Creakier pop fans may remember Olivia Newton John, who has died at the age of 73, representing the United Kingdom at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest (the one that Abba won). That was then a big deal. She had already had a number of hit records and, in the same year as the Eurovision commission, triggered controversy among the big hats when the Country Music Association (CMA) awarded her female vocalist of the year. George Jones and Tammy Wynette were so appalled by this honour – to an Australian pop singer! – they formed a rival organisation to the CMA. A career in sweet-toned middle-of-the-road balladry beckoned.
Nobody could have imagined that, just four years later, she would help launch the most successful pop-cultural phenomenon of the age. It is hard now to take in the hugeness of Grease. Randal Kleiser’s adaptation of the nostalgic musical trousered $395 million to become by far the most successful film of 1978.
The soundtrack album was the biggest selling record in the US that year. Hits from Grease were at number one in the UK singles charts for close to a third of 1978. When The Boomtown Rats’ Rat Trap finally knocked You’re The One That I Want off the top spot – after nine long weeks – Bob Geldof tore up a photograph of John Travolta on Top of the Pops. The gesture wasn’t quite on a par with Sinéad O’Connor annihilating a snap of the Pope 12 years later, but it did indicate quite how unavoidable Travolta and Olivia Newton-John had become. She made good use of the relaunch. Just three years later her album Physical sold 10 million copies and, though further acting success eluded her, she was established as a star for the ages.
It does not require much of a stretch to draw parallels between Sandy’s journey in Grease and that of the actor who played her. The coy, goody-two-shoes schoolgirl – ridiculed in the amusing number Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee – reunites with Travolta’s greaseball and ultimately becomes a hip siren in painted-on jeans.
Newton-John was initially launched as a clean-cut singer of unthreatening hue. The title track from Physical, an enormous hit in 1981, thanks in part to a famously sweaty video, actually managed to get itself banned by some radio stations. “There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally,” she sang to fainting gasps from the easily shocked. You wouldn’t get that from Sandra Dee. The pop hits and starring roles had dried up by the end of 1980s, but nothing could dampen the affection that Newton-John generated among the watching public.
Newton-John was born in Cambridge. Trivia enthusiasts will never tire of noting that her grandfather was Max Born, the Nobel-winning pioneer of quantum mechanics. There was more. Her father, an MI5 officer who worked on the Enigma project, was among the party that detained Rudolf Hess. When she was six, the family emigrated to Melbourne. By her mid-teens, she was already appearing on Australian television shows such as Time for Terry and The Happy Show.
In the late 1960s, Newton-John had moved back to the UK and was toying with different musical directions. She scored a significant hit with her cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You in 1971 and followed that up with an equally successful take of Banks of the Ohio. Such was the blinding success of the post-Grease Newton-John that this lucrative phase of her career has been somewhat overlooked. She was a charming, subtly emotive interpreter of county pop with a gleaming charisma that proved irresistible on the light-entertainment shows of the day. She may have been born in East Anglia to Welsh and German-Jewish parents, but Newton-John’s sunny positivity paved the way for the British infatuation with Australia that properly kicked into gear with the Neighbours convulsions a decade and a half later.
The image alteration for the Physical era was more of a sly realignment than any sort of radical upending. It is worth noting how much of the publicity around the single and album was associated with kinesthetics and what might then still have been called “keep fit” (the song and its video just about allowed the interpretation that the eponymous physicality related to activities in the gym rather than the bedroom). Nobody would have confused her image with that of the then still-unknown Madonna. Olivia Newton-John was a veritable embodiment of brisk good health.
It came as jolt to learn of her breast cancer diagnosis in 1992. Newton-John had always been engaged with wider issues, cancelling a 1978 Japanese tour to protest the killing of dolphins in tuna nets and, following recovery from her first illness, became a vigorous campaigner on breast cancer issues. In 2005, she released Stronger than Before, an album offering inspiration to those dealing with the disease.
Newton-John never stopped working. She released Christian albums, she secured a Vegas residency and, in 2015, received the ultimate accolade – greater than a Damehood in some eyes – of acting as guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is hard to imagine anyone miserable enough not to be cheered by a warm presence that remained oddly unaltered through the passing decades. Her performance opposite Gene Kelly in the bizarre Xanadu, a roller-skating financial flop from 1980, was not celebrated at the time, but the film has evolved into something of a cult phenomenon. Much of that is down to unstoppable affection for a star who radiated unquenchable good will.
The news comes days after the death of her compatriot Judith Durham, crystal-voiced lead singer of the Seekers, and both will be mourned as great Australians who helped shift the image of that country. Tributes came from all directions, but none was so touching as that from the man with whom she co-owned the summer of 1978. “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” John Travolta wrote. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much.”
She is survived by her second husband John Easterling and by her daughter Chloe Lattanzi.