Almanac Music: ONJ and me


During Saturday’s breakfast on the patio, I popped the needle on Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits.


Instantly, I was six years old and back home in Kapunda. Mum and Dad’s lounge room is again wallpapered, the TV’s black and white and the carpet is burnt orange. It’s winter, and I’ve got on my footy boots. They’ll be on all day.


When Mum and Dad downsized, all the family vinyl came to me and since taking delivery of a retro record player at Christmas I’ve been happily swimming in nostalgia. Some of the albums had been untouched since 1988.


ONJ features prominently on the soundtrack of my childhood.




The second song on side 1 is, ‘Banks of Ohio’ and this transports me to a still, musty room on Hill Street in Kapunda. I’m still six and strumming a guitar during my weekly lesson, while the massively patient teacher, Deborah, helps my fingers to stretch across the chords. I love the idea of a guitar and singing, but the latter is galaxies beyond me and my gruesome tone deafness.


ONJ does the definitive version of this nineteenth century standard. Her voice and the melody are bouncy, and I always loved the basso backup of celebrated singer Mike Sammes who subterraneously echoes Livvy’s, ‘where the water flowed.’ Sammes also contributes on, ’Let Me Be There’ and ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know).’


Trying to sing along with Deborah, I’m a little anxious about the lyrics. The narrator declaring that she, ‘held a knife against his breast’ is squirmingly grown-up and I vow to avoid this so-called Ohio River. Bad stuff happens on its distant, murky banks.


Nowadays the tune would come with attendant humourless warnings: adult themes, graphic violence, and persistent mention of a river that enjoys confluence with the Mississippi in Illinois.


The song’s a murder ballad.




Sipping coffee out the back and then emerges gently from our turntable the 1975 Grammy winner for Record of the Year. As it plays across the garden we discuss ‘I Honestly Love You’ with Claire dismissing it as ‘depressing’. I counter that it is certainly pretty although I’d always viewed it as a disposable love song.


On it Livvy’s voice is beautifully warm and pure, but not drenched in palpable sadness. It bathes the listener in sunlight. But as with much music there’s a disconnect between the medium and the message.


Hearing it as Mum played it at home and on the car AM radio, my generation’s all logged many hours in its company. But following breakfast last Saturday we were moved by repeated listens and became profoundly aware of its narrative intensity.


As we learn both characters in the song are trapped by marriage, and unable to be together. The lyrics are by Peter Allen, who at the time of composition, was married to Liza Minelli but had fallen in love with a man who was similarly stuck.


I’m hesitant to see all texts as autobiographical because sometimes stories are just fictional. Not everything is inspired by real life. But there’s a good case here.


The opening verse is disarming: tender, vulnerable, brave. I imagine our main character talking in a café or a park.


Maybe I hang around here


A little more than I should


With this we’re instantly eavesdropping on a private confessional and there’s tension as ONJ sings, ‘I got somewhere else to go’.


While the chorus of, ‘I love you, I honestly love you’ is necessary, the verses and the bridge are superior because these are where she reveals the story. The characters remain ageless, genderless, and timeless.


In the second verse we hear, ‘Maybe it was better left unsaid’ and this second ‘maybe’ confirms our narrator’s nervousness. Her vulnerability is crushing, and we all know a bit about this. The repetition of ‘chance’ in the third verse shows how powerless they both are in this sometimes-cruel universe.


How can I have been unaware of all of this since I was a child?


The way the strings soar in the final verse is stirring while a harp is used sparingly but to great effect. It lifts a tender song to an enhanced fragility. The eternally imponderable is here too in


If we both were born in another place and time


This moment might be ending in a kiss


But there you are with yours and here I am with mine


So, I guess we’ll just be leaving it at this.


The last line is only superficially dismissive of their plight and given the emotional stakes of the story is also deeply ironic. If we view the song as a monologue, it’s dramatic and affecting.


I love rediscovering old music and reaching a new, heightened appreciation.




Of course, many of ONJ’s songs feature women who’ve relinquished or make no claim on their rightful power. These are females for whom life appears to happen rather than be controlled. ‘Sam’ and ‘Please Mr. Please’ are key examples. Claire suggested that maybe ‘Physical’ was in part ONJ actively promoting a feminist perspective.


Students of ‘I Honestly Love You’ will know that it features in Jaws just prior to Amityville’s second shark attack but I prefer to reference the 90’s indie singer Juliana Hatfield who, in 2018, produced an album of ONJ covers. She remarked that


‘I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John. Her music has bought me so much pure joy throughout my life.’


And I agree when she goes on to say, ‘Listening to her is an escape into a beautiful place.’



