Part Eight: 1981-1982
When Olivia Newton-John began work on her first studio album in three years, she was deep into a relationship with her future husband, Matt Lattanzi. She met the actor and dancer on the set of Xanadu, and he appeared in the music video for “Landslide” in 1981. In a feature story in the October 10, 1981 issue of Billboard, she opened up about her new musical direction as she prepared to release her eleventh studio album, Physical. The uptempo set featured aggressive arrangements that bore little resemblance to her AC and country roots, completing the transformation that began with Grease:
“Grease is the most important thing I’ve done because I was playing a role. I was able to try something different, in terms of a more powerful singing style. I never would’ve dreamt of it if not for the part. It was an excuse to do it, and it worked. I thought, ‘Hey, I was accepted that way.’ I wanted to do it and I could. It was a great release for me because I got put in a box and I got to step out as something else.
“I’ve gotten the confidence to be more adventurous whereas in the past I didn’t think it was time. That style [her old one] was successful for me and I was comfortable singing it. If these new songs were offered to me a couple of years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have attempted them, and similarly, some of the songs I sang a couple of years ago I wouldn’t be interested in doing now.
The first exposure for this new sound was the lead single, “Physical,” which was written with Rod Stewart in mind. Though tame by today’s standards, the lyrics were explicit for the time, with the line, “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally” being censored in South Africa and the record itself being banned in parts of Utah. Regarding the controversy, Newton-John told People at the time: “Five years ago I would have died over a controversy like this, but now I just think it’s foolish of them to take it so seriously.”
In recent years, however, Newton-John has spoken about her terror about releasing the single, and recalled her attempts to get her manager to pull the single, but it was already too late. This provided the inspiration for the song’s aerobics-themed music video. Directed by Brian Grant, their collaboration led to something quite innovative at the time: an entire video album. Dubbed Olivia Physical, Grant directed music videos for all ten Physical tracks, as well as three earlier hits (“Magic,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “A Little More Love”) to round out the collection. Although many of the tracks received standard performance videos, others were quite ambitious, particularly the noir-inspired clip for “Stranger’s Touch” and the western-themed “Recovery.”
The clips were used to form a network special that was a top ten ratings hit, and when released on video, became the top-selling music video of the year, and won Newton-John her fourth Grammy, in the new category of Best Music Video. Newton-John told Billboard that “I think this is the way that albums will go in the future: visuals with the music.” She expanded her thoughts on this in her People interview: “Like everyone, I’ve got different sides of my personality,” she muses. “I’ve my dominant self, my need-to-be-dominated self, the sane Olivia and the crazy Olivia. Playing these different characters [on the special] gave me a chance to show strange parts people haven’t seen much.”
The Physical era was more successful than anything Newton-John ever did that wasn’t associated with an accompanying film. The lead track spent 10 weeks at #1 in the United States, and both it and its accompanying album crossed over to the R&B charts. Both the single and album sold more than two million copies in the United States alone, and worldwide sales of the Physical album are estimated to be ten million.
Written by Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick
Pop #1 (10 weeks) | AC #29 | R&B #28
Australia #1 (5 weeks) | Austria #7 | Canada #1 (6 weeks) | Germany #4
Ireland #4 | Japan #17 | Netherlands #6 | New Zealand #1 (3 weeks)
South Africa #11 | Spain #8 | Sweden #15
Switzerland 1 (4 weeks) | U.K. #7
If “Physical” had been released by Rod Stewart as intended, there wouldn’t have been much controversy. But this level of aggressiveness coming from a woman was unheard of at the time, at least in polite circles. In that sense, Newton-John was the perfect vehicle for the song. Her girl next door image created enough reasonable doubt for more conservative audiences to buy that it was about getting fit, while everyone else could enjoy what she was getting away with singing about in a pre-Madonna world.
It helps that it was a fantastic record in its own right. Catchy and enthusiastically performed, the backing track is also full of musical hooks, to the point that even an instrumental version would be entertaining to listen to. The guitar solo toward the end elevates the intensity at the perfect time, and stays in the mix as she transitions from talking about getting physical to talking about getting animal.
Pop #6 | R&B #32
Australia #3 | Canada #3 | Germany #30
Japan #5 | Netherlands #9 | New Zealand #8 | Norway #8
South Africa #11 | Sweden #3 | U.K. #11
Make a Move On Me
Love Make Me Strong
The Promise (the Dolphin Song)
Far and away her strongest pure pop album, Physical is a fantastic collection of songs that features enough contemporary flourishes to ground it in the early eighties, but not so many that it gets hopelessly stuck in that era. Newton-John and producer John Farrar perfected the formula that they’d established for Totally Hot and Xanadu. Two of the best tracks are remakes of cuts from Farrar’s own solo album released in 1980: the tender ballad “Falling” and the introspective loner’s anthem, “Recovery,” that latter of which asks, “I’ve lived without tenderness for too many years. Why would I need it now?”
Album opener “Landslide” is dizzying in its ambition and scope, changing direction multiple times over the course of its four minute running time. Nothing else on the record attempts the same ambition in production, but it certainly does in content. Newton-John is as comfortable singing about a lover’s triangle (“Stranger’s Touch”) as she is about the environment (“Silvery Rain,” “The Promise.”) What else can you say about a woman who sounds as convincing about saving the world as she does about getting under the sheets? Physical is one of the best pop albums of its time and an essential highlight of Newton-John’s storied career.
Make a Move On Me
Written by John Farrar and Tom Snow
Pop #5 | AC #6
Pop #4 | AC #2
Australia #8 | Germany # 38 | Japan #59
Netherlands #49 | New Zealand #22 | U.K. #43
This slinky tale of passive aggressive seduction – you’re going to make the move, but I’m telling you to do it – was Newton-John’s final million-selling single in America. The label and Newton-John were both pushing “Landslide” as the follow up, but radio demanded “Make a Move On Me” instead, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not anywhere near as interesting a record, but it has a solid hook, even though it borrows a little too heavily from a certain Grease hit (“I’m the one you want…”)
The biggest slight against it is that Farrar is overly reliant on the very early eighties synthesizer, a choice that makes the record now sound more dated than the rest of the album that it’s on. Remember this choice, because it is going to cause some big problems when we get to Soul Kiss.
Written by John Farrar
Ireland #25 | Netherlands #39 | U.K. #18
Way ahead of its time in 1981, it’s still hard to believe today that “Landslide” exists. Farrar makes so many swerves during this track that it’s a testament to Newton-John that she even keeps up, let alone dominates the track. With a string section apparently on loan from Psycho, Newton-John delivers her first and only pure rock vocal. If she had performed the suggestive lyrics of “Physical” like this, that record would’ve been banned everywhere, not just in Utah.
Farrar is a master of production here, with the very busy musical track never tripping over itself, and the sounds of the day being borrowed from without letting them take over. Newton-John has too pure and emotional a voice to work well with electronic sounds. She’s always better with a live band, like the one she has here. “Landslide” was only a minor hit, but it holds up better than some of her biggest ones from this time period.
Written by Paul Bliss and Steve Kipner
Australia #22 | Austria #7 | Canada #2 | Germany #51
Ireland #30 | Japan #71 | New Zealand #11 | Norway #5
South Africa #4 | U.K. #46
Newton-John previewed her upcoming hits collection with a track that sounds like an outtake from the Physical sessions. Co-written by “Physical” scribe and fellow Aussie Steve Kipner, “Heart Attack” is a bit freeform, with the chorus repeating the title between two different bridges. The percussion is the star of the arrangement here, providing the heartbeat that reinforces the lyric, and there’s a great saxophone solo, too. “Heart Attack” is great at building tension, but it forgets to release it at the end. So it’s enjoyable to listen to, but it feels a little unfinished.
Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2/Vol. 3 (Australia)
Australia #1 (2 weeks) | Canada #6 | Germany #33
Japan #12 | New Zealand #3 | South Africa #4
Deeper Than the Night (Australia Only)
Hopelessly Devoted to You
Make a Move On Me
Landslide (Australia Only)
A Little More Love
You’re the One That I Want (with John Travolta)
Suddenly (with Cliff Richard)
Totally Hot (Australia Only)
The Promise (the Dolphin Song) (Australia Only)
Xanadu (with Electric Light Orchestra)
Newton-John’s second hits collection collects almost all of her movie hits up until that point, with “Summer Nights” being the only one missing. The version released in most parts of the world also included the gold singles “A Little More Love,” “Physical,” and “Make a Move On Me,” but left off “Deeper Than the Night,” which only makes an appearance on the Australian version. The Aussies were on their third hits collection by this point, and they got fourteen tracks instead of ten.
For a long time, this was the best collection to pick up if you were looking for a good survey of Newton-John’s work, and while I’d swap out “Suddenly” for “Deeper Than the Night,” it’s hard to complain about a set that features this many signature hits, with two new tracks to boot. There are better collections now, but before the CD age, Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 was the essential purchase for anyone looking for Newton-John’s best work.
Next: Part Nine: 1983-1986
Previous: Part Seven: 1979-1980