OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN 1971-1985

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Heart Attack (S Kipner/P Bliss) 1982 and Twist of Fate (P Beckett/S Kipner) 1983 and Soul Kiss (M Goldenburg) – Olivia Newton -John 1985

Olivia had followed up the Physical album in 1982 with a Greatest Hits Vol. 3 package which went double platinum globally. She included several new songs on the album as well, one of these was Heart Attack written by Aussie Steve Kipner (ex-Steve and the Board) and Paul Bliss, it was an engaging synth-pop song which became a million-seller and charted #3 in the US, top ten in Canada, Norway and Austria, and #22 in Australia, but the promo video was weird, and not one of her best.

Later that same year Olivia and John Travolta decided to try and recreate the movie magic that had boosted their careers with the mega-hit Grease in 1978. Travolta’s career had come off the high of his Saturday Night Fever /Grease years of stardom, likewise Olivia had starred in the flop Xanadu, although she was still a very successful recording star with sell-out tours and healthy record sales throughout the world. The duo signed on to the movie Two of a Kind, a romantic fantasy comedy with a plot that was pure Hollywood fluff.

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God (voiced by Gene Hackman) is in heaven and unhappy with his creation below, he is set to destroy the world by conjuring another mighty flood, until a band of angels, including Charles Durning, Scatman Crothers, and others contrive for God to enter into a wager. If they can arrange for two selfish Earthlings to give up their evil ways and fall in love – Travolta plays a robber who sticks up bank teller Newton-John, who fobs him off with deposit slips in his swag bag, and keeps the cash for herself – then the world will be saved. OK, this does sound familiar to other movie fiascos in which ONJ had been involved, and maybe if the producers had included the Alphoids and music tonaliser gimmicks from 1970’s Toomorrow, and the supernatural disco roller skating rink from 1980’s Xanadu, it may just have been surreal enough to be a hit, but they didn’t, and it wasn’t.

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The Los Angeles Times said that with “ flaccid direction, ugly photography and performances that rely on charm generated a few movies ago (and sealed in plastic), you have reason enough to give Two of a Kind a wide berth,” and Filmlink magazine wrote that the two stars” really shouldn’t have been so snobby about doing Grease 2, if this is what they did instead.”

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The soundtrack of the movie fared better, but it too lacked the humor, style, and nostalgic appeal of Grease, instead of being infectious, playful, and relatable, it was contrived, confused, and took itself too seriously. The cover art for the soundtrack album featured a head and shoulders shot of Travolta leaning over a reclining Olivia, in an accidentally humorous attempt at dramatic passion, which looked more like Count Travolta about to sink his fangs into the diva’s neck.

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The first single released was Twist of Fate, a lively synth-pop/electronic rock outing written by Steve Kipner and Peter Beckett (ex-Player), it was a rare combination of a double-A side with Olivia and Travolta dueting on the B-side with Take A Chance, it charted #5 in the US, and #4 in Australia and Canada, and recaptured some of the old magic that the duo had created as stars of Grease. Olivia had written three songs on the movie soundtrack and one of these, Livin’ In Desperate Times, became the second single released, and at #31 it was a minor hit in he US but failed to chart in Australia.

Olivia would wait another seven years before venturing into films again in A Mom For Christmas, a made -for-TV Disney family movie in which she played a shop mannequin who is “animated” and becomes the mother of a little girl,  who has no mother and only a neglectful father, it was another well-intentioned plot disaster.

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Olivia turned to her music to rejuvenate her career and her next album Soul Kiss certainly marked a different direction for ONJ who was now being depicted as a sex siren. The album artwork included photographs of Olivia lounging seductively in sheer red tights and a matching silk top, and as a topless blond dominatrix, wearing riding boots and jodhpurs and clenching a horse whip while staring into a mirror, clearly inspired by Jilly Cooper’s lurid pulp fiction about the sexy shenanigans among England’s horsey landed classes.

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The title track from Soul Kiss was a thinly veiled ode to oral sex, it was a dark and moody outing for the former girl-next-door, and described by All Music as “ goth mixed with techno”, it featured producer Farrar on guitar, synths and synclavier, composer Mark Goldenburg on synths, and actress/singer Katey Sagal on backing vocals. Other tracks like Culture Shock, about a menage a trois, Overnight Observation, a tawdry track about a doctor trying to seduce a female patient, while the intent of Olivia’s duet with Beach Boy Carl Wilson, was pretty-much summed in the title You Were Great, How Was I ? The more overtly sexual nature of the Soul Kiss album signaled Olivia’s virtual abandonment of the country/pop markets that she had successfully curated over the past fourteen years. Any doubts about this would have been dispelled when the promo clip for Soul Kiss, which also featured Matt Lattanzi was released, featuring the diva writhing on an altar-like bed while huge phallic cannons on either side of her are shooting white feathers into the air! This was quite a departure from the tastefully desirable images depicted by ONJ in Grease and Physical, although Soul Kiss would be considered tame today, beside the raunch and soft porn that now frequently passes for artistic licence in music videos.

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Other albums were released, the Elton John-co-produced The Rumour (1989) above, which climbed to #19 in Aust but stalled at #67 in the USA, and following the birth of her daughter Chloe in 1986, an album of lullabies and children’s songs entitled Warm and Tender  was released in 1989. A succession of greatest hits compilations, boxed sets, recorded live performances, and re-releases would continue to sustain her legacy, but she would need to become more focused on her business Koala Blue in the near future, as alarm bells were sounding about its financial state.

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By 1991 the Australian-style sportswear chain of stores established by Olivia Newton-John and Pat Farrar (above together) in 1982, branded Koala Blue, had slid into bankruptcy. The flagship store had been opened on Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, with much fanfare, trumpeting the unique combination of a casual fashion boutique with a traditional Aussie milk bar, offering such nostalgic favourites as pies, vegemite sandwiches, lamingtons and pavlovas. 

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Boasting the star power of ONJ and projecting solid profits for those prepared to sink their savings into becoming licensees or store operators, it seemed to be holding its own, but became mired in debt, litigation and claims by investors that the business had been poorly managed, under-capitalised, and that the merchandise was often shoddy. By the time the books were closed on Koala Blue there were 49 stores world-wide under threat, licensees claimed that ONJ and Farrar tried to avoid their financial responsibilities by taking the company into voluntary administration, and seeking to shift merchandise off-line and sell it directly through major department stores. It was a very messy business, criticised by investors as a vanity project by ONJ that lacked a realistic business plan, stakeholders lost millions, and it certainly tainted Olivia’s squeaky-clean girl-next-door image at the time.

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Olivia’s marriage to Matt Latanzi ended in divorce in 1995, and she began what became a rather doomed affair with Korean-American cameraman Patrick McDermott (below) in 1996, which ended bizarrely in June 2005, when McDermott apparently failed to return to the Los Angeles marina after a fishing trip. McDermott’s personal belongings were found on the boat but where was Patrick, had he fallen over board and drowned? Nearly 8 days later he was reported missing, but no body was found, it was reported that Newton-John had broken off with McDermott the day before the fishing trip, and that he was also behind in his child maintenance  payments to his ex-wife, so suicide was a possible cause of his disappearance. But it remained a mystery until sightings of McDermott were confirmed in 2016, around the Mexican coastal town of Sayulita, where he was apparently ensconced with his new girlfriend.

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Newton-John has a lengthy track record of failed relationships with men, Ian Turpie was the first to be left behind in Melbourne when Olivia sought stardom in Britain, Bruce Welch became suicidal when Olivia broke off their engagement, and her relationship with manager/boyfriend Lee Kramer similarly ended in a messy entanglement during the 70’s. Olivia was obviously wary of marriage as her father and older sister Rona had both been divorced three times, and behind her come-hither smile and doe-eyed girl-next-door persona, Olivia was a driven perfectionist, and men often struggled to live up to her standards.Pictured below with her niece Tottie Goldsmith, daughter of Olivia’s sister Rona.

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Olivia would re-connect with conservationist and herbal remedies tycoon John Easterling (below), a person she had meet some years before, and they would be married in 2008, the couple now live in an exclusive oceanside compound in Florida, where she claims to have rediscovered her love of nature, with Easterling supporting Olivia throughout her ongoing battle with cancer.

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Over a stunning recording career Olivia Newton-John clocked up no less than five #1 hits in the USA – I Honestly Love You ’74, Have You Never Been Mellow ’75, You’re The One That I want ’78, Magic ’80, and Physical ’81, three #1 hits in the UK – You’re The One That I Want ’78, Summer Nights ’78, and Xanadu ’80, and hit #1 in Australia five times as well. She has sold over 100 million records and with Kylie Minogue and Helen Reddy is one of the most successful female Australian recording artists of all time. She was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2002, and in 1979 she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 2020 she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to charity, cancer research, and entertainment.

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Olivia remains one of Australia’s most popular and successful international performers, and has worked tirelessly in recent years to raise funds in support of research into the early detection, treatment, and cure of breast cancer, and to establish the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Research Centre at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital.

 

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