Making Her Move: Olivia Newton-John's 'Physical' Phenomenon Revisited
In this PopMatters exclusive, 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'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 tag line "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."
Physical album poster, 1981. Courtesy of MCA Records.
"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.
Physical — The Album
Olivia Newton-John greeted the 1980s as one of pop's reigning queens. Her marquee value equaled platinum-selling hitmakers like Donna Summer, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand, who each ushered in the new decade with albums that recalibrated their sound. Newton-John's work on the Xanadu soundtrack, Summer's new wave excursions on The Wanderer (1980), the CHIC Organization's production of diana (1980), and Streisand's collaboration with Barry Gibb on Guilty (1980) led 1980 with stylish and impeccably produced releases.
Only two months after Newton-John held the top with "Magic", Streisand reached number one with "Woman in Love" produced by Gibb and Bee Gees co-producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson. Earlier that year, the team had also helmed Andy Gibb's duets with Newton-John for his third solo album, After Dark (1980). "I remember when we did the duets with Olivia," says Galuten. "She was fantastic. She was on. I was stricken! I think we may have done some of the vocals with Barry singing with Olivia because there was a lot of struggle getting a vocal out of Andy."
As Newton-John and Andy Gibb's recording of "I Can't Help It" climbed to number twelve in the spring of 1980, Barry Gibb completed his work on Guilty. The album featured three of his writing collaborations with Galuten, including "What Kind of Fool", "Never Give Up", and "Make It Like a Memory". The team also offered Streisand a breezy ballad called "Carried Away". "When we wrote those songs, it was not Streisand's style," notes Galuten. "It was Barry being stimulated by what he thought would be interesting and fun to do with her."
Though Streisand passed on "Carried Away" , Newton-John recorded the song for her first full-length set of the 1980s — Physical. "She got a hold of it somehow," Farrar chuckles. "I think maybe Barry gave it to her. He's always been a hero of mine from way back when the Bee Gees first started, and I was in Australia. I met him a few times over the years, and he's just the sweetest guy." Newton-John had also known the Bee Gees from years earlier, having previously scored a Top Five country hit in 1976 with her version of the trio's "Come on Over".
Retaining the integrity of Gibb's original demo, "Carried Away" glistened with Newton-John's radiant interpretation. "It was an homage," says Galuten. "I think John's a brilliant producer. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. The thing with 'Carried Away' is that it seems so straight ahead. It's not your average time signature, but it doesn't seem so unusual because the melody leads you there. It's not like you have to count. It seems totally natural." Indeed, Newton-John rendered the song with a beguiling ease that belied the song's rather unconventional structure.
"Carried Away" was one of several songs on Physical that hailed from outside projects. In between scoring songs for Xanadu, Farrar had also begun writing and recording his solo debut for Columbia, John Farrar (1980). Cashbox drew favorable comparisons to the Bee Gees and Kenny Loggins upon the release of the album's lead single "Reckless" in November 1980, championing the tune's "lilting electric piano melody" and "distinctive instrumental touch". Other self-penned songs like "Cheatin' His Heart Out Again" and "From the Heart" replicated the tuneful creativity he brought to his productions for Newton-John, who'd sing "Reckless" with Farrar decades later on Olivia Newton-John & Friends: A Celebration in Song (2008).
However, the quiet hush of "Falling" emerged as a sleeper cut on Farrar's debut. "I remember with that song I didn't want to have an actual chorus," he says. "I wanted the 'falling' lines to be at the end of the verse rather than having a verse and then a chorus. It's three verses and a middle. I was worried that the bridge chords were a bit out there, but it seemed to work okay. I remember I couldn't come up with an intro and I finally came up with an intro one night. At the end of the intro, when it went into the verse, I wanted it to feel like it was kind of in a different key, or not where you expected it to be. It took me awhile to come up with that."
Newton-John's own rendition of "Falling" floated in weightless splendor. "There's a warmth and an intimacy that she manages to put across that seems to touch people," says Farrar. "Olivia understood singing quietly," adds Holman. "As an engineer, I understood being able to take something that's small and turn it into something that's huge, sonically. I made sure that her headphones were perfectly balanced and that her voice was right in the middle of her head. I used a compressor as a volume control and also, obviously, as a compressor. I'd have it in my lap and ride her vocals continuously from the beginning of the song to the end of the song."
"Recovery", another choice tune from Farrar's solo album, furnished Physical with a particularly inspired showcase for the singer. "Olivia liked that song, and I was very happy that she wanted to do it," says Farrar. "I probably talked her into it!" Farrar wrote "Recovery" with Tom Snow, who chuckles when recalling the catalyst behind the song. "I think John and I were both just sitting around talking and bitching and being bitter!" Nevertheless, "Recovery" radiated a magnetizing allure, even as Newton-John declared "Don't worry 'bout my recovery / 'Cause lover you won't recover me."
Farrar's opening guitar on "Recovery" immediately commanded attention. "John's playing is exquisite," says Holman, who extracted a bright, ringing quality from the guitar through a special kind of compression. "In those days, we used to spend a lot of time on those tracks," says Farrar. "We didn't have anything like Auto-Tune. You had to really struggle to come up with different sounds. David was great because if I ever said to him, 'Can we try this?' he would never say no. He did a really good job with the mixing and the recording and everything. Lots of credit goes to him on that."
Marimba flourishes complemented the island setting of the lyrics, a key detail that distinguishes Newton-John's version of "Recovery" from Farrar's original recording. "It's a remarkable piece," says Snow. "John wouldn't take a song to Olivia that he didn't think was 100%. As a co-writer with John, you never felt like you were fighting against some kind of insecure ego. He was absolutely one of my favorite collaborators in that sense."
Farrar and Snow led each other to new heights with "Make a Move On Me", arguably the duo's crowning achievement as collaborators. "Tom and I both loved chord structures," says Farrar. "Sometimes he would play the chord sequence and I would play a melody on the top or vice versa. With 'Make a Move on Me', I remember I couldn't come up with anything in the verse. Tom came up with that synth part that was great." The high-pitched melody that Snow conceived for the intro primed listeners for three minutes of pop bliss.
"'Make a Move on Me' has three distinct tonal centers," says Snow. "It starts off in F and then goes to A-minor and then John figured a way to get it to E-flat in the chorus. He came up with that brilliant [sings] 'Won't you spare me all the charms and take me in your arms / I can't wait'. It was amazing. There are very few pop songs that have that kind of harmonic structure to it. I thought we did a hell of a good job on that one.
"John had Carlos Vega come in to do the drum loop and I believe he came back a second time to fill out the track. I came up with the bass line. John loved it and had me play it. He said, 'Let's make a loop!' I'd be sitting there in David's studio, sweating, trying to get it absolutely perfect, doing manually what Pro Tools does with a button now. We didn't have sequencers at that point. John would say, 'Do it again Tom. It's almost there.' That went on for a couple of hours until it was absolutely spot-on, in the pocket. I think we made a four-bar loop. David cut the loop and then edited it into other parts of the tune."
Sonically, "Make a Move on Me" is a shining paragon of synthesized sounds. The Prophet-5 synthesizer, in particular, polished the song with a warm, high-tech gloss. "When the Prophet-5 came out, it had this milky, sweet sound," Holman notes. "It was one of the best-sounding things. The Oberheim was kind of cool but the Prophet fit so well into the recordings and it was just a fabulous instrument. It looked really sexy."
Newton-John only amplified the sexiness of "Make a Move on Me" as her voice conveyed everything from simmering desire to unmitigated euphoria. However, the sex quotient on Physical climaxed in the title track.
"People say 'Physical' was written for Rod Stewart," says Steve Kipner, dismantling a decades-old myth. "It actually wasn't written for him, but I imagined someone like Rod Stewart might record it." Kipner never dreamed that Olivia Newton-John would be the one to immortalize a little tune he and Terry Shaddick wrote together one afternoon.
Long before "Physical" became a phenomenon, Kipner had been acquainted with Newton-John, plus Farrar and his (future) wife Pat Carroll, when they performed in different groups around Melbourne and Victoria during the 1960s. "In those days, there were a few Australians out there going for it," he continues. "Olivia was one of the people that seemed to get a foothold first. John was in a band called the Strangers. I was in a band called Steve & the Board. He was a little bit older than me, so I thought of them as a real band whereas my band, today, would be considered a punk band. I remember thinking, That guy is the real deal."
Following a stint in England, where Kipner's duo Tin Tin recorded a Top 20 hit "Toast and Marmalade for Tea" (1971) produced by Maurice Gibb, Kipner moved to Los Angeles, reuniting with several of the musicians he'd known in Australia. He continues, "A lot of Australian singers were here in LA and everybody kind of knew all the others. I didn't have much money. I was pretty much starving. When John and Pat would have a party, I'd think, Oh, that's great that I'm invited. That means that I can get to eat! I would always be first in line for the buffet." [laughs]
Kipner's own fortunes changed while recording his Elektra debut Knock the Walls Down (1979). Produced by LA studio wünderkind Jay Graydon, the set featured a first-rate roster of players like David Foster, Jeff Porcaro, David Hungate, Michael Omartian, and Greg Mathieson. During the session, Graydon invited Kipner to write a few songs for another project he was producing, Alan Sorrenti's L.A. & N.Y. (1979). Though Knock the Walls Down stalled on the charts, one of Kipner's tunes "All Day in Love" doubled as the B-side to Sorrenti's "Tu Sei L'Unica Donna Per Me", which sold over a million copies in Italy.
Attaining more success with one song than his own solo album, Kipner realized that writing for other artists promised greater commercial potential. "When you write songs, you write songs about being in relationships and being in love and all that," he says. "Terry and I thought, Let's just write a song about the physical side of love. I didn't think it would be called 'Physical'. We were going to write a song about sex, basically. I did the demo on a little four-track Teac. I had a little drum machine that I borrowed that had two pre-sets, 'Rock 1' and 'Rock 2', 'Bossa Nova 1' and 'Bossa Nova 2'. I used 'Rock 1'. I think it's exactly the same one that Hall & Oates used on "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)'."
"Make a Move On Me" single, 1982. Courtesy of MCA Records.
After cutting the vocal, Kipner played "Physical" for his friend and manager Roger Davies. "Roger worked for Lee Kramer, who was Olivia's manager and boyfriend at the time," he says. "I went to play the demo for Roger because he was my best mate, not thinking it was for Olivia. Lee Kramer also managed Mr. Universe. I think Lee heard the song through the walls. He didn't necessarily think that 'Physical' was a hit song, but he thought that if Olivia recorded it then he could also put Mr. Universe on the album cover with Olivia! She came into the office that afternoon and I guess that's when they played the demo for her." Ultimately, Mr. Universe was scarcely needed at all.
Even in demo form, "Physical" was an undeniable hit. "Stevie's always been tuned into what's happening," says Farrar. "Before I had anything to do with it, it sounded like a hit record. I stuck close to that. There's a distorted guitar that's pulsing in there. I had this old Roland drum machine, and we used that to gate an electric guitar and get that pulse."
Farrar enlisted a stellar cast of musicians including Toto bassist David Hungate, Carlos Vega (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion), Bill Cuomo (Prophet), and Gary Herbig (horns) to embellish the song's crisp, streamlined groove. Hungate's bandmate Steve Lukather laid down a searing guitar solo. Holman recalls, "I think John was fooling around with a solo and he said, 'Nah, I should really bring in Steve' … and that's Steve Lukather. I was talking to Steve weeks before about something, and he was all excited about this new guitar that had the Floyd Rose Bridge. I don't remember what kind of guitar it was — might have been a Fender Strat — but the Bridge was what was unique.
"I always had amps set up in the room ready to record. I had a Princeton amp, which I still have, sitting there with a microphone on it right next to the couch where John was working. I remember it was a really hot day. Steve came flying in. He goes, 'I finally got this guitar. Check this out man!' He plugs it in. 'I'm not even going to tune the guitar.' I rolled the tape and hit record. He played the guitar solo and that was the guitar solo for 'Physical'. That was it. I could see him stretching the notes but I remember thinking, Damn, it's pretty amazing that the guitar's still in tune. It's a testament to the talent of the people involved that a guy could walk in off the street, plug in a guitar, and play that guitar solo without ever having heard the song. It just came from the spirit of his talent."
In just five syllables — "let's get physical" — Olivia Newton-John captured the tune's contagious appeal. The steamier aspects of the verses, considerably tame by 21st century standards, took the singer from "totally hot" to a more "horizontal" kind of heat. "I couldn't imagine Olivia would sing those lyrics, but I'm obviously glad she did," Farrar chuckles. "It was a great song, a very catchy song, but Olivia's image was always very girl-next-door. Even during the final playback, she looked at me and said, 'Do you think I can get away with this?'" [laughs] Regardless of the content, Newton-John's performance evidenced strength, exuberance, and a playful strand of sensuality … all the elements of a blockbuster waiting to explode.
While both the title track and "Make a Move on Me" would pilot the album to double platinum certification, "Stranger's Touch" kept Physical spinning under the stylus from start to finish. "It didn't sound like a single, but it sounded like a really good song," says Kipner, who wrote the tune with Farrar. "We literally picked up a couple of guitars and started writing the song. Songwriting is like ping-pong. Someone says a line or an emotion, and then the other person hits it back to you with another suggestion. 'Stranger's Touch' just came out."
Farrar continues, "I remember a little bit about that. I think I went up to Steve's house one morning. We started 'Stranger's Touch' there and then finished it at my place. We've known each other for so long, we spent most of the time laughing!" Farrar's sinuous bass line anchored the rhythm and gave the song a distinctive groove. "I wasn't really a bass player," he says. "I tried to play it as aggressively as I could and I remember my thumbs started to bleed. [laughs] I had blood all over the place!"
Newton-John contoured the melody with a smooth and sultry style. The chorus spotlighted her more strident approach, reflecting both the torrid scenario of the lyrics and Farrar's rock-tinged production. Just by shouting "he's overpowering me", she brought the track to a feverish standstill.
