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.
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!”
This article was originally published on 22 October 2018. It is being republished following Olivia Newton-John’s passing.