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Aug 08

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN AND JOHN TRAVOLTA – “You’re The One That I Want”

FT + Popular142 comments • 5,987 views

#424, 17th June 1978

I have never seen Grease. My cultural ignorance is becoming a bit of a theme in these entries, but here at least I had a reason: I hated it. I can’t remember when I started hating Grease, or why exactly – incomprehension and resentment, I’d imagine; it was very much music for kids a few years older than me, and in 1978 it was everywhere. I’m sure some of the five and six year olds of today will have an inchoate loathing of High School Musical, its obvious modern comparison point.

So it’s literally only in the last week that I’ve learned that Grease the musical predates the film by six years – forever in pop terms, especially where revivals are concerned. That the musical might have had sharper edges than the film’s smash singles reveal. That “You’re The One That I Want” comes at the end of the story, even! (Though I could have figured out from the promo clips what the story was – good girls gotta act bad to get bad boys to turn good.)

None of which would have mattered to me: I hated Grease. Even at my most pop-lovin’ it was a marker buoy for me – I will go this far and no further. I once walked off a wedding dancefloor in a drunken rage when the (marvellously shonky) “Grease Megamix” was played. I refused to acknowledge the pleasure it brought people. I turned my back on its craft. I looked down the list of No.1s when I started Popular, saw this one, and relished the thought of really slaughtering it.

And now….? I can’t work out why on earth I didn’t like it. It has the slight misfortune to boss the charts in the middle of a remarkable era for pop, but I was completely unaware of that when my distaste for the song formed. “You’re The One” is superbly put-together bubblegum which makes the best use it can of its leads’ varied talents – Newton-John’s finger-wagging briskness and Travolta’s ridiculous cartoon yelp. Marshalled by a bassline of unquenchable jauntiness and enough backing vocals to keep anyone happy, this is very much a song to join in with (it’s not as if Travolta’s raising the bar that high!). I may never be able to fully come around on it – even irrational hate sinks its hooks deep – but I can enjoy it now and I’m all the better for it: this is populism at its well-turned best.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Hmm… That’s funny. I share Tom’s instinctive hatred, but the chronology of my dislike is a bit different. When I was 5 I found this music instinctively jolly and appealing, and the dance routines that you could see on ‘Screen Test’ and ‘Top Of The Pops’ super fun to watch, and I found that it was their appeal to the older children gave these songs a certain cultural cachet for me. My 16 year old sister would get furious when she heard this, though…

    Move forward to 1989, though, and a big Grease revival occurred, seemingly unbidden amongst the sixth formers of Crown Woods School. (Why was this? A TV screening? Parents?) God, the scorn that I felt when someone put a tape of this on in the smokers’ room – couldn’t they play something either good or contemporary? And there was something about us Londoners aping the model of the American high school that offended me, too.

    I know now that that serious 17 year old was wrong, and I theoretically understand that there are clever and appealing things going on in these songs, but I still can’t bring myself to investigate further. It would have to take loving somebody who loves Grease for me to lose all of this accumulated distaste.

  2. 2
    rosie on 4 Aug 2008 #

    And in this case I have seen Grease. I remember it well, it was at the ABC on the corner of Anlaby Road and Ferensway in beautiful down town Kingston upon Hull, and half my class (who were 14 in 1978) were also there. For days afterwards I was plagued with “what did you think of the film?” (nobody said “movie in those days)

    I suspect, knowing what I know now, that I would have enjoyed Saturday Night Fever rather more than I enjoyed Grease, but then I hadn’t been 14 for ten years by 1978.

    Yes, I did know that the musical predated the film, and in a way it shows; this music is very different to the SNF soundtrack, and somehow a lot more innocent that the other music in the 1978 charts. Comparing this to SNF is a bit like comparing Blackpool Prom to the Las Vegas Strip.

    So, good innocent fun, and a tune that wriggles in the head, but not a lot below the surface. But it’s also somehow timeless, an immortal story and one that finds a role even now.

  3. 3
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Much as I loved the movie, “You’re The One That I Want” has always left me cold. For starters, it sounds nothing like the 1950s – which bothered me greatly at the time, as I felt that history was being erased before my very eyes, and that this was further evidence of a dumbing down of culture. (I know, how rockist!) In this respect, the Grease soundtrack set the template for the similarly history-denying likes of Dirty Dancing, which could barely be bothered to function as a period piece.

    But above and beyond that, it’s such an undistinguished jumble of ideas, half-heartedly executed. Without the (admittedly great) accompanying film clip, it would be as nothing, and so its status as yet another of 1978’s Best Selling Singles Of All Time is as baffling to me as “Mull Of Kintyre”.

    But 1978 really was the year of the Mega Hit, wasn’t it? A peak year for the singles charts in terms of sales, which clearly has elevated certain singles above their natural station – but why this year? Why 1978?

  4. 4
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Note to Rosie (#2) “You’re The One That I Want” didn’t feature in the original stage musical; it was written specifically for the film.

  5. 5
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    And just to contradict my own comment: I’d forgotten that while “YTOTIW” topped the charts in June, Grease the movie didn’t open in the UK until September.

  6. 6
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Aug 2008 #

    This is one of my less favourite songs from Grease (I am very fond of both stage musical and film thanks to the talents of Shane Ritchie and Sonia) but it’s still pretty good, if just for the fab set piece in the film where ON-J stubs out her fag and makes John chase her through the funfair. SO GOOD. And the verse has excellent swinging chord changes – representative of teenage hormones zapping all over the place? I’m not so hot on the ‘ooo-ooo-ooo’s though, that’s all a bit Lower School Disco and creeps me out.

  7. 7
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    So to the other ubiquitous album at the kids parties, and the film I got to see. And that little RSO bull again. I can’t claim Grease is the complete reason why I love movie musicals, but it must be at least 50% of the story.

    I remember going with my Mum, my elder sister and all of her mates (I often had to tag-along as a child) to Borehamwood’s Studio 77) and just enjoying the hell out of this gleeful singing and dancing thing. This is pre-video’s of course and this much music and dance just wasn’t available to me. My sister had the soundtrack and I think we may have gone back to see it a couple of weeks later. The cinemas were packed and it just felt like the coolest thing ever. And unlike Tom (who is slightly older than me), I did get it because my sisters gang included me.

    This is the last truly successful movie musical until the dark ages get ushered in (by another song we will see here soon) and so I think I have always keenly felt a loss through my teenage years of seeing this kind of joyful celebration of music. Grease however does carry the death of the musical rolled up in it, along with SNF. Because the only successful musicals in the latter half of the seventies were nostalgia musicals. So Grease hankers for a watered down fifties aesthetic which make Happy Days look edgy. Cabaret tip-toed around the 1930 Germany. And the question is posed, how do you write a contemporary musical without the music sounding dated?

    Saturday Night Fever is not a musical. Its a dancical*. Whilst the music is important, it is non-diagetic and crucially often added quite late in the process to be as up to date as possible. The forthcoming flops post Grease nailed the coffin for musicals until the relatively recent revivial – and when you look at those there is a large emphasis on nostalgia again (from Mamma Mia’s jukebox score, to Hairspray’s 60’s pastiche).

    And ironically, Grease is probably one of my least favorite musicals now. I think this, and a couple of the other tracks are pretty good – but I hate the production (recorded through gauze) and laterly hate how safe the whole affair is. But Newton John in those satin pants…

    *This is a proper established term in film criticism, honest.

  8. 8
    Alan on 4 Aug 2008 #

    “thanks to the talents of Shane Ritchie and Sonia” – glad it’s not just me that had to sit through that.

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    That’s right, it opened in September cos going to see it was a treat for starting school!

    Odd when you think about it that the track from the end of the film (with “video” just being taken from the film) being the one released pre-the film.

    The other obv SNF connection is the Gibbs writing the Grease theme song (also added from the stage version). Of course you couldn’t do a stage version without either now.

  10. 10
    Waldo on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Surely that should be “You’re the one WHO I want”…

    The preference for this and its successor hinge totally on whether or not one took to “Grease”, it seems to me. As with “Saturday Night Fever”, I didn’t see this movie then and I still haven’t seen it. It was just one of those monumental entertainment events which didn’t interest me in the slightest (like the misnomer which is today’s “Reality TV”, all of which I think is complete garbage). Correspondingly nor did the many songs which emanated from it with the exception of Frankie Valli’s title track, which I thought was first rate.

  11. 11
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    The mind boggles at Sonia’s satin pants.

    I saw it with Debbie Gibson and Craig McLachlan which I think is a slight step up from the Ritchie Sonia combo.

  12. 12
    David Belbin on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Not seen the film but was once dragged to a school production of the musical and disappointed to find that, as Mike points out, YTOTIW is not in it. I was looking forward to at least one catchy song (no title song either, of course).

  13. 13
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    (“You’re the one WHOM I want”, surely?)

    I’ve got this slightly flimsy, half-baked theory about how chart pop tends to drop down a generation towards the end of each decade, roughly at the point where the year ends in an 8 – at which point, the generation who had been following the charts in the expectation that the music would always mature and grow alongside them will suddenly go “Eurgh, what is this Kiddie Shit, the charts aren’t what they were….” and start to drift away.

    If that’s even partially the case, then maybe the success of Grease was my own first experience of having to drop a generation in order to get the point. Up until then, I’d been increasingly inkie-music-press mature, what with my Devo & Pere Ubu obsessions and all… but, aged 16, and with most of my younger sisters’ friends all going mad for Johnny T (and most of my classmates getting the hots for Livvy N-J), I made a conscious and mostly successful effort to engage with the phenomenon…

  14. 14
    Tom on 4 Aug 2008 #

    #7 – yes, if I had an older sibling I would have liked it more I think. But it just seemed like something I wasn’t “in on”.

    And if I’d been aware of its 9-week run at the time I’d have resented that too. But I couldn’t: it was just ‘there’.

  15. 15
    Tom on 4 Aug 2008 #

    #12 – great theory, and it would apply to me and the “Hit Factory” for sure, but isn’t it just a case of being born in the first half of a decade? (or just “being 16”!) Presumably if you’re born in a year ending in -8 the effect isn’t quite so prominent..?

  16. 16
    rosie on 4 Aug 2008 #

    This is another one whose reign at the top seemed to go on for ever and ever. As it happens, this was one of the most blissful summers I can ever remember; a big chunk of it being spend driving around Scotland, which I’d never visited before. The absolute highlight being an improbably romantic Sunday evening spent sitting and lying in the ruins of Strome Castle watching the sun set over Loch Carron (amongst other things)

    The lowlight was spending our second wedding anniversary in Kilmarnock. You don’t want to be in Kilmarnock on special occasions, really you don’t. We were supposed to have reached Dumfries but the weather (foul, wet, windy) precluded it.

  17. 17
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Looking at the numbers, it stayed number one pretty much until the film came out, at which point I am guessing the OST started to take some of the slack up. Clearly Travolta is the heart of this phenomenon – and whilst he is a pretty weak singer the combo of this and SNF Manero made him an irresistable megastar. For about a year.

    Livvie was 30 in 1978, a good six years older than Travolta. And this was not their only film together, Two Of A kind which effectively ended Travolta’s career for fifteen years was one of the strangest movies ever conceived. Gene Hackman’s God threatening to kill all of mankind with a flood unless Travolta and Newton-John unwitting both sacrifice something for each other. Oliver Reed makes a decent fist as the devil though.

  18. 18
    SteveM on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Mike re “but why this year? Why 1978?”

