Wednesday 10 October 2012


(#201: 7 October 1978, 13 weeks)

Track listing: Grease (Frankie Valli)/Summer Nights (John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John & Cast)/Hopelessly Devoted To You (Olivia Newton-John)/You’re The One That I Want (John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John)/Sandy (John Travolta)/Beauty School Drop-Out (Frankie Avalon)/Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Stockard Channing)/Greased Lightnin’ (John Travolta)/It’s Raining On Prom Night (Cindy Bullens)/Alone At The Drive-In Movie (Instrumental)/Blue Moon (Sha-Na-Na)/Rock N’ Roll Is Here To Stay (Sha-Na-Na)/Those Magic Changes (Sha-Na-Na)/Hound Dog (Sha-Na-Na)/Born To Hand Jive (Sha-Na-Na)/Tears On My Pillow (Sha-Na-Na)/Mooning (Louis St. Louis & Cindy Bullens)/Freddy My Love (Cindy Bullens)/Rock N’ Roll Party Queen (Louis St. Louis)/There Are Worse Things I Could Do (Stockard Channing)/Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise) (Olivia Newton-John)/We Go Together (“INTERPOLATING: a) Witch Doctor; b) Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)”) (John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John & Cast)/Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (Instrumental) (sic)/Grease (Reprise) (Frankie Valli)

Grease began life as a Chicago fringe theatre production with far more speech than music in 1971 and a markedly harder-hitting approach to fifties kitsch (i.e. the kitsch was largely discarded or sidelined). Transferring to Broadway in 1972, its rough edges were steadily smoothed out until all that was left was a perky, happy musical, like they (allegedly) used to do in the fifties. A West End production opened in London in June 1974 starring an unknown American actor named Richard Gere as Danny. Eventually, as these things occur, thoughts about turning it into a film started to form. The original idea for the two leads was Henry Winkler – the Fonz from Happy Days, which prior to the film of Grease had held the title of being the brighter flipside of American Graffiti - and Marie Osmond. However, Marie didn’t like the idea of Sandy not being accepted until she donned leather and heels and so John and Olivia ended up as the stars; in the film there is much awkward subsidiary plotting to incorporate the not very persuasive notion that Sandy has come from Australia.

The film, when released, outgrossed Saturday Night Fever, not least because kids going crazy over Travolta could now go into the cinema and see what all the fuss was about, and on balance it has probably come out with a better reputation, ironing out the irony that what was originally intended as a satire of fifties mores – whose emergence was more or less concomitant with that of “American Pie” – ended up as a slice of seventies kitsch.

Still, I am sceptical about its curious current status as a uncomplicated, fun-filled old-school musical. It is true that the plot isn’t up to much bar a number of manoeuvres to keep Danny and Sandy apart for as long as possible, and that eventually one wonders whether the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds are the sort of people with whom they should be expected to mix, or whether they are as destructive and withholding of maturity as the jocks in Carrie (one of whom was John Travolta). There are inferences to gang violence, but “Rydell Fight Song” is missing from the soundtrack (though restored on a later 2CD edition). There are more than inferences to teenage pregnancy, but Rizzo, with convenient happiness, turns out not to be pregnant.

Look at Rydell High – the name, like so much else in the movie, is a quasi-sardonic look back at the 1959-63 pop void between Buddy Holly and the Beatles – and you wonder at the whiteness of this place where the draft and segregation have not (yet) reached (some of the filming was done at John Marshall High School in Glendale, California, whence Lena would have gone at around this time had her family not moved; if filmed in the summer of 1977, the exceptional dryness of the place can be accounted for by the fact that there was a drought in California that summer). When Danny and Sandy “go bad” at the end of the film – i.e. grow up – they are both clad in black. The school as virginal protector.

But I do not know that Grease is as harmlessly unknowing as that. Consider “Summer Nights,” the best-known song from the original musical, how it is a double-headed meditation on the varying degrees of bullshit required when describing true love to one’s peers, and how, looming in the background, is the bridge to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” The rest of the Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey numbers mostly settle for straightforward (and boring) pastiches of Brian Hyland, Lesley Gore angst and so forth, the only ones jumping out being “Greased Lightnin’,” which Travolta performs with one eye on Elvis (while the music is sanitised Eddie Cochran) and another on Springsteen (apropos cars and girls), the too-hyperactive-to-be-jolly “We Go Together,” whose lengthy middle passage of meaningful gibberish presages “Wordy Rappinghood” by the Tom Tom Club, and the very striking “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” the latter boasting a bravura performance by Stockard Channing (Six Degrees Of Separation and The West Wing still ahead of her; strange to note how her future West Wing co-star Martin Sheen was at the same time negotiating his way through the tumultuous minefields of Apocalypse Now); as a sort of prequel or mirror of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” (she sings the song to Sandy), she gives the song a languorous air of attachment which puts it firmly in the “now” of 1978; likewise, Channing does well on the hokey waltz of “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” (substituting Elvis for Sal Mineo in the lyric); when Olivia returns at the end of the record after a long absence and recasts the song as a sadly romantic piano ballad, we think of the Connie Francis of 1978, and how once she might have been Sandra Dee. It is as if the film is slowly awakening itself from its dream – but more of that later.

Generally the songs do better when they have some connection with 1978; I wonder how many of the millions of buyers of this album ever bothered to venture beyond side one. Both “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “Sandy” are astute meditations on the nature of love as pre-Beatles pop would have preferred it to look like; Olivia sings “Hopelessly” with a real fervour (and not unlike Connie Francis), while, as on the rest of his numbers, Travolta sounds like a child, still Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter with his “I’m so con-FUSED!” howl of misunderstood angst. Meanwhile, “You’re The One That I Want” sounds like rock ‘n’ roll recycled to 98 rpm; the two singers jitter around the song’s slightly over-fast tempo, Olivia authoritative, Travolta scarcely believing his luck (and also sounding speeded up) – of course, the song is about the freedom of becoming adults, of introducing themselves to the idea of sex, although from the fairground routine that accompanies the song in the movie, we might just as well be watching them still as teenagers, trying on grown-up outfits; Troy Donahue or Elvis, which suits me best, do you think?

There is nothing much to say about the long, dull section in the middle of the record devoted to Sha-Na-Na and their selection of old rock standards (plus a couple of songs from the show, one of which, “Born To Hand Jive” goes on for several centuries) except that the spirit they had at Woodstock appears to have been eviscerated completely, and apart from some proto-David Lee Roth-isms in “Rock N’ Roll Is Here To Stay,” and perhaps the moment on “Tears On My Pillow” where the singer suddenly cries out “No, no, no, NOW!” in a very non-fifties manner, we might as well be listening to Showaddywaddy. On her several (over-generous) selections, Cindy Bullens sounds like she might be trying to be Debbie Harry.

Which leaves us with two warnings from history, both named Frankie. “Beauty School Drop-Out,” possibly the first song in this tale to feature the word “hooker” (“Unless! She! Was! A! Hooker!,” Avalon exclaims, followed by rhetorical drum commentary), must be one of the most disturbing and unsettling songs we’ve examined; here we are presented with the other side of success and social acceptance, a downward spiral (perhaps leading to Frankie Lymon?) which can only be avoided if the song’s subject jettisons her vanity and idealisation of the superficial and return to what really matters, even if that means taking a step backwards. Avalon’s delivery is slightly redolent of an extended jeer, and I note how as the song progresses (in particular when he reaches the phrase “Now I’ve gotta fly”) how similar his voice is to that of Barry Manilow. He sings it, in fact, as though pronouncing a premature sentence of death.

And then there is the framing device of Frankie Valli’s title song, which I am sure is not an accident. Written and produced by Barry Gibb, and having absolutely nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll or the fifties, the forty-four-year-old matinee idol munches his way through Gibb’s characteristic syntactical jungle (“Conventionality” – if you can’t think of a word, then make one up! – “belongs to YYYYYYESterday!” growls Valli with commendable gusto) while simultaneously uncovering the film’s seldom-acknowledged underbelly, namely in the middle eight: “This is a life of illusion/A life of tension/Full of confusion/WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?,” a sentiment as startling and non-fifties in its way as Olivia’s “Meditate in my direction” on “You’re The One That I Want.” At the film’s end, Danny and Sandy disappear in their car up towards the sky, waving their schoolmates goodbye; it does not seem that we have experienced anything real. Consider this as an alternative option (not to mention pondering on how many of the cast will end up, so to speak, in The Deer Hunter); someone in 1978 gets knocked over in the street by a car, or a ‘bus; while unconscious and being operated on in hospital, they have this dream about the fifties which ends when the patient comes round and finds themselves back in the present tense. In other words, “Grease” is the word but not the escape key; another record from that year, Darkness On The Edge Of Town spells out what could happen to all the beauty school dropouts or all the Kenickies if they don’t get smart; hanging around the same small town, their lives growing smaller by the day, ending up by racing in the streets – and never has the notion of racing in the streets sounded so desolate. And what is that choral and orchestral Wonderful World Of Disney version of “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” – wait a moment, wasn’t that the stuff rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to leave behind?

All of which brings Then Play Long to the end of 1978, a year I was able to cover with just seven albums, the lowest yearly total since 1966. Readers thinking that we’re coming to the end of the seventies, however, are advised not to hold their breath; as if to make up for the speed, no less than nineteen different albums made it to number one during 1979 – some are worthy of having a book written about them, while others may be lucky to get a single paragraph. We will see which is which.