will appear like glowing orbs on my Phone videos. But here’s a photo I took:

“We Belong Together” hails from her classic 1981 album Pirates, of course, and really should’ve been released as a single, as it’s one of her best songs.

Another highlight came earlier in the night with the second single released from her 1979 eponymous debut, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” which is the first thing I – and most folks, I’m sure – heard by her. According to Weekly Top 40, it made its chart debut – at No. 65 – on April 28th, the same week that Blondie’s “disco song,” “Heart of Glass,” topped the charts. Over the course of the next two months, it slowly weaved its way through the disco and pop dross cluttering Top 40 until, on June 9th, it hit entered the Top 10 at No. 8.

Four weeks later, on July 7th, it peaked at No. 4 (a spot it would hold for an additional week).

That July wasn’t much different from what I described in Today’s Top 5: June 1979 or Today’s Top 5: September 29, 1979 other than, for me, school being out. There was also this: I was 13 when the month began, and 14 when it ended. Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, the month’s notable events included, on the 2nd, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin being introduced; on the 8th, L.A. passing a gay and lesbian rights bill; and, on the 16th, Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition” stunt at Chicago’s Comiskey Park going kaboom.

Among the albums released this month were Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps, the B-52’s debut and the Kinks’ Low Budget, but I wouldn’t discover them for quite some time. I was a kid on a budget, after all, and albums were often a luxury. And, too, there’s this: I was (likely) still grooving to a release from the month before: Wings’ Back to the Egg.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 7th, 1979 (via Weekly Top 40):

1) Anita Ward – “Ring My Bell.” Some people hate this pure shot of disco fluff, which was enjoying its second week at No. 1, and it’s understandable why they might. But it has a certain charm…

2) Donna Summer – “Bad Girls.” As I noted after her untimely death, Donna Summer wasn’t just the “queen of disco” in the late ‘70s, but the queen of the Top 40. This week, she holds the No. 2 spot with the propulsive second single from the Bad Girls album; it was No. 3 the previous week, and would hit No. 1 the next. According to the Wikipedia entry, she was inspired to write the song after she was stopped one night by a police officer who mistook her for a prostitute. Who knew?

3) Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff.” And here’s additional proof of Summer’s chart dominance: “Hot Stuff,” the lead single from Bad Girls, dropped to No. 3 this week from No. 2, and before that had enjoyed a three-week run as No. 1. It would remain in the Top 10 for several more weeks, too. One of the interesting things about the song, to me at least, is the way it effortlessly blends rock and disco. (Check out the guitar solo at the end.)

4) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Rickie Lee’s biggest hit is also one of her greatest songs, a true effervescent shot of upbeat joy. This week, it reached No. 4 on the charts – a spot it would hold for one more week before falling out of the Top 10.

Here’s a cool video of her singing it on stage back in the day…

5) Kenny Rogers – “She Believes in Me.” Disco may have ruled the charts in the late ‘70s, but as evidenced by “Chuck E.’s in Love,” there was more to the era’s music that fast beats. And just as hip sounds could find their way in the charts. So could country – especially when sung by Mr. Rogers.

And a few bonuses…

6) Supertramp – “The Logical Song.” Mr. Spock’s theme song, from Supertramp’s smash Breakfast in America LP, peaks at No. 6 this week.

7) Wings – “Getting Closer.” Back to the Egg sported a cool cover, and some good-to-great tunes. Not Paul McCartney’s best, but far from his worse – New Wave in theory, at least in spots, but Old Wave in practice, through and through. This, the lead single, clocks in at No. 31, and would stall a few weeks later at No. 20.

Today’s Top 5: September 29, 1979

The fall of 1979 can best be summed up in one word: “eh.” Disco ruled the charts, but a New Wave was breaking. I was a newly minted ninth-grader and having a blast – primarily in cartooning, a fun elective where we made silly Super 8 movies – but also in most everything else. I got good grades, had good friends, and had good times.

In the wider world, however, things weren’t quite as upbeat. Unemployment averaged 5.8 percent, the lowest it had been since 1974, but as the year wore on that number inched higher. The bigger concern: inflation, which rose from 9.3 percent in January to 13.3 percent in December.

As recounted in “The Great Inflation,” a Federal Reserve historical overview, the reasons for the spiraling inflation were plenty, including the Fed’s own policies, President Nixon’s decision to opt out of the Bretton Woods system (aka the gold standard), and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978-79. This March 1979 news report from WEWS in Cleveland does a great job of explaining the ripple effect that OPEC’s recent decision to raise the price of oil would have:

Now, factor in oil-related events beyond OPEC – like the Iranian revolution, which decreased overall oil production by about seven percent, and old-fashioned hoarding, which was also in play, and the result was scenes like the ones captured by the MacNeil-Lehrer Report in June 1979:

Beyond the economy, this year in American history is notable for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident that March; President Carter being attacked by a “killer” rabbit in April; McDonald’s introducing the Happy Meal in June; Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park that July; Michael Jackson releasing Off the Wall in August; and, on Sept. 23rd, an anti-nuclear protest in New York City drawing an estimated 200,000 people.

Of course, as a 14-year-old boy in suburban Philly this September day, a fine Saturday with highs in the mid-70s, I was at once aware and unaware of much of that. My family watched ABC’s World News Tonight most nights, and read the newspapers – granted, in my case, that meant scanning the headlines before diving into the Sports and Entertainment sections, but I knew what was what. Kind of.

I likely spent part of the day playing ball in the street with friends, or at the park doing the same. A radio may or may not have been blaring, and if one was that meant WIFI-92, the Top 40 station I wrote about in this remembrance of Donna Summer, was providing the soundtrack to the fun.

Movies in the theaters that month included Amityville Horror, More American Graffiti and Monty Python’s Life of Brian; and, over the next few months, included 10, The Rose, 1941 and The Jerk. Of those, I only saw More American Graffiti and 1941 in the theaters, though I read the Amityville Horror book. But here’s one memory tied to one of the films I didn’t see, 10: Not long after its release, a girl came to school with her hair braided in cornrows exactly like Bo Derek’s. Now, cornrow braids work for some folks – Alicia Keys springs to mind. Others? Not so much – and this girl definitely fell into that camp. Everyone looked. Everyone laughed (though hopefully not to her face). And she arrived at school the next day with her locks returned to their natural curls.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 10: September 29, 1979 (via Weekly Top 40)…

1) The Knack – “My Sharona.” The debut single from the new-wave Knack knocked just about everyone for a loop – most of all, I’m sure, the band itself – when it landed atop the Billboard charts for six weeks in a row, with this week being its last; and it went on to be the the year’s best-selling 45. It’s an undeniably catchy tune, and one that won over many young music fans such as myself – small surprise since the Knack’s Doug Fieger later said it was written from a 14-year-old boy’s POV. But Capitol’s accompanying promotional campaign, which conjured the Beatles, ultimately caused a mean-spirited backlash (“Knuke the Knack,” anyone?) that soon doomed the band to joke status. Which is a shame because, as I said, this song is a delight – and the followup single, “Good Girls Don’t,” was pretty darn good, too. Here they are on Top of the Pops promoting it…

2) Robert John – “Sad Eyes.” The No. 2 song, which would inch up a notch to rule the Billboard charts the following week, is this easy-listening favorite.

3) Herb Alpert – “Rise.” No. 3 this week is this light disco instrumental from legendary trumpeter Herb Albert. It would take the top spot in four weeks’ time.

4) Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” What needs to be said about this, this week’s No. 4 single? That it’s disco? Yes? That it’s undeniably catchy? To quote my wife, “it’s a great song.”

5) Earth, Wind & Fire – “After the Love Is Gone.” Rounding out the Top 5 is this EW&F classic, the group’s sixth Top 10 hit in six years.

Also making their chart debuts this week…

6) Blondie – “Dreaming.” Clocking in at No. 79 is this, my all-time favorite Blondie song. I could play it on a loop – and, in fact, I’ve done just that. Here’s a factoid about it that I never knew: According to Blondie’s Chris Stein, the song’s a direct cop of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” (though I and American Songwriter don’t hear it).

7) The Records – “Starry Eyes.” And at No. 89 is this under-appreciated classic from the Records, a British power-pop band. It hails from their debut album, which was named Shades in Bed in the U.K. but morphed into a self-titled delight in the U.S., where the album also featured a much cooler cover. That’s the reason I bought it, actually.