In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
On their 1979 debut single “California Über Alles,” the Dead Kennedys imagined a horrifying fascist America controlled by an unlikely dictator: Jerry Brown, Linda Ronstadt’s boyfriend, the anodyne young governor of California. Just then, Brown was in the middle of his second presidential campaign. In his career, Brown would try for the presidency three times, and he would fail three times. But Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra saw Brown as a demonic figure, a guy who would not hesitate to commit genocide against anyone who didn’t fit his definition of cool.
The lyrics to “California Über Alles” are exaggerated and silly and about as overblown as they could possibly be (“die on organic poison gas!”). But it’s not that hard to imagine the Dead Kennedys, stressed-out young men growing up in post-hippie California, might look at someone like Jerry Brown and see the enemy. At a certain point, the beige crunchiness of ’70s California — and of ’70s America in general — must’ve felt oppressive. And that’s how they treat it on “California Über Alles”: “Mellow out or you will pay!” It makes sense. This was, after all, a mere four years after “Have You Never Been Mellow.” The wound must’ve still been raw.
“Have You Never Been Mellow” didn’t come from California, or even from America, but it still picked up on something that was in the air. A few months earlier, the UK-born and Australia-raised Olivia Newton-John had hit #1 with the satisfyingly drippy ballad “I Honestly Love You.” For her follow-up — her second straight #1 single — Newton-John teamed up again with “I Honestly Love You” producer John Farrar. The Australian Farrar, the husband of Newton-John’s former singing partner, had been a member of the Shadows, the longtime backing band of UK schlockmeister Cliff Richard. Farrar wrote “Have You Never Been Mellow” after noticing that, when they were on tour in America, the members of Newton-John’s band kept using the word “mellow.” There are probably flimsier reasons to write a song, but there aren’t many.
If you’re feeling especially charitable, you could interpret “Have You Never Been Mellow” as a drug song, an invitation to smoke some weed and watch problems dissolve into the air. But there’s nothing in the lyrics — or, for that matter, in the canned and professional backing track — that supports that interpretation. Instead, it seems to be a fuzzy-brained pep talk of a song. Newton-John sings to someone who’s evidently too wound-up, summoning that person to a state of blissful hakuna matata.
Newton-John starts the song out reassuring the listener that she knows what stress feels like: “There was a time when I was in a hurry as you are / I was like you.” But as she goes on, you can see that she’s not just singing about taking a breath and slowing down: “There was a day when I just had to tell my point of view / I was like you.” So being mellow doesn’t just mean slowing down. It means shutting up. Newton-John would like to know: “Have you never let someone else be strong?” The implication: You can be strong, or you can be mellow. Pick your side.
Maybe “Have You Never Been Mellow” is a song about what we would now call self-care or mental health. Maybe it’s about carving out time for yourself, about being present in the moment. But it’s just as easy to hear it as an anthem of retreat, some serious apathetic lotus-eater bullshit. If you wanted to, you could hear it as the post-hippie hangover come to life: Why do you have to care so much about things, anyway? Sit down! Relax! Be mellow!
Musically, “Have You Never Been Mellow” has all the flavor of canned air. It’s chirpy backing vocals and aimless woodwind wanderings and acoustic-guitar flutters. As a singer, Newton-John is a warm and intuitive interpreter; she was, after all, enough of a communicator to sell “I Honestly Love You.” But there’s nothing in “Have You Never Been Mellow” for her to latch onto. It’s pure drift; even the hook never quite registers.
“Have You Never Been Mellow” was, of course, a hit on adult-contemporary radio, which can’t be a surprise. But it also did well on country stations despite not even being remotely country. (There’s maybe a fleck or two of dobro in the mix, but that’s it.) Country went through a full-blown internal crisis over whether or not the genre should open its arms to outsiders like Olivia Newton-John. This is nothing new. The entire history of country music could be seen as a decades-long full-blown internal crisis over what does and does not count as country. But though Newton-John had a few #1 hits after “Have You Never Been Mellow,” the song would be her last chart-topper that even remotely flirted with the idea of country. The next time we see her in this column, she’ll be singing straight-up show tunes, which might be what she should’ve been doing from jump.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ cover of “Have You Never Been Mellow,” from the 2011 all-Australian covers EP Go Down Under:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Juliana Hatfield’s take on “Have You Never Been Mellow,” from her 2018 Olivia Newton-John tribute album: