Olivia Newton-John

Making Her Move: Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ Phenomenon Revisited

Producer John Farrar and the creative team behind Physical recall how Olivia Newton-John brought a Grammy-winning sensation from the studio to the screen.

Olivia Newton-John
13 October 1981

“Olivia Newton-John’s best album to date.” That’s how Rolling Stone described Physical (1981). The magazine’s review got it right. Different moods ebbed and flowed across the album, reflecting the singer’s supple vocal style and the brilliance of producer John Farrar. As a tanned and toned Newton-John splashed in the sea, Physical soaked record buyers in waves of pleasure.

Released in October 1981, Physical would signify the commercial peak of Newton-John’s partnership with Farrar. The ten-song set furnished a canvas for the producer’s most progressive ideas yet, the culmination of a musical makeover that had begun only three years earlier with Newton-John’s role in Grease (1978) and continued onscreen in Xanadu (1980). The album’s sharper, rock-infused material made the pleasant country twang of “Please Mr. Please” (1975) seem like a quaint memory.

“I noticed when I worked on Physical that Olivia had certain different voices that she could use,” says Farrar. While Newton-John had always brought a certain élan to Farrar’s songs, Physical summoned both the sensual and sinewy sides to her voice. Director Brian Grant would animate those qualities in Olivia Physical (1982), a full-length video album that won the Recording Academy’s second-ever Grammy Award issued for “Video of the Year” and spawned an Emmy-nominated TV special, Let’s Get Physical (1982).

ABC-TV promoted Let’s Get Physical with the tagline “Olivia Newton-John. Like You’ve Never Seen Her Before.” The music and videos that accompanied Physical boldly revamped the singer’s image and caught even her most ardent fans by surprise, especially the title track’s risqué storyline. However, “Physical” not only became the most successful hit of Newton-John’s career but the biggest hit of the entire decade, spending ten weeks at number one. With “Make a Move on Me” following at number five, Billboard named Newton-John “Top Pop Singles Artist” of 1982 and deemed John Farrar the year’s “Top Pop Singles Producer” ahead of legendary Beatles producer George Martin.

“We were always looking for lightning in a bottle,” says David J. Holman, who began mixing and engineering Farrar’s productions for Newton-John during Grease. “We all were looking for that moment to strike.” As Newton-John celebrates the recent release of her memoir Don’t Stop Believin’ (Penguin Books Australia), with one dollar from every purchase benefitting the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, PopMatters shows how the creative team behind Physical shepherded her career-defining album from the studio to the screen. In this exclusive tribute, Farrar, Holman, and Grant, plus songwriters Steve Kipner, Tom Snow, Terry Britten, and Albhy Galuten recall how lightning struck Physical and sparked a pop sensation.

From “Mellow” to “Magic”

A full decade before donning her leotard and sweatband for “Physical”, Newton-John scored her first Top 40 hit with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” (1971). Over an 18-month period between 1974-1975, she scored five consecutive gold-selling singles, including two number one hits, “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “I Honestly Love You”, which claimed the Grammy for “Record of the Year” in March 1975. At the time, Newton-John straddled a wholesome pop-country sensibility, sharing the AM airwaves with contemporaries like Helen Reddy, Anne Murray, and Karen Carpenter. She won Billboard‘s “Top Pop Singles Female Vocalist” in 1974, the same year her albums Let Me Be There (1973) and If You Love Me Let Me Know (1974) placed number two and number five, respectively, on Billboard’s year-end “Top Country Albums” chart.

After winning the Country Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” (1974), and conquering more conservative notions about the genre’s domain, Newton-John exceeded expectations of her own in Grease. Filmed during the summer of 1977, just before Saturday Night Fever (1977) catapulted co-star John Travolta to superstardom, Grease featured two original compositions that Farrar penned and produced specifically for the film, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want”. If the former tailored Newton-John’s established style to widescreen melodrama, then the latter introduced a sizzling new musical direction for the singer.

Newton-John and Travolta’s chemistry practically melted vinyl as “You’re the One That I Want” debuted on the Hot 100 the week ending 1 April 1978. The track’s rubbery bass line propelled the tune to number one just a week before the film’s opening on 16 June. Listeners who’d only heard the song on the radio got an eyeful as they watched the singer’s onscreen transformation from virginal to vampy. Clad in a black leather jacket and skin-tight satin pants, a cigarette dangling from her crimson red lips, Newton-John set the screen ablaze during the film’s closing fairground scene.

“‘You’re the One That I Want’ became a huge hit in England,” Brian Grant recalls. “That clip from the film ended up on Top of the Pops. Everybody said, ‘Did you see Olivia Newton-John last night? She’s never looked like that before.’ That was kind of a wake-up call, really.” [laughs]

Grease ignited a white-hot streak of hits for Newton-John. As the soundtrack spent twelve weeks atop the Billboard 200, “Summer Nights” and the Oscar-nominated “Hopelessly Devoted to You” each flew into the Top Five. Taking a cue from the chart-topping success of “You’re the One That I Want”, Newton-John’s next solo project, Totally Hot (1978), would blend more rock-based ingredients into the mix.

Tom Snow would be a crucial force behind Totally Hot. Earlier in the decade, he’d released a pair of solo albums on Capitol Records before becoming a staff writer for Richard Perry’s publishing company, co-writing hits for artists like Diana Ross (“Gettin’ Ready for Love”) and Leo Sayer (“Thunder in My Heart”). The industry’s top producers took notice. “Tom is a killer songwriter,” says John Farrar. “He’s a great keyboard player and much more of a professional songwriter than I ever was. He’s very accomplished, musically.”

“Deeper Than the Night” marked Snow’s first hit recording by Olivia Newton-John. “I wrote ‘Deeper Than the Night’ with Johnny Vastano,” he says. “We made a nice little demo of it. It might have been Kathleen Perry who sent it over to John Farrar. He loved the song for Olivia. In fact, that was the kind of song they were trying to write and collect for her. They were trying to spice up her image and get her out of the country girl wearing the flowery dress into the hot chick in the leather.” [laughs]

Featuring Snow on piano, “Deeper Than the Night” seduced listeners with a dusky, uptempo groove. The song climbed to number eleven during the spring of 1979, a solid follow-up to Newton-John’s Top Five smash, “A Little More Love”. Snow continues, “John and I hit it off and started writing songs together. I went over to his house. I sat in his writing room. He was in the middle of writing [sings] “You have to believe we are magic’. He had the demo going with him singing it. My jaw dropped. I said, ‘My God, this guy’s amazing at his craft!'” Of course, that demo was “Magic”, a tune Farrar wrote for Newton-John’s next Hollywood vehicle, the roller disco fantasy Xanadu.

Beginning with Xanadu, David J. Holman’s home studio headquartered Farrar’s productions and incubated some of the era’s most innovative sounds. “It was a really healthy, creative environment,” says Farrar. “I was kind of isolated in a way. I was more comfortable and able just to develop the ideas without any sort of interference. Sometimes when you’re recording, people come in and make comments. Even though you tell yourself it doesn’t matter what they think, it definitely gets to you and possibly influences you.”

Nothing but pure genius influenced “Magic”, which translated the mythological musings of Xanadu into vivid musical language. Holman recalls, “We worked on ‘Magic’ for five weeks. It was conceptualized in the studio. John and I are both very detail-oriented when it comes to recording. We spent seven days getting the guitar sound. I’m talking about seven full days. We got up as early as we could and worked until we couldn’t work anymore. It was monumental, that guitar sound.”

Farrar turned Newton-John’s voice into ripples of shimmering light on “Magic”, one of his finest hours with the singer. The song spent four weeks at number one in August 1980, earning a gold single and heralding the arrival of Newton-John’s Xanadu-based duets with Electric Light Orchestra (“Xanadu”) and Cliff Richard (“Suddenly”) on the Hot 100. Ranked just behind “Call Me” (Blondie) and “Another Brick in the Wall” (Pink Floyd), “Magic” capped the year as Billboard‘s third “Top Single” of 1980.