If Not For You

Olivia Newton-John

Festival, 1971

http://olivianewton-john.com

REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/16/2014

Olivia Newton-John seemed to slip silently through the back door when she released her debut album If Not For You in 1971. Hailing all the way across the globe from Australia, it must have seemed like a daunting task to launch a country pop career in America at the time. You simply couldn’t predict how it would build and build to the point where she ultimately became an international singing sensation. Slow and steady progress proved to be the winning formula, owed in great part to her long-time producer and songwriter John Farrar. This first album was the template that helped to introduce this pleasant, understated voice to the masses. With the help of co-producer Bruce Welch, it was all about song selection here. There would be no original material coming out of these sessions, though the covers would be arranged in the best possible way to showcase Olivia’s singing ability.

The listening public in the early ‘70s seemed to favor the familiar. Today, cover tunes are recorded sparingly, if at all. Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Erasure’s Other People’s Songs and the worst offender of all, Duran Duran’s Thank You immediately come to mind. Fellow ‘70s AC stalwarts Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart and Donny Osmond all resuscitated their own careers with salutes to yesteryear. It can be done, but still, it does feel like a stopgap or stall tactic. In my humble opinion, the past should stay in the past. Why tamper with memories or try to reinvent the wheel?my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It does help if, like me, you’ve never heard the original versions before. I may get a lot of flak for this, but when the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton musical of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band first came out, I didn’t even know who the Beatles were! I know it’s not the best way to start out as a burgeoning music critic, but there you have it. The same goes for nearly all the previously recorded songs on Olivia Newton-John’s early albums such as this. Her stuff was all new to me, woe be to all the rock purists out there! Hey, Bob Dylan may have written and recorded the pristine title track first, but the single never even charted. Olivia’s version did. As her first single, it cracked the Billboard Top 25. So there.

Also to be found on this first ONJ offering are popular hits by Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through The Night”), Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”) and Bread’s “If,” one of the few originals here I wish hadn’t been re-recorded. Olivia just couldn’t capture the same kind of high emotion that David Gates did. That is my major quibble with Olivia’s vocal performances on her debut effort; all of the songs tend to blur together in a hazy, singular note. Granted, she was never a belter, though she would try her damnedest on 1978’s Totally Hot, when she transformed in front of our very eyes and ears from country princess to bad girl Sandy from Grease in the course of one album. Her career zenith came a few years later with the creative high point of Physical, basically blowing her ‘70s good girl image to smithereens in the process. Okay, maybe in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad. Only Utah seemed to think so.

The two cuts that jump out from the rest on If Not For You are “Love Song” and “Lullaby.” They manage to hook the listener’s attention with a state of suspense that makes you want to know more about Olivia herself and hear what she might come up with next. Olivia had the whole package: the beauty, the sweet voice and the potential to do so much more. For her sophomore release, Olivia, she would even dare to write her first song (the brilliant “Changes”). If you had the patience to track Olivia’s snail-pace career progress like I did, your intrigue as a fan would pay dividends. As her closing song says, “No Regrets.”

Rating: B

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