    Don’t suppose it’s anything to do with singles packaging becoming more appealing (ie picture sleeves) in the UK? Seems a bit silly really but wouldn’t rule it out as a factor.

  19. 19
    SteveM on 4 Aug 2008 #

    (that’s assuming they were increasingly common by then as has been suggested)

  20. 20
    Waldo on 4 Aug 2008 #

    # 12 – Do you know, Mike, you’re right. “Whom” indeed.

    YTWTIW has a touch of Esther and Abi about it, a young couple pointlessly telling each other that they “love”/”want” each other and expecting everyone to share their joy. As has been mentioned, Travolta is particularly annoying with his inexplicable whipped doggie yelps and although Cambridge-born Aussie, Olivia, was reasonable quality eye candy, the complete package was frankly irritating and only succeeded in forcing me into reaching for the remote which I didn’t yet have.

  21. 21
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    The appearance of the song and routine at the end of Grease are as unsettling a jolt into the present as “Good Vibrations” or “A Day In The Life” appended to the end of their respective works of selective nostalgia. Suddenly we are thrust out of the camp fantasia of 1961, complete with the obligatory self-mocking Frankie Avalon, and into a scenario which doesn’t really belong anywhere, except perhaps in the more ornate dreams of Ed Wood. It’s as if Guy Peellaert had wandered onto the Happy Days lot with some stray black and scarlet paint.

    “You’re The One That I Want” is a sci-fi fantasy – emphasised by John and Olivia’s car leaving the company behind and taking off into the skies á la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the closing sequence – which sees Olivia Newton-John the way Travolta, and I expect the vast majority of her male following (though not necessarily me), desired to see her; grinning temptingly and conspiratorially, leather-clad, booted, literally dragging a boggle-eyed Travolta along in her wake. Like arcane ideations of the battery of whips and handcuffs in Anne Murray’s closet, Olivia had hitherto come across so clean and spotless that everyone wanted her to get a little dirty. Despite the near-unique situation of having two entirely parallel and separate careers in two different countries – in America she was the massively successful but still credible singer of superior AoR such as “Let Me Be There,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” and “I Honestly Love You,” while in Britain she was landlocked as Cliff Richard’s idea of a Virtuous Lady, doomed to Saturday evening TV specials flowing with MoR gingham and pigtails and made to sing bierkeller odes to the Salvation Army for Eurovision – she was clean and spotless, as indeed her character Sandy is throughout most of Grease (as epitomised on “Hopelessly Devoted To You”) until she is so irked by Travolta’s apparent coolness that she changes everything about herself to get him.

    Given her British reputation as Cliff’s Aunt Sally, it is doubly ironic that “You’re The One That I Want” does not appear in the original musical but was written specifically for the film by long-time Cliff and Shadows associate John Farrar. Yet as a pop single it works spectacularly well. Nothing about it is really ascribable to rock ‘n’ roll or pre-Beatles teenpop – its general gait is excitable bluegrass-pop, as per Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man,” though that is disguised well in the rapid-fire progression of the song. If “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” represented courtly courtship of good humour – there is never any doubt that Elton and Kiki are adults – the epileptic, jittery drive of “You’re The One That I Want” (in many places the record sounds as though it’s being played at 78 rpm) symbolises the oozing urgency and dizzy ecstasy of being young (though neither Travolta nor Newton-John were exactly teenagers). Travolta’s vocal is more of a stunned yelp than anything else, scrabbling frantically while jumping yodel octaves – his shriek of “’Cos the power you’re supplying/It’s electrifying” recalls both Iggy on “TV Eye” and the Sweet’s Steve Priest on “Ballroom Blitz.” His singing is high-register and boyish, which is little wonder since for him it is evidently five o’clock on Christmas morning. When he prepares for the chorus by yelling “Nothing left! Nothing left for me to do!” it sounds more like “Double love!” or even “Devil love!”

    Meanwhile Olivia is cool, methodical and patient, stretching out her syllables: “If you’re fiiiiiiilled with affection/You’re too shyyyyyyyyyy to convey,” before she kindly crouches down to meet him, “Meditate in my direction”…followed by an unspeakably sexy whisper of “Feel your way” before abruptly pulling him up by the collar and advising “You’d better shape up!” She has indeed collared him and their voices combine in something approaching orgasm towards the fade (in the film, hips happily wound around each other’s waists, they are as good as already doing it). It opens up the stream of sex to which the entire film has been slowly building up through multiple red herrings of camp; enough record-buyers considered it a sufficiently liberating release that they gave the record yet another nine-week run at the top. Here Travolta manages to look infinitely freer than Tony Manero could ever have imagined – and we cheered him on accordingly.

  22. 22
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 4 Aug 2008 #

    “you’re who i want” vs “the one that got away”

    “that” refers to “the one”, which (though identified with a person) is not itself automatically a person: hence (i suspect) “that” and “whom” are both ok

    if you wanted to work the distinction: “that” carries the slight sense of “you’re the thing that i need”, for example — as if you’re a drug or an experience

    dodging the issue entirely, “you’re the one i want” is best used, except it wrecks the meter…

  23. 23
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 4 Aug 2008 #

    “best used” = “best usage” bah

    (sorry vinylscot)

  24. 24
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    DJP, I’ve got to hand it to you; your analysis of YTOTIW makes it sound seriously great! However, it also has to be remembered that the song spent 9 weeks at #1 before the film came out, i.e. while still out of context with its overall narrative/thematic thrust. Which, to my mind, makes its prolonged success all the more baffling…

  25. 25
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I always used to sing Devil Love.

    The difference between Travolta as Danny and Travolta as Tony Manero is the difference between a musical and the relative realism of SNF, one is soft soaped nostalgia, the other purports to tell it like it is (I don’t believe SNF does, but it has a dramatic arc that suggests happy endings aren’t easy to find). The latter is a lot easier to make, it lacks the leap of faith that a musical requires. Danny is clearly freer, because he is clearly fantasy (both Sandy’s fantasy and in the sense of this fantasy 1961). As a gang leader Danny is wet as a dishrag and surely only eight year olds would fall for it – except there was already a massive cinematic heritage of pathetic gang dudes. Danny actually looks hard next to the Fonz, and he would probably stand up well next to West Side Story’s Jets! Brando may give him a run for his money, but Hollywood has a vested interest in defanging youth culture.

    “I Want You” would probably be more direct.

  26. 26
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Number 2 Watch: 6 weeks of ‘The Smurf Song’ by Father Abraham & The Smurfs, followed by a rather more agreeable 2 weeks of ‘Substitue’ by Clout (both rigid and bouncing, a desperate plea to be loved at all costs)

    I have slightly more affection for the puppet show 1970s musical Smurfs than the Gabba 1990s ones, but fonder memories of the Smurf figures that my father used to buy me at the petrol station on the way back from church.

  27. 27
    SteveM on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Smurfs always best seen and not heard. Perhaps you can say the same about Travolta.

  28. 28
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I have a feeling little Tom would have preferred the Smurfs! And I vaguely remember a later very of YTOTIW starring Smurfette and probably Handy singing You’re The Smurf That I Want.

    If not, I can imagine it! Smurfette in leather.

  29. 29
    SteveM on 4 Aug 2008 #

    “Tell me about it, smurf…”

  30. 30
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Christ on a Sherman tank I hated the Smurfs. Not quite as much as I hated the morons who bought their records or voted them number one week after week on Bill Oddie’s sodding Saturday Banana, but I enjoyed the karma of the lovely lead-coated Smurf figures they sold at National petrol stations as related in Father Abraphart and the Smurps’ hit of Xmas ’78: “Lick A Smurp For Christmas (All Fall Down).”

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