Next year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.
The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.
This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.
It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.
Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.
After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.
Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.
Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.
© The Editor