Olivia Newton John – Tied Up
In March 2013, Olivia Newton-John surprised us all with a performance at the Royal Albert Hall – incredibly it was her first UK show in 35 years. Even better, it was a full on greatest hits concert, a timely reminder of her incredible and extensive back catalogue. Brilliantly, after an acoustic first verse, she ditched an ‘age appropriate’ version of Physical, and we got the full on tacky strut of the original – the least sexy song about sex ever recorded. I loved it.
The huge and enduring success of Grease and the commercial juggernaut of the Physical single a few years later has somewhat overshadowed the rest of Olivia’s discography. In fact, post Landslide released in 1982 (it reached a creditable no.18), her only subsequent top 40 hit in the UK was a best forgotten duet with Cliff Richard from his Heathcliff musical.
For such a recognisable and well loved pop star, it’s worth remembering that even at the height of her commercial success Olivia was never guaranteed hits in the UK. It was very different in the US where she enjoyed tremendous success on both the country and pop/rock charts as far back as the early 70s. In the UK we kind of gave up on her after Xanadu in 1980 (unlike the rest of the world, we never really took to Physical – it spent ten weeks at no.1 in the US and was the biggest hit of the decade, but it only managed no.7 here).
Elsewhere though, her Totally Hot (1978) and Physical (1981) albums took Olivia’s career to new artistic and commercial heights. She transformed her sound from mellow country music, to synth pop and by 1982 she was a US hit-making machine. It’s an era that is long overdue a critical reappraisal.
Post Physical, Olivia released the double platinum Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (titled Olivia’s Greatest Hits in the UK with a slightly different cover). It included two new songs: Heart Attack and Tied Up. As we all know, a greatest hits package is a favourite record label marketing ploy to squeeze out some sales from an artist at their peak – or as is more often the case, just past it. Sadly, these two new singles would mark the beginning of the end of her commercial reign, but what two fine singles they were.
The sultry Tied Up (In Promises) – to give it its full title – was one of two new songs recorded for the album. It was released as the second single following the synth-tastic Heart Attack (a huge no.3 hit in the US, it only reached no.46 in the UK). Interestingly, Tied Up was also recorded around the same time by Stevie Nicks for her Mirror, Mirror album. The album was shelved, but her demo – which sounds like Stevie impersonating Stevie – is readily available online.
Tied Up is a slow-burn, synthy pop-rock song of considerable charm. Olivia has always been a vocalist of incredible phrasing and expression, able to shift from soft to gritty tones with ease and Tied Up remains one of her finest performances. Against a slinky bass line, Olivia – at first calmly but becoming increasingly insistent as the song progresses – asks for a one-night stand, without any need to be “tied up in promises” they “could never keep”. As such, it’s an early song of female sexual empowerment and while the lyrics are suggestive, they avoid the full on sexpot imagery of her subsequent full release – 1985’s Soul Kiss – a bizarre label-driven project which tried to compete with Madonna. Olivia has never looked so uncomfortable.
Sadly Tied Up marked both the end of her imperial phase, and her early 80s signature sound. The song reached no.38 in the US but following the commercial failure of Heart Attack in the UK, EMI couldn’t even be bothered to release it here. While both singles from 1983s John Travolta co-starring Twist of Fate movie (the Kim Wilde-esque title track and Livin’ In Desperate Times), were both great pop songs, their unique production style makes them stand alone in her canon.
Tied Up has aged really well – it doesn’t sound as dated as her later 80s releases and remains something of a hidden gem in her extensive discography. My only word of advice for a new listener is to stream the song before experiencing the video. She always looks gorgeous, but the slow-mo performance at the start can be somewhat distracting. You have been warned.
Entered chart: Not released in the UK.
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’ve always felt Nicola Roberts’ vocals have a touch of ONJ about them.