Early in 1981, Olivia Newton-John called her manager, Roger Davies, in a panic. “We’ve got to pull this song!” she said. Davies assured her there was no need to worry – and that anyway, it was too late. “It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.”
Physical would become a defining moment for Newton-John, who has passed away after a long battle with cancer at age 73. It wasn’t quite a Bowie-style reinvention for the Melbourne-raised singer. Three years previously, she had shocked the world by donning leather trousers for the raunchy final musical number in Grease.
But Physical undoubtedly demolished what was left of her wholesome image. By early 1980s standards, it was more suggestive than a Benny Hill double-bill. “I took you to an intimate restaurant/Then to a suggestive movie,” goes the first verse. “There's nothing left to talk about/Unless it's horizontally.”
It was also one of the defining hits of her career. The single spent 10 weeks at US number one and reached seven in the UK charts. Along the way, it positioned Newton-John at the peak of the zeitgeist. That was thanks to the exercise-themed video, which benefitted from the early 1980s craze for aerobics and such fashion accoutrements as furry headbands and Day-Glo lycra.
The headband and lycra were front and centre in the Physical vid. The promo, which arrived at the very dawn of the MTV video era (the channel launched several months previously), served as a cheeky counterpoint to the risqué lyrics. This was entirely by design. If Newton-John was talked out of pulling the single due to its explicit content, she insisted the video put a different spin on the tune.
“I said, 'Oh, wow… um… yeah… okay… well, maybe we should do a video and it should be about exercise – yeah! That’s it!,' she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “Let’s make it about working out!”
Physical had worked up a sweat long before making its way to Newton-John. The song was written by Steve Kipner, an Australian composer and friend of Newton-John’s, together with British producer Terry Shaddock.
“We wrote a few love songs. Then one day we decided to write one about the 'physical' side of love, not the romantic side. It was basically done in a couple days,” Kipner later stated. “We imagined a male singer like Rod Stewart singing it. That would not be the case.”
Let’s Get Physical was initially offered to Tina Turner, who felt it wasn’t for her and passed it on to her manager, Roger Davies, who also worked with Newton-John. He, in turn, was employed by producer Lee Kramer – a b-movie mogul would later cast Newton-John in the iconically awful Xanadu.
One of Kramer’s other clients was bodybuilder Frank Zane, who had won the Mr World contest. With bodybuilders such as Lou Ferrigno (aka the Incredible Hulk) and Arnold Schwarzenegger breaking into Hollywood, he saw Zane as a future star. Newton-John was potentially the muscleman’s passport to the big time.
“Lee Kramer was managing a bodybuilder named Frank Zane who was Mr. World,” Newton-John wrote in her autobiography Don't Stop Believin’. “Lee had heard the song Physical in its early stages and thought it would be perfect for an upcoming Silver Surfer movie, based on the comic, that he had optioned for Frank to star in. Lee told me about the song and then casually asked, 'Maybe you could sing it?”
The Silver Surfer movie was soon lost in the Hollywood swell. However, Newton-John had become obsessed with Physical. And she felt the saucy lyrics would add momentum to the reinvention she had embarked on with Grease. She had, over the course of that film, gone from girl-next-door to high-heeled bombshell. That the public was open to a more risqué Olivia Newton-John came as a huge surprise to her.
“That outfit would pull the shy Olivia Newton-John out of her comfort zone in other ways,” she wrote of her leather-trousered Grease look. “And it even gave me the courage later on to release the song Physical. That last scene in Grease instantly changed my image.”
Yet she would also claim to have not dwelt especially deeply on Physical’s fnar fnar word-play. Only afterwards did it occur to her that she had perhaps gone too far. “It was a bit raunchier than I realised.”
It was in an attempt to dial down that “XXX” factor that she pitched the exercise video. Fortunately, the director Brian Grant was on the same wavelength.
“I listened to it and I thought this is a song about two people having sex and this is not going to work as a video for Olivia,” he said in 2014. “I thought the best way to do this was to come at it completely differently, just play on the word physical and then take the piss out of it, I mean have as much fun as we possibly can with it. So I wrote this concept, the obvious thing was to put her in a gym with a bunch of good-looking boys, but you always want to undercut expectations when you write anything.”
His way of doing this was to then cut to a group of overweight losers, whom Newton-John was knocking into shape. “They are really fat and not pretty boys at all. Halfway through the video, she gets frustrated and leaves goes into the shower and, by magic, when she comes back out all of these beautiful hunky boys are there that she wanted in the first place.
“Then to add a final twist at the end, I thought it would be good to undercut the expectation again and have it turn out that the boys are all gay. So she really doesn't get what she wants and still ends up with one of the fat guys.”
Initially, it was proposed Newton-John slip into a bikini for the shower scene. She felt this was going too far. That is why we are instead treated to the surreal sight of the singer showering fully dressed.
“For the shower scene, [director Grant] originally wanted me to be in a swimsuit or underwear,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I said, 'I can’t do that! I’ll do it in my clothes.' Of course, that made it even sexier. I didn’t think about it at the time, I just didn’t want to be in a suit or a towel.”
The video’s humour was not necessarily obvious to the record label. “I do remember going to Capitol Records with this as the concept and having a whole pile of executives in this meeting room. It was dreadful and the only person who said anything was Olivia,” said Grant. “She just giggled and thought it was great. Despite everybody else kind of thinking it was a terrible idea, she said it was a great idea.”
The executives’ misgivings melted away as Physical shot to the top of the Billboard charts and became a global smash. Controversy followed, with the suggestive lyrics (and video) leading to the track being banned from radio stations across the US. MTV later cut the ending in which the beefcakes are revealed to be gay.
Nudge-nudge factor notwithstanding, time has been kind to Physical. Rather than a shameless raunch-fest, it can today be regarded as a charming time capsule. Newton-John has never been more magnetic than when putting the hunks through their paces in the video. The tune meanwhile harked back to an era in which provocative lyrics were seen as subversive rather than part of a day’s work for an ambitious pop star. (Kipner would raise eyebrows all over again when he wrote Christina Aguilera’s equally-suggestive Genie In a Bottle)
“I felt a little embarrassed to be banned,” Newton-John would say. “But looking back now I go, 'That was great.' It got attention. And compared to what I’m listening to on the radio now, it’s more like a lullaby.”