Olivia Newton-John – circa 1981
“Where, where did my innocence go? / I, I was a young girl, you know” – ’A Little More Love’ (John Farrar)
He is blown away. He is totally astonished. He drops to his knees. He falls on his face. Danny Zuko just can’t believe it. Sandy Olssen, the sweet girl he has been chasing, has undergone a stunning metamorphosis. She is now a vixen in tight spandex pants and a leather jacket. This is a scene from the movie ‘Grease’ (1978). Danny is played by John Travolta and Sandy is played by Olivia Newton-John. The importance of this moment is how it resonates with Olivia Newton-John’s public image as a singer. For years, she has been viewed as being just as sweet as her character, Sandy. Yet, almost simultaneously, outside of ‘Grease’, Olivia Newton-John reinvents herself as a more edgy and sexy performer. The results are the best moments of her career.
Olivia Newton-John is born 26 September 1948 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England. Her father is Brinley (‘Brin’) Newton-John. Born in Wales, he is a former officer of MI5, the British spy agency. Brin Newton-John has a more academic life by the time his daughter is born. “My father was a headmaster in England,” Olivia says. Her mother is Irene Helene Newton-John (nee Born). Born in Germany, she and her family left that country before World War Two to avoid the Nazi regime. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was Max Born and he won the Nobel Prize for quantum physics in 1952, I believe. He was a very close friend of [famed physicist Albert] Einstein,” points out Olivia. She adds, “My grandfather played wonderful piano.” Olivia Newton-John is the youngest of three children. Her elder brother, Hugh, becomes a doctor while her big sister, Rona, goes on to a career as an actress.
In 1954 the Newton-John family moves to Australia. Brin Newton-John initiates the move to take up a new position as Professor of German and Master at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in the Australian State of Victoria. “When I was a young girl,” recalls Olivia Newton-John, “I was so crazy about animals that I wanted to do something associated with them, and I thought about being a vet.” The little girl is also interested in music. “I always sang as a child,” Olivia confirms, “and I always seemed to know the melody and lyrics of every song on the radio…Singing was kind of a family tradition. My father had a wonderful bass baritone voice. He was a Welshman, of course, and they can all sing.”
In 1959 Olivia Newton-John’s parents divorce. “I think I got a little distracted by that,” Olivia admits. “It affected my concentration at school.” Brin Newton-John later remarries. He has two children with his second wife, Valerie Cunningham. Olivia’s half-siblings are Toby and Sarah. While on the subject of extended family, Olivia Newton-John’s niece is Caroline Goldsmith who, as Tottie Goldsmith, becomes a member of Australian female vocal group The Chantoozies from 1986 to 1990. Olivia attends Christchurch Grammar School in South Yarra where she meets Daryl Braithwaite, future vocalist of Australian pop group Sherbet. She goes on to University High School in Melbourne. “My education was in Australia and I always felt I was Australian, even though my passport was British,” says Olivia Newton-John.
Show business comes calling, albeit in an unusual fashion. Olivia Newton-John wins a local contest as a look-alike for Hayley Mills, a popular British teen actress of the time. “My sister [Rona] sent my photograph in,” reports Olivia. “I guess I was probably 10.” [Another source says she was 12 at that point.]
“My mum gave me my first guitar when I was about 14,” recalls Olivia Newton-John. However, it is not as a guitarist, but as a singer, that she gets her next break. “I met some young girls my own age and we started singing together [in a group] called The Sol 4 and we sang in jazz clubs.” Olivia is about 14 at this time. Sol 4 proves ‘short-lived.’ “My mother put an end to the girl group ‘cos she said it was taking away from my homework,” admits Olivia. Instead, in 1962 she gets to put her nascent guitar skills to use playing folk songs on the weekend at a coffee shop owned by her brother-in-law. The youngster is billed as ‘Lovely Livvy.’
Olivia Newton-John begins appearing on Australian television variety shows in 1964 such as ‘The Happy Show’ and ‘The Go Show.’ On the latter, she meets both Pat Carroll and John Farrar. “We all knew each other from when we were really young,” observes Olivia. “I entered this singing contest that was on a national television show and, long story short, I won it.” This show is ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, hosted by Australian rock star Johnny O’Keefe. The prize Olivia wins is a trip to England on a Sitmar cruise ship. It is not something she undertakes immediately because she is just too busy.
When she is 16, Olivia Newton-John appears on the Australian television show ‘Time for Terry.’ Running from 1964 to 1966, this program is hosted by Terry O’Neill, an English comedian, entertainer and jazz musician. In her 1965 gig on the show, Olivia meets Ian Turpie. The 21 year old becomes her boyfriend. Olivia and Ian both appear in the movie ‘Funny Things Happen Down Under’ (1965). “Ian Turpie played the bad boy in the film and he was my boyfriend at the time,” she says with a smile. Ian also has something to do with Olivia’s postponement of her trip to England. “I didn’t want to go. I had a boyfriend in Melbourne.” Olivia’s mother, Irene, is not content with this situation. A talent scout had contacted Irene and offered to manage her daughter. Irene hotly rejected the offer and decided that if anyone was going to be Olivia’s manager it would be her mother. Described as a ‘stage mum with big plans’, Irene Newton-John effectively puts an end to Olivia’s relationship with Ian Turpie in 1965. Turpie goes on to be a showbiz identity in Australian and is probably most famous for hosting the television game show ‘The Price is Right’ (1981-1986). And how did her mother tell Olivia of her plans for them to take up the trip to England? “She grabbed me by the hair and said, ‘You’re going’,” recalls Olivia without any apparent resentment.
“My mother and I went to England in 1966,” says Olivia Newton-John. “I was very homesick.” Olivia cuts her first single, a cover version of Jackie De Shannon’s ‘’Till You Say You’ll Be Mine’, a song that was the B side to De Shannon’s more famous 1963 song ‘When You Walk In The Room’. Olivia’s version is released on the Decca label. The B side is ‘Forever’. “After about three months, one of my friends, Pat Carroll, came over [to England],” says Olivia. This reunion with her friend from ‘The Go Show’ days seems to lift the teen’s spirits. They form a duo, Pat And Olivia. One of their jobs is to give two shows a night at Raymond’s Review Bar in London. It is only after they arrive at the venue that Pat And Olivia discover it is a strip club. The two demure teens perform their usual routine – fully clothed – to a notably muted response from the patrons. Pat And Olivia are promptly fired. More significantly, the girls open some shows for The Shadows.
A brief digression on the subject of Cliff Richard and The Shadows: Cliff Richard is a British pop star. The Shadows is Cliff’s backing band. The group also has a parallel career without Cliff, primarily recording instrumentals, which proves quite successful. At the time Pat And Olivia tour with The Shadows, the line-up of the latter act is: Hank B. Marvin (guitar), Bruce Welch (guitar), John Rostill (bass) and Brian Bennett (drums).
The marriage of Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch and his first wife, Anne, ends in 1968. Welch then begins a relationship with Olivia Newton-John. The couple become engaged.
The Shadows tour Australia in 1968. Pat Carroll and Olivia Newton-John tag along. All these performers appear on a 1968 episode of the Australian edition of the television show ‘Bandstand’, hosted by Brian Henderson. This is the local version of Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’ For whatever reason, bassist John Rostill does not make the trip to Australia. Filling in for him is John Farrar, Pat and Olivia’s colleague from ‘The Go Show.’ The Shadows are ‘suitably impressed with his work.’ Born in Melbourne, John Farrar started out in a band called The Mustangs (1963-1964) before moving on to The Strangers (1964-1970). The Strangers were the backing band on ‘The Go Show’ and that’s how he met Pat and Olivia. While Olivia is romantically involved with Bruce Welch, Pat Carroll dates John Farrar. Pat’s visa expires in 1968 so Olivia is left alone in England. John Farrar and Pat Carroll marry in January 1970. The Strangers disband in 1970 and John and Pat return to London. Meantime, The Shadows called it quits in 1968 but John Farrar joins two of the act’s alumni in the awkwardly named Marvin, Welch & Farrar (1970-1973).
In 1970 Olivia Newton-John’s career in London takes another twist. She recalls that, “[American] Don Kirshner, who had put The Monkees together, was looking for a new group, but to put them in films instead of television.” [The Monkees had their own television show.] Olivia Newton-John is enlisted for this new group, an outfit called Toomorrow [sic]. The act debuts in the film ‘Toomorrow’ (1970), which Olivia describes as, “a sci-fi musical.” They also release an album, ‘Toomorrow’ (1970), from which comes the single ‘I Could Never Live Without Your Love’. None of these projects is very successful and Toomorrow is disbanded as a ‘failure.’ “That was a disappointment [but] a learning experience,” says Olivia philosophically.
Picking herself up, Olivia Newton-John uses her connections to The Shadows (fiancé Bruce Welch and friend John Farrar) to meet Cliff Richard, the British pop star with whom The Shadows worked. “I kind of auditioned for him,” says Olivia. “[We] have a wonderful chemistry when we sing together.” Olivia Newton-John becomes part of Cliff Richard’s touring show, appearing as an opening act at his concerts. With this beachhead established, Olivia begins her solo recording career in earnest.
Olivia Newton-John’s musical style changes over the years. In this first phase, she is encouraged by those around her (e.g. Bruce Welch, John Farrar) to sing country music primarily. Olivia’s brand of country has strong pop overtones and some residual folk music influence as well.
Olivia Newton-John is not famed as a songwriter. Although she does write a small amount of her catalogue, songwriting is not really her forte. She records some cover versions, but most of her songs are originals written for her. Her most prolific songwriter is her friend, John Farrar. Here, not all the songwriters will be detailed, but the authors of at least Olivia Newton-John’s most famous songs will be cited.
The most distinctive aspect of Olivia Newton-John’s work is her voice. Her singing is remarkably clean and sweet. It is a voice well suited to pop, country and folk. She has a great facility for harmonies. Her friend Pat Carroll often provides backing vocals. No musicians are particularly associated with Olivia Newton-John. On stage and in the recording studio she works with session musicians and the playing is always very professional, if not particularly attention grabbing.