"Stranger's Touch" also featured prominent background vocals from Farrar, whose voice seemed to peer through shadows in certain parts of the song. "John's got a voice that fits beautifully," says Holman. "He would do most of the backgrounds after Olivia did her lead. He'd work on the parts and hone them. It wasn't a part along with Olivia, it was a part that supported Olivia. That's what I really appreciate from him and probably one of the greatest lessons that I learned from Farrar. 'Does this support what's going on?' As a singer on a track, you have to relinquish your ego to what you think you should do, to supporting the song and the artist."
The Australian contingent behind Physical — Farrar, Gibb, Kipner, Roger Davies, and Newton-John — mushroomed with songwriter/producer Terry Britten, who'd made a mark in Australia during the 1960s. Kipner recalls, "When I was a kid in my first band, and John Farrar was in the Strangers, Terry Britten was in a group called the Twilights. The singer was Glenn Shorrock (from Little River Band). I remember going to a show. They somehow got a copy of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band before it was released in Australia. They played the whole album as a band. It was amazing."
Britten left Australia for England around the same time as Farrar and Kipner in the early '70s, subsequently playing guitar on Newton-John's Music Makes My Day (1973) and Clearly Love (1975) albums. "Olivia's a great girl who I had the pleasure of touring with," he says. A few years after Britten scored a major hit as a co-writer on Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman", he'd contribute one of Physical's more bracing cuts.
"I was involved in a movie called The Pirate Movie (1982) with Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins that filmed in Australia," Britten continues. "I wrote the songs and amongst them was 'Love Make Me Strong'. It was intended for Kristy to sing. John was in touch with the producer, I'm not sure how, maybe as an advisor. He thought 'Love Make Me Strong' would be great for Olivia and asked if he could have it. I was delighted of course, so I wrote another song on set called 'Hold On' to take its place."
Britten had penned the song with Sue Shifrin, who also collaborated with him on "See How the Love Goes" for the Pointer Sisters before he forged a successful, Grammy-winning partnership with Graham Lyle on Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It". Newton-John tore into "Love Make Me Strong" with a fervor that nearly caught fire. "John pretty much stuck to the demo, obviously with a great vocal from Olivia," says Britten. "Her vocal was a lot edgier than previous songs and so showed another side to her talents." Newton-John would adopt a similar vocal stance on another Britten tune "Toughen Up" (co-written with Lyle), a single from her last MCA album, Soul Kiss (1985).
Of the songs on Physical, "Silvery Rain" had the deepest roots, dating back to Farrar's early years in England. "When I went to England in 1970, I joined a group with Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch," he says. "Sometimes we'd go out as Marvin, Welch & Farrar and sometimes we'd go out as the Shadows. 'Silvery Rain' was a song that Hank wrote on the first album (Marvin, Welch & Farrar, 1971)." Released shortly after U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day, the song offered a sobering look at the toxic effects of pesticides.
A decade after the trio's original recording, plus original Shadows frontman Cliff Richard's own version on Columbia, Farrar recast "Silvery Rain" for Physical. "I wanted to go a little deeper into it," he says. "I've always loved that song, so it wasn't hard to talk Olivia into doing it. She's very much an environmentalist, so that song was perfect for her view of life."
Farrar masterfully modernized Marvin's tune for the 1980s, juxtaposing the brightness of his guitar and the crystalline tone of Newton-John's voice with a bass line that evoked a foreboding atmosphere. "That was the first Roland guitar synth that came out, and it was extremely unreliable," Farrar recalls. "David managed to make it sound like a really big bass sound." Holman also contributed an effect of his own in the second verse. "If you hear the wind, that's me blowing into a microphone," he says.
Elsewhere, Holman and Bill Cuomo simulated a crop duster that careened from the verse into the chorus. With guitars raging, Newton-John shouted "Fly away Peter, fly away Paul, before there's nothing left to fly at all", her urgent plea piercing the discord. No less a cultural arbiter than The New York Times praised Farrar's work on the track, noting how "his arrangement achieves a gossamer translucence that one rarely hears on a pop album" (17 January 1982).
Newton-John herself also authored an ecologically minded song for the album, "The Promise (The Dolphin Song)". In 1978, she'd canceled a tour of Japan after learning that fishermen were slaying dolphins off Iki Island. She later re-instated the tour when the Japanese government agreed to curb the practice. Featuring one of the most tender, heartfelt vocals of the singer's career, "The Promise" raised awareness about the mistreatment of dolphins, especially by the commercial fishing industry.
"I thought it was a lovely song," says Farrar. "I was sort of nervous about the way I should treat it because I didn't want Olivia to be disappointed in what I came up with. I kept it very sort of simple and gentle."
"The Promise" opened with the sound of waves lapping the shore. "We got a Nagra machine," Holman recalls. "That was the machine that everybody used to record anything in films. It was very expensive at the time and a beautiful piece of machinery. John and I took some microphones and went down to the beach late one night. It was a silvery moon so we didn't need lights or anything. We recorded the ocean for hours." Recorded separately, the dolphins' own chirps and clicks made a cameo appearance amidst the surf.
Farrar introduced the song's wistful melody, employing a unique, aqueous sound to his strumming. "We put the guitar through a vocoder, and then I triggered the guitar with the ocean sounds," Holman continues. "As John's playing the guitar, the sound of the ocean actually shapes the guitar and makes it 'sound' like the ocean. What you're hearing is the ocean in the background, and then you're hearing that ocean also affect what the guitar sounds like. It all starts gluing together and becomes one piece."
In the album's sequence, "The Promise" closed Side Two, as Newton-John's voice softly faded into the grooves. The album's opening track, however, packed a punch seldom glimpsed on her records. "Landslide" was the perfect springboard into an album that announced the singer's change in style. The song itself marked a detour from Farrar's typical writing process. "I decided to try and write it from a keyboard, which I didn't usually do," he says. "I'm not a keyboard player. I had a keyboard hooked up with a vocoder and developed the song through that."
Farrar excelled in fashioning a cutting-edge track for Newton-John. She quelled the song's explosive introduction, bringing an equanimity to the first line, "Cold winds rarely blow, here at the end of the rainbow". Throughout the track, Newton-John deftly drew upon a variety vocal gestures to navigate the song's swirl of sounds. From the angelic harmonies that waft through the bridge to the tune's hair-raising denouement, "Landslide" unveiled a newly invigorated singer, ready to rock.
Olivia Physical — The Video Album
MCA Records packaged Physical in a striking sleeve photographed by Herb Ritts. With her face tilted towards the sun, Newton-John projected health and vitality. Filmmaker Brian Grant was among the first people to see what became a defining image of the singer's career.
During the summer of 1981, Roger Davies' office flew the London-based director to Los Angeles as a possible candidate to shoot videos for Physical. "I was taken to Olivia's home in Malibu," Grant recalls. "She invited me in. She was very lovely. She and Roger, and a guy from the record company, were actually choosing a photograph to use for the album sleeve. They set up a projector in her bedroom, of all places. She said, 'Come in here. We're just looking at some slides and photographs of pictures for the album cover.' I sat down with her and Roger on the bed looking at these slides. Then we started talking about ideas, and what I thought of the album, and all the rest of it.
"I was there for about an hour-and-a-half. As I was walking out of this lovely house, having had this lovely conversation with Olivia, I sort of thought, I'm never going to see her again because I'm never going to get this gig. When I got to the door, I shook her hand, and I said, 'It's been absolutely delightful to meet you. I can now go home and tell all my friends I sat on Olivia Newton-John's bed with her.' That was the end of it. A few weeks went by and I then got a call saying that I got this gig. Olivia later told me that she'd met a whole pile of other directors and none of them made her laugh … but I did and that's why she chose me."
Months before MTV launched in August 1981, Davies and Newton-John had actually decided to make a full-length video ofPhysical. "The technology that mattered at that point was LaserDisc," Grant says. "Roger had the idea that if we filmed every track on the album, we could put it out on LaserDisc, which is another piece of product that they could sell. If there were subsequent singles released, they'd already have the video."
Prior to 1981, video clips occasionally appeared on television programs but were mainly used for in-store promotions. "One of the reasons record companies commissioned very cheap music videos in those early days was actually to play them in record shops," Grant continues. "I started making them in 1979, having seen 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (1975) from Queen. There were about five or six directors in London making these clips that were mainly used on Saturday morning children's shows and occasionally on Top of the Pops." Newton-John had filmed three such videos for Totally Hot, but an entire album of conceptual videos was still uncharted territory.
"Landslide" single, 1982. Courtesy of MCA Records.
In fact, Blondie was the very first act to release a full-length video album for retail when David Mallet, one of Grant's partners in MGMM Productions, directed the band in 12 clips for their fourth LP Eat to the Beat (1979). However, Chrysalis Records had begun the project solely as a promotional tool before it quickly evolved into a product. "Although Blondie's video version of Eat to the Beat can justifiably claim to be the first video album, legal negotiations with the musicians union kept it from staking that claim in the marketplace," Billboard stated in November 1980, shortly after the video's release.
A year later, MCA Videodisc president Jim Fielder appeared at Billboard's third international video entertainment / music conference where he called Olivia Physical "the first musical album to be conceived for both audio and video formats from pre-production on" (19 December 1981). Fielder's claim might seem misleading based on the chronology of Blondie and Newton-John's respective projects, but his qualifying distinction — "from pre-production on" — is tellingly accurate where budgets and marketing are concerned. As reported in Billboard, Eat to the Beat cost $140,000. By comparison, MCA granted a whopping $800,000 for Olivia Physical.
Grant had a large sandbox to play in. Producer Scott Millaney and writer Marcelo Anciano joined him in Los Angeles where they began developing ideas for each song. "They stuck me and Marcelo in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont," Grant recalls. "We went into two separate rooms. For two weeks, we threw ideas backwards and forwards between us until we came up with an idea and a solution for every single track. At that point, music videos were little laboratories. I always say the record business paid for my film school because the joy of it all at that time was that nobody knew anything. There was no library. There was no YouTube. There was no Internet. The only influences were photography and movies. Everybody was experimenting."
While tracks like "Carried Away" and "Falling" translated to sparsely designed sets, and "The Promise" simply incorporated pre-existing footage of Newton-John with dolphins, "Recovery" was shot on location in the Mojave Desert. Throughout the clip, the singer encounters hidden tree-trunk mirrors, oversized tumbling dice, and a cage of tuxedoed suitors before arriving in a dusty saloon populated by clones.
Grant explains, "We came up with the conceit that [spoiler alert!] what you find out is that she's in a room with a psychiatrist, so all the imagery comes out of that session. If you look at it carefully, there's a big pencil, and then you suddenly cut to a face, and there's somebody tapping their lips with a pencil, who turns out to be the psychiatrist."
"Silvery Rain" featured more unnerving kinds of imagery. "It's about ecology; it's about acid rain, so Marcelo and I thought about lots of visual ways of illuminating those ideas," Grant says. "It was a question of trying to do that in an abstract form. If you look, Olivia's actually standing in a giant hand. The dome is meant to represent how the world is now open to all of these terrible things happening to it." Using surreal visuals to forecast the impact of pollution and acid rain, Grant's video is a powerfully disturbing companion to the song.
Though "Landslide" had all the trimmings of a big-budget video, Grant feels the concept of Newton-John as a vixen-in-disguise might have worked better on paper. "I don't think we quite got that to work if I'm really honest," he says. Moving production to London, Grant fared better with the '40s-themed "Stranger's Touch". He explains, "It seemed to me that 'Stranger's Touch' was a perfect film noir idea. Like many music video directors of the day, we were all trying to be movie directors!" [laughs]
The small London club that bookended scenes in "Stranger's Touch" also appeared in clips for "Make a Move on Me" and "Love Make Me Strong", depicting the singer onstage with a band. Grant explains. "There was a limited amount of money. We couldn't make a concept for every single video, so we had to decide, between Roger and ourselves, where we would spend the money." For the video album, Grant also revisited Newton-John's earlier hits, using the club as a backdrop for new clips of "Magic", "A Little More Love", and "Hopelessly Devoted to You".
However, the double entendres of "Physical" were practically made for Grant's camera. He recalls, "The genesis of that idea had actually come from Olivia, inasmuch as she was quite reticent to put that record out. It's a great piece of pop music, but when she actually heard the finished mix, she panicked because of what the song's about. She told Roger she thought they couldn't put it out, but Roger said, 'It's too late. It's already gone to the radio stations.'
"She said, 'Let's just set the video in a gymnasium because it's about physical stuff.' I went away and thought about it. I thought, That's not funny enough. I spun it on its head and undercut the expectation: set it in a gymnasium, and you'll expect to see her with very good-looking guys, so why not fill the place with fat ugly men? She's going to knock them into shape. Halfway through, she's getting nowhere with them and decides to leave the room and go into a shower. When she walks back into the room, of course, the guys have turned into hunks. That was the original ending. When I was thinking about it, I thought That's just too obvious. There has to be another twist. I then said, 'Why don't we just make it that, suddenly, she realizes they're all gay men?'"
Featuring choreography by Kenny Ortega, who'd worked with Newton-John on Xanadu, Grant's video for "Physical" filled the screen with plenty of steam, sweat, and a charismatic performance from its star. "We had to have a meeting with the record company and go through all of the ideas because they were paying for it," Grant continues. "I remember sitting in a room with about four or five executives, describing this idea and being faced with this silence. For about five minutes, nobody said anything. I thought at that point that they were going to fire me. Luckily for me, Olivia actually understood the humor and backed me."
Physical — The Phenomenon
September 1981 stoked a sense of anticipation for Olivia Newton-John's latest release. Viewers who tuned into Solid Gold on Saturday, 12 September had a special treat as Andy Gibb and Marilyn McCoo welcomed the singer to the show's season two premiere. "Right now, she's going to debut the title song of her new album, Physical. Please welcome my dear friend … Olivia Newton-John," Gibb said as the singer jogged out onstage in full workout gear, previewing the cheeky fitness angle of Grant's video.
Even before MCA sent "Physical" to programmers, Farrar had a sense that the song would do well at radio. "In those days, because it was vinyl, we had to get it pressed," he recalls. "When I played it for the mastering engineer, as soon as he heard that track he said, 'That's a smash if ever I've heard one!'" On Tuesday, 22 September, national playlists made it official: "Physical" was the "Top Breakout" single on the airwaves. The following Tuesday, it became the "Top Add On" across the country, just ahead of "Promises in the Dark" by Pat Benatar and "When She Was My Girl" by the Four Tops.
For the week-ending 3 October 1981, "Physical" debuted at #66 on the Hot 100, beginning its 26-week run on the chart … and stirring up a little controversy along the way. Radio stations in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah refused to play the single. "Once the words sank in, it caused an uncomfortableness among listeners," Provo's KFMY-FM program director Jim Sumpter toldBillboard. "We must listen to the dictates of our audiences" (7 November 1981). "It was banned in a whole bunch of places," Kipner recalls. "That actually turned it into 'We got to hear this banned Olivia Newton-John song!' It made people even more interested."
Two weeks after Billboard reported the ban, "Physical" supplanted Hall & Oates' "Private Eyes" from the top where it would spend a total of ten weeks at number one. It rewarded Newton-John with a platinum single and a Grammy nomination for "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female", eventually becoming the top single of the 1980s. "It's so strange where songs come from and what happens to them," says Kipner. "The whole thing with 'Physical' was pretty much an accident. I knew John would do a brilliant job because he's just a ridiculously talented guy. Everything just lined up somehow. It was a perfect storm."
In the mean time, Physical debuted on the Billboard 200 the last week of October 1981. Cashbox applauded the singer's latest set, writing "Lovely Livvy seems to get more sensual and musically bold each successive time out as both the graphics and sound of Physical are downright provocative. Like the Bee Gees' latest work, Olivia has gone in a more progressive adult pop direction. Songs like 'Landslide' and 'Stranger's Touch' have an almost hard rock intensity, but also possess a pop gloss sheen that make them true Top 40 bait. Credit producer John Farrar for giving the comely Aussie lass a new high tech sound and watch this LP soar up the charts'" (24 October 1981).
Newton-John began 1982 with Physical lodged in the Top Ten of the Billboard 200, where it peaked at number six. The singer dominated network television as much as the charts. With Olivia Physical about to hit the home video market, she performed "Make a Move on Me" at the ninth annual American Music Awards on Monday, 25 January. Exactly two weeks later, ABC broadcast the singer's latest television special Let's Get Physical.
Though many television viewers probably wouldn't have known it at the time, Let's Get Physical was simply a condensed and re-edited version of Olivia Physical with newly filmed scenes slotted in between the songs. "The television special was an afterthought," says Grant. "The video (Olivia Physical) was never made to be a television special. I think Roger showed it to ABC and they said, 'We'd like this'. We then had to re-format it, basically." In a brilliant cross-promotional strategy, Let's Get Physical actually helped generate sales of Olivia Physical, which debuted at #18 on Billboard's "Videocassette Top 40" the week ending 27 February 1982. Out of 40 titles, it was the only music-based release on the chart.
Meanwhile, "Make a Move on Me" continued to soar up the Hot 100 where it would peak at number five and earn the singer another gold single. The song was so irresistible, even "Physical" couldn't steal its thunder. "It's the quietest million-selling single ever," laughs Tom Snow. "Olivia brings Olivia to the tune. Ain't nobody else who could do it like she did! The synth sounds and all the great guitar sounds were very much a part of the '80s sound starting to come up through the air. It was John's direction that really steered that ship. I think he's probably the best pop record producer of his time. I learned from him how to really put your guts into a song and get it to a place where it's undeniable. He's a brilliant guy. He was pure music."
The spring of 1982 delivered another round of Physical headlines. Newton-John hosted Saturday Night Live in May, performing "Physical", "Make a Move on Me", and the album's latest single, "Landslide", which had already earned the singer a Top 20 hit in the UK earlier that year. Olivia Physical continued to garner press as Billboard highlighted the LaserDisc edition of the project. "The production values are nothing less than stunning at times," the magazine wrote. "'Physical' seems to have the best shot of establishing the notion of the simultaneous audio/video LP" (12 June 1982).
Beginning in August 1982, Newton-John embarked on her first tour in four years, bringing an elaborate stage show to stadiums and arenas across North America. In his review of the singer's appearance at Forest Hills Stadium, New York Times critic Jon Pareles applauded the strength of Newton-John's voice, describing it as "extremely adaptable; onstage, she summoned country's quavers, disco's melismas, pop's directness, and hard rock's percussive staccato" (16 August 1982).
The latter quality powered Newton-John's next single, another Steve Kipner tune called "Heart Attack". Released in conjunction with the singer's tour and a new compilation, Olivia's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1982), "Heart Attack" bowed on the Hot 100 the first week of September 1982. The song would spend three months on the chart and bring the singer back to the Top Five, peaking at number three.
By December 1982, Newton-John had reached a new benchmark in her career. Billboard named her "Top Pop Singles Artist" and "Top Pop Singles Artist Female" while "Physical" topped the "Pop Singles" chart of 1982. A month later, Newton-John won "Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist" at the American Music Awards, just as HBO premiered Olivia in Concert (1983) from the singer's October 1982 concert appearance at Webster State University Hall in Ogden, Utah.
"Physical" single, 1981. Courtesy of EMI Records / France.
Perhaps the biggest surprise arrived on the evening of 23 February 1983 at the Grammy Awards when Olivia Physical was the second-ever recipient of the Recording Academy's "Video of the Year" prize. The category's other contenders couldn't have been a more eclectic bunch, with projects by Elton John, the Tubes (directed by Russell Mulcahy, another one of Grant's partners in MGMM Productions), the Royal Opera featuring Plácido Domingo, and children's programming director/producer Margaret Murphy rounding out the nominations.
"I was actually in London at an all-night shoot with a band called the Stranglers," Grant recalls. "I remember coming back to our production office at seven or eight in the morning. I walked in to find about 20 people with about ten bottles of champagne. I said, 'What's all this about?' They said, 'You just won a Grammy!' Every so often, all the right things arrive in the right place. It's serendipitous. All the right people happened to get on with each other — that stems from Olivia. She's a generous, grounded woman. She's a consummate professional. It's a pleasure to call her my friend."
35 years have passed since Olivia Newton-John made history at the Grammy Awards. Physical itself is still making history. As of August 2018, the title track is number ten on the Billboard Hot 100's "All-Time Top 100 Songs" list. It's become a pop culture staple, from clever spoofs on Glee to homages by artists like Kylie Minogue, Goldfrapp, and Juliana Hatfield, who covered both "Physical" and "Make a Move on Me" on Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018).
Newton-John's friends and collaborators have nothing but great affection and admiration for the singer. "The sound of Olivia's voice is unique I think," says Farrar. "It's quite rare when you hear voices that don't sound like anybody else, particularly these days. I feel very privileged to have spent all those years with her. I couldn't have worked with a nicer person. We're still the best of friends."
The writers behind Physical's most enduring songs hold the utmost respect for both Newton-John and Farrar. "John's made some of the greatest records of the last 50 years," says Snow. "Olivia and John are very accomplished in every respect, but they're so easy to be around and hang with. They have that Australian sensibility about them." Kipner agrees, adding, "John and Olivia were more like a team than 'Olivia and her producer' because she gave his songs such a heart. She's just exactly the nicest, kindest person. The way she appears is who she is."
David J. Holman lovingly captures the camaraderie that made Physical more than a pop phenomenon. "We had some of the best times and some of the greatest laughs ever working on this record," he says. "Having the experience with Olivia and John, Snow and Kipner, and all those guys is something that I would wish for everybody. It was many, many hours of searching for the right elements between sounds, artistry, instruments, and building songs that worked well for Olivia. It was all about work ethic and being as good as you could possibly be, and better than you can be" That's how you get lightning in a bottle …
Physical Postscript — A Note from Olivia Newton-John
Olivia Newton-John has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, but the ten songs on Physical continue to hold a special place for the singer. In this exclusive postscript penned for PopMatters, Newton-John herself shares some personal thoughts about a few songs that fuel Physical with a timeless appeal.
Silvery Rain — "I loved this song and the way Cliff Richard sang it in his show! Pat and I sang the vocal backing on stage behind him every night. This song inspired me. It has such a wonderfully constructed environmental message with an incredibly powerful chorus. I loved Brian Grant's video interpretation. John Farrar's production on it is perfect."
Carried Away — "Barry Gibb is one of my favorite songwriters and producers of all time. He and John Farrar are both humble and incredibly talented musicians ... and both Aussies!! Barry has a way of writing a song that is always different and unexpected. His catchy melodies and soaring key changes can take my breath away. And the syncopation of his lyrics to his melodies is so distinguishable, you know it's a Barry Gibb song right away. Like 'Carried Away', which has this magical feeling."
The Promise (The Dolphin Song) — "I do love that song and feel I can say that because I believe the dolphins gave it to me! I was staying at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii and there were dolphins in the pool outside my window. They inspired 'The Promise', but I couldn't finish it. Then I woke up in the middle of the night with the bridge in my head and realized that they gifted it to me, so thank you dolphins! John Farrar created a beautiful track for it!"