NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And today, we’re drinking some O-N-J.
Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’ve got some trivia, right after this:
[Key of Q Promo into Fear & Loathing in Tacoma Promo]
Let’s get to some trivia for ye. Since we’re talking about Olivia Newton-John today, I’m sure you know that her starring role in the 1978 film Grease has resulted in one of the world’s biggest-selling soundtrack albums. But in 1970 Olivia Newton-John starred in a film that not only featured a band she belonged to, but the film was named after that band. The movie did so poorly that she had to be convinced to do Grease. What was the name of the band and the film? I’ll have that answer for you near the end of the show.
So as I teased at the end of the last episode, “I Honestly Love You” is a song that gets played at a lot of weddings, and I have to wonder why, given the subject matter. ‘cause, here’s the thing: the song opens up with a confession of love and it’s very touching and all that, but the third verse! The third verse makes it pretty clear that they both have emotional attachments somewhere else. So, lovely song, yes. But wedding song?…I dunno. I’d be curious to know how many weddings that use this song are attached to enduring relationships. Now, I need to mention that I wrote that before I discovered that a similar theory was put forth in the 2001 movie The Wedding Planner.
“I Honestly Love You” was written by Jeff Barry, who we’ve talked about in this space many times before as the songwriting partner of Ellie Greenwich. Those two wrote a bunch of hits for Phil Spector’s stable of talent, not to mention a couple of hits for the Shangri-Las, the Dixie Cups, Neil Diamond and Lesley Gore. Barry also produced several hits for The Monkees and then moved on to writing hits for The Archies, including “Sugar, Sugar.”
But Barry had a co-writer for this one, and that would be the Australian singer/songwriter Peter Allen. Allen had come to the United States around 1970 and was releasing songs by the following year in America, but in the US he really found most of his success as a composer of hits for other artists. Allen gained some notoriety at the end of 1988 when he starred in a Broadway show co-written with Harvey Fierstein, called Legs Diamond. The show got ridiculously poor reviews but still managed to hang on for 64 performances, which might have been people buying tickets out of schadenfreude. The music wasn’t terrible, but Allen had badly miscast himself in the title role, given that his onstage persona was usually a flamboyantly gay type and the Legs Diamond character was a suave ladies’ man.
Peter Allen was working on his album called Continental American and he brought Barry in to write with him. One of the songs they wrote was “I Honestly Love You,” for which they made a demo. The part that isn’t clear is how the demo got into the hands of Olivia Newton John’s producer, John Farrar. He played it for the singer and she loved it. The problem was, Allen wanted to keep it for the album. It was Jeff Barry who talked Allen into letting her have it, since she was already a huge star and likely to have a hit with it. This turned out to be a good move on his part, because the song did indeed become a hit and it helped cement Allen’s reputation as a songwriter.
Newton-John recorded the song in London. She said that the studio was very small and rickety. The control room was upstairs, and Farrar was up there with the engineer. And the two of them had to sit still while she was recording because the floor would creak and her microphone would pick it up. For all that, she laid down three takes, and they decided that the first one was the best. Newton-John said that she’s not a power singer but more of an interpretive one, and toward the end she’s almost whispering because it was about the more sensitive and tender emotions in life. She felt that the word “honestly” made it all the more poignant overall.
What’s kind of funny about that is rooted in Jeff Barry’s comment that the song was originally written from a guy’s point of view, so maybe his intentions aren’t so pure. He said, [quote]
“I thought it would be a really sexy song for a guy to sing—‘I’m not trying to sleep with you, I honestly love you’…And I thought any girl who would hear that would have to say, ‘Well, can we just do it once?’”
Now, the song appeared on Olivia Newton-John’s album Long Live Love, and if you’re an American fan, you already know that that album wasn’t released in the United States, it was a UK-only release. In the US, however, this song and other sings from Long Live Love and the two that came out before that were repackaged into the American album titled If You Love Me, Let Me Know, that title track being the only new song on the album.
“I Honestly Love You” was released in the US in August of 1974 and it took only six weeks to make it to the Top Five on the Billboard Hot 100, and another two weeks to make it to Number One, where it spent the weeks of October 5 and October 12. And while she was already a big shot in the music business, this was her first trip to the top of the Hot 100. It also spent three weeks at the top of the Adult Contemporary Chart and peaked at Number 6 on the Country chart. On the other hand, it only peaked at Number 22 in the UK, though it did chart better in 1983 when it was re-released to coincide with a Greatest Hits album.
For what it’s worth, Peter Allen did wind up recording the song for Continental American and then released it as a single after Olivia Newton John’s version became a hit. So far as I know, that version didn’t chart.
The song has been covered numerous times, but frankly none of them really stand out because they’re so similar to Olivia Newton-John’s version. I will note that Newton-John herself re-recorded the song in 1998 for her album Back With a Heart, with Babyface doing backup vocals. The song was released as a single, which peaked at Number 67 on the Billboard chart, but it remained on the chart for twelve weeks. It was also Top 20 on the Adult Contemporary chart and the Country chart.
And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identifythe 1970 film that not only featured a band she belonged to, but the film was named after that band. And, the movie did so poorly that she had to be convinced to do Grease. Well, both the band and the film were named Toomorrow, which is spelled with an extra O up front—T O O-morrow. It’s about a group of students who pay their way through school by forming a pop band. Sonic vibrations from a special musical instrument called a “tonaliser” cause an alien to kidnap the group and have them entertain the population on his home planet. The movie took two years to make and ran for exactly one week before being shelved. It’s not terrible but it’s a ridiculous premise and the whole thing is definitely less than the sum of its parts, but if you’re curious you can watch the entire thing on YouTube. There’s also a DVD floating around out there but it’s remarkably low quality, including having all of the sound in one side of your stereo speakers.
Incidentally, even that wasn’t Olivia Newton-John’s first film. She’d previously been in a film in 1965 called Funny Things Happen Down Under, which is a rather silly family film that you can also see on YouTube.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we chat with John Hall, founder of the band Orleans. And does he have some tales to tell.
Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.