Olivia Newton-John starts out signed to Festival Records in Australia, Pye Records in the U.K. and Uni in the U.S.A. The first single she releases for these labels is ‘If Not For You’ (AUS no. 7, UK no. 7, US no. 25) in Spring 1971. Olivia explains how she came to do this song: “Cliff [Richard’s] manager Peter Gormley, who was also an Aussie, wanted me to record. Bruce Welch and John Farrar recorded me doing a Bob Dylan song.” Dylan released the song in October 1970 and it was covered by George Harrison in November 1970. Olivia’s version is probably more like Harrison’s than Dylan’s, with its zinging slide guitar. “If not for you / My sky would fall / Rain would gather too / Without your love I’d be nowhere at all / I’d be lost without you,” Olivia insists in a vocal that is gentle rather than powerful. “To be honest, I didn’t like it. I wasn’t crazy about the song,” confesses Olivia, before adding, “I was wrong, thank goodness…Thank goodness Peter [Gormley] picked it for me.” The singer brought her dog to the studio during the recording of ‘If Not For You’. The mutt knocks over a microphone stand and, allegedly, that sound can still be heard in the instrumental bridge near the end of the song.
‘If Not For You’ is followed by ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 6, US no. 94), a traditional country music murder ballad arranged by Bruce Welch and John Farrar. It is a bit difficult to credit someone as lovable as Olivia Newton-John as the blood-soaked narrator who sings, “I cried, ‘My God, what have I done? / I’ve killed the only man I love / He would not take me for his bride.” ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ has a stronger country music flavour than its folk/pop predecessor and boasts impressive harmonies.
Olivia Newton-John’s debut album, ‘If Not For You’ (1971) (AUS no. 14, US no. 158), is released in November. In the U.K. and the U.S. it is titled ‘Olivia Newton-John’. Co-produced by John Farrar and Bruce Welch, this disc includes both ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Banks Of The Ohio’.
In April 1972 Olivia Newton-John and Bruce Welch split up. Although they were engaged, the couple never married.
Olivia Newton-John maintains her link to Cliff Richard, appearing on his television variety show ‘It’s Cliff’ in 1972.
‘Olivia’ (1972) is the singer’s second album. Again produced by Bruce Welch and John Farrar, this album contains Olivia Newton-John’s cover version of the 1971 George Harrison song ‘What Is Life’.
Olivia Newton-John achieves a U.S. breakthrough in 1973 with ‘Let Me Be There’ (AUS no. 11, US no. 6). A light, country pop song, this finds Livvy asking, “Let me there in your morning / Let me be there in your night / Let me change whatever’s wrong and make it right.” The song is written by John Rostill, John Farrar’s predecessor as bassist in The Shadows. The U.S. market has some reservations about the newcomer singing country music, an indelibly American style. Olivia recalls, “They weren’t very happy ‘cos I was an Australian singing country music produced by an Australian and an Englishman, John Farrar and Bruce Welch, written by an Englishman, John Rostill – so they weren’t very happy with me for a little while.” The U.S. prejudice is overcome with the support of two American country music stars: “Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn stood up for me.” The album ‘Let Me Be There’ (1973) (UK no. 37, US no. 54) is created for the U.S. market by Olivia’s new U.S. record label, MCA. In addition to the title track, it includes a cover version of John Denver’s 1971 hit ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ (UK no. 15, US no. 119) and some material from Olivia Newton-John’s previous two albums. Production duties are shared between Bruce Welch, John Farrar and Alan Hawkshaw.
Two albums are released by Olivia Newton-John in 1974 – but one is aimed at the U.S. market and one for the U.K. and Australia. The U.S. release is MCA’s ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ (1974) (US no. 1), issued in May. The title track, ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know)’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 5), is another hit penned by John Rostill, the author of ‘Let Me Be There’. “If you love me, let me know / If you don’t, then let me go / I can’t take another minute of a day without you in it,” sings Olivia Newton-John in a good natured way that counterpoints the lyrics desperation as the tune bops along pleasantly. Again, a lot of material on this disc is assembled from earlier Australian and European releases, so Bruce Welch is still co-credited as producer with John Farrar. ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ also contains one other notable new song, ‘I Honestly Love You’, but since it is also on the 1974 Olivia Newton-John album for the non-U.S. market, let’s deal with that song there.
The Olivia Newton-John album devised for the U.K. and Australia is ‘Long Live Love’ (1974) (AUS no. 19, UK no. 40), produced by John Farrar and released on EMI. The title track, ‘Long Live Love’ (AUS no. 11, UK no. 11), is written by Valerie Avon and Harold Spiro, and is described as an ‘oompah-oompah song.’ It is created for Olivia Newton-John to perform as England’s representative at the Eurovision Song Contest on 6 April 1974 in Brighton, U.K. ONJ only manages to place fourth in the contest; the Swedish group Abba wins with ‘Waterloo’. The Eurovision Song Contest means little in the U.S.A. at this time, so ‘Long Live Love’ is not added to Olivia’s U.S. album for the year. ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ and ‘Long Live Love’ both include ‘I Honestly Love You’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 22, US no. 1), a song that becomes one of Olivia Newton-John’s most successful singles. A heartfelt ballad, this song is framed with a string section and harp but, by keeping the focus on the basic piano accompaniment, it is incredibly moving. “This is pure and simple / And you should realise / That it’s coming from my heart and not my head / I love you / I honestly love you,” sings Olivia Newton-John in a fragile voice on the verge of tears. “The take we used was the first take,” she comments, underlining the pained immediacy of the performance. ‘I Honestly Love You’ is composed by Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen and U.S. songwriter Jeff Barry and its success helps Allen’s own career.
On a holiday in the south of France in 1974 Olivia Newton-John meets Lee Kramer, a businessman in the import/export trade. He becomes her boyfriend (1974 to 1979) and her manager ‘for most of the rest of the decade.’
