Reporter: When Grease was the word

Pubescent in 1978? Let Eleanor Bailey take you back to the time when a hickie from Kenickie sounded like it might be a biscuit and a makeover from Frenchie was all it took to be cool

I WAS EIGHT years old and the whole class was in the school changing room after swimming. One girl thought she was really cool. "I've seen it three times," she smiled. Cool? Pah! Within moments you didn't even open your mouth if you'd seen Grease anything less than eight times. Then it was double figures. The end came when Susie, who owned three horses, spoke.

"I've been 30 times and I'm going again on Saturday." There was a silence. No one could compete with that. She had asserted herself as the leader. She was gonna rule the school. I don't suppose it was true but nobody challenged her. For in 1978 that was the ultimate social distinction. Those who'd multi-seen it, those who hadn't. Those who understood the rude jokes, those who didn't. That summer, Grease was not the word, it was the life.

Twenty years later, Grease is back. The film is to be re-released in July. Pedal pushers, stillettoes and pink lipstick are eminently wearable again. Yesterday was designated John Travolta day and a new biography of Travolta is about to be published. The box office ratings in the States for Grease second time around (it reached No 2 at the box office and $20 million of business in one week) suggest that we are as devoted as ever to the kitsch Fifties. Whatever spot Grease hit, it hits still.

Why was it so consuming? "I saw it three times like everybody else. It was a rite of passage," explains Murphy Williams, arts editor of Esquire. "That moment when Olivia Newton John has been transformed and takes the cigarette out of her mouth and squashes it under her high heels was saying that innocence should become wanton. It was something we all aspired to. Grease was like Live Aid in that it reached across the world and was kind of a happy love-in. No matter your traumas, in Grease the sun kept shining."

The waves kept rolling, unwanted pregnancies were a false alarm, we would be together forever and if everything else went wrong there was always fast food. Grease was glamorous - a far cry from Grange Hill, the British take on the high school experience which started the same year. With Grange Hill we waited at least five years for the first snog, in Grease it happened in the opening sequence. The number of British slumber parties rose exponentially. We all started wafting our letters with perfume and we listened to that double album over and over again. Was there a girl in the country who didn't have a dance routine to "You're the One that I Want"?

It had everything that the teen audience wanted: tears, laughter and sex. "There isn't a subtext," admits Lesley Felperin, deputy editor of Sight and Sound, who recently returned to Grease in the course of book research. "The film isn't subtle enough to have a subtext; it's all there on the surface. The songs are catchy and there was a huge tie-in marketing campaign at the time to catch the teenage imagination." Felperin fancied Kenickie rather than Travolta, which was rather sophisticated of her. Who you fancied or admired in the film said a lot about you. Liking Rizzo was evidence of toughness; Sandra fans were way behind.

It was so important to "get it". And there were so many things in Grease not to get. A hickie from Kenickie - I thought might be some kind of biscuit. And if you were eight in 1978, Frenchie's nickname went entirely over your head. Remember the sleepover scene in which Frenchie demonstrates her ultra-cool cigarette trick, wafting smoke up her nose "the French way" and claiming "and that's how I got my nickname Frenchie"? "Sure it is," cracks Rizzo with a knowing wiggle of her tongue. It was only when teenage siblings made you admit you didn't understand that you joined the conspiracy not to tell your parents. It was an excellent learning opportunity. One friend admitted to writing down all the rude words of the film on a bit of paper to learn off by heart.

Even if the credibility gap between the sinewy 24-year-old John Travolta and the average skinny 17-year-old British male was rather challenging, Grease got the temperature rising. "When you went to the cinema, the sexual tension was so strong," remembers fan Sharon Walker. "It was such a hot heady atmosphere, with hormones flying around the cinema. Everyone was absolutely mad about it. People were going to Grease dancing classes so they could do it right. People had Grease parties." Sharon remembers the exact outfit she wore to see the film (grey flared cords and a pink smock top). "I identified myself with the Olivia Newton-John character, who wanted to be cool and have a boyfriend and be one of the ring leaders of the class but just never was."

There are those that say that compared with the other themes around at the time - punk and political activism - the message of Grease was a bit fluffy. Nigel Andrews, Financial Times film critic and author of the new biography John Travolta: A Life, explains why Grease was just what everybody needed. "It was the beginning of a weird intermission. America had gone through a period of tearing at its conscience with Vietnam and Watergate and this was a weird primal escapism. People were sick of worry. They wanted to have a good time. John Travolta was this iconic symbol that was only into his own self-fulfilment. It was all made in great seriousness [the original stage play was a hard story for tough kids] but it became more and more camp."

But of course, fans will know that Grease is not a shallow fry, it's deep. It's just that themes are expressed more succinctly than in your average politico-feminist tract. Take, for example, "Men are rats. Worse than that, they're fleas on rats, worse than that, they're amoeba on fleas on rats." The struggle between men and women is a powerful theme in Grease and for all the fashionable feminism that has come since, has anyone ever summed up the problem between the male and female so completely as Frenchie consoling Sandy at the cheerleader try-outs?

And look at, "Does he have a car?" This line, sung by the cynical Marty in "Summer Loving", heralded the Eighties and the "me" generation in a mere five words. Lesley Felperin concedes that one could attempt a Marxist analysis of Grease. "It is all about the commodification of society," she theorises. "It says you can buy your way to popularity with the car, the hamburger joint, the clothes."

Then there is the anthem to postmodern nihilism which is, "The rules are, there ain't no rules," a line which comes from the spotty mouth of evil rival Craterface before the car race with the acne-free Travolta.The phallic shining sports cars penetrate the female form of the dried-up Los Angeles river while the girls jump up and down. Sandy, dresssed in girly pink, sits at the edge of this concrete bowl/female genitalia, alone, and decides to cross the adolescent threshold from child to slapper. "Aren't you happy?" says Frenchie. "Not really," Sandy replies, "but I think I know a way I could be." This is the central message: happiness is dressing up in leather, putting on lots of make-up, smoking 'cos it's hard and submitting to sex with your hunk (or at any rate saying, "Tell me about it, stu-urd.") Which pretty much sums up contemporary existence I say. Was it any coincidence that after their summer of loving and our peek at the sunny, good lookin' world of Fifties America came our winter of discontent? I think not. After seeing John Travolta wolf an American fast food feast we went to the Wimpy bar and ate soggy chips. We looked at our own lives and something was missing.

Jon Savage, author of punk tome England's Dreaming and most recently Time Travel, a collection of his writing from the last 20 years, says that Grease was reactionary and boring (but then he was 25 at the time). "I remember 'Summer Nights' being number one for what seemed like forever. I wasn't interested in it - there were so many more things to be interested in. It was mediocre but unfortunately a huge industry is based on those values." This in itself is a salient point. So Grease was flimsy. That's how we like it. The rules are there ain't no rules and the meaning is there ain't no meaning.

'Travolta: the Life', by Nigel Andrews, is published by Bloomsbury. Travolta Weekend is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, 29-31 May

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine