13
Nov 08

OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN AND ELO – “Xanadu”

FT + Popular34 comments • 2,466 views

#461, 12th July 1980

A splash of escapist colour, ELO’s only number one also feels rather dated, out of synch with any of the gritty or futurist or reactionary 1980s we’ve met so far. This is in one way a very unfair perception: this was a meeting of two commercial powerhouses, best-selling artists of the last two years. But while ELO’s disco move had made plenty of sense in 1979, it had also coincided with the peak of disco’s mainstream popularity – the film, touted as the new Grease, was a relative bomb, and it seems to me the context “Xanadu” fits into is a kind-of mopping up of the seventies.

Being untimely doesn’t make it a bad record, though: it’s nice that Jeff Lynne’s thick, opulent take on pop had one go at the top, and Olivia Newton-John’s wide-eyed vocals soften the bombast. If it doesn’t have the demented gusto and everything-goes ambition of ELO’s imperial-phase hits, it’s got drive and hooks and it delivers its payload of nonsense without a hint of shame.

The Xanadu film’s instincts weren’t precisely wrong. The goal of the film’s hero – to open a, like, really amazing nightclub (and shag a muse) – might have chimed with a decade where club culture would drive pop more than ever. But not this type of club: the pleasure palace uniting generations and eras was a dying dream. The greedy inclusivity of the disco bubble had popped, leaving “Xanadu” placeless.

6

Comments

  1. 1
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 13 Nov 2008 #

    picture disc! and a particularly rubbish one! (the mystical third eye should be in the middle of er forehead)

    (sadly this is not a cover version of the epic by mentalist canadian libertarian progsters RUSH)

  2. 2
    rosie on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Xanadu – I’m thinking Citizen Kane here rather than S T Coleridge and the Person from Porlock – seems an apt metaphor for both record and film. Both were monstrous follies, although the record seems to have been less so than the film.

    The record was pleasant and enjoyable but an anachronism even then. The film was an ordeal and I’d rather pedal a fixed-wheel track bike up Porlock Hill than sit through the film again.

    On reflection I see 1980 as one of those transition years, where lots of different things are being tried and none quite gets a toe-hold for a while.

  3. 3
    Tom on 13 Nov 2008 #

    The Xanadu logo is quite metal!

  4. 4
    mike on 13 Nov 2008 #

    If we’re analysing the reasons for popularity, then this was a classic case of bunging two bankable acts together, (who had possibly been plateau-ing a little too long), flagging the collaboration as a Major Event, capturing two fanbases, and hence landing the Big One.

    Of course, there’s an in-built problem with such ruses: namely that subsequent releases can feel like a comparatively poor deal. Unless they’re very, very good. And tellingly, this did indeed mark the beginning of the end for ELO (only one more Top 10 hit to come) and Olivia (likewise).

    At the time, this struck me as a crass cheapening of ELO’s craft. (I was no big fan, but the 1979 Discovery singles had done much to win me over.) But on the other hand, its euphoric pop clout was impossible to fully resist. (We can’t say G****y P******e any more, can we?)

    These days, I have no problem in embracing it as a sparkly, spangly, kitschy delight – particularly when viewed through the prism of a dozen drunken nights down at Duckie (Saturdays at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern), where its status remains unassailably anthemic. Catch me in the right place at the right time, and I’ll tell you it’s the Best! Record! Ever!

    At all other times, it’s a fond 8 from me.

  5. 5
    SteveM on 13 Nov 2008 #

    yes! if only in that it’s taking it’s inspiration from the same sources (streamlined American industrial).

    you don’t get many #1s with an X in the title so let’s celebrate that if nothing else.

  6. 6
    rosie on 13 Nov 2008 #

    It is of course the second number one with Xanadu in the title…

  7. 7
    Tom on 13 Nov 2008 #

    And would have been better with extra whip noises!

  8. 8
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 13 Nov 2008 #

    incidentally, it struck me yesterday — while working on a completely different project — that one very significant reason for the mainstream dadrockmag urge to “reassess” ELO* is of course the massive looming 90s bulk of Oasis

    *i mean apart from the fact that they are awesome, which i don’t take to be a prior consideration with consensus reassessments

  9. 9
    Tom on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Yes, once “wanting to be the Beatles” was revealed to be the very height of rock ambition rather than something a bit gauche and nerdy the way was certainly open.

  10. 10
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 13 Nov 2008 #

    i have never believed in the person from Porlock — clearly he was a person from PROGROCK

  11. 11
    Tom on 13 Nov 2008 #

    BTW, not wanting to celebrate prematurely or anything, but hasn’t the latest Wasis release rather…. flopped?

  12. 12
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 13 Nov 2008 #

    clearly the world’s listeners are sensibly waiting to see where the results of my “completely different project” point them

  13. 13
    Mark G on 13 Nov 2008 #

    #11, dunno, it’s not in the shops yet.

  14. 14
    Erithian on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Wasn’t this the last major cultural project involving Gene Kelly?

    Another one I don’t think I’ve heard since the day it dropped out of the chart, so obviously not one that oldies radio favours greatly. On one of his last Radio 1 shows Nicky Campbell had a great little interview with ONJ, getting her to admit to various flops while still keeping on very good terms with her.

    I’ll have to confess that I’m not these days a great lover of ELO. Can’t remember quite the context in which it cropped up before (maybe the extensive G—– P——s discussion we had instead of talking about Gilbert O’Sullivan!) but I said then that I found much of their stuff overproduced and fairly lifeless (with some honourable exceptions) and thought it was a shame Jeff Lynne was the one to produce the “new” Beatles singles. In fact at around this period (time to don the Sandi Thom tin hat again) I quite enjoyed the band Sky – John Williams, Herbie Flowers et al. Their version of “Toccata” was a highlight of the 1980 chart for me, and their classical/commercial crossover had a greater lightness of touch. Saw them at Manchester Apollo in fact – they all sat down throughout the gig, and they did my favourite piece, “Connecting Rooms” which starts very quietly, straight after the interval when people were still loudly taking their seats.

  15. 15
    LondonLee on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Speaking as someone who was a ginormous ELO fan I think they lost it after ‘Out of The Blue’ and this only made me more convinced I made the right move when I switched loyalties to The Jam a few years before. I got out while the getting was good.

    I wish I could say this is so bad it’s good but it’s just bad. There’s something brazen about just how kitsch it is and I almost feel like it’s daring me to like it, testing the limits of how guilty I can take my pleasures.

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 13 Nov 2008 #

    elo are a complete musical blind spot to me – although I only know them from the singles. What irritates me about them in particular is the persistant use of multitracked vocals which show nothing like the harmonic inventiveness of the Beatles – who they claimed to emulate.
    Any lingering affection for their melodies took a blow when they featured heavily in probably the worst episode of Dr Who ever – the one with Peter Kay and the girl who gets turned into a paving stone.
    Thankfully I have only a faint memory of this particular song – I seem to remember ONJ swirling around on roller skates but maybe thats my memory playing tricks

  17. 17
    wichita lineman on 14 Nov 2008 #

    This was definitely earmarked as a “major event” by Radio 1 before it came out, and felt like an inevitable no.1. The even weaker I’m Alive trailed it and was ELO’s lowest charting single in years (anyone remember how it goesbeyond the the three notes that spell out the title?).

    I’d be intreeged to see the film now, but not as intreeeged as I would be to see Toomorrow, ONJ’s Don Kirshner-funded bomb from ten years earlier.

    As for re-assessing ELO, 10538 Overture is up there with the Johnny Burnette Trio’s Train Kept A Rollin’ and the Flaming Groovies’ Shake Some Action as a record so powerful it can almost reduce me to tears every time I hear it.

    Showdown is a wonderful three-day-week soundtrack 45, bleak and abundant, cellos overflowing: “it’s raining all over the world”.

    Neither, it should be noted, feature the silly backing vocals that plague their late period.

  18. 18
    anatol_merklich on 14 Nov 2008 #

    We have quantitative data on knownness! This was played as a question at the 2008 Norwegian individual quiz championships. Fifteen players out of 47 got the singer *and* band right.

  19. 19
    peter goodlaws on 14 Nov 2008 #

    How much more candy floss are we going to put up with? If I ever get to use a time machine, I’m certainly not going back to 1980. Not only because of the rank music (at least at number one) but because of the sport. Okay, the Wimbledon Final fine. We see this every year when it pisses down and McEnroe wins the tie breaker but Borg wins the match. But boo to 1980 coz Arsenal lost Cup Final to second division team and Alan Minter got smashed up by the bloke from hot chocolate. As for Xanadu, another one for the bonfire. ELO just seem to get in the way like unwanted guests at a party.

    Tom at no.7 makes great comment. We had that first Xanadu record in the house with the whips and the trumpets. Obv it belonged my dad who was born in 1949. Brilliant record. The first Xanadu puts this cheesy rubbish to shame. Lame cobblers.

  20. 20
    will on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Like Village People’s Can’t Stop The Music, this was another of those projects which in between commissioning and release found itself somewhat stranded on pop’s incoming tide. It all got forgotten about rather quickly and filed away in the collective memory as an emblem of disco-era tack. I loved this at the time though – a solid 7 from me.

    Re 17: Nope, I don’t recall I’m Alive at all. But I remember how the follow up, All Over The World, goes right down to the vocoder bits.

  21. 21
    Conrad on 14 Nov 2008 #

    All Over The World (a status quo-oasis straddling title if ever there was one) was good. This was so-so. I love some of ELO’s singles, have never taken them seriously enough to fork out for an album.

    They probably deserved a number one during the 77-79 period that represents their commercial, and arguably, artistic peak (although 10538 Overture and Showdown are mighty fine too). But this particular track washes over me.

    As for ONJ, I loved her later singles – “Magic” from later this year has a slinky groove. And “Landslide” is New Pop in exclesis. She’s on good form on this too.

  22. 22
    Pete on 14 Nov 2008 #

    One of the contributing factors to the death of the pop musical was the sheer speed pop was moving on in this period. On paper in 1978 when this was mooted started nothing could go wrong with Xanadu (except perhaps it having a bit of a shit script and a creepyish Gene Kelly). But by the time summer 1980 came around ONJ, ELO, roller disco and some truly aweful effects just jarred and seemed dated. To make a successful pop musical you needed to get a band ont he crest of their wave, and thus was biorn the Eighties phenomenon : the dancical. Films like Fame and Flashdance in many ways ensure their success by leaving the music often to the very last minute (and often the dances were not done to the final songs, but rather post synched). Coupled with an increasing use of location filming which made more noticable the jarring effect of characters bursting into song, Xanadu was the final nail in the cinematic pop musicals coffin for nigh on twenty years.

    The writing was on the wall though. The trailer does seem a bit on the desperate side:

  23. 23
    H. on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Actually, I don’t think Xanadu (the movie) was outdated when it came out, I think it screams 1980. All that roller disco stuff still had steam in it at the time (cf Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express of a few years later). I suspect the movie flopped because it wasn’t very good, rather than any perceived outdatedness.

  24. 24
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 14 Nov 2008 #

    to get a bit socio-economic for a moment, the 60s and 70s had seen the ballooning possibility of “sheer techno-spectecle” (which technology itself encouraged), but the crowd-size issue of pays-for-itself scale and the punter-sense of how excluded you were willing to feel sparked not just a backlash, but a whole layer of other (smaller, quicker, cheaper) ways of achieving force or energy or flash or amazingness: all this combined with oil fuel rises and general economic slump

    the secret text of all opera and musicals is the tale of how the project pays for itself: with wagner’s solution at one end (gesamtkunstwerk as the zeitgeist expression of the New Human) and “let’s put the show on here!” at the other

  25. 25
    Tom on 14 Nov 2008 #

    The thing about Starlight Express though is that rollerskating at high-speed is loads more impressive live on stage than on screen. (Also the costuming was more Mad Max than disco IIRC!)

  26. 26
    Pete on 14 Nov 2008 #

    I think the disco bubble had burst*, and we were well after the Saturday Night fever backlash. Also Michael Beck was a very weak leading man in comparison to say John Travolta. Perhaps one of Xanadu’s failings was to try and appeal to more than one generation (by stuffing Gene Kelly in there).

    *Not that ELO are particualrly channelling much disco here, rather an over-treated electronic prog-pop! Which may also explain a lot.

    Roller disco is much more fun to do than to watch!

  27. 27
    Mark M on 14 Nov 2008 #

    If you scan the cast of Xanadu, it’s notable that nobody is going anywhere (it’s the opposite of something like Fast Times At Ridgemont High). The director is a different matter, but it’s not exactly the career you might imagine from a man who made a rollerdisco musical.

  28. 28
    H. on 14 Nov 2008 #

    I was about to say the song isn’t like 70s disco in that the backing strings have been replaced by synths, but listening to it just now on youtube I see I’ve misremembered, it does have strings, it does sound a bit seventies after all. The piano in it reminds me a bit of Dancing Queen.

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 15 Nov 2008 #

    Seven year old Billy didn’t know what to make of this one. I would imagine that I asked my parents what Xanadu was, and that they told me about Coleridge. I do distinctly remember thinking that ELO were too old and dull-looking to be proper pop stars like Debbie Harry and Bob Geldof, though.

    These days, I think that this is good fun, but not quite good enough to ever make me really happy like the best ELO singles do.

  30. 30
    Brooksie on 14 Feb 2010 #

    Love this. Major sucker for ONJ.

  31. 31
    swanstep on 10 Jan 2011 #

    I’m pretty much a sucker for both ONJ and ELO, but this song stinks. The movie is, of course, much much worse still (and this was a really remarkable period for Hollywood film – Apocalypse Now, All that Jazz, Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Manhattan, Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Altered States are all out around this time – 3 big films in b/w no less – so Xanadu’s truly staggering ineptness really stood out).

    Anyhow, one thing I’m a little puzzled by is why this was the big hit in the UK? On the one hand, Magic was the first single from the film and was ‘the hit’ in most places, and, indeed, it’s a much better pop-song. On the other hand, if the UK was going to be a little eccentric then why not go for the ONJ/Cliff duet Suddenly? That was the third single from the film and, though soppy, is lovely if you’re in a certain mood and definitely better than Xanadu (the song) which only really serves as shuddering memento of the film’s legendary awfulness:
    3 or 4

  32. 32
    swanstep on 11 Feb 2012 #

    OK, heard this out last night and ate it up, so I want to revise my score (at #31) for this up to at least a 6 (humble pie, yummy!). Film still absolutely wretched of course.

  33. 33
    phil6875 on 12 Apr 2015 #

    I think 6 is about right and quite clearly this is very far away from being ELO’s finest moment. However, the general impression from these comments seems to be that ELO were a spent force creatively and so I’d like to point out that one of their best ever singles ‘Twilight’ was still to come in October 1981. A classic A-side with an equally classic B-side in ‘Julie Don’t Live Here’, if you haven’t heard it please do.

  34. 34
    23 Daves on 25 Oct 2017 #

    #33 – I’m on an ELO binge at the moment, and just thought I’d drop by to remind myself what was said about this one. Broadly speaking, I agree with the review and everyone’s comments.

    However, I’m also going to lend my support for the brilliance of “Twilight”, which might be Jeff Lynne showing off and trying to cram as many pop hooks into one single as he can manage, but it’s irresistible. Certainly in my top five ELO singles of all time, and deserved much better than the insulting, meager number 30 UK chart placing it ended up with.

    I also agree that while ELO’s commercial fortunes declined significantly during the early eighties, I don’t think they went ‘off the boil’ creatively – at least, not immediately. If you try to push its slightly woolly “time travel” concept to one side – or re-imagine it in a Super Furry Animals/ Neon Neon/ Flaming Lips context, as I tend to do – 1981’s “Time” has other marvellous tracks to be heard besides “Twilight”.

    Similarly, while there is a decline in quality on 1983’s “Secret Messages”, it still contains songs which are up there with some of their best offerings, not least the cold war paranoia of the title track, and the weary melancholy of “Stranger”.

    Early eighties ELO tends to be overlooked by fans, critics and casual buyers alike, but the heavier use of synthesisers and the gradual sidelining of the orchestral elements does take them to some interesting new places. You can certainly hear a crossover between that period of ELO and parts of Neon Neon’s “Stainless Style”.

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