Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Olivia Newton-John In My Own Words


What a truly pleasant surprise it was to hear Olivia Newton-John telling her own story, in her own words, on BBC Radio 2 over the last couple of weeks. I say surprise because Olivia is not someone who is known for talking about her own life and career, has never written her own autobiography or participated in any book about herself, and there was a time when I wanted to do one, and is generally not someone who is known to give a lot of interviews or talk openly about her life or career.

Not only did I want to write a book about her, with her co-operation, but with my Cliff Richard writing cohort, Peter Lewry, we made several attempts to interview her about the duets she had recorded with Cliff over the years for our book on Cliff's recording sessions. To this day, it is still a bit of a mystery why she didn't speak with us, but maybe it was down to the fact that she may have felt a little uncomfortable to talk to a couple of unknown wannabe rock writers putting together their first book on one of her favourite people, despite the book being approved and authorised by Cliff himself, unless of course she never received our request that was sent to her through Cliff's office, which can often happen and does. It is not unknown for interview requests never to reach the people they are intended for.

We made other attempts to interview her, but again, without success, about some of the recordings we re-released on the Cliff album remaster series for EMI, including the backing vocals she contributed to the Cliff Live in Japan 1972 album, so with all that in mind, it was nice to hear her talk about recording Don't Move Away, her first B-side duet with Cliff in 1970, on the Radio 2 programme, as we had very little information about the recording apart from what Cliff told us, and what we found on tape boxes and recording sheets at Abbey Road. What I did find interesting to hear her say was  how petrified she was about going into the studio with such a big star as Cliff and having to record with an orchestra, neither of which, she had ever done before. For the purists, the track was recorded at the same session as the two other songs that appeared on Cliff's Sunny Honey Girl maxi-single. And even though Don’t Move Away was the first track to be completed with the third and last take being used to make up the final master, it wasn't remastered until we added it as a bonus track to the the reissued Tracks ‘n’ Grooves album in 2004.

It was a great shame we didn't get to speak with her as we found quite a few alternate takes, some with Cliff, and some of her own recordings for singles and albums, and even though we wouldn't have included any info about her early work with Bruce Welch and John Farrar in a book about Cliff's sessions, it would have satisfied my curiosity to have had the opportunity to listen to them, discover their history, and find out why certain takes were chosen over others, and why some remained unreleased, but sadly it was not to be. 

Probably one of the most interesting things we uncovered about her recording work with Cliff was the recording of Suddenly. For those who have read our book, you will know that Olivia's vocal for the duet was recorded in a garage located in Los Angeles, which obviously created some acoustic problems with traffic noise levels outside. Compounding the technical problems was the recording method used of Cliff and Olivia taping their vocals simultaneously onto a pre-recorded backing track. We were told that Olivia returned at a later date to re-record her vocals due to her track containing the noise levels mentioned. We were unable to trace the origins of the backing track or the musicians featured and never found any tape boxes or recording paperwork, and although it would have been something we would have asked Olivia, as we did Cliff, like Cliff, she may not have remembered.     

As Cliff said in the first episode, everybody loved her when she first burst onto the scene 50 years ago, and I was one of those people. For me it started back in 1971 when I bought her first album, simply titled Olivia Newton-John, and went to see her live at the Brighton Dome the following year during her first concert tour, for which she was not top of the bill, but a supporting act, with Labi Siffre, to the headliners, Marvin and Farrar, and Cliff.  Below are two pages from the souvenir programme. One features a biography of Olivia, and the other is an ad for her then first and second albums on the Pye International label.