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About Mickey Randall

Now whip it into shape/ Shape it up, get straight/ Go forward, move ahead/ Try to detect it, it's not too late/ To whip it, whip it good


  1. I have never been a fan of ONJ, it feels like she has just always been there. She just IS.

    Some interesting observations here, Mickey.

    One line in particular resonated with me: “I love rediscovering old music and reaching a new, heightened appreciation.” As a fellow music-lover, who listens to a lot of new music, I find the most difficult part of music listening is choosing – the balance between the new and the old.

  2. Lovely story and what a great way to get back into some vinyl!

    MR, yeah, nah re this set of ONJ songs. Don’t even start on the Dylan cover! Once she frees up from this quasi country sound (with too many songs from Shadows members) and gets to Grease and on to Physical (even I started thinking I should go to a gym – just thoughts, no action) that’s when her voice comes alive.

    Oh and if that song scared you away from the Ohio River, don’t ever go to Reno.


  3. Thanks Smokie and Rick.

    Thinking about these things in terms of nostalgia/modernity and vinyl/digital. If I’d stumbled across ONJ for the first time on spotify I doubt I’d have persevered, let alone revisited her discography. The nostalgia of childhood is the factor here. It’s hugely transportive and there’s an attractive innocence too.

    I think the same issues are at play when I head into a record store (generally Mr V Music in Semaphore). I only seriously entertain buying albums from from my youth. I’ve thought about getting some contemporary vinyl from artists like Tame Impala and Gang of Youths but don’t see the point as I’ve only known them and their ilk through spotify (and the radio). I’m not sure there’d be much romance, at least initially.

    There’s something irresistible about putting on a record in the company of others and all looking at the cover and having to flip sides about twenty minutes later. The ceremony and social context of it makes it more engaging and fun than setting an endless spotify playlist underway (as good as this can be).

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Next time you talk to Mr V, ask him about his time in Westies u19s

    If he’s got any Moir Sisters in stock I’ll be over in a flash.

  5. Great connection Swish. Like any good proprietor he has a wide roster of employees and I’ve rarely seen him in there. As a Westies man do you think he could get me Kerls’ ‘I was Born Under a Wandering Star?’

    Semaphore Road is easily Adelaide’s most vibrant and charismatic strip.

  6. I’ve only recently discovered the fun of the Semaphore strip. Sometimes you just need someone to show you! I hear the Semaphore pub is the scene of many a great moment. Great read Mickey.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Since Kerls was coaching the Bays at the time, maybe you could pick up a copy from the club, along with Studley’s Untying The Laces.

    Hey someone, avoid the Semaphore version of The Exeter

  8. george smith says

    Speaking of ONJ – in the 70s and 80s to get Middle of the Road (MOR) cred for the second wave California Sound, it became fashionable to have three names and then use the initials.

    There was Bachman Turner Overdrive(BTO), English soft rockers Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Little River Band (LRB), REM and XTC.

    But when the Atlanta Rhythm Section joined in (true story), this practice became very, very silly indeed.

  9. Thanks someone. Very kind, as always.

    My Glenelg membership pack is due within days Swish so I am hopeful there’ll be some bonus vinyl.

    Very good George. Any truth that there was a Wagga-based tribute group called the Atlanta Rhythm Section Experience?

    Appreciate the comments.

  10. roger lowrey says

    I must have missed this back in February.

    Great piece Mickey. ONJ had what I always described as an effortlessly pure tuneful voice.

    Who knows mate, perhaps if you had stuck with the massively patient Deborah (sic) you too could have been singing like that by now!


  11. Yes, the recent death toll keeps rising. The links of these greats to my own childhood heightens my own sense of mortality.

    I was never a big ONJ fan but as a primary school boy I loved ‘Banks of the Ohio’. I’ve listened to it twice today, bringing tears to my eyes. Very maudlin, but it is my favorite ONJ tune, keeping in context with the sad losses in recent weeks.

    Vale ONJ.


  12. Tony Forbes says

    Yes, I was shocked when I heard of ONJ’s passing. I wasn’t a fan but she was such a gorgeous women with a sweet voice, and she was Australian and an international star! In 1994 we did a family road trip to Queensland and took our 4 girls to Movie World. They did this parade of look alike characters and as the crowd gathered to watch I noticed a women and her daughter next to us and I said quietly ‘hey girls that ONJ next to us’ to which they replied ‘who.’ Then I said ‘Sandy from Grease’ and they automatically new who I was talking about.
    I also remember when Olivia started out in a duo with Pat Carroll who went on to marry John Farrar from the Strangers and who wrote quite a few songs for the Grease soundtrack.

  13. Thanks for reading Roger, Glen and Tony. Either way you view it a significant feature in our landscape has gone.

    And to think she came fourth in the 1974 Eurovision with ‘Long Live Love’ behind Abba’s ‘Waterloo.’

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