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When Olivia Newton-John recorded her 11th studio album, Physical, 40 years ago, she’d already begun her evolution from wholesome ingenue to sexually assertive pop-rock provocateur — a life-imitating-art metamorphosis not unlike that of her Sandy character in Grease — with her previous album, 1978’s Totally Hot.
But no one, not even the singer herself, was prepared for the sexy image makeover that was ushered in by Physical’s title track — when a sweatbanded, hot ‘n’ bothered Olivia straight-up told the object of her desire, “There's nothing left to talk about, unless it's horizontally.” It’s perhaps a tame lyric by 2021 standards, but it was downright scandalous when it was released on Sept. 28, 1981, two days after the singer's 33rd birthday.
At first, Newton-John actually rejected “Physical” — which was originally intended for a “macho male rock figure like Rod Stewart,” according its co-writer, Steve Kipner, and later passed over by a more fiercely rock ‘n’ roll-leaning diva, Tina Turner. And Newton-John admits to Yahoo Entertainment that even after she agreed to record it, she had second thoughts. “I was really anxious about it, because I thought I'd gone too far,” she explains. “And then I tried to get [the record label] to stop it. And then it was too late. It was out there in the public.”
Newton-John soon realized that there was no turning back. So, worrying that the song’s aggressive sexuality might ruin her image (the single was in fact banned by some U.K. radio stations and in more conservative U.S. markets, like Salt Lake City, for its suggestive content), she came up with a plan. “I thought, ‘Well, you know what? I need to do a video, and I need to do it about exercise — that will take away from, you know, what they're thinking it's about.’”
Newton-John then enlisted her frequent collaborator, British director Brian Grant, to make the jazzercising gym video. The clip, which starred the leotarded pop star and a troupe of clumsy, plus-size men who magically transformed into brawny, oiled-up, locker-room himbos, certainly hasn’t aged well. Along with the blatant fat-shaming, there was the surprise twist ending, when the buff men rebuffed Olivia’s lascivious advances and paired up with each other, which now comes across as mildly homophobic. But Grant’s “Physical” video certainly was a product of its time, and since it came out within just weeks of MTV’s debut, it received high-rotation airplay on the buzzy new cable channel.
“The director just took it in another direction… and it was hilarious. I thought it was so funny,” Newton-John wryly laughs, as she looks back. Grant ended up directing 1982’s Olivia Physical music video collection — the first long-form video album, long before Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the like — which landed in Nielsen’s top 10 ratings when it later aired as ab ABC prime-time special. “Physical” also won the Grammy Award for Video of the Year.
And so, despite the singer’s misgivings and any controversy surrounding the video and song, “Physical” was a game-changer for Newton-John. It became not just her biggest U.S. hit, but literally the best-selling song of the entire 1980s in America, staying at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks (at that point, the only single with a longer run in the chart’s top spot was Elvis Presley's “Hound Dog”) and in the top 10 for a total of 15 weeks. The song has since been covered, sampled, or interpolated by many of Newton-John’s pop-princess successors, including Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Juliana Hatfield, Doja Cat, and Dua Lipa.
And if Newton-John’s chief goal was to forever shed the good-girl image of her sweet early singles like “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow”… well, that mission was most definitely accomplished. “I was banned!” the 73-year-old pop legend chuckles, clearly now at peace with the racy song’s legacy. “So, at least I can say in my lifetime, me — with the squeaky-clean image that I had — was banned.”
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