In the 45 years since Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey premiered their musical Grease in a trolley barn-turned-blues club in Chicago, the show has taken on a life unlike any other theatrical production in America, or even the world. There have been 11 different major productions of the show throughout the U.S. and U.K., including a record-breaking 3,388-performance run on Broadway, five runs on London’s West End between 1979 and 2007 and three national tours; an internationally-acclaimed film adaptation that remains the highest-grossing musical film of all time; and a hotly-anticipated live television adaptation to air on FOX at the end of January.
But perhaps no curio of the Grease phenomenon is more intriguing than “The Grease Megamix,” a strange little dance track released to European and Australian audiences in the winter of 1990. Within a year, it became one of the most popular singles in those markets, and by the end of the decade its popularity spread to the U.S., helping re-introduce Grease as the word for a new generation of fans.
It was here, as “The Grease Megamix” made its way Stateside by way of innocent school dances and block party DJs, that millennials like me learned what Grease even was, how it got both my fellow fifth-graders and student chaperones to dance and sing like nobody was watching. As the years went on, and Grease continued to endear itself to set after set of teens through the ’90s, ’00s and today, I never quite forgot about that megamix. How did it come to be, anyway? Was it really as successful as it seemed to my 11-year-old self, or was the memory of my youth clouding my brain?
Unlike so many curios of pop music past, where you can only idly speculate or hope that someone writes a nice article answering your burning but silent questions, I decided to go automatic!…systematic!!…hydromatic!!!…and go in search of answers. Strap yourselves in and learn how “The Grease Megamix” became the word!
“The Grease Megamix” is four minutes and forty-eight seconds of pure Grease nostalgia firing on all cylinders. As the cheery doo-wop intro of “Summer Nights” plays, John Travolta as Danny Zuko utters his infamous intro to “Greased Lightnin'”–then, as his exclamations rhythmically stutter, the pulsating disco bass of “You’re the One That I Want” (a song written exclusively for the film by John Farrar, longtime producer of Grease star Olivia Newton-John) kicks into high gear. After a joyous verse and chorus of “You’re the One,” an echo effect and an all-too-familiar sampled “stab” (sampled from Funk, Inc.’s “Kool is Back” and heard most prominently on Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart“), it’s back into the rollicking braggadocio of Travolta’s “Greased Lightnin’.” As the stop-start, clap-heavy middle eight passes, we’re eased back into the sweetness of “Summer Nights,” as Danny and Sandy recount their innocent fling to the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds. Two verses, two choruses and a finale later, our love letter to Grease concludes–a perfect joining of varied songcraft, sentiment and late ’80s/early ’90s dance production.
That production came courtesy of two of the biggest names in U.K. remixing at the time: Phil Harding and Ian Curnow. The preferred mixers/engineers of the Stock Aiken Waterman production team and their PWL label home base, Harding and/or Curnow had perfected the sonic characteristics of such hits as Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” Matt Bianco’s Whose Side Are You On? and countless others from Bananarama to Kylie Minogue. As the decade ended, their modern, house-tinged remixes of classic soul and disco songs like CHIC’s “Le Freak,” The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” were earning significant club play. (Many of those remixes were curated by Cherry Pop Records in 2011, shortly after the publication of Harding’s informative book PWL from the Factory Floor.)
Through PWL impresario Pete Waterman, the duo were approached by Polydor Records to work a similar magic to Grease tracks as they did for the neo-Motown mixes. Paramount Pictures had planned a home video release of the film for Christmas of 1990, with the best-selling soundtrack set to debut on compact disc the following year.
“In all of these cases,” Harding told The Second Disc in a new interview, “we were the first remix team, ever, to be supplied with copies of the original multitrack analogue tapes from which to work. So we said to Polydor, if you can supply us with multitrack copies of the three [Grease] songs that we felt we could make work as a mega-mix, then we would take it on.”
It’s the use of those multitracks, Harding says, that made “The Grease Megamix” such an attractive listen.
“We were able to sample John Travolta’s ‘Greased Lightning’ vocal line and re-trigger it over the intro of ‘You’re The One That I Want,'” Harding said. “This was an indication to DJ’s and the media that this is a brand new remix, sourced from the original tapes, as it would have been impossible to isolate that vocal line without having that access.”
While Harding and Curnow were responsible for appealingly cutting the three tracks together, Harding says a great deal of help was offered by Pete Waterman. “He knew the songs, the soundtrack and the film a lot better than we did,” Harding offered, “and as a DJ he had the right sort of ears to judge what the public would want to hear in a single megamix.
“We always trusted Pete Waterman’s ears,” Harding continued. “[Dead or Alive frontman] Pete Burns always called them ‘Woolworths Ears’–he knew what people would go out and buy.”
Balancing the tempos of all three songs–the disco-fied “You’re the One That I Want,” the old school rock of “Greased Lightnin’,” and the upbeat balladry of “Summer Nights”–were arguably Harding and Curnow’s biggest challenges. And while they pulled it off, it wasn’t easy. Says Harding:
We knew we were onto something special when we realized that the crossover from ‘You’re the One That I Want’ into ‘Greased Lightning’ would not only work but actually be an exciting moment in the record. For those who knew those two records well, it may have seemed a bit savage and it initially sounded a bit alien to us.
We spent many hours, even days just on the two mega-mix crossovers, these were the toughest part of the job. The test point on this first crossover was playing it to Pete Waterman; Ian and I knew that if it worked for Pete then everyone else would be fine but it’s hard to tell yourself, as a remixer, whilst fabricating the ideas for these sections…We were continually conscious that we were dealing with some classic records here and what we were doing hadn’t been done before in such a creative manner. Hence, our choice to put an extended, repeat delay effect, on Olivia’s vocal ‘indeed’ and let it roll over 3 bars of drums with some sampled brass stabs (very much a sound of that time that we used a lot) was a major breakthrough for us.
The second transition wasn’t any easier, Harding continued.
“‘Summer Nights’ is approximately 125 b.p.m. and ‘Greased Lightning’ is approximately 159 b.p.m.,” he noted. “That crossover probably took us longer to achieve than the crossover from [‘You’re the One That I Want’ to ‘Greased Lightning’], and the brass stabs you hear are one of our few overdubs of new instruments as we were determined to keep as much of the original music and instruments as possible.”
Another key to “The Grease Megamix” that may not be noted on first listen is how organic, all things considered, the original production and then-modern flourishes sounded:
It is subtle and very much like the original, but most of the drums are re-programmed by Ian Curnow (to make the crossovers work effectively) but the original bass and guitars are kept as they would have been difficult to re-create. The piano parts are also largely replayed by Ian so that we bring those sounds up-to-date for the early ’90s. This may sound simple, but this was a painfully long job, technically, in those days, because the original music would not have been played to a computer metronome, as we do these days. So one of Ian’s first tasks was to get ‘in sync’ with the variations of tempos throughout the tracks to be able to achieve the drum, keyboard and brass overdubs.
The result was not only an artistic success, but a commercial one as well. In the U.K., the single debuted at No. 14, quickly climbing to No. 5 in a crowded Christmas No. 1 market (that year’s winner: Cliff Richard’s “Saviour’s Day”). As the calendar turned over into 1991, “The Grease Megamix” would peak at No. 3; it would stay in the charts for 10 weeks through February. In Australia, the success story was even greater: upon hitting the charts in May of 1991, it would peak at No. 1 for six weeks, becoming the year’s arguable summer jam and staying in the charts some 24 weeks (through October). It was ultimately the third highest selling Australian single of 1991, behind Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” and local indie group Ratcat’s Tingles EP.
“We didn’t realize how popular this would be, both on the radio and in commercial discos,” Harding recalls. “Of all the productions and remixes that I did in the 1980s and ’90s, ‘The Grease Megamix’ is one of the few tracks I hear played by DJs at celebration ‘mobile disco’ parties in the U.K.”
But the success story doesn’t end there. Six years after the megamix’s U.K. release, Polygram brought the track over to American shores–not as a single, but a focus track on the label’s Pure Disco compilation. Released in October of 1996 and promoted extensively through TV and phone orders, Pure Disco kicked off a mini-revival of interest in the genre, earning platinum status by the Recording Industry Association of America for one million copies sold a year later. Concurrently, radio airplay bolstered the track to an unlikely No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, which in turn boosted the original soundtrack to the top of the Pop Catalog chart for three weeks that same year. The film’s producer and co-screenwriter, Allan Carr, even cited the megamix’s success to Billboard when discussing a 20th anniversary reissue of the film. (That reissue would bring in another $28.4 million at the box office, temporarily bringing the film back to No. 2 in its opening weekend at a time when Titanic was embarking on its historic theatrical run.)
Harding, for his part, was “completely unaware” of the mix’s success Stateside, but agreed with our assessment as to why it did so well here: as Grease was a significant touchstone of ’50s-adjacent culture in the 1970s, along with Happy Days, American Graffiti and others, now Grease in the 1990s reminded audiences of their youth as disco and Travolta-addled teens in their ’70s heyday. It’s even safe to say that Harding and Curnow were something of a trendsetter, anticipating a disco revival long before it became in vogue on the U.S. charts, with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” becoming unquestionable throwback jams.
“At the time,” Harding said, “it seemed a fairly natural progression as ‘pop’ remixers for us to take “The Grease Megamix on.” The success even spawned a sequel, “Grease – The Dream Mix,” in 1991, though it was not as popular and cheekily dismissed by Harding as “follow-up-itis.” But his memories of “The Grease Megamix” remain fond.
“The thing I like the most, when I listen to and reflect on this mix, is that we kept it simple and adhered very much to the original instrument combination and sounds,” Harding said. “It would have been very tempting to completely re-program the whole backing track, as many remixers did at that time. Possibly part of the magic of this megamix is that we kept it authentic.”
It’s that authenticity that continues to make “The Grease Megamix” the word, some 25 years after its original release and almost 40 years since the original tracks were recorded. And…oh…those summer nights…!
For more information on Phil Harding and his work, visit his official site and order PWL from the Factory Floor here. An extra special thanks to Vinny Vero for his invaluable help getting in contact with Phil, and our gratitude to Phil himself for his insight!