Sunday , May 26 2024

A Promise Fulfilled: In Remembrance of Olivia Newton-John

“If I can only make one man aware, one person care/Then I’ll have done what I promised you.” Olivia Newton-John penned and sang those words in the closing number of her landmark 1981 Physical LP, “The Promise (The Dolphin Song).” As the title indicates, it was a call to appreciate and better the lives of the highly intelligent aquatic mammal species often at risk of extinction from human mistreatment. The line could be applied equally truthfully to Newton-John’s decades-long mission to improve quality of life for cancer patients.

A longtime survivor of breast cancer, the internationally renowned performer succumbed to the disease on August 8. Though her death was not shocking considering she had fought the cancer for three decades, the loss of ONJ is a profound one to so many who held her in high regard not only as a legendary singer and actress, but also as a tireless champion of cancer research, resources, and minimally invasive treatments.

Decades-Long Advocacy

More than merely spreading awareness, she dedicated much time following her diagnosis in 1992 to both advocating for more treatment options and providing facilities dedicated for healing and recovery. Upon her announcement in 2017 that her cancer had resurfaced and progressed significantly, many fans were surprised to learn that she was actually on her third go-round with the illness. It was testament to her genuine concern for patients at large, as she had diligently continued her work for the cause without bringing attention to her own struggles.

ONJ’s career in entertainment spanned over 25 years prior to her first bout with cancer, and she would continue to perform for just as many years afterwards. Throughout those five decades, she received numerous awards, sold millions of records, and became an inadvertent film icon—all without a fraction of the fanfare and hype on which many stars of a similar caliber thrive. Her ability to live so fully throughout her health battles made her seem almost immortal, making her passing seem surprising even though she had been suffering serious effects from the aggressive spread of the cancer in her body since 2017.

Newton-John on the cover of her 1982 single, “Tied Up”

Although she was recognized by the masses—and self-proclaimed—as Australian, it was in ONJ’s birth country of England that she began the recording career (in 1966) that would produce more than 25 albums and over 50 singles. Over the following decade, she would achieve chart success around the globe, gradually veering from country to adult-contemporary to dance-pop and beyond. Her supple and vigorous vocal approach seemed a natural fit for every style in which she recorded, and the tours she embarked on as her stardom rose solidified that ability.

Her vast repertoire spans early ballads such as “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” to timeless show tunes from the 1978 movie adaptation of Grease that made her a bona fide superstar (“You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You”) and the massive ’80s anthem, “Physical.” That’s not to mention later compositions of her own reflecting on her journey with cancer and concern for the planet on albums such as Gaia and Grace and Gratitude.

“Physical” and a Grammy Award

With such breadth of work, it’s common to find listeners who are more familiar with one chapter of Newton-John’s career than with others. This fan is no exception. As a child of the 1980s, I was barely beyond my toddler years when “Physical” was enjoying its record-breaking reign on the American pop charts. With the MTV age fresh and hot, however, I was aware early on of both her distinct sound and striking image. While Toni Basil was likely the first recognized artist to produce a full-length video album on VHS, ONJ’s hit streak allowed her to take the concept to greater heights via the airing of her Let’s Get Physical network TV special and its subsequent home video release. Every song on the Physical album was given the video treatment, earning her a Grammy award and Emmy nomination. 

I recall seeing the video for “Physical” on TV, but my first crisp ONJ memory is of going to Erol’s video store with my mom to rent the VHS tape of Two of a Kind, the 1983 film which reunited her with John Travolta five years after Grease. I confess that I don’t remember a lot about the movie except the music. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I purchased the soundtrack CD, but songs like ONJ’s “Twist of Fate” and “Take a Chance” (a duet with Travolta), as well as Patti Austin’s “It’s Gonna Be Special,” had long been ingrained in my consciousness. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve frequently played the disc from start to finish—as well as the accompanying video mini-album, Twist of Fate. 

Newton-John’s second VHS collection (1983)

I’m not sure which I’ve watched more: the Physical video album or the Twist of Fate collection. I do know, however, that the many phases in my life during which I’ve viewed them have had a profound effect on my musical tastes and visual gratification—prompting further exploration of ONJ’s catalog. This has been focused largely on her post-Grease output, ranging from 1978’s Totally Hot to 1998’s Back with a Heart. Within that realm, I find myself most frequently revisiting Physical, 1985’s vastly underrated Soul Kiss, and the soothing Warm and Tender (1989).

The visual manifestations of many of the songs from these albums certainly influenced my fondness for them. It wasn’t a case of big-budget productions and gimmicks clouding my appreciation of the songs. The early high-tech quirks of the Physical videos seem primitive by 21st-century standards. Rather, it’s the unaffected zeal and flair which ONJ instilled in each clip that match and enhance her vocals so fulfillingly.

Yes, there’s a humorous aspect to the strange scenarios and odd assemblage of players in the clips for “Heart Attack,” “Landslide,” and “Recovery.” And while I’ve never heard ONJ offer detailed reflections on most of the videos, it’s clear to me each time I view them that she wasn’t merely going through the motions. There’s a real investment in character and tone, whether it be on the commentative schemes of “Silvery Rain,” the left-of-center, metaphorical story line of “Recovery,” or even the overtly comical “Toughen Up” from 1985.

Then, there are the more straightforward performance videos that effectively captured ONJ’s stage presence, which was simultaneously ingratiating and fiery. One of my all-time favorites is 1982’s “Tied Up,” a then-new recording which was included on her Greatest Hits Vol. 2 collection. Her coquettish gliding through the verses and robust dynamics in the final choruses are seamless, as are the free-flowing dance moves she weaved into the clip. Riveting, too, are the vids for “Love Make Me Strong” and the top-10 hit, “Make a Move on Me.” 

On-Screen Diversity

It sounds odd to point out now, but the cultural diversity represented in ONJ’s band and extras in those videos is one aspect that makes them especially enjoyable. MTV was notorious in the early ‘80s for limiting exposure of African-American artists, and many videos that they aired offered little representation of non-white faces. That’s why it’s so cool to see her interacting with a crowd that wasn’t watered down for the majority.

A discussion of ONJ’s impact on early music video wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging her 1978 foray into the medium, at a time when very few artists were afforded the outlet or able to make a conceptually based video. Such was the case with “Totally Hot,” which appeared to be produced on a bigger budget than even her most universally talked-about clip, 1981’s “Physical.” The latter was certainly more monumental in cementing her status as a cultural icon, thanks to an interspersing of aerobics and a zany, humorous twist on physique and its relation to amorous pursuits. Yet, “Totally Hot” made quite the case for her skills as a dancer (hot off the heels of Grease) and showed her in various outdoor settings at a time when few people likely saw full-length music videoclips on TV.

Japanese cover for Newton-John’s 1985 single, “Soul Kiss”

As the ’80s progressed, ONJ slowed down her musical pursuits to focus on starting a family. She was always open about what was most important to her in life, as discussed in her 2018 memoirs, Don’t Stop Believin’. Major stylistic shifts were occurring in the pop landscape during this time. Her approach, however, was in sharp contrast to an artist such as Madonna, who changed producers frequently. ONJ continued her working relationship with Jon Farrar, who had helmed all of her albums from day one. In commercial terms, the team missed the mark for the first time in years with Soul Kiss. The repertoire was not as instantly grabbing and the arrangements were notably sparse for the time period. 

Artistically, the results were not to the detriment of her discography. The songs might be slower to grow on the psyche. Once taken in, though, it’s hard not to find sonic satisfaction in sassy uptempo cuts like “Moth to a Flame,” “Queen of the Publication,” and the lyrically edgy “Culture Shock.” The latter is worth highlighting, given how controversial “Physical” had been upon its release four years prior. Though never a single, “Culture Shock” was one of five tracks from Soul Kiss included on the accompanying home video release. Only this time, the lyrics outwardly declared their nonconformist stance: “I know it’s unconventional/Radical, but practical…Why can’t the three of us live together?”

Soul Kiss also included what is, for me, one of ONJ’s most striking ballads next to “The Promise” and “Shaking You” (from Two of a Kind): the Gerry Rafferty-composed album closer, “The Right Moment.” I often wonder if its poignant lyrics held personal significance for her over subsequent years as she faced what were undoubtedly daunting challenges stemming from cancer. “When you gonna let go and forget about the life you knew? When will you surrender and wake up to the real?” she sang with remarkable affectivity. The three and a half minutes in which the strength of acceptance is examined made quite an impression on me years after she recorded them, as I struggled with my post-college career and life paths. The whistle tones she embedded in the ending were more stirring than any I’ve heard Mariah Carey liberally insert into a myriad of songs.

Three years would pass before what was arguably ONJ’s last straight-ahead solo pop album, 1988’s The Rumour. It escaped my radar (and clearly, many others’) at the time of its release. To my delight, she didn’t skip over many of the “flops” of her career in her memoirs; but this album is significantly absent from any mention—despite including four of her own songs and one from Elton John and Bernie Taupin (one of only a few that the duo composed during the ’80s).

Taking Charge

The next year, ONJ recorded the first in a line of personally driven albums, a collection of lullabies entitled Warm and Tender. Inspired by the joy of motherhood, it would be her last major-label release for nearly a decade, although she would stay busy with her own clothing line before her first cancer diagnosis. When the disease struck in 1992, she was on the cusp of embarking on her first tour in a decade. As detailed in Don’t Stop Believin’, a number of major personal challenges struck during this time period. Thus, the experience of writing and co-producing in entirety her 1994 album Gaia (which she financed herself) marked a pivotal point in her career.

Taking control of her musical direction and communicating the issues that mattered to her most would, indeed, define later albums like Stronger Than Before and Liv On (a collaboration with Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky). Much of the material on these collections became strikingly relevant in light of the creation of her Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne. The facility has carried out treatments, clinical trials, and research since 2008.

A lengthy book could be written about ONJ’s body of musical work. Aside from the aforementioned albums which have had personal significance for this longtime fan, pre-stardom works such as the 1970 Toomorrow soundtrack (and the deliciously corny movie itself) and 1965’s Funny Things Happen Down Under (ONJ’s first film, which features her singing) are further output which have satiated my sonic and visual tastebuds.

But what’s consistently made my intake of her art so encompassingly joyful is knowing that such a kind, unassuming spirit was behind that marvelous voice and invigorating performer. Kind and unassuming not only in the public eye, but in the lives of so many when there was no material gain to be obtained. Like the gift of the meaningful and uplifting body of work she created over half of a century for listeners to enjoy the world over, her human authenticity, acts of kindness, and work towards minimizing the suffering of mankind, animals, and the environment were gifts for the world at large.

About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via [email protected].

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