Around this time, Olivia Newton-John’s music enters a new phase. A song like ‘I Honestly Love You’ could be considered ‘country only in the loosest sense.’ Olivia’s new musical style is described as ‘soft rock’ and it ‘establishes her as a pop singer, not a country pop singer.’ It may be more accurate to call it ‘middle-of-the-road’, neither pop nor rock. It is the sound of an all-round entertainer courting a more general audience. It also sounds like it could be recorded by someone decades older than the 26 year old Olivia Newton-John. However it is also impeccably polished, tuneful and endearing.
In 1975 Olivia Newton-John moves to the United States. Fellow Australian expatriate singer “Helen Reddy…said to me, ‘If you want to make it in this country, you really have to be here.’” Olivia takes that advice to heart and makes a new home for herself in Malibu, near Los Angeles, on a mountain ranch with space for the singer’s beloved dogs and horses.
‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ (1975) (AUS no. 13, UK no. 37, US no. 1) is released in February. John Farrar remains as the producer for virtually all of Olivia Newton-John’s albums from this point. Farrar writes the title song, ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ (AUS no. 10, US no. 1), a piece that’s as soft as a pillow and glossy as a shampoo commercial. “There was a time when I was in a hurry / As you are / I was / Like you,” Olivia coos soothingly, ironing out any stress. The album’s next best known track is ‘Please Mr Please’ (AUS no. 35, UK no. 3), a request to stay away from a particular song on the jukebox that reminds the narrator of a lost love. A lachrymose lament like this shows the country influence has yet to completely dissipate for Olivia.
‘Clearly Love’ (1975) (AUS no. 50, US no. 12) is Olivia Newton-John’s second album for the year. The John Farrar song ‘Something Better To Do’ (AUS no. 60, US no. 13) is executed with an effortless, carefree manner. Linda Hargrove pens ‘Let It Shine’ (US no. 30).
1976 also sees two albums released by Olivia Newton-John. ‘Come On Over’ (1976) (AUS no. 29, UK no. 49, US no. 13) is issued in February. Barry and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees furnish the title track, ‘Come On Over’ (AUS no. 55, US no. 23). Also present is a cover version of Dolly Parton’s 1973 country music standard ‘Jolene’ (AUS no. 29) – though Olivia Newton-John doesn’t release it as a single until 1978. The second album for the year is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’(1976) (AUS no. 88, US no. 30). John Farrar writes the title track, the breezy ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ (AUS no. 93, US no. 33). The lyrics gently cajole, “But on those days when nobody wants to know you / And all your smiles keep falling on stony ground…Don’t stop believin’ / You’ll get by / Bad days, bad days will hurry by.” Also present on this disc is ‘Every Face Tells A Story’ (US no. 55), but more successful is ‘Sam’ (AUS no. 56, UK no. 6, US no. 20). A waltzing piano accompanies Olivia’s lovelorn narrator who addresses the title character in this fashion: “I heard that you’re on your own now / So am I / I’m living alone now…Are you feeling lost, just like me? / Longing for company.” ‘Sam’ is co-written by John Farrar, Donald Black and Farrar’s chum from The Shadows, Hank B. Marvin. (From 1973 to 1976 John Farrar was part of a revived version of The Shadows.) ‘Sam’ is a rare U.K. hit for Olivia Newton-John. Since moving to the U.S., her songs have been popular in that country but that popularity seems to come at the expense of her British success.
‘Making A Good Thing Better’ (1977) (AUS no. 71, UK no. 60, US no. 34) is the title of Olivia Newton-John’s next album. The title track, ‘Making A Good Thing Better’ (US no. 87) is released as a single. Also on this album is a cover version of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ (AUS no. 32) from the musical ‘Evita’. Julie Covington’s 1976 rendition is the original with Olivia’s take not released as a single until 1980. Olivia Newton-John’s career seems to be slowing down. Her image may be part of the problem. Livvy quips, “There’s a rumour going around that I’m Miss Goody Two-Shoes from Australia. Well, that’s a laugh. I’m really Miss Good Two-Shoes from England.” The compilation album ‘Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits’ (1977) (AUS no. 18, UK no. 19, US no. 13) appears to close this chapter.
“I guess my music changed from the 1970s to the 1980s because ‘Grease’ came along,” says Olivia Newton-John. ‘Grease’ is a stage musical created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. It is a loving homage to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll when greased down hair was fashionable. It is a love story about bad boy Danny Zuko falling for good girl Sandy Olssen. Olivia Newton-John applies for the female lead role when casting begins for a motion picture version of ‘Grease’. “I was really nervous that I would look too old,” she admits. By the time the movie opens, Olivia Newton-John is 29 and playing a teenager. Her co-star, John Travolta (who plays Danny), is 24. The soundtrack album, ‘Grease’ (1978) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 1, US no. 1) is released in April and the movie premieres on 16 June 1978. The soundtrack augments the songs from the stage show with a handful of new compositions. Two of these, penned by John Farrar, are among the most successful moments. The ballad ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 2, US no. 3), sung by Olivia Newton-John’s character, Sandy Olssen, is a perfect pastiche of 1950s girl group sounds. “I’m not the first to know there’s / Just no getting over you / But baby can’t you see / There’s nothing else for me to do / I’m hopelessly devoted to you,” swoons Olivia/Sandy. By the end of the film, sweet little Sandy has transformed into a torrid man-eater who sternly warns Danny, “You better shape up / Cause I need a man / And my heart is set on you.” This is an excerpt from the frenetic, galloping ‘You’re The One That I Want’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 1, US no. 1), a duet between Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. Also noteworthy is ‘Summer Nights’ (AUS no. 6, UK no. 1, US no. 5), a simultaneously dramatic and silly number from the original ‘Grease’ authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. It plays out as a contrasting account from Sandy and the girls and Danny and the boys and is performed by Newton-John, Travolta and ‘the cast of “Grease”.’ ‘Grease’ is a critical bombshell and a box-office smash.’ “’Grease’ changed my life in the most amazing way,” marvels Olivia Newton-John.
What ‘Grease’ does is propel Olivia Newton-John into a third musical phase. For the first time in her career she becomes a rock singer. Admittedly, it is still rock with a large dollop of pop mixed in. ‘Grease’ took a jovial approach to rock ‘n’ roll with a nod and a wink, but, in her own career, Olivia Newton-John tackles rock music head on in a more serious and committed fashion. Just as her character in ‘Grease’, Sandy Olssen, changed from the girl next door to tigerish vamp, Olivia Newton-John changes from sweet pop princess to ‘a mildly sexy pop singer.’
‘Totally Hot’ (1978) (AUS no. 7, UK no. 30, US no. 7) is the album that cements Olivia Newton-John’s status as a rock singer. As usual, John Farrar supplies the song that is the highlight of the album, ‘A Little More Love’ (AUS no. 9, UK no. 4, US no. 3). Olivia’s narrator is stalked by an electric guitar that at set intervals lashes out in stinging fashion. “I wait in the heat,” she smoulders, “I know, know that you have you way / ‘Til you have to go home / ‘No’s a word I can’t say.” The new image is a welcome change. Farrar writes the unjustly overlooked title track, ‘Totally Hot’ (US no. 52). This is a funky and brassy blast in which Olivia demands, “Gimme what you got / Ready or not / Our love is totally hot.” The singer bravely tackles The Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 scorcher ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ without disgracing herself. ‘Deeper Than The Night’ (AUS no. 74, UK no. 64, US no. 11) is soulful pop and ‘Dancin’ ‘Round And ‘Round’ (US no. 82) also comes from this set. ‘Totally Hot’ is described as ‘a mixture of soft rock and light disco’ but this seems to underrate this effort.
In 1979 Olivia Newton-John is awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
On 9 January 1979 Olivia Newton-John is one of the acts involved in a benefit show called ‘A Gift of Song – The Music for UNICEF Concert.’ This show is held at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City and raises money to battle world hunger. Other performers on the bill include Abba, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind And Fire, John Denver, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge.
Following the success of ‘Grease’, Olivia Newton-John participates in another movie musical. ‘Xanadu’ (1980) takes its name from the ‘stately pleasure dome’ erected by the conqueror Kublai Khan in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Kublai Khan – Or a Vision in a Dream, a Fragment’ (1797). In the movie ‘Xanadu’, Olivia Newton-John plays the part of Kira, a ‘sexy muse’, a ‘girl who makes dreams come true.’ The film includes a roller disco scene and a scene with a Hollywood legend. “I still can’t believe I danced with Gene Kelly,” marvels Olivia years later. It’s not all fun and games though. Olivia fractures her coccyx while filming the dance sequence for the song entitled ‘Suddenly’. The soundtrack album, ‘Xanadu’ (1980) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 2, US no. 4), is released in August. Side one of the disc features Olivia Newton-John’s music while side two features British pop group The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The highlight of Livvy’s half is the John Farrar composition ‘Magic’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 32, US no. 1). Over a funky, skipping beat, Olivia/Kira gives a strangely bewitching performance, urging, “You have to believe we are magic / Nothing can stand in our way.” Also on this side is the ballad ‘Suddenly’ (AUS no. 37, UK no. 15, US no. 20), a duet with Olivia’s friend and former mentor, Cliff Richard. In addition, Olivia shows up on side two to duet with ELO on the title track, the shimmering and sparkling ‘Xanadu’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 1, US no. 8). Written and produced by ELO’s leader, Jeff Lynne, the lyrics to this song find Olivia/Kira describing “a place where nobody dared to go / The love that we came to know / They call it Xanadu.” Olivia Newton-John later reflects that ‘Xanadu’, “was seen as a bit of a bomb. Well, the movie itself was, but the music was very successful.”
During the making of ‘Xanadu’, Olivia Newton-John meets Matt Lattanzi. “He was a dancer,” she recalls, who stood in for the film’s leading man in the choreographed scenes. Subsequently, Matt Lattanzi works as both an actor and dancer. He also becomes romantically involved with Olivia Newton-John.
In 1980 Olivia Newton-John and her friend Pat Carroll open ‘Koala Blue’. Initially, this is a Los Angeles based import shop for Australian goods. Over the years, ‘Koala Blue’ diversifies into a chain of women’s clothing boutiques and even starts its own brand of wine. Eventually, it goes bankrupt in 1991 and closes down in 1992.
Around 1980 Roger Davies takes over from Lee Kramer as Olivia Newton-John’s manager. He shepherds Olivia’s career through her next couple of albums. Davies is an expatriate Australian.
‘Physical’ (1981) (AUS no. 3, UK no. 11, US no. 6) is Olivia Newton-John’s best album and the title track, ‘Physical’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 7, US no. 1), is her best individual song. The authors of the song are Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick. Kipner intended the song for Tina Turner but she rejected it for being ‘too obvious.’ Roger Davies is Tina Turner’s manager at the time. Although Tina declines ‘Physical’, Davies thinks it is ‘perfect’ for his new client, Olivia Newton-John. The lyrics give Olivia some concern, but Davies talks her into recording it. Over a funky, dance pop beat, Olivia declares, “There’s nothing left to talk about ‘less it’s horizontally / Let’s get physical.” She panics afterwards, thinking the song is too suggestive. When a video is made for the song, director Brian Grant has the idea to make fun of the ‘overtly sexual lyrics’ by showing the singer as ‘a sexy aerobics fanatic’ in a gymnasium. ‘Physical’ is banned by a couple of U.S. radio stations – one in Salt Lake City and one in Provo, Utah – because of ‘its veiled sexual content’…but of course that only enhances its popularity. It is the no. 1 single in the U.S.A. for ten weeks from 21 November 1981 to 23 January 1982. Aside from its popularity and catchy tune what makes ‘Physical’ Olivia Newton-John’s best song? Primarily, it stands out for subverting her ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ image by putting her in ‘vixen mode.’ This echoes the transformative process of her character in ‘Grease’ and so personifies that crucial career crossroads. It’s just plain fun to see a good girl gone bad – even if it is so unrealistic as to be humorous, rather than credible. The producer of the ‘Physical’ album, John Farrar, writes another winsome hit for his charge, the playful ‘Make A Move On Me’ (AUS no. 8, UK no. 43, US no. 5). Framed by synthesisers, Livvy cheerfully encourages her man with the lyrics, “I’m the one you want / That’s all I want to be / So come on baby make a move on me.” Farrar also pens the album’s other hit, ‘Landslide’ (UK no. 18, US no. 52). The disc even celebrates Olivia’s love of animals with ‘The Promise (Dolphin’s Song)’. ‘Physical’ represents Olivia Newton-John’s most winning and well-balanced work and showcases her at the peak of her powers.
‘Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2’ (1982) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 8, US no. 16) is a compilation album that includes two new songs. The clattering synthesiser of ‘Heart Attack’ (AUS no. 22, UK no. 46, US no. 3) sound like a (good) outtake from ‘Physical’. The other new song is ‘Tied Up’ (AUS no. 54, US no. 38).
Olivia Newton-John reunites with her ‘Grease’ co-star John Travolta for the movie ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983). David Foster produces the movie soundtrack, ‘Two Of A Kind’ (1983) (AUS no. 35, US no. 26), which is released in December. Olivia plays the role of Debbie in the film. The movie is described as ‘a bomb.’ The music from the film fares a bit better. ‘Twist Of Fate’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 57, US no. 5) is the best song from the album. It is co-written by Steve Kipner and Peter Beckett. A pulse beat underlies its busy synthesisers as Olivia wails, “This gift of life extension / By divine intervention / It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate / Telling me that heaven can wait.” Also present is ‘Livin’ In Desperate Times’ (AUS no. 81) which has a very plastic 1980s sound with synthesisers and bass dominating the mix.
In December 1984, ‘around Christmas’, Olivia Newton-John marries Matt Lattanzi. The couple had been living together for four years.
‘Soul Kiss’ (1985) (AUS no. 19, UK no. 66, US no. 29) finds Olivia Newton-John further developing the style of the ‘Physical’ album. Mark Goldenberg writes the steamy title track, ‘Soul Kiss’ (AUS no. 20, US no. 20). Olivia starts out sweetly, singing, “Soul kiss / You left me dreaming,” but later drops to a lower register to deliver the line, “I get down on my knees / (And beg you baby).” The back cover of the album shows the singer reflected in a mirror with her back to the camera. She is wearing ‘tight riding pants and boots [and] holding a crop’ while only a strategically placed scarf protects the modesty of her naked torso. Bizarrely, she is pregnant at the time – though that is not visually obvious. The riding crop is also brandished in the video for the clinically funky ‘Toughen Up’ (AUS no. 93), though in this case it is matched with a red riding jacket. ‘Toughen Up’ is written by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten.
After the ‘Soul Kiss’ album, Olivia Newton-John parts ways with manager Roger Davies.
Olivia Newton-John and her husband Matt Lattanzi become parents with the arrival of their daughter, Chloe (born 17 January 1986).
‘The Rumour’ (1988) (AUS no. 29, US no. 67) is produced by Davitt Sigerson. The title track, ‘The Rumour’ (AUS no. 34, US no. 62), is a duet with British pop star Elton John. Elton co-writes the song with his lyricist, Bernie Taupin. The album is ‘ignored’ by the marketplace. It is Olivia’s last regular album for MCA.
Olivia Newton-John’s first album for Geffen Records is an oddity. ‘Warm And Tender’ (1989) (US no. 124) consists of lullabies for children.
The ‘Grease Megamix’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 3) – a medley from ‘Grease’ – keeps Olivia Newton-John in the charts in 1990.
‘Back To Basics: The Essential Collection’ (1992) (AUS no. 2, UK no. 12, US no. 121), released in May, is a greatest hits set with four new songs added. The new songs are ‘Deeper Than A River’, ‘Not Gonna Be The One’, ‘I Want To Be Wanted’ and ‘I Need Love’ (AUS no. 89, UK no. 75, US no. 96). The last-named, a pop song with a skipping beat, is the best of the bunch.
Olivia Newton-John’s father, Brin, dies of liver cancer in 1992. The same weekend, she gets further bad news. “In June 1992, I discovered a lump in my breast,” she recalls. A medical diagnosis confirms it is breast cancer. “You just think, ‘Cancer? I could die!’ It’s very frightening,” says Olivia. ‘Over the next year, she successfully undergoes treatment for the disease.’ This involves a course of chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. “I used homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga and meditation in conjunction with my chemotherapy to help me get stronger again after the cancer,” she says. “I also chanted with Buddhist friends and prayed with Christian friends. I covered all my bases.” In 1992, Olivia Newton-John returns to New South Wales in Australia to recuperate after battling breast cancer. She then maintains homes in both the U.S. and Australia.
In September 1993 Olivia Newton-John’s husband, Matt Lattanzi, has an affair with Cindy Jessup, a physical therapist who is acting as the babysitter for Matt and Olivia’s daughter, Chloe. This leads to Matt and Olivia separating. The marriage ends in divorce in December 1995.
‘Gaia: One Woman’s Journey’ (1994) (AUS no. 7, UK no. 33) is released on Hip-O Records. It’s an unusual album because all the songs are written by Olivia Newton-John. She also co-produces the album with Murray Burns and Colin Bayley. ‘Gaia’ (pronounced guy-ya) is another name for Mother Earth, so the disc has a strong environmental message. There are also songs reflecting the singer’s chemotherapy and battle with cancer. The music is described as ‘adult contemporary’ or ‘new age.’ ‘No Matter What You Do’ (AUS no. 35) is the best known track.
In 1996 Olivia Newton-John meets Patrick McDermott. He is a gaffer (head electrician) and cameraman on movie sets. He becomes the new man in Olivia’s life and they date – on and off – for the next nine years.
‘Back With A Heart’ (1998) (AUS no. 66, US no. 59) is released by MCA in May. Recorded in Nashville, the album sees Olivia Newton-John revisiting country music. Multiple producers are used including John Farrar and David Foster.
In the same year, Olivia Newton-John performs a number of concerts in Australia, sharing the stage with Australian pop star John Farnham and Anthony Warlow, a man better known for appearing in Australian stage musicals. These shows by the three singers are billed as ‘The Main Event.’ A live album, ‘Highlights From The Main Event’ (1998) (AUS no. 1) is credited to Olivia Newton-John, John Farnham and Anthony Warlow and is released in December.
Olivia Newton-John teams up again with John Farnham to sing at the Olympic Games in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 2000. “Nothing I have done professionally will top the feeling I got singing with John Farnham at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,” she gushes.
‘’Tis The Season’ (2000) is released in September by Hallmark Entertainment. This is a collection of Christmas songs performed by Olivia Newton-John with U.S. country singer Vince Gill. Also released in September is the concert recording ‘One Woman’s Live Journey’ (2000) (AUS no. 41).
‘(2)’ (2002) (AUS no. 5) is an album of duets. Olivia Newton-John pairs with the likes of Australian rock star Billy Thorpe and Australian country singer Keith Urban. This disc uses multiple producers: Olivia Newton-John, Charles Fisher, Richard Marx and Rick Nowels. The disc is issued by Festival.
In February 2003 Olivia Newton-John opens her Gaia Retreat & Spa in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia. Olivia’s mother dies in 2003.
‘Indigo: Women Of Song’ (2004) (AUS no. 15, UK no. 27) is issued by Festival. On this disc Olivia Newton-John sings songs written or made famous by other women.
Olivia Newton-John’s boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, goes missing on 30 June 2005. He vanishes when he goes on a fishing trip off the coast of California. In a 2008 report, the U.S. Coast Guard suggests that ‘McDermott was lost at sea.’ Despite this, rumours persist of sightings of McDermott. Some theorise that his ‘disappearance’ has been faked to dodge child support payments to his ex-wife, actress Yvette Nipar. In April 2009 McDermott is found by reporters from ‘Dateline NBC’ in a Mexican beach town living under the alias of Pat Kim and working on a yacht that carries tourists in an out of a marina near Sayulita, Mexico. His relationship with Olivia Newton-John is not resumed; it died along with him in June 2005.
Olivia Newton-John sticks to inspirational new age music for ‘Stronger Than Before’ (2006) (AUS no. 39), released in September. This again chronicles her recovery from cancer. It is released by the Hallmark label.
Olivia Newton-John receives an AO (Officer of the Order of Australia) title in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
EMI releases ‘Grace And Gratitude’ (2006) (AUS no. 86), produced by Amy Sky. It has a similar theme to Olivia’s previous disc.
In 2007 it is revealed that Olivia Newton-John’s daughter, Chloe, is recovering from the eating disorder, anorexia. ‘Christmas Wish’ (2007) (US no. 187) is produced by Amy Sky and issued by Warner Bros in October. As the title suggests, this is another set of Christmas songs. In 2007 Olivia Newton-John begins dating John Easterling a.k.a. ‘Amazon John’ of the Amazon Herb Company. He and Livvy first met fifteen years earlier but romance did not blossom until 2007. The couple go on to marry on 21 June 2008.
‘A Celebration In Song’ (2008), released in June, is another album of duets. Olivia Newton-John’s singing partners here include Australian pop star (and fellow cancer survivor) Delta Goodrem and Livvy’s long-time friend, Cliff Richard. Multiple producers are used. This disc is issued by Warner Bros in Australia and on EMI for the rest of the world.
The Olivia Newton-John Wellness Centre is opened in June 2012 on the campus of the Austin Hospital in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The year closes with ‘This Christmas’ (2012) (AUS no. 33, US no. 81) in November. This disc is issued by Universal Music Enterprises. Here, Olivia Newton-John duets with John Travolta and various other guests on seasonal fare. The album is produced by John Farrar and others.
A joint tour with John Farnham results in the concert album ‘Highlights From Two Strong Hearts Live’ (2015) (AUS no. 1) on Sony.
‘Liv On’ (2016) (AUS no. 70), released in October, is ‘a collaborative grief and healing album’ co-credited to Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky. ‘Friends For Christmas’ (2016) (AUS no. 1), issued in November, is a set of festive season duets credited to John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John.
In May 2017 it is announced that Olivia Newton-John’s breast cancer has returned and metastasised to her lower back.
Sandy Olssen’s reinvention of herself in ‘Grease’ mirrored Olivia Newton-John’s reinvention of herself. Her best work was the more rock-influenced pop she recorded from 1978 to 1986. However, the varied nature of Olivia’s overall catalogue meant that different audiences may have preferred different periods. Some loved her country pop from 1971 to 1974 or her middle-of-the-road pop from 1975 to 1977 or perhaps even the mix of new age, Christmas albums and concert recordings that comprised her post 1986 career. Each of those phases were valid and, together, comprise a portrait of an artist whose diverse catalogue is united by her pure and gentle voice. Olivia Newton-John ‘made the transition from popular country pop singer to popular mainstream soft rock singer.’ Her career ‘straddled the musical fields of pop, middle-of-the–road and country.’
- ‘Olivia Newton-John: The Singles Collection 1971-1992’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Festival Mushroom Records, 1992) p. 2,3
- wikipedia.org as at 2 July 2015, 1 January 2016, 7 January 2017, 3 January 2018
- Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 4 July 2015
- brainyquote.com as at 3 July 2015
- liketotatally80s.com – ’10 Things You Might Not Know About Olivia Newton-John’ – no author credited – as at 3 July 2015
- Celebrity Profile – Olivia Newton-John – E! Cable Channel, au.eonline.com as at 3 July 2015
- ‘Talking Heads’ (Australian television program, ABC Network) – Olivia Newton-John interview conducted by Peter Thompson (13 July 2009) – reproduced on abc.net.au
- ‘Brin Newton-John: Scholar Looked Ahead’ by Alison Branley (13 October 2012) – reproduced on newsstore.fairfax.com.au
- wn.com – ‘I Dated Olivia Newton-John says Sherbet’s Daryl Braithwaite’ – Showbiz News by Rebecca Davies (16 January 2012)
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 3 July 2013
- allmusic.com, ‘Olivia Newton-John’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 3 July 2015
- ‘This Is Your Life’ (Australian television program, Nine Network) – hosted by Mike Munro (2004)
- ‘Bandstand’ (Australian television program, Nine Network) – hosted by Brian Henderson (1968) – Two episodes reproduced on the DVD ‘Bandstand Live – Cilla Black & The Shadows’ (Umbrella Entertainment, 2014)
- ‘Woman’s Day’ (Australian magazine) – ‘Olivia Newton-John: Ian Turpie Was My First True Love’ – no author credited (19 March 2012) – reproduced on womansday.com.au
- famousfix.com as at 3 July 2015
- olivianewton-john.com – bio – no author credited – as at 3 July 2015
- The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 169
- ‘The Daily Express’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Whatever Happened to The Shadows’ Bruce Welch?’ by Peter Robertson (21 June 2014) – reproduced on express.co.uk
- ‘Billboard’ (U.S. music magazine) – John Farrar bio by Ed Hogan, Bruce Eder as at 3 July 2013 on billboard.com
- onlyolivia.com – Olivia Newton-John biography by ‘Richard’ as at 2 July 2015
- azlyrics.com as at 4 July 2015
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 285, 294, 332, 336
- lyricsfreak.com as at 4 July 2015
- songfacts.com as at 3 July 2015
- biography.com – Olivia Newton-John – no author credited – as at 2 July 2015
- ‘National Enquirer’ (U.S. publication) – posted by Pusssykatt on groups.google.com as at 3 July 2015
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – ‘John & ONJ’s Big Night Out’ by Cameron Adams (25 June 2015) p. 48
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 154
Song lyrics copyright unknown with the following exceptions: ‘A Little More Love’, ‘Totally Hot’, ‘Make A Move On Me’ (all three John Farrar Music); ‘If Not For You’ (Big Sky Music); ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ (Blue Gum Music Ltd); ‘Let Me Be There’ (Sony ATV Music Publishing, LLC); ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know) (EMI/Al Gallico Music); ‘I Honestly Love You’ (Woolnough Music, Jeff Barry Int., Irving Music Inc.); ‘Sam’ (Universal – Songs of Polygram International, Inc., Dick James Music Ltd, Carlin Music Corp., Birnstock Pub. Co. O.B.O. Blue Gum Music Inc.); ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ (Warner/Chappell Music Inc.). ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Twist Of Fate’ (all three – Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music Inc.); ‘Physical’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Terry Shaddick Music); and ‘Soul Kiss’ (Universal Music Publishing Inc.)
Last revised 7 January 2018