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Aug 08

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

FT + Popular142 comments • 6,300 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. 31
    Pete Baran on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Ah, Jonathon King’s finest moment? (Bearing in mind many of his other moments weren’t fine and some were downright illegal. Like tipping They Might Be Giants to be a big thing).

  2. 32
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    RESPECT THE TMBG MASSIVE!!

    “Lick A Smurp” IIRC retailed for a competitive price of 10p.

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Working back from seventies memories, I do remember the original Smurfs comic strips by Peyo being pretty good… Maybe they’ll eventually turn up in the FT guide to comics. I suspect not, though.

  4. 34
    Waldo on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I recall a fine old mix-up when a father of two young boys took his brood to see The Smurfs only to discover that he had arrived at a gig featuring The Smirks, who were not exactly the same as the little blue guys. Twas The Smirks ironically who orchestrated a thing called “Smirks against Travolta” campaign, which was in fact a rather tongue-in-cheek swipe at Disco per se and a rallying defence of live gigs rather than an exclusive and unneccesary dig at JT.

    I saw The Smirks, who were from Manchester, a couple of times myself (and no, I didn’t set out to see The Smurfs!) and thought they were going places. They did one track about a train, which was belting. Typically Peely lent a hand but they didn’t quite get there.

  5. 35
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I was given a flop Smurfs single, ‘Smurfing Beer’, for my sixth birthday;

    “Smurf, Smurf, Smurfing beer!
    You don’t get drunk, and it isn’t dear!”

    Also, Smurfing beer is made of honey and tea, the cheery blue fellows sang informatively. Sounds quite tasty, actually.

    The B-Side, ‘Smurfing Tango’ was less inspired.

  6. 36
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I was one of the “morons” who bought The Smurf Song! But “ironically”!

    That whole “smurfing out of key” episode bothered me, as the smurfing wasn’t out of key at all, merely an improvised harmony part. Why, it felt like Abraham’s FASCISTIC JACKBOOT OF OPPRESSION was intent on stamping out any notions of free-spirited individuality/creativity….

  7. 37
    Tom on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Yes I would have preferred the Smurfs! My Dad decided to help me learn French by buying loads of albums of Les Schtroumpfs in the original Francais when we went on camping holidays over there.

    Best Smurf story: “The Black Smurf” – it is terrifying!! A Smurf goes on holiday to Jamaica and gets his – *exit pursued by a bunny*

    OK no there is a terrible plague that turns Smurfs black and…erm…savage… there isn’t really a good way to spin this one actually.

  8. 38
    Alan on 4 Aug 2008 #

    some crazed loon has youtubed himself playing barron knights ‘A Taste of Aggro’ vinyl single

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJnPVYzxMrI

    Rivers of Babylon – Smurfs – Brian & Michael – smurfs reprise (reprieve!)

    awful. despite the comments. naturally i was a fan at the time.

  9. 39
    FiveLongDays on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Well, I know I’m a bit too young to have even been born when this came around, but I think this is a top tune. I can’t take it in context, but out of context, the only way I can see it, what’s not to like

    *resists temptation to link to Spoiler’s ‘Electrifying’*

  10. 40
    rosie on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Tom @37: Bring back Tintin au Congo I say!

  11. 41
    o sobek! on 4 Aug 2008 #

    djp otm re: ytotiw, esp in the film. on the soundtrack it’s nowhere near ‘hopeless devoted to you’ or even the title track but in the context of the film dear lord. i can remember seeing this at 5 (at most) at a drive-in and when olivia emerges w/ ‘what’s it gonna be STUD?’ even then i knew THIS IS WHAT I WANT. even at 5 the ending w/ car ascending into heaven and john and olivia waving back to us seemed incredibly wtf. 20 years later when the rerelease hit theaters most of the film really didn’t hold up, the shoddiness was more apparent, the acne scarred drag racer less scary (esp since i now knew those were acne scars instead of whatever wild animal attack my 5 yr old mind had conjured), the gulf between the good actors and charismatic stars (thinking here esp of stockard channing) and the rest (thinking here esp of the non-travolta t-birds) seemed wider. but that final scene in any and every way held up.

  12. 42
    wichita lineman on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Grease. God help me, this wrecked my summer holiday in ’78. I was 13 and reasonably well versed in 50s r’n’r pop culture. I knew this was definitely dumbed down, cod beyond Happy Days (which I liked) and, in a way that I couldn’t yet grasp, actively dangerous to pop music. Which means I didn’t rate it as innocent fun (sorry Rosie).

    I felt more articulate by the time people were insisting I’d find Austin Powers funny because I loved The Avengers (by articulate I mean turning puce while quietly roaring “you… don’t… under… STAND”).

    Cultural rape, I’d call it. Anticipating this thread I asked a very good friend this morning if she’d rather listen to the Grease soundtrack than Gene Vincent and she said “hell, yeah!”

    So the historical damage was indeed done. I don’t think most people who like Grease would get DJP’s beautifully observed time travel theory. It’s just Grease – y’know, the fifties, the way Abba and Mamma Mia! (please note the necessary exclamation mark) are now intertwined.

    This isn’t a bad song, and “feel your way” is a great pop moment; Frankie Valli’s theme at the top for nine weeks would have been truly sweet. So, in a way, we have to thank the film makers for giving us two pop classics. No matter. They couldn’t rewrite the existing score and so there was worse, much worse, to come.

    This is where I feel obliged to recall Bill Shankly’s quote about football not being a matter of life and death: “it’s more important than that.” Pop music moreso, at least for me.

  13. 43
    SteveM on 4 Aug 2008 #

    wait did we really get this far down without mentioning Hylda Baker & Arthur Mullard? http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=x_MSi0MhM_c

  14. 44
    wichita lineman on 4 Aug 2008 #

    We did! One of the minor Britcom hit 45s that works best in theory (see also Dick Emery’s You Are Awful, John Inman’s Are You Being Served). Not quite Stan Freberg, who, as far as I can tell, never parodied any of the Popular entries, inadvertently specialising in records that peaked between 2 and 4 on the UK chart.

  15. 45
    pete on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Its probably another good measure of pop ubiquity of 1978 that Grease and Saturday Night Fever were so relentlessly parodied. And the relative ease of parody of both is due to them both being on the edge of ridiculous themselves – Grease certainly satirises itself at points (mainly with Channing’s occasional eye-rolls). This in turn makes it into terrifically useable pop culture – I remember playing Grease in the playground (specifically a track which shall not be mentioned yet), and not feeling self-consciously silly just as I might play at Batman with my parka hood up. The Grease role-plays (replete with singing and half remembered words) would normally devolve into Kiss Chase.

    One of the things which contributed at this period to the death of the musical was its general inability to be contemporary. Grease managed to dodge this bullet via the Gibb theme tune and this number, though only just. The standard rock-crit story of 78 is the development of punk. The charts seem to suggest much more of an experimental spirit just to distract themselves from that nasty noise!

  16. 46
    LondonLee on 5 Aug 2008 #

    I must admit I prefer Hylda Baker’s vocal to Olivia Neutron Bomb. Good single though, but one that I’d also leave the wedding dancefloor if it came on.

    My abiding Grease memory is that Xmas working in the record dept. of WH Smith and we sold so many copies of the soundtrack to this day I can still remember how much it cost: £5.60p and you rang it up on button #8 for chart albums. When I mentioned to my boss the truckloads we were selling he said “this is nothing, you should have been here last Xmas when Saturday Night Fever was out”

  17. 47
    Snif on 5 Aug 2008 #

    This was a major major hit in Australia, not least because it was Our Livvie singing, but also because it was written by Aussie John Farrar (who had a solid background in the OzPop 60s). I do recall reading that at the Australian premiere, ONJ was seen to bury her head in her hands when “Hopelessly Devoted To You” came on…couldn’t blame her really.

    It was also about this time that I ventured to buy my first UK weekly music papers, just out of curiosity more than anything. It seemed that the entire UK was obsessed with a) Debbie harry and b) The Kids From Fame, and that some show called TISWAS was unmissable TV not least due to some saucy wench who co-hosted.

    (Now that I think of it, the “Letter From Britain” column in an issue of American “Creem” magazine from that time opined that 1978 would be remembered as the Year of Grease and Boney M – looks like Mr Frith or Ms Valentine wasn’t far wrong)

    As for “You’re The One…” Ii always thought the film clip let it down – we’re supposed to think ONJ is raunching it up, but does she walk? Does she run? No, She SKIPS hither and yon, which betrayed the whole look (unless it was supposed to). Never saw the whole film, and feel that at this stage there’s little point, as it’s just 30 years too late for me, and it would look like a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers.

  18. 48
    Pete on 5 Aug 2008 #

    The skipping is two fold. First its a musical – people skip in musicals. But it is probably more to do with Livvie being sewn into those trousers. They are so tight that too much movement at the top of the legs would bust ’em.

    Talking of the “video”, I was slightly obsessed with the funhouse sequence which I wished would turn up at a fair I could go to (instead of rides which I was too short to go on). It reminded me of a human screwball scramble.

    Twenty somethings? Stockard Channing was 34!

  19. 49
    DJ Punctum on 5 Aug 2008 #

    The Kids From Fame came a wee while later – yes, all right, bunny, get your paws off my collar – but fulfilled absolutely the same function (I’m not sure whether for the same kids though; Fame tended to be lapped up by those just too young to have gotten Grease).

    I have to say that although I understand exactly why boys my age would have reached for the Kleenex in an ONJ + leather keks situation she didn’t send my number 56 bus all the way to Shotts, if you get my meaning – whereas she was far more convincingly sexy in the “Physical” era; that video is so wonderfully daft it looks as if she’s actually having fun rather than being told to have fun.

  20. 50
    wichita lineman on 5 Aug 2008 #

    Livvie’s trousers were one thing, the dodgy perm quite another. Is it me, or didn’t she look a whole lot better in the rest of the film?

  21. 51
    pete on 5 Aug 2008 #

    Yes, the phrase that springs to mind is lamb dressed as mutton! But even the perms played into my five year old hands, because my Mum’s hair was an equally tortured permanent wave (and my Dad had leather jacket – it is all starting to make more sense).

  22. 52
    vinylscot on 5 Aug 2008 #

    In Kutner and Leigh’s book, they state that Allan Carr originally offered the role of Danny to Henry Winkler, who knocked it back for fear of being typecast (too late, Henry). He would have been 33, and not a particularly young-looking 33, so maybe we should have been thankful for a 24 year old JT.

    Despite ONJ’s alleged “charms” I and most of my friends at the time preferred Stockard Channing, despite her advanced years. She just seemd more fun to be around.

    This song seemed to me to be just fluff. The video/film excerpt seemed to back this up. It wasn’t upbeat enough to be joyous, or infectious enough to cross the line from naff into whatever is on the other side of that line.

    Obviously, 1.87 million people disagreed and kept the thing at the top right through the summer when I left school. I’m not just being grinch-like about this – I was quite amenable to the idea of the movie, and did see it almost as soon as it came out. It was a little disappointing, but Sha-Na-Na’s contribution and a couple of wry cameos from Sid Caesar and Frankie Avalon, plus of course Stockard Channing, pulled it up to acceptable. A 5 for the song and the movie, I would say.

    It was apparently originally planned that JT and ONJ would sing a version of “All Shook Up” as the movie’s finale. Again, let us be thankful for small mercies.

  23. 53
    rosie on 5 Aug 2008 #

    What’s all this about “advanced years”? At thirty ONJ was a wet-behind the ears stripling! Stockard Channing a mere novice! Takes a real woman, it does!

    Stockard Channing is pretty damned attractive right now, and she’s ten years older than me. (She’s aged rather better than ONJ actually. IMHO.)

  24. 54
    vinylscot on 5 Aug 2008 #

    Rosie, I completely agree with you; Stockard Channing has indeed aged very well and is still a damned attractive woman. My use of the phrase “advanced years”, was in relation both to the part she was playing, and to my own age at the time.

    Back then, I couldn’t possibly go near a 33 year old woman – I’d be terrified. Today, much the same…

  25. 55
    rosie on 5 Aug 2008 #

    vinylscot @ 54: Aren’t teenaged boys supposed to fantasise about being seduced by their female teachers?

  26. 56
    DJ Punctum on 5 Aug 2008 #

    Yes. Which is why VS clearly stated that he “couldn’t possibly go near a 33 year old woman” as opposed to “couldn’t possibly fantasise about a 33 year old woman.”

  27. 57
    vinylscot on 5 Aug 2008 #

    Marcello has pretty much hit the nail on the head. Fantasy and reality – two different things, and maybe it’s better that way, at least that’s what I tell myself!

  28. 58
    Alan on 5 Aug 2008 #

    @46: “Olivia Neutron Bomb” then you have to invoke John Revolter too. henry Winkler’s doing alright without the typecasting these days, although i did like it on Arrested Development when his lawyer character was fired and they replaced him with another lawyer played by Scott Baio

  29. 59
    DJ Punctum on 5 Aug 2008 #

    In my experience the real danger was with the younger teachers straight out of training college.

  30. 60
    jeff w on 5 Aug 2008 #

    @49-50 I’m with you guys. When I saw the film in the cinema in ’78 (aged 13) it was a crushing disappointment when Sandy transformed from spotless bobbysoxer into a be-permed, tight-trousered temptress. But that probably says a lot more about my attitudes at the time than anything else ;)

    The song is great though. I’d probably give it 8.

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