Olivia Newton-John (RIP) Reunites with Grease Co-Star John Travolta to Sing “You’re The One That I Want” (2002)

American nostalgia as we know it was invented in the nineteen-seventies. Consider that decade’s preponderance of backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena: Sha Na Na; Happy Days; “Yesterday Once More”; American Graffiti, whose tagline asked “Where were you in ’62?”, a time just eleven years before the release of the picture itself. But no piece of work stands more iconically for the seventies revival of the late fifties and early sixties than Grease. First produced as a stage musical in Chicago in 1971, it graduated to Broadway the next year. But Grease wouldn’t take its most enduring form until 1978, the year that brought Randal Kleiser’s film adaptation starring John Travolta and the late Olivia Newton-John.

A 28-year-old Australian might have seemed an unconventional choice for the part of Sandy Dombrowski, the new girl at midwestern Rydell High School. But after the alteration of a few details in the character and story, she made the role entirely her own. “It was Newton-John’s dulcet intimacy as a singer that set her up perfectly to play the naïve Sandy onscreen,” writes the New Yorker‘s Rachel Syme.

Her “squeaky prudishness and moony innocence as she wails ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You‘ stands in such sharp, silly contrast to her vampy fallen-woman persona at the end of the film that the whole thing feels like a camp commentary on the power of costuming and collective fantasy (not to mention a good perm).”

It didn’t hurt that Newton-John was already established as a singer: she’d represented the United Kingdom in 1974’s Eurovision Song Contest (losing, ultimately, to ABBA), and that very same year scored country hits in the United States. Her skills did much not just to make the Grease soundtrack America’s second-best-selling album of 1978 (second to the soundtrack of Travolta’s own vehicle Saturday Night Fever), but to keep it enduringly popular throughout the decades since. At Grease‘s 2002 DVD release party, Newton-John and Travolta reunited onstage to sing “You’re the One That I Want,” much to the delight of the audience — all of whom must still remember where they were in ’02, at least for those three minutes.

Related content:

The Power of Pulp Fiction’s Dance Scene, Explained by Choreographers and Even John Travolta Himself

Watch Simon & Garfunkel Sing “The Sound of Silence” 45 Years After Its Release, and Just Get Hauntingly Better with Time

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Reunite in Exotic Marrakesh, 1994

In Touching Video, Artist Marina Abramović & Former Lover Ulay Reunite After 22 Years Apart

The “West Side Story” Story — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #114

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

All the Music Played on MTV’s 120 Minutes: A 2,500-Video Youtube Playlist

The mid-nineteen-nineties was not a time without irony. You may recall that, back then, “alternative” rock had not only gone mainstream, but, in certain regions, had even become the most popular genre of music on the radio. That was certainly true in the Seattle area, where I grew up. And if you wanted to start a rock band there, as writer Adam Cadre remembers, you knew what steps you had to take: “get a record deal, make a video, get it on 120 Minutes, have it become a Buzz Clip, wonder why massive success doesn’t ease the aching void inside.”

If you got into bands like 10,000 Maniacs, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., The Replacements, the Pixies, the Offspring, or Sonic Youth in the mid-nineties (to say nothing of a certain trio called Nirvana), chances are — statistically speaking, at least — that you first saw them on 120 Minutes.

At the peak of its popularity on MTV, the show defined the alternative-rock zeitgeist, introducing new bands as well as bringing new waves of listeners to existing ones. Though most strongly associated with the nineties, it premiered in 1986, hosted by three of the first MTV VJs, J. J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter. 36 years later, you can relive the entirety of 120 Minutes‘ seventeen-year run (with a brief revival in the twenty-tens) on Youtube.

A user named Chris Reynolds has created a playlist that appears to contain every song ever aired on 120 Minutes. (Those have been documented by The 120 Minutes Archive, previously featured here on Open Culture.) Among the playlist’s more than 2,500 videos are songs — Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off,” The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” Fishbone’s “Everyday Sunshine,” R.E.M.’s “Stand” — that will take you back to the pop-cultural eras 120 Minutes spanned. But there are even more — Manufacture’s “As the End Draws Near,” Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Jennifer She Said,” Helmet’s “Milquetoast,” Cause and Effect’s “You Think You Know Her” — that you may well have missed, even if you rocked your way through the eighties and nineties.

via Brooklyn Vegan

Related content:

The 120 Minutes Archive Compiles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alternative Music Show (1986-2013)

Watch the First Two Hours of MTV’s Inaugural Broadcast (August 1, 1981)

Watch Nirvana Go Through Rehearsals for Their Famous MTV Unplugged Sessions: “Polly,” “The Man Who Sold the World” & More (1993)

Nirvana Refuses to Mime Along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Top of the Pops (1991)

William S. Burroughs — Alternative Rock Star — Sings with Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, REM & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

13 Glorious Minutes of The Ramones in Kansas City, Captured on a Super-8 Camera (1978)

Thirteen minutes was an awful long time for The Ramones, since they could play an entire album of songs in a quarter of an hour. Thus, when Ramones fan Mark Gilman snuck a Super-8 sound camera into the Grenada Theater in Kansas City in July of 1978 to secretly film the band, he managed to capture an awful lot of The Ramones on film before he was forced to shut it down. The band, as you can see above, was in top form.

I exaggerate a little…. Ramones albums are longer than this film clip. Their self-titled 1976 debut is over twice the length at 29 minutes, which is still three or four minutes shy of the shortest LPs of the time (back when albums only meant vinyl). Into that almost-half-hour, the ultimate 70s New York punk band crammed 14 songs, at an average of two minutes each: no solos, no filler, no extended intros, outros, or remixes….

That’s exactly what we see above: mops of hair and a sweaty, leather-and-denim-clad wall of pure, dumb rock ‘n’ roll, played blisteringly fast with maximum attitude. It’s quality, audience-level footage of about half a classic Ramones show, which usually spanned around 30 minutes: no banter, chatter, tuning up, requests, or encores. This is what you came for, and this — full-on assault of bubblegum melodies, thudding chants of “I wanna” and “I don’t wanna” played with chainsaw precision — is what you get.

They seemed fully-formed, walking and talking right of the womb when they hit stages outside the New York clubs that nurtured them. But four years earlier, their first audiences didn’t see a disciplined rock ‘n’ roll machine; they saw a shambling mess. Ryan Bray describes the impressions of longtime tour manager Monte Melnick on first seeing them in 1974:

Musically, songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” were already in the band’s repertoire, but the songs were plagued by erratic tempos, blown notes, and other sorted sonic miscues. Between-song bickering also marred the band’s earliest shows. For a second, Dee Dee and Tommy seem like they’re almost ready to come to blows when they can’t agree on what song to play next.

“I didn’t like them at all,” Melnick remembers. “It was pretty raw. They were stopping and starting and fighting. They could barely play.” They didn’t meet a devil at a crossroads in the years between these early gigs and their 1978 live album It’s Alive (recorded at London’s Rainbow Theatre on the last day of the year as the band finished a 1977 UK tour). They played a hell of a lot of gigs, and pushed themselves hard for a rock stardom they’d never really achieve until their founding members died.

Allmusic’s Mark Deming describes the band in 1978 as “relentless…. a big-block hot rod thrown in to fifth gear” and calls their live album of the time “one of the best and most effective live albums in the rock canon.” Watch them play “I Wanna Be Well” at the Rainbow Theatre, just above, and catch a rare bit of stage banter from Joey regarding the previous night’s chicken vindaloo.

via Boing Boing

Related Content: 

Dave Grohl & Greg Kurstin Cover The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” to Celebrate Hannukah: Hey! Oy! Let’s Goy!

Talking Heads Perform The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” Live in 1977 (and How the Bands Got Their Start Together)

CBGB’s Heyday: Watch The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Bad Brains, Talking Heads & Blondie Perform Live (1974-1982)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Full Set of Joni Mitchell’s Amazing Comeback Performance at the Newport Folk Festival

“She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys. This is a trust fall, and she picked the right people to do this with.” — Brandi Carlile introducing Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, 2022

Comeback queen Joni Mitchell stunned fans with her recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival this summer, her first full public concert since 2000. In Newport tradition, surprise stars make an appearance every year. Former guests have included Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan, and Mitchell’s friend David Crosby. Mitchell’s arrival this year was a revelation. She appeared out of the blue, when most people reasonably assumed she’d never perform again after suffering a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to speak or walk.

Yet, as we pointed out in an earlier post, Mitchell’s return to the stage has been years in the making. Since her aneurysm, she has confounded even the neurosurgeons with her recovery, teaching herself to play guitar again by watching online videos and learning to sing again not long after she re-learned how to get out of bed. When Mitchell’s longtime friend Brandi Carlile announced her arrival on the stage with, “This scene shall forever be known henceforth as the Joni Jam!,” Carlile referred to years of recent musical get-togethers in Mitchell’s living room.

The “Joni Jams” at Mitchell’s Los Angeles home included “a very special circle of friends,” music writer and radio host Aimsel Ponti notes, including “Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Mostly, from the way Carlile described it, Joni would crack jokes and take it all in rather than participate all that much.” But she was listening, learning, and becoming inspired by her peers and the younger artists who joined her onstage: Carlile, Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford, and others. As Carlile finished her own Newport set, the stage filled with cushiony chairs and couches, and several more musicians.

“We’re here to invite you into the living room,” Carlile says in her passionate introduction (above), while the audience holds their breath awaiting the announcement of her special guest. Then Carlile “told us about all of Joni’s pets and her many orchids and the hidden door to the bathroom,” writes Ponti. “Then she told us how it doesn’t feel complete without Joni there to crack jokes and nod with approval.” Then her hero took the stage to gasps, in a blue beret and sunglasses, and hundreds of fans born too late to see her in her glory days wept as she joined with Carlile on the first song, “Carey.” The New York Times’ Lindsay Zoladz describes the moment:

When Mitchell first came out onstage, she seemed a tad overwhelmed, clinging to her cane and backing up Carlile, who took the lead on a breezy, celebratory “Carey.” But over the course of that song, a visible change came over Mitchell. Her shoulders loosened. She began to shimmy. And all at once she seemed to regain her voice — her voice, sonorous and light, seeming to dance over those balletic melodies at a jazzy tempo all her own.

The first time Mitchell took the stage at Newport in 1967, she came at the behest of Judy Collins. She was a young unknown, about to become a folk goddess. When she returned to Newport in 1969, she was a star in her own right. Over the decades, she has left fans with memories of her performances that they have guarded like treasures as they’ve aged with her. (The Guardian has collected a few of these poignant reminisces.) Now she’s an inspiration to an entirely new young generation and, one hopes, to older artists who might feel they have little left to contribute.

“The 78-year-old Mitchell’s performance,” Kirthana Ramisetti writes at Salon, “showcased an artist transcending the challenges of aging and serious health issues…. To hear music written in the full blossom of her youth, yet performed with a weightiness and knowing perspective from having weathered so much in her life, arguably gave these songs a greater power than when they were first recorded.”

Such is often the case with artists as they mature beyond youthful sentiments and grow into their youthful precocity. (It has been so for Paul Simon, whose own reappearance at Newport this year seems overshadowed by Mitchell’s comeback.)  Ramisetti quotes Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” with which she closed out her surprise set — “We’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.”

Watch Mitchell’s full live Newport set (in jumbled order) at the top of the post (or on this playlist), and see the setlist of originals and classic covers from her historic performance just below.


Come in From the Cold

Help Me

Case of You

Big Yellow Taxi

Just Like This Train

Why Do Fools Fall in Love


Love Potion #9



Both Sides Now

The Circle Game

Related Content: 

How Joni Mitchell Learned to Play Guitar Again After a 2015 Brain Aneurysm–and Made It Back to the Newport Folk Festival

Joni Mitchell Sings “Both Sides Now” at the Newport Folk Festival: Watch Clips from Her First Full Concert Since 2002

Hear Demos & Outtakes of Joni Mitchell’s Blue on the 50th Anniversary of the Classic Album

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How Paul Simon Wrote “The Boxer”

The wordless chorus has become a gimmick in sing-along balladry and throwaway pop. Done badly, it sounds like lazy songwriting or — to take a phrase from Somerset Maugham — “unearned emotion.” At its best, a wordless chorus is a moment of sublimity, expressing beauty or tragedy before which language fails. Either way, it usually starts as a placeholder, in brackets. (As in, “we’ll put something better here when we get around to it.”) Only later in the songwriting process does it become a choice.

