The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”

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.

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Olivia Newton-John – “Magic”

HIT #1: August 2, 1980

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

For a hot second, Olivia Newton-John was a movie star. Other than 1970’s Toomorrow, a Don Kirshner-produced psychedelic sci-fi musical that nobody saw, Newton-John’s first movie was Grease. Grease was about as big as a movie can be. It was the kind of smash that could, at least in theory, turn a British-Australian balladeer into a box-office sensation.

Grease was the highest-grossing movie of 1978. Its soundtrack was the #2 album of the year, behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. “You’re The One That I Want,” the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta duet from the end of the film, was one of two songs from that soundtrack to hit #1. Travolta was already a newly-minted movie star when he appeared in Grease, though the picture certainly cemented his status. Newton-John wasn’t the same kind of electric screen presence that Travolta was, but Grease made her a whole lot more famous. It makes sense that somebody tried to build another big-budget musical around her. It makes less sense that the musical in question was Xanadu.

I do a lot of research for this column, but I have never seen Xanadu. I value my movie-watching time too much for that. In Xanadu, Michael Beck, the guy who played Swan in The Warriors, is an album-cover artist who falls in love with Olivia Newton-John. She plays Kira, an actual mythical muse — as in, a daughter of Zeus. Their relationship has religious implications, and it revolves around a roller-disco nightclub that turns out to be magical. Hollywood musical legend Gene Kelly is in there, too, in his final screen role. He’s a former big-band leader who has his own history with the muse. (I’m getting all this from Wikipedia; forgive me if I’ve somehow mischaracterized it.)

These days, Xanadu has a rep as a camp classic, the kind of thing that gets shown at Alamo Drafthouse film parties. It also became a successful Broadway musical in 2007. But when it came out in the summer of 1980, Xanadu landed as a critical and commercial bomb, and it effectively immolated Newton-John’s chances at movie stardom. The film helped inspire the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards, the toxic irony-choked award show dedicated to recognizing the worst films of the year. (At the first-ever ceremony, Xanadu auteur Robert Greenwald won the Worst Director award, beating out fellow nominees like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was nominated for The Shining! Never pay attention to the Golden Raspberries.)

So the Xanadu movie didn’t do well. The soundtrack, on the other hand, was a serious hit, though nowhere near what the Grease soundtrack had been. The Xanadu soundtrack album went double platinum, and it spun off five different top-40 hits. The biggest of those was Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” — her fourth #1 and, at the time, her biggest hit ever. This level of success is almost as baffling as the existence of the Xanadu movie itself.

The Xanadu soundtrack is basically a split LP, with Olivia Newton-John handling the first half of the album and Jeff Lynne’s much-loved studio-rock institution Electric Light Orchestra doing the second. (ELO’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) The Newton-John half of the album veers all over the place musically, from sedate adult-contempo to big-band jazz to a couple of collabs with new wave-adjacent glam-rockers the Tubes. (The Tubes’ highest-charting single, 1983’s “She’s A Beauty,” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.) Newton-John also teamed up with ELO on “Xanadu,” the movie’s big-finale song, and that single peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.)

But “Magic,” the big Xanadu hit and the soundtrack album’s opener, is a staid and inert love song. It’s not the worst song on the Xanadu album, but it might be the least interesting. In Xanadu, “Magic” is not some big production number. Instead, it plays in the background as Michael Beck walks into an abandoned nightclub and finds Newton-John there, acting like a manic pixie dream rollergirl. It’s a bad scene.

“Magic,” like all of Newton-John’s songs from Xanadu, came from Newton-John’s regular collaborator John Farrar. Farrar had produced all of Newton-John’s previous #1 hits, and he’d written all of them other than 1975’s “Have You Never Been Mellow,” her first #1. Farrar deserves credit for understanding how to keep up with a quickly-changing pop landscape and for understanding how to fit Newton-John’s voice into it. But he doesn’t deserve much credit for writing “Magic,” a song I can’t remember even after listening to on repeat for a damn half hour.

“Magic” has a very particular dawn-of-the-’80s lurch to it, a glossy studio-pop thud. Farrar sings backup on the song, and he plays guitar, synth, and electric piano. (Bassist David Hungate will eventually appear in this column as a member of Toto.) “Magic” sounds slick, with a weird little guitar-prickle offsetting all the expensive-sounding studio trickery. It’s too clean, to the point where it sound sterile. But the song is also muddy and indistinct, with a flat string arrangement and a total lack of memorable hooks.

Newton-John’s vocal is smiley and pleasant, but that’s all you can really say about it. She doesn’t convey anything, and the song doesn’t give her much to convey. At a few points, the vocal melody seems to hint at bluesiness, but it switches back to easy-listening slickness before that impression can set in. If Newton-John had recorded “Magic” a few years earlier, it would’ve probably been a generically sleepy ’70s MOR ballad. Farrar’s production updates make “Magic” sound more like a 1980 song, but they don’t add anything. The only thing about the song that I actually like is Farrar’s guitar solo, which is both glossy and weird enough to pass for some Ariel Pink shit.

Lyrically, “Magic” is just as vague. It hints at the idea of Newton-John being a muse — she promises that she’ll be “guiding you” a bunch of times — but it mostly keeps things fuzzy and allusive. That’s presumably a creative choice, since Michael Beck’s character isn’t supposed to realize that Newton-John is the daughter of an ancient Greek god until later in the movie, but it doesn’t make the song much more compelling. “You have to believe we are magic,” Newton John sings on the chorus. Nothing about the song itself backs her up.

Looking back, the success of “Magic” does not make a whole lot of sense. My best guess is this: People just liked Olivia Newton-John. I get this part. After Grease, Newton-John pulled off a weird and successful pop reinvention. She basically followed the same arc as her Grease character Sandy, going from prim and approachable ’70s pop MOR balladeer to foxy ’80s pop queen. She’d started making that transition almost immediately after Grease, releasing the 1978 album Totally Hot and getting to #3 with the single “A Little More Love.” (It’s a 6.) “Magic” isn’t an ultra-sexy song or anything, but it’s a sign that she could continue to thrive in a changing pop universe. Newton-John will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Juliana Hatfield’s cover of “Magic,” from her 2018 tribute album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John: