ONJ Xanadu Reviews
If you made it THIS far, you know by now that it is only fair that I cover Olivia Newton-John's side of the soundtrack; only without a blog needling me along.
If you must boil down the entire Xanadu package to one essential song track, it would have to be Magic. The movie may have the two major characters of Sonny and Danny, but it’s the third that motivates and guides them down their path to Xanadu, making Kira the most important character and that’s why Magic is so essential to all things leading to Xanadu. No sub plots and set-ups in the way here.
There is a good solid reason that this recording opens Olivia’s side of the record and one of the first to be released as the single as it introduces Kira to the world (maybe even better than the movie) and that’s a lot of pressure to do this JUST right as this is more complicated than any song, say, from Grease. Luckily, writer and producer John Farrar is up for that challenge. Right away, John brings out the important other -worldliness factor of this lead character with a simple brooding drum, bass and rhythm guitar combination in the lead in. There will be nothing standard about this one, it’s a song where the character warns you up front where she’s coming from….and, in the pop music clique catalog, it ain’t just from the other side of the tracks.
….and then comes her voice and the first line: ‘Come take my hand’. A whole new world has just opened up and now you find yourself in the middle of it; it might sound daunting but it is friendly and caring at the same time. Much like what Kira did with the two other main characters, she turning to you and offering guidance and encouragement. From here, she’s is there with you to complete your artistic dreams. It sounds so easy, because that’s her job, it’s what she does; looking over you shoulders and, more or less, being your bodyguard until the job is done.
Despite the ins and out of the movie, picking Olivia for this lead (or Olivia’s own muse picking this for her) was a wise decision; her looks, presents and voice fits in perfectly and this recording is a prime example. Technically, it may feel like a big production thanks to the strings and the main character background, but everything glides in and out; not pushed nor bombastic….just like the character.
The only drawback is that the movie didn’t take this song seriously enough to be used on its own terms as it was strictly relegated to background music in two scenes. Still, Olivia’s performance and John’s writing and production manages to poke through the noise to make its presents known, whether the producers and editors liked or not. You Can’t Stop The Muse, Bubbah!
Anal retentive side note: The gentlemen who was in charge of arranging and conducting the strings and horns on Olivia’s side of things was Richard Hewson and for some annoying reason, he name was familiar to me as he also did a similar job to one of my favorite 1979 hits, (Fool) If You Think It’s Over by Chris Rea. You will see Hewson’s name again in this list.
If you follow John Farrar’s part of Olivia’s recorded output over the decades, Suddenly is his standard record and this is not a bad thing. Farrar’s attention to quality in terms of songs and production has steadily increased since the early days of Olivia’s solo career, especially since her 1975’s Clearly Love album. You might not like the country/MOR tones of these sides, but you would have to respect John’s refusal to let up on his detailed production with an increasing amount of maturity to boot. In Grease, its Broadway sensibility threatens to over power John’s genteel sound, but he navigates his way around this large demanding genre to make his stand.
Suddenly is an important record as it directly address the increasingly complected feelings Sonny and Kira have for each other; she, as a muse, is still Sonny’s guidance and Sonny, being the human, is following along to the point that he’s in love with her and at THIS point, she, unlike a muse, is slowly and sure falling for him and with the economical lyrics penned by Farrar, you can tell where this is heading. The chemistry between Olivia and Cliff Richard certainly helps to convey these feelings and plot line even further.
The wordless vamp throughout provided by the Vocoder seems to be one of the central instruments used through out this production as Jeff Lynne used it in a noteworthy section of ‘All Over The World’ (as well in past and future ELO recordings). Here, John glides it in and out effortlessly and smoothly. How and why he came up with this idea? Because he’s John Farrar!!
Looking back on my earlier pointless idea of narrowing down the essential Xanadu tracks, Magic would top this list with Xanadu in the number 2 slot and close behind would have to be Dancin’! In the face of the slings and arrows aimed at this movie, there is one number that you would end up wasting your rocks and raspberries on (well, other than ‘Magic’). The idea of combining the 40’s big band with the 80’s new wave rock is daunting as hell…..and leave it to John Farrar to mark this off his bucket list with no sweat. Anything less would grow raspberries and used as stock for the arrows. Yea, the basic idea sounds whacked out and insane but done properly, it defies standard criticism, forces you to accept it and movie on to weaker targets.
With help from The Tubes and arranger Richard Hawson, John manages to string and balance these extreme musical genres into one and the results are amazing in a fun way. After a brief introduction where both bands warm up and check each other out, the big band struts their stuff and then The Tubes take over. From here we hear John finding a couple of interlocking hooks that builds a bridge between these bands into one…..and of course there’s an explosion that ends this party. It’s ALL good, you know what I mean!
….and the movie takes full advantage of all this reckless energy and joy.
It’s too bad that The Tubes won’t play this during their live shows, but, thinking realistically, it would be impossible to carry this off without additional help….a LOT of help. The level of help this group don’t have as this is one daunting number to tackle with limited resources. Out of all the Xanadu tracks that has been covered, Dancin’ has the least tracks (two) and the few that were brave enough to go near this had to use synthesizers to make up for the big band section. In a recent Bandcamp cover album, Tim King had to get creative with his attempt with this number by knocking out the horns and focused more on the rhythm acoustic guitars in the big band section. A smart move!
SUSPENDED IN TIME:
As with Suddenly, a standard fine Farrar production. Unlike ELO’s overly dramatic break-up ballad Don’t Walk Away, this one is requires Olivia NOT to bust her lungs and stay well within her vocal range! Musical moments like simply detailing Kira’s heartbreak is what John and Olivia are great at and has claimed many Top 40 hits…..and I still wonder why this nominated for a Razzie for Worst Song. Maybe a song of a muses broken heart was too much for the voters to take? Hell, the song Xanadu was WAY more over the top than this! Well, I wasn’t there when the bar fight happened over that argument.
WHENEVER YOU’RE AWAY FROM ME:
There are many songs in this movie that represents many parts, either directly to the plot, character or feelings and this one covers the charm and romance of yore all over and, again, Farrar is up for the challenge to come up with a big band love song and after tackling ‘Dancin’, this was a no brainer for him.
This time, Olivia duets with Gene Kelly and even though Kelly is not generally known as a singer, he manages to keep up with Olivia. As this song is in Danny’s imagination, any questions about the age difference between the singers/characters seems redundant as it’s about feelings. I only bring this up as I remember a US Magazine commenting that this sounded romantic as Cheech & Chong which sounded more like a joke than criticism.
‘Whenever’ seems to be a fine way to introduce the young audience to big band sound largely thanks to the crisp stereo sound as many of those records are usually in mono and recorded on primitive equipment. Another great touch is the whistling section that gives some additional levels of joy; even more if they used the movie version with its extended instrumental section for the album.
A fine ending for this side!
If you’re curious about Gene Kelly’s vocal offerings, one must look out for the 1996 CD collection ‘S’ Wonderful: Gene Kelly at M-G-M’ on the TCM/Rhino record label. This title contains many of Kelly’s singing and musical efforts from the title song of ‘For Me & My Gal’ from 1942 to ‘Les Girls’ from the same movie in 1957 with stops along his filmography like An American In Paris, It’s Always Fair Weather and, of course, his signature film Singing In The Rain. The liner notes provides a brief yet solid overview of his work at MGM. Recommended!
YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU:
Xanadu’s big band collection continues with this b-side to the Suddenly single, ‘You Made Me Love You’, a standard that goes as far back to Al Jolson's time! (If you don’t know who he is, don’t worry as we’re just referenced a time when sound was first introduced to movies!). Behind the helm of this recording is Barry DeVorizon, who replaced Jeff Lynne’s original score, so the sound is a little different, not as lush as “Whenever’ (especially without the strings), but it is much more intimate with Olivia matching vocals and all is still good. This should have been a bonus track to Olivia’s 2004 cover album ‘Indigo: Women Of Song’ as Judy Garland made this song popular in the 1940’s.
This too was relegated to the background just before the ‘Whatever’ number and if you wanted to make this set complete, there’s the big band number before Olivia’s number, ‘Mission To Moscow’ by Glenn Miller and The Army Air Force Band which you can find on YouTube.
P. S.: I ranted about the 1981 ‘SWING!’ album that was inspired from Xanadu’s big band numbers elsewhere, so I’ll just link it HERE!
This is a 2 for one track from the finale, also a b-side. The ‘Fool’ number is the rock section and it’s a fast and furious one indeed that rocks so hard I hardly understand the lyrics; in fact this rocks harder than anything Olivia has done before and since; luckily her vocals handles this aggressive performance well without over powering her pipes. ‘Country’ is self-explanatory; just as fierce as the previous tune, and Olivia’s experience with this genre suits her well, too.
Now the only mystery left with this number is who the #&*@ did that tap dance number!