In what may be one of the greatest choices of wordless choruses on record, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” channels its raw power in only two repeated syllables (and possibly a word?): “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie….” The chorus of Paul Simon’s hit from 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water needs no more elaboration than the “arresting whipcrack of a snare drum” (played by wrecking crew drummer Hal Blaine), Dan Einav writes at Financial Times:

[The Boxer] was the result of a painstaking and protracted recording process that took more than 100 hours, used numerous backing musicians and even spanned a number of locations — from Nashville, to St Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, to the somewhat less ethereal setting of a hallway abutting an echoey elevator shaft at one of Columbia Records’ New York studios.

Simon’s epic narrative song was hardly like “the unvarnished, homespun records that were perhaps more closely associated with folk music at the time,” and that was exactly the idea.

Some saw the “lie-la-lie” as a dig at Bob Dylan’s inauthentic presentation as a Woody Guthrie-like figure. Simon debunked the theory in a 1984 interview quoted in the Polyphonic video at the top. “I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up.” He explained the theme of the beaten but unbowed contender as coming out of the figurative drubbing he and Art Garfunkel had taken from the critics:

For the first few years, it was just praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! May we weren’t even hippies!”

He wisely steered the song away from a narrative about a guy who wasn’t even a hippie. And being a guy from Queens, he could tell a New York Story like few others could. Simon references his frustration at being misunderstood, but his protagonist’s struggle to make it in the big city is far more universal than a songwriter’s angst.

The boxer is an “archetypal character representative of the struggle and loneliness that can come with working class life,” notes Polyphonic. “The second verse is a careful portrait of this existence, depicting the boxer as a young man trying to find his footing in a harsh world.”

When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Running scared
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places
Only they would know

The middle-class Simon didn’t live this character’s life, nor did he pursue a boxing career. But his ability to imagine the lives of others through story-songs like “The Boxer” has been one of his greatest strengths as a writer. Simon’s narrative gift served him well over and over in his career, and has served his fans. We can feel the feelings of Simon’s schoolyard delinquent, his frustrated lover looking for a way out, and his bitter, down-and-out tragic hero trying to make it in the big city, whether or not we’ve been there ourselves.

In the videos above, you can learn more about the writing of this classic cry of desperation and struggle from Polyphonic; and, learn about the recording from musicians who played on it, including drummer Hal Blaine. Then, see Simon and Garfunkel fill out the song’s melody with their timeless harmonies live in Central Park, and, just above, see Simon by himself in 2020, playing a solo version dedicated to his fellow New Yorkers combating the fear and suffering of COVID during lockdown.

Related Content: 

Watch Simon & Garfunkel Sing “The Sound of Silence” 45 Years After Its Release, and Just Get Hauntingly Better with Time

Paul Simon Tells the Story of How He Wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)

Paul Simon Deconstructs “Mrs. Robinson” (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Evolution of Music: 40,000 Years of Music History Covered in 8 Minutes

“We’re drowning in music,” says Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool. “If you were born in Beethoven’s time, you’d be lucky if you heard a symphony twice in your lifetime, whereas today, it’s as accessible as running water.” We shouldn’t take music, or running water, for granted, and the comparison should give us pause: do we need music –- for example, nearly any recording of any Beethoven symphony we can think of -– to flow out of the tap on demand? What does it cost us? Might there be a middle way between hearing Beethoven whenever and hearing Beethoven almost never?

The story of how humanity arrived at its current relationship with music is the subject of the Big Think interview with Spitzer above, in which he covers 40,000 years in 8 minutes: “from bone flutes to Beyoncé.” We begin with his thesis that “we in the West” think of music history as the history of great works and great composers. This misconception “tends to reduce music into an object,” and a commodity. Furthermore, we “overvalue the role of the composer,” placing the professional over “most people who are innately musical.” Spitzer wants to recover the universality music once had, before radios, record players, and streaming media.

For nearly all of human history, until Edison invents the phonograph in 1877, we had no way of preserving sound. If people wanted music, they had to make it themselves. And before humans made instruments, we had the human voice, a unique development among primates that allowed us to vocalize our emotions. Spitzer’s book The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth tells the story of humanity through the development of music, which, as Matthew Lyons points out in a review, came before every other metric of modern human civilization:

The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some forty thousand years old. Found at Geissenklösterle in what is now southeastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – palaeolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.

If music is so critical to our social development as a species, we should learn to treat it with the respect it deserves. We should also, Spitzer argues, learn to play and sing for ourselves again, and think of music not only as a thing that other, more talented people produce for our consumption, but as our own evolutionary inheritance, passed down over tens of thousands of years.

Related Content: 

Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

See Ancient Greek Music Accurately Reconstructed for the First Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Inventive Artwork of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett

We’ve had fun at the expense of the multi-hyphenate: i.e. “I’m an actor-slash-drummer-slash-makeup-artist-slash-brand-ambassador,” etc…. And, fair enough. Few people are good enough at their one job to reasonably excel at two or three, right? But then again, we live in the kind of hyperspecialized world Henry Ford could only dream of, and consider ourselves highly favored if we’re allowed to be just the one thing long enough to retire and do nothing.

What if we could have multiple identities without being thought of as unserious, eccentric, or mentally ill?

Discussions of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s founding singer and guitarist, never pass without reference to his mental illness and abrupt disappearance from the stage. But they also rarely engage with Barrett as an artist post-Pink Floyd: namely, his two underrated solo albums; and his output as a painter, the medium in which he began his career and to which he returned for the last thirty years of his life.

If Barrett were allowed a role other than crazy diamond (a role, we must allow, assigned to him by his former bandmates), we might see more of his work in gallery collections and exhibitions. One cannot say this about every famous musician who paints. For Barrett, art was not a hobby, and it called to him before music. It was in his student days at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology that he met David Gilmour. From Cambridge he moved to Camberwell College of Arts in London and began to produce and exhibit mature student work (see here).

Barrett’s work “shows some of the advantages of an art school training,” wrote a reviewer of a 1964 exhibition. “He is already showing himself a sensitive handler of oil paint who wisely limits his palette to gain richness and density.” (Barrett had displayed a prodigious early talent for achieving these qualities in watercolor — see, for example, an impressive, impressionistic still-life of orange dahlias, auctioned off in 2021, made when the artist was only 15.)

His training gave him the confidence to break away from formal exercises during this period and experiment with different styles and subjects, from the disturbing, primitivist Lions to the hollow-eyed, Munch-like Portrait of a Girl. Barrett’s first student period ended in the mid-sixties, as Pink Floyd began to take off and Barrett “turned into a songwriter” (then-manager Andrew King later wrote) “it seemed like overnight.”

After his spell with Pink Floyd and brief solo recording career came to an end, Barrett moved back to Cambridge with his mother in 1978, dropped the nickname “Syd” and began painting again as Roger Barrett, avoiding any mention of life in music. From that year until he died, he worked in several styles and different media, painting striking abstractions and landscapes and even making his own furniture designs.

While he burned many canvases, many from this time survive. See a selected chronology of his work in the video above and in the photos here. Try to put aside the story of Syd Barrett the tragic Pink Floyd frontman, and let the work of Roger Barrett the artist inspire you.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

Syd Barrett’s “Effervescing Elephant” Comes to Life in a New Retro-Style Animation

Understanding Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Their Tribute to Departed Bandmate Syd Barrett

Watch David Gilmour Play the Songs of Syd Barrett, with the Help of David Bowie & Richard Wright

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Cover Songs: Philosophy and Taxonomy on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #129


Is re-playing or re-recording a song written and performed by someone else an act of love or predation? Your host Mark Linsenmayer is joined by Too Much Joy’s Tim Quirk, the Gig Gab Podcast’s Dave Hamilton, and the author of A Philosophy of Cover Songs Prof. P.D. Magnus to talk about different types of and purposes for covers, look a little at the history, share favorites, and more.

A few of the many cover songs we mention include:

This playlist includes most of the songs mentioned in P.D.’s book.

To prep for this, in addition to reading P.D.’s book (which is free), we looked at various lists of best and worst cover songs of all time: from timeout.combestlifeonline.comRolling StoneRadio X. Also check out this episode of the Ghost Notes Podcast.

Follow us @news4wombats (for P.D.), @tbquirk@DaveHamilton, and @MarkLinsenmayer.

Hear more Pretty Much Pop. Support the show at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

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