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33 at 45: Grease – The Original Soundtrack from John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John etc.

The Grease album is 45 then. Not only was the film unbelievably popular for its storyline and characters, but its soundtrack absolutely dominated life in 1978, solidly sticking to the No. 1 spot for 13 – THIRTEEN! – consecutive weeks in the UK, unchallenged from the October right through until New Year 1979, where it was deposed, with delicious irony, by fellow rock ’n’ roll revivalists Showaddywaddy. Here’s my unsurprisingly British take.

From Country Roads to Eurovision, growing up in 1970s Britain, Olivia Newton-John was an indelible fixture. Born to a German mother and Welsh father in Cambridge in 1948, she was, conversely, in many ways the first Australian of pop music.

Fast forward thirty years, and ONJ’s oeuvre reached a plateau after she was hired to play Rydell High good girl Sandy Olsson in a career-defining rock ’n’ roll revival, opposite John Travolta as Danny Zuko, the box office boogie draw after Saturday Night Fever. 

The way I remember it, at some point in the summer of ’78 my parents purchased Grease: The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture for my sister Stella and I as consolation for not getting in to see the movie at “the pictures” — i.e. the Studio cinema in Bletchley. 

In other words, Mum and Dad didn’t much fancy joining the whopping never-before-seen queues which stretched all the way round the block to the leisure centre. 

The delicious irony is, other than Cambridge being an hour away, and that an East Anglian had moved to Australia (gosh, that sounds familiar), back then we would have had absolutely no idea there was a more resonant local connection to Livvy. 

Due to a mysterious boarded-up site a mile up the road being classified under the Official Secrets Act, it only emerged a few years ago that not only had Olivia’s father Brinley Newton-John been a tutor at nearby Stowe School in Buckingham, but that he was one of Alan Turing’s Codebreakers on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park, now the historical centrepiece of Britain’s war effort.

Released in April 1978, a good while before the film, the Grease soundtrack album was a two-record set, and the record I played the most until I started buying my own in the early 1980s. 

I pored over the luscious gatefold sleeve, with its myriad of cast portraits taken from a film I was dying to see. The fold-out cover was certainly a rarity back then — in fact, it was only the second I’d ever seen, after my father’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club; his original Beatles pressing from 1967 which I later deliberately scratched in a teenage fit of pique. Sorry Dad!

Firstly, a little background before the contents. Grease began its life as a Broadway musical, set in the Elvis-dominated rock ’n’ roll raunch of 1958, it tells the tale of a group of high-school yanks on the cusp of graduation and navigating the difficulties of puberty, lust, and their values. 

Danny (Travolta) is your usual Brylcreemed bad boy, while Sandy Olsson (ONJ) is the strait-laced, studious student, just popped over from Australia. Due to their contrasting characters, prim-and-proper Sandy mustered up the courage to transform herself into a more sexually confident woman in skin-tight pants and a fag superglued to her lower lip. 

In other words, it’s the love story people dream of: a sweet summer romance that – with some bumps in the road – turns into something deeper and even goes as far as to show how people change for lurve.

Part of what made the film so successful was its combination of old-fashioned throwbacks (the 1950s setting, retro tunes and misogyny you’d never get away with now) coupled with modern elements (the cast of ’70s stars and a disco-inspired theme tune written by one thirds of a very of-the-moment hit machine).

Most of the songs in the film were from the stage show. Though when Robert Stigwood and Randal Kleiser adapted the rock ’n’ roll story for the screen, Stigwood, owner of the Bee Gees’ label RSO, insisted on a new song for the opening credits called, appropriately, Grease, written by Barry Gibb and sung by the Jersey Boy himself, Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. The lyrics offer a potted summary of everything the culture at the heart of Grease stands for: passion, defiance, rebellion, and the adolescent fight to explore and discover.

That it comes with a repeated refrain of “Grease is the word” and a brilliantly creative animated opening sequence and still manages to capture all of that is a testament to the writing. It‘s easily my favourite track on the album. 

Is the soundtrack’s popularity deserved though? Or is it just a camp cornball mess? The answer is actually probably both, as the cheesiness of the music and the individual performances is intentionally hammed up, both as a nod to late ‘50s pop culture and the golden age of Hollywood musicals in general. It’s basically a cartoon, but with real people, so it isn’t a cartoon, but a wink to the audience. And that audience bought it in their droves.

Nothing prepared us for just how mahoosive the songs from the film would be, though. The spun-off singles dominated the charts and airwaves so much it seemed like 1978 was literally Grease, ABBA, Boney M. and very little else, certainly to a child of eight too young to understand this naughty “punk” thing our parents tried to shield us from.

I mean, get this: the first side of the LP consists of five songs — namely, Grease, You’re The One That I Want, Hopelessly Devoted To You, Summer Nights and Sandy. Every one of them reached No. 1 either in the British Isles or the little colony they call America in 1978.

A sixth single, Greased Lightnin’, with its lyrics “saluting a hot rod and all the joy it promises” was sometimes censored on British radio and TV and still managed to park its engine at No. 11 that Christmas. (Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M. was top of the “hit parade”, naturally.)

If we skip the Sha-Na-Na nonentities (most us us did, admit it!): Beauty School Dropout, Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee, We Go Together, they all go together like, well, rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong, I suppose. 

Remembered forever? Well, You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights are still among the 20 best-selling singles of all time in Blighty and I couldn’t help but notice that when I visited them recently I could see that Ma and Pa still have the Grease LP in their glass-doored stereo cabinet.

Hopelessly devoted to memories then. There are worse things you could do.

Steve Pafford

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