Graded on a Curve: Toomorrow Original Soundtrack

Olivia Newton-John remains well-known for a string of ’70s-’80s hits and for her starring roles in Grease, a box office smash, and the roller-disco musical Xanadu, a commercial and critical disappointment in its day that has subsequently acquired cult status. But before all that, young Olivia was part of Toomorrow, a group assembled by Harry Saltzman and Don Kirshner to star in a sci-fi R&R musical film of the same name. That the movie persists as essentially a footnote in the career of Newton-John is reflective of its quality. As for the soundtrack, which is coming out on vinyl July 30 through Real Gone, it also falls far short of a classic, but with numerous points of interest, which we’ll consider below.

Let’s begin with Don Kirshner, the music publisher, songwriter, producer, manager, and talent coordinator whose biggest credit is as a guiding hand in the formation of The Monkees, though he was also responsible for cartoon pop group The Archies. Swinging over to rock seriousness, Kirshner’s eponymous record label featured lite-progsters Kansas, who, in a startling conflict of interest, once performed on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

In attempting to extend his good fortune with The Archies (a rebound after being jettisoned from involvement with The Monkees) by reaching into the realms of motion pictures, Kirshner’s partnership with Harry Saltzman was a savvy move. This is specifically due to Saltzman co-producing (along with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli) the first nine James Bond films, a string that was still in progress as Toomorrow was taking shape.

Although some will harrumph at the notion, putting together a group not just to make records but to star as that group in films (yes, plural, as a series was apparently the objective) is an idea with potential for positive returns. But conversely, things could go horribly awry. That didn’t really happen in this case, as the music of Toomorrow is underwhelming but largely listenable. As the album is a soundtrack, a handful of instrumental middle-or-the-road-isms bring a wild unevenness to the affair; those approaching the record with Newton-John as primary point of interest will likely get the fidgets.

Toomorrow the film, as directed by Val Guest, isn’t any good, but it’s forgettable (I say this with confidence, as I watched it once around 15 years ago, and have indeed forgotten it), which is a shame, as flicks that are memorably bad are often worth having around (this is surely part of Xanadu’s endurance, a “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” vibe intensified by a high level of professionalism and commitment).

Earlier in his long career, Val Guest made some good to great films, the best of what I’ve seen being The Quartermass Xperiment (1955) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), though Quartermass 2 (1957), The Abominable Snowman (1957), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), and Expresso Bongo (1959, with Cliff Richard) are also worthwhile.

That Guest was one of five credited directors hired for the curdled chic-kitsch disaster Casino Royale (1967) seems to have sapped his directorial will, as he never again made a movie with any kind of lingering positive reputation, Toomorrow included, unfortunately. I’d love to have seen Toomorrow in the inspired hands of Richard Lester (Russ Meyer or Ken Russell seem out of the question).

But I digress. Toomorrow the band, which along with Newton-John featured singer-guitarist Ben Thomas, multi-instrumentalist Vic Cooper, and drummer Ken Chambers, aren’t terrible, but neither are they, with one exception, much better than slightly above average at their best. However, they do start off fairly strong with the album’s opener “You’re My Baby Now.”

Thomas sings lead in a manner reminiscent of Mark Lindsey (of Paul Revere & the Raiders) but without going overboard (not even during the anthemic choruses), which fits well with the song’s tambourine-shaking organ-spiked pop-rock. Newton-John’s backing vocals arrive late in the tune, her exchanges with Thomas recalling The Archies a bit, unsurprising as Toomorrow’s songs were written by Mark Barkham and Ritchie Adams, who’d co-penned tunes for The Archies and for another group with a TV show, The Banana Splits.

“Taking Our Own Sweet Time” begins with a significant upping of the garage-fuzz, though this can’t help but feel somewhat out of date for 1970, even as the spacy synth spurts and squiggles lend connective tissue to the film’s sci-fi theme (in short, an alien hopes to save his planet through the sounds of Toomorrow’s music), a recurring additive throughout the record.

As said, the album’s flow gets stymied, twice on side one, by schmaltzy horn-laden instrumentals that are halfway between montage music for sophisto TV circa 1970 (up to the minute in this) and a Park Avenue Elevator going all the way to the top. Between these numbers sits “Let’s Move On,” which has a bit of a rockin’ soul feel (minus horns, thankfully) and with Thomas upping the Lindsey angle. Again, Newton-John is relegated to a backing role.

While she’s more prominent in “If You Can’t Be Hurt You Can’t Be Happy,” Newton-John doesn’t get a lead vocal all to herself until track two on side two, with “Walkin’ on Air,” where she alternates between soft-pop smoothness and soulfully belting it out. Instrumentally, the tune is an effective Motown knockoff, and too bad Toomorrow doesn’t have more songs like this one. Instead, there’s the crooning of the hard to like “Toomorrow” and the easier to like but still no great shakes “Happiness Valley.”

Side two’s pair of instrumentals are a marked improvement, as “Spaceport” is very library-esque, with some cool string arrangements and spacy synths that in this case really work. And the brief non-vocal version of “Let’s Move On,” while suffused with horns, sidesteps rockin’ soul for the atmosphere of a dance number on a mid-’60s variety show.

But the best song on Toomorrow is the finale, the Newton-John-sung “Goin’ Back,” with its subtle country tinge and its more pronounced manifestation of the singer’s budding pop capabilities. If she’s underutilized in Kirshner and Salzman’s scheme, Newton-John’s input elevates the album above the movie that spawned it. Not a great distance perhaps, but also not negligible.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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