Three lessons Olivia Newton-John taught me about music — and about life

My standard Olivia Newton-John image is from the mid-1970s: long, flowing floral dresses; long light brown hair parted in the middle; large curious eyes; and, if desired, an irresistible smile, perfect for the TV Week cover.

It seemed like the counterculture had passed her by.

But even at the height of my hippie- and punk-inspired (conceited, toothless) rejection of society and a perceived mainstream, I respected Olivia, a character so ubiquitous in popular culture in my first 20 years on the planet that it became felt natural to call her by her first name.

There was something about her voice, her way with a song. Her singing has always had a personal appeal because of her phrasing and timbre.

Like December-February heat stroke, Olivia was part of the Australian landscape. The country felt a little less hostile for her being in it – or being beamed in from the northern hemisphere while we claimed her as “ours”.

There was an older sister who understood and sympathized.



Read more: Pop icon Olivia Newton-John was the rare artist whose career prospered at different stages


1. What she taught me about murder

Despite all of this, Olivia contributed to a certain loss of innocence.

Some of us are unfortunate enough to encounter death personally as children; for the rest it will be a song or a TV show, a side note or a message.

Newton-John’s recording of the folk ballad Banks of the Ohio was released in 1971. It’s about the protagonist who lures his loved one to the river to stab her in the heart.

I held a knife to his chest
As in my arms he squeezed
He cried: My love! don’t kill me
I’m not prepared for eternity.

I can’t recall any previous grappling with the idea of ​​death, let alone murder. I associate it with the tinny sound of a portable AM ​​radio. I have forever associated ONJ’s honeyed tones with the visceral realization that one human could willfully kill another.

Heavy metal and hip hop are the traditional punching bags of parents worried about harmful content. But people dropped their guards around ONJ.

2. What she taught me through a cover band

Shaggin’ Wagon, a cover band of mine that formed around 1993, did what the label said: rock songs from the 1970s.

We combined relatively obscure minor chart hits – say, Silver Lady by David Soul or Ebony Eyes by Bob Welch – with what we call classic power pop lines from the likes of Big Star, The Soft Boys, The dB’s, The looked at Suss and Abba.

There was always a smattering of hard rock – Kiss, Alice Cooper – and Australian artists like The Numbers, Models and Dragon. Although the repertoire was ever-changing, there were a few big crowd favorites that made the house smash.

One of mine was a part-time singer on Hopeless Devoted to You. What started out as a half-joke I took with enthusiasm. It’s a great song with a fantastic key change from A major in the verses to F major in the chorus over a devastating G minor chord.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” revels the protagonist in that pathetic chord so far harmonically removed from the lamenting longing of comfortable A major that has so far swooned us.

I started looking for other Olivia songs. I took a 45 from A Little More Love and realized it was a masterpiece of sorts; like Hopeless, it was composed by longtime Newton-John collaborator John Farrar.

It’s another beautifully structured song, somewhat labyrinthine. I still find it exciting to play the guitar.

Despite my party trick of being able to hit the high F (usually) at the end of “Hopeless,” holding the upper octave required for the choruses of “A Little More Love” was a mystery to me.

The attempt further enlightened me on the technical requirements, which Olivia shrugged off. The range is so wide that no matter how I transposed it, I couldn’t get both low verses and high choruses.

I already knew she was good – and I would never claim to make the ONJ league – but this was further proof that my body had learned.

3. What she taught me about the girl next door

Olivia wasn’t entirely sold on Physical. She loved the song but wondered: could she get away with it?

Tired of flirting and playing, the protagonist wants to get down to business: “There’s nothing left to talk about if it’s not horizontal”.

The record was banned in Utah and South Africa because of its explicit content (!). The video fanned the flames further with its closing “gay scene” (two guys leaving the gym holding hands).

Any controversy, no matter how small, only further hyped what was a superlative pop record. Physical topped the US charts for 10 weeks in 1981 and was one of the biggest songs of the decade. And as if “Physical” wasn’t enough, the follow-up single was “Make a Move On Me”.

You are forgiven for feeling an issue.

Physical, the album, is about more than a seasoned pop star trying to embrace a slightly more daring personality. None of the six Newton-John images on the cover show her looking at the camera, or even with her eyes open.

She does not challenge the camera or the voyeur with her direct gaze and can be seen as offering herself as an object to be consumed; The assumption in this line of argument is that it uses the male gaze.

I find it more compelling to think of them as lost in their bodies. The viewer, the whole world outside of their bodily sensation, is irrelevant.

Despite the fact that the music remains very accessible, it does not seek approval from its audience.

Physical is the definitive statement of independence—from country music radio, from her pre-1978 girl-next-door image, from a degree of conservatism in her audience.

She even cut her hair.

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