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.
If you didn’t like John Travolta’s face, then 1978 must’ve been a tough year for you. Saturday Night Fever, which made Travolta a star, opened in theaters during the last month of 1977. The film ended up as the #3 box-office hit released in 1977, a year that also gave us Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kid. Six months later, Travolta starred in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease. Grease was the biggest movie of 1978, besting Animal House and Superman. Suddenly, John Travolta, one of the Sweathogs from Welcome Back, Kotter, was arguably the biggest movie star in the world.
On the pop charts, Travolta’s impact was even more insane. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had been a phenomenon, selling tens of millions of copies and pushing four different singles to #1. The #1 singles from Saturday Night Fever were only starting to fade when the first #1 single from Grease showed up. (There was a three-week break between the last Fever #1 and the first Grease one.) The two biggest-selling albums of 1978 were the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtrack albums. (The year-old Rumours was #3.) Neither of those albums would’ve sold anywhere near what they did if they hadn’t had a young Travolta’s ridiculously statuesque face staring from their covers.
Plenty of actors have made impacts on the pop charts. Movies and pop music have always been inextricably intertwined, and placing a song on a big soundtrack has long been one of the easiest ways to get to #1. You could argue, for instance, that “My Heart Will Go On” owes as much of its success to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as it does to Céline Dion, or that Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” became a massive smash because it gave the world a chance to feel bad about Paul Walker dying so young. In 1978, Travolta arguably had a bigger pop-chart impact than any other actor in history. And because one of his big roles was in a musical, Travolta even managed to sing on one of those #1 hits.
“You’re The One That I Want” is Travolta’s only #1 hit, but it’s not his first time in the top 10. Travolta, who grew up in an Irish and Italian community in New Jersey, spent his entire life around music; his mother had been a singer. Shortly after he dropped out of high school in 1971, Travolta moved to New York and won a role in a touring production of Grease. (He played Doody.)
In 1975, Travolta was cast as Vinny Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter, a sitcom that had a #1 hit for a theme song. A year later, Travolta released his debut single, a ballad called “Let Her In.” It’s a moony and generic song, and Travolta clearly wasn’t much of a singer, but the song got to #10 anyway. (It’s a 2.)
Olivia Newton-John, Travolta’s Grease co-star and “You’re The One That I Want” singing partner, had plenty of success on the pop charts before Grease, but she hadn’t done much acting. As a teenager, she’d starred in a 1965 Australian musical called Funny Things Happen Down Under. In 1970, she’d also been the lead of Toomorrow, a Don Kirshner-produced psychedelic sci-fi musical that turned out to be a total disaster. (It screened in one theater for a week before being shelved.) Travolta pushed for Newton-John to get the Grease part, but she was understandably nervous about returning to acting. A screen-test with Travolta went well, so she went for it.
Newton-John didn’t like all of the songs from the Grease musical, so John Farrar wrote a couple of new ones for her. Farrar, a former member of the Shadows, had produced Newton-John’s records for years, and he’s also written a bunch of songs for her, including the 1975 #1 “Have You Never Been Mellow.” One of the songs that Farrar wrote for Grease, the vaguely countrified Newton-John solo showcase “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) The other was “You’re The One That I Want.”
The original Grease stage musical had ended with a sort of Elvis pastiche called “All Choked Up.” Over the objections of Grease director Randal Kleiser, the film’s producer Robert Stigwood threw out “All Choked Up” and swapped in “You’re The One That I Want,” an even more shameless piece of retro-pop silliness.
The idea of the song is simple enough: Greaser asshole Danny Zuko, attempting to win over Sandy Olsson, has started running cross country and tried to pass himself off as a productive member of society. But Sandy has made herself over, too, dressing up as a bad girl. The two of them meet up at a carnival, and Zuko is instantly extremely horny. Cue the song.
“You’re The One That I Want” is a big, bright number, and it works just fine as the movie’s happy-ending musical-number finale. (In subsequent stage revivals of Grease, the cast has sung “You’re The One That I Want” rather than “All Choked Up.”) The song sounds more like straight-up Broadway-bait than like the actual late-’50s rock ‘n’ roll that Grease was supposedly reviving, and no actual human being in 1959 would’ve used a line like “meditate in my direction.” But the song itself is fast and hooky and memorable, and it energetically wedges its way into your consciousness the first time you hear it.
John Travolta has never been much of a singer, but he throws himself into “You’re The One That I Want” with reckless abandon, making an absolute ham of himself: “I got chiiiiills! They’re multiplying!” He puts a slight Elvis-style hiccup into his voice, which probably worked as an emotional trigger in the year after Elvis himself had died, and he yelps and hoots with total enthusiasm. (Watching him go all cartoon-wolf goggle-eyes in the movie, I feel oppressive levels of vicarious embarrassment, which is a real problem for me and musicals.) As for Olivia Newton-John, she’s better equipped to confidently carry the song. And the song actually does her a serious favor. For years, Newton-John had mostly sung drippy, boring ballads. “You’re The One That I Want” forces her out of that rut and demands that she show some energy and some sexiness.
But look. I’m sorry. I can’t. Grease is an American cultural institution and an important part of millions of childhoods, but I will never get over my gut-level reaction that it’s dumb and it sucks. That’s not the movie’s problem. It’s mine. Even as a kid, I was never drawn to this weapons-grade peppiness. And that was before I had to write down all the lyrics.
When I was a teenager, working at a summer camp, someone had the bright idea that we should put on a production of Grease with the kids. But nobody had the lyrics to those songs. This was the ’90s, so we couldn’t Google those lyrics. (I don’t think there was even a single computer at the camp.) So I was assigned a job. I had to spend an afternoon sitting down with a boombox, a pen, and a notebook. I had to listen to the Grease soundtrack, hitting pause constantly and writing down every shang-a-long-ling-long. Again: This is not the movie’s fault. But it happened. Those Grease songs do not trigger magical memories in my brain.
“You’re The One That I Want” is clearly a fine, professionally made piece of pop music. Its clompity-clomp drums and fake-rockabilly bassline are nothing special, but the hoo-hoo-hoo on the hook is really anything that you could possibly want a hoo-hoo-hoo to be. The “You’re The One That I Want” single came out a month before Grease opened, and it was already at #1 before the movie was in theaters. People weren’t just buying “You’re The One That I Want” because they liked the movie. They hadn’t even seen the movie, and they were still buying the single. They must’ve just liked the song. But I will never be happy to hear “You’re The One That I Want.” For reasons entirely related to my own experiences, it’s only electrifying in the bad way.
In the years after Grease, John Travolta would move away from his pop-stardom ambitions. Travolta only scored one more top-10 hit after “You’re The One That I Want,” and that song was “Summer Nights,” another one from the Grease soundtrack. (“Summer Nights” peaked at #5 later in 1978. It’s a 7 — good enough to mostly overcome my general overall Grease aversion.) Travolta would spend a few years as a towering figure in Hollywood. He’d fade. Quentin Tarantino would revive his career. Then it would fade again. He’s had a hell of a ride. These days, he’s mostly starring in straight-to-DVD movies that look terrible.
Olivia Newton-John, meanwhile, got a tremendous boost from Grease. In the years after the movie’s success, she made herself over in almost the same way as her Grease character. She’ll appear in this column again. So will the Grease soundtrack.
BONUS BEATS: In 1997, the ska-punk band Less Than Jake released Greased, an EP of covers of songs from the Grease soundtrack. Here’s their extremely snotty take on “You’re The One That I Want”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the adorable spectacle of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta reuniting onstage to sing “You’re The One That I Want” at a 2002 Newton-John show:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ja Rule and Ashanti reenacting the “You’re The One That I Want” scene from Grease in the video for their 2003 single “Mesmerize”:
(“Mesmerize” peaked at #2; it’s a 6. The team of Ja Rule and Ashanti will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The singer and violinist Lo-Fang released a moody and self-serious cover of “You’re The One That I Want” in 2014. That same year, director Baz Luhrmann used that cover in a moody and self-serious Chanel commercial. Here it is:
(Baz Luhrmann has never had a top-10 hit in the US. His 1999 single “(Everybody’s Free) To Wear Sunscreen” peaked at #45.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of the Foo Fighters covering “You’re The One That I Want” at the 2018 Welcome To Rockville festival with a non-singing, non-dancing John Travolta onstage:
(The Foo Fighters have never had a top-10 hit in the US, either. Their highest-charting single, 2005’s “Best Of You,” peaked at #18.)