Three years after starring opposite John Travolta in Grease, Olivia Newton-John released “Physical,” the title track from her twelfth studio album. It became the British-born Australian singer’s biggest hit in America by far, ruling Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart for 10 weeks — an especially impressive achievement in an era before streaming came along and elongated the reign of the average #1 hit.
It’s not hard to see why people loved “Physical” so much. For one thing, the song’s lyrical wordplay and music video have a lot of fun turning exercise (and ’80s workout videos) into a sexual euphemism. But mostly it’s just a master class in pop songwriting, with verses carried along by a bopping new wave rhythm and a chorus buoyed by one of those hooks you don’t mind getting stuck in your head for days on end. The guitar solo and low-key saxophone accents are rad, too. I look forward to that moment a couple years from now when my colleague Tom Breihan’s daily blog series The Number Ones makes its way to 1981 and he expounds on this song’s glory.
Fortunately, none of us have to wait for Tom to blog about “Physical” to appreciate Newton-John’s signature anthem — mostly because it’s a great song readily available on your streaming service of choice, but also because alternative rock hero Juliana Hatfield has covered it for her upcoming album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia-Newton John.
The project is rather unexpected given that Newton-John and Hatfield operated in completely different musical spheres when they were young, the former a paragon of pop plasticity, the latter an icon of the indie-pop underground. But the gap between those worlds has closed a lot since then, and as Hatfield tells it, the distance between them was never so far as some people liked to suggest. “I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John,” Hatfield wrote in a statement announcing the album. “Her music has brought me so much pure joy throughout my whole entire life. I loved her when I was a child and I love her still.”
Her take on “Physical” maintains the original track’s playful bounce while injecting it with the revved-up guitar power that has characterