Tag Archives: Olivia Newton-John

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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When Worlds Collide: Juliana Hatfield at the Ardmore Music Hall, 10/12/17

Three weeks back, trumpets blared, timpani rumbled, clouds parted, and an angel came forth to announce that Philadelphia’s favorite Brit wordsmith (or, at least, one of them), Wesley Stace – aka the artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding – and his band, the English UK, were to play the Ardmore Music Hall…on the same night as a Philadelphia Eagles matchup against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. With him: Juliana Hatfield.

Was he opening? Was she? The social-media advertisements, as well as the poster outside the venue, never quite made it clear. Their names were in equal-sized type; and hers was preceded by a plus sign. Was she solo or with the Three, as at the Boot & Saddle earlier this year? (The brutal grace of that night will stay with me forever.) The Juliana Hatfield Three Facebook page was advertising the show, after all. Those questions of a thousand dreams haunted my nights and days – well, not really. We had our tickets and, either/or, it was a guaranteed good time.

But in football-crazed Philadelphia, unless one is Springsteen, Joel or similar stadium-name headliner, scheduling a last-minute show against the Eagles – especially when they’re doing well, which they are – is asking for a sparse turnout.

Which, this night, it was.

Stace and the English UK started the night with a taut 45-minute set that mixed new and old songs, including “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” the wondrous “Canterbury Kiss” and selections from his recent Jayhawks-backed Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding album. He also offered humorous anecdotes and explained (as had the bartender when we arrived) that he and the band would join Juliana after her solo set. The show came about, he said, a few weeks earlier while he was walking in the Philly neighborhood of Fishtown. It dawned on him that, with a day off between two of his Cabinet of Wonders shows, they might as well make use of it. He texted the Ardmore booker, who texted back, and voila! A gig was born.

Juliana took to the stage at about 9:15 and, once her electric guitar was plugged in, began her solo set with “Butterflies” and “If I Wanted Troubles.” She hit a speed bump in “Parking Lots,” first messing up the lyrics and then being out of tune. After one more attempt, she cut it short and moved on. “Slow Motion,” the song I most hoped to hear, was absolutely sublime:

After that song, she switched to acoustic and…in what’s fast becoming my favorite overused phrase, “wow. Just wow.” On electric, especially at first, she seemed a little off – almost as if she was waiting for a band to kick in. And, too, there were moments near the end of songs when she’d stop, applause would start, and then she’d strum a few more bars. On acoustic, there was none of that. “Choose Drugs” was, in a word, mesmerizing, and “I Want to Be Your Disease” simply venomous.

And then the English UK joined her for “Shining On” and then Stace returned…can I say “wow” again? The band ably accented Juliana’s material. “Somebody Is Waiting for Me” was beyond any and all superlatives I can think of.

And “Wonder Why,” one of the stellar tracks from this year’s Pussycat, just rocked.

At that stage, I would’ve been happy if Juliana and Stace said their farewells – it was a great show, already. But what followed put it in the stratosphere: Juliana played two songs from her forthcoming album…an Olivia Newton-John tribute album (!) tentatively titled Hopelessly Devoted to Liv.

While I’m sure that Wesley Stace never once imagined himself singing the immortal lyrics of “let me hear your body talk” prior to this night, hey, all I can say is this: shivers reverberated up and down my spine. I found the performances phenomenal and fun.

Diane, on the other hand, says they were “interesting”; and, tongue hopefully in cheek, blames me for the turn of events. Way back in 2012, in a “20 Questions” for the covers album, I posed a wordy question to Juliana that (for brevity’s sake) I trimmed for the published Q&A. The full exchange read:

Me: In your book, you write about liking ONJ as a kid. If you were to cover one of her songs, which would it be? (I can hear you singing – and having a hit with –  “A Little More Love” or “Deeper Than the Night.” Not that that should influence the song selection for your current covers project).

Juliana: I don’t think I could do any of her songs. I thought about [it] for this covers album but nothing feels authentic when I try to do it. She had such a sweet voice and a personality and could bring to life songs that I wouldn’t be able to bring to life. And some of her songs are really goofy.

Aside from the hard-hearted, anyone who came of age in the late ‘70s and/or early ‘80s can likely attest to the powerful charm of Olivia’s songs and albums (one of which is a future Essentials pick) of that era. True, those tunes primarily dealt with matters of the heart. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes goofy, but they were rarely saccharine. And when I hear them today? They take me back – in a good way.

That Juliana is paying tribute to ONJ and those songs – it’s cool.

Here’s the set in full:

Solo Electric:

  1. Butterflies
  2. If I Wanted Troubles
  3. Parking Lots (cut short)
  4. June 6th
  5. Everybody Loves Me But You
  6. I Picked you Up
  7. Slow Motion

Solo Acoustic:

  1. Christmas Cactus
  2. Choose Drugs
  3. I Want to Be Your Disease
  4. Evan

Juliana & English UK:

  1. Shining On
  2. Somebody Is Waiting for Me
  3. Wonder Why
  4. Have You Never Been Mellow
  5. Physical
  6. My Sister

Today’s Top 5: February 19, 1977 (via Weekly Top 40)

Forty years ago today, as I write, the first full month of the Carter presidency was almost over; and, all things considered, it had been rather boring. The big news of the day was the revelation that Jordan’s King Hussein had been on the CIA payroll for at least a decade; and, because Jimmy Carter vowed during his presidential campaign to be the first to shed light on such shenanigans, some saw his administration’s newly announced policy of not commenting on covert affairs as being somewhat hypocritical.

Beyond that, the scourge known as inflation had jumped half a percent point to 5.9 percent this month; and the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent, about the same as it had been the year before. Weather-wise, at least in the Philadelphia region, it was freakishly mild – in just a few days (the 23rd), we’d hit 70 degrees.

Probably the biggest news in my world, however, was that the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries had premiered on ABC on the last day of January.

There was plenty of good TV shows in those days – well, what I, at all of 11 years old, considered to be good, including Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on Tuesdays; and The Donny & Marie Show on Fridays. For anyone who has never had the pleasure of that specific variety show, here’s the Feb. 11th, 1977 episode in its entirety:

Anyway, enough of the preamble. Here’s today’s Top 5: February 19, 1977 (via Weekly Top 40) – and they are, in fact, the Top 5 songs of the week.

1) Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “Blinded by the Light.” Written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen on his 1973 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and released as his first single, this classic song was destined for general obscurity until Manfred Mann’s Earth Band released their cover version as a single. Not only did it chart, but it went to No. 1!

2) Eagles – “New Kid in Town.” Glenn Frey, Don Henley & Co. released their classic Hotel California LP in December 1976; and this, the first single from it, worked its way to the top of the charts for the week of Feb. 26th. This week, however, it was holding steady at No. 2.

3) Mary MacGregor – “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Falling from No. 1 to. 3 this week is this soft-rock ode to infidelity, which was co-written and co-produced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.

4) Barbra Streisand – “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born).” Clocking in at No. 4 is this theme from A Star Is Born, which was co-written by Streisand and Paul Williams. It would top of the charts in two weeks’ time.

5) Kenny Nolan – “I Like Dreamin’.” Until just now, I’d never heard or heard of this song before. Nolan, it turns out, co-wrote such hits as “My Eyes Adored You” and “Lady Marmalade” before launching his solo career.

And a few bonuses:

6) Thelma Houston – “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The Number 19 song this week is this fun disco-lite tune.

7) Wings – “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Released as a single on Feb. 4th, this live version of the classic Paul McCartney song checks in at No. 37 (on its way to No. 10). It was a single from the Wings Over America, a live set that, according to Wikipedia, set history by becoming the first triple-LP release by a group to hit No. 1 on the album charts.

8) Olivia Newton-John – “Sam.”