424. ‘You’re the One That I Want’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John

Picture the scene… It’s the last day of high school. A carnival has pitched up on the football pitch, as carnivals do. Rydell High bad-boy Danny Zuko, having ditched his leathers for a Letterman, turns to see his good girl gone bad… “Sandy!?” he exclaims.

For there she stands, head to shoulders in tight, tight black. Hair permed, ciggie dangling from her mouth. Sandra Dee is dead. The Pink Ladies gasp, the T-Birds wolf-whistle… “Tell me about it… Stud!”

You’re the One That I Want, by John Travolta (his 1st of two #1s) & Olivia Newton-John (her 1st of three #1s)

9 weeks, from 11th June – 13th August 1978

This record hit #1 a full seven and a bit years before I was born, but very few of the #1s we have met, or will meet, hit the ‘childhood memories’ button quite like this. ‘Grease’ was my favourite movie as a kid (I would sometimes pull a sickie from school just because I fancied watching it), and I still love it as an adult. I can quote from it like no other movie. “A hickey from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card…”, “They’re amoebas on fleas on rats…” “Maraschino… Like the cherry…”

What’s instantly clear is that this record, unlike some earlier soundtrack chart-toppers, works just fine out of context. The lyrics are stock-standard pop, the music a disco-ish reimagining of fifties rock ‘n’ roll: I got chills, squeals John Travolta in the iconic opening line, They’re multiplyin’!

You better shape up, Cos I need a man, Who can keep me satisfied… I guess you could read this as a feminist statement: little, shy, pushed around Sandy is finally in charge. Except she’s had to change her clothes, her hairdo, and her moral standards to get there. To my heart I must be true… she sings. Really, Sandy? Meanwhile, Danny slings the straight-laced Letterman jumper off before the first chorus hits.

Actually, I love the ending to ‘Grease’. I love that Sandy goes sexy. Good guys (and girls) do finish last! I also love the way John Travolta dances as if he’s been whacked over the head, almost slithering after Olivia Newton-John onto the fairground ride. This is the second #1 of the year to have featured in one of his movies, although he didn’t have any singing duties on ‘Night Fever’. One thing this record is missing, sadly, is his ‘Waaaaah!’ after the Feel your way… line. It’s the little things…

‘You’re the One That I Want’ is not my favourite song from ‘Grease’ – it’s not got the bite of ‘There Are Worse Things I Can Do’, the chorus of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, or the laughs of ‘Beauty School Drop-out’, but I can understand why it was the giant hit, the (almost) closing number released as the movie topped the box-office charts. I can also understand why some people think ‘Grease’ is a terrible film (objectively, it may well be). But to ten-year-old me, fake coughing on the sofa, wishing I were Kenickie (or Rizzo), it will always remain a stone-cold classic.

As with Boney M last time, and Wings not so long before, this is one of the best-selling singles of all time in Britain. The 5th best, to be precise. John Travolta has one of the best singles chart records of all time: he’s featured four times, and two of those songs are million sellers. The second of which, from the very same movie, will be coming along in a tick…

40 thoughts on “424. ‘You’re the One That I Want’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John

  1. Grease is one of those films that everyone seems to know whether you’ve seen it or not since everyone parodies the big scenes, wear their own greaser or Pink Lady costumes, and can memorize a lot of the songs. Ultimately, you can credit the success of Grease to John Travolta’s massive star power in 1978 coming off of his first big film success with Saturday Night Fever and it was ultimately more successful as 1978’s highest-grossing film in the US. Even though he’s not thought much of as a singer, Travolta did have a prior US Top 10 hit in 1976 after breaking out on Welcome Back, Kotter with the schlocky ballad “Let Her In” so it made sense at the time for him to sing in a musical even if from that song he wasn’t much of a good singer. Even on “You’re The One That I Want,” Travolta isn’t that great but is at least helped by better production and I like the almost Elvis like style he brings which people would have recognized coming right after his death. But ultimately the real star here is Olivia Newton-John which as Tom Breihan’s review points out the song does her some serious favors in pulling her out of the sleepy pop-country ballads she’d been known for up to this point and bring some energy and sexiness. In fact, Newton-John pretty much followed the character arc of her Sandy character since after the film’s success she started shedding her nice girl image and music toward more edgier pop culminating with her 1981 smash “Physical.” And of course the song has the type of chrous that is pretty much imprinted on you forever after you hear it. The music sounds like a musical version of the ‘50s rock and roll the film is supposed to be playing but I don’t mind it and I like the tension the song has feeling like something you’d play when there’s a fight going on. Like I mentioned before, it’s weird that in America it only spent a week at #1 notably right before the movie was out but a couple months after we had the other #1 soundtrack hit with Frankie Valli’s title track which is a full on disco song played in the opening credits that Barry Gibb wrote and produced with no prior knowledge about the movie and it shows but still a fun song.

  2. badfinger20 (Max)

    Curse you…I really mean curse you…now “ooh ooh ooh” will be in my head all night.
    I’ve never seen it all the way through…not even close…but the songs are catchy and ONJ is always nice to hear…not to mention look at.

      1. Well, ONJ is pretty to watch, yes?

        The whole movie isn’t “all” music. A large portion of it is hilarious because the cast was just goofing off, pretty much, except for the car dance scene where Jeff Conaway gets injured. I don’t know how many times they practiced the scene but, he was injured during filming (I think it is where he threw him self backwards to put his legs in the air)…hence all the drug problems. There is a lot of background stuff to pay attention to. It’s a great ensemble cast. Sha-Na-Na is in it. It’s a masterpiece.

      2. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yea she is painful in all the right ways!

        I will give it a watch. Hey you know how big of Who fan I am right? I could barely make it through Tommy with Ann Margret but I’m willing to try Grease.

        That started Conaway’s problems.

      3. badfinger20 (Max)

        1975…I love the Keith Moon and Oliver Reed parts…Ann was great but the all musical thing gets to me.

      4. badfinger20 (Max)

        I always had trouble with people just getting up and singing out of the blue…like those Elvis moves…suddenly on a plane he jumps up and starts singing “got a headache…but I’m going to a clam bake”…ok it’s not that but you get the picture.

      5. I mean, Grease is way better than those goofy Elvis films but, yeah, if you can’t suspend your disbelief over why all these people are suddenly singing and dancing then musicals aren’t for you. Still, give it a go. It’s actually surprisingly risque…

      6. badfinger20 (Max)

        ONJ would be the main reason! It’s odd though…I can watch scifi and suspend belief but yea I’ve always a trouble with that when it comes to musicals. I’m giving it a go though.

      7. I’ve never seen that but, technically, Grease is a movie “based” on the actual musical. It’s really a movie with some dance parts in it. Think of it as the older sibling of Footloose.

      8. badfinger20 (Max)

        I’m sorry Stuart…I can hear him Vic…(damn stupid Americans! or bloody Americans?) and I wouldn’t blame him.

      9. badfinger20 (Max)

        Cool! I feel honored lol. I’ve been called a Bloody Yank by an Englishman… cross one thing off of my list!

  3. I was at College when this came out, I bought the single (the video was fabulous and helped record sales no end each week on Top Of The Pops) I saw the film at the cinema, I still love it. It’s total cheese, but it KNOWS it’s cheese, it’s a parody. It’s the Happy Days of 50’s teen nostalgia movies, Travolta is The Fonz, both were icons in 1978, the film hit the nostalgia button for people around in USA 1950’s, or who watched USA 1950’s films and TV and listened to the music, and it also created a sort of fake nostalgia for those of us who had no memories of the 50’s but liked the cosy, fake, fantasy version – and that became nostalgia in Back To The Future and beyond.

    I’ve also hit overdose on this record and the next biggie, and I’d also rather hear Hopelessly Devoted To You, Sandy, Beauty School Dropout than any of the tracks which hit again as The Grease Medley, which was the final nail in the coffin for them in terms of freshness when it was a big 90’s hit. It was also not originally in the musical pre-film, like the fab Barry Gibb song Grease. Written by John Farrar (also 70’s Shadows member!), Olivia Newton John’s 1971-1989 long-time writer-producer of great songs like US chart-topper Have You Never Been Mellow and also Hopelessly Devoted To You for the film, he was drafted in for the more 70’s-sounding songs to the very 50’s-sounding original soundtrack. Seems to have worked beautifully! I loved Olivia in her first film, the forgotten Toomorrow (a sci-fi total camp cheese musical from 1970 that bombed, but popped up on RAF cinemas in 1971/72 long after it had been permanently withdrawn from release and availability worldwide, until it’s creator died, so now you can watch the whole horror on DVD! I have!), I have continued to love Olivia (caught her on her last UK tour, still fab) and was well aware, like most of the cast, that they were the oldest bunch of High School Students committed to film! That was part of the joke. Livvie was 30-ish, none of them were teens. As for the morality – well, I can’t speak for schools today, but back in my 70’s schooldays it was all about popularity and looks and shallowness and bullying and peer-group-pressure and conforming…so, Grease is spot on! 🙂

    1. Interesting to think how close the late-seventies was to the fifties. It’s a similar timeframe to the 80s/90s revivals of the past decade or so…

      And I have nothing against the ending of Grease – it’s trueness to high school life is one of the reasons I love it – but usually in a teen/rom com flick they’d at least try for a ‘be true to yourself and it’ll all be fine’ message… Not ‘pull on that black catsuit and get your man’

  4. I know you saw my movie draft write-up on Grease but, I did a bigger one in 2018:
    https://cosmic-observation.com/2018/08/03/flashback-friday-grease-1978/

    This isn’t my favorite song but, it’s great. I prefer Summer Nights but, the soundtrack is great.

    Right after this, out she came with Totally Hot, all clad in black leather, again and that album hit #7 on the Billboard 200 album chart. She is my hero. I had her pictures all over my bedroom.

    Travolta really can’t sing all that well but, he makes up for it with spunk, goofiness and cheese. “Bah, bah, bah, bah, Barbarino!” LOL!

    1. Travolta carries it OK. He goes for it, and just about papers over the cracks!

      I prefer Summer Nights too… And actually most of the other songs over this. The only one I’d happily never hear again is ‘We Go Together’.

      1. It’s funny. Shortly after this movie and Urban Cowboy, his career tanked. He actually turned down American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman (which turned out well for Richard Gere). He was persona-non-grata until the 90s. He lost his mind, again, with Battlefield Earth in 2000. I did enjoy him in Phenomenon.

        That song is annoying…yes.

  5. Pingback: 427. ‘Summer Nights’, by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – The UK Number Ones Blog

  6. Pingback: Recap: #421 – #450 – The UK Number Ones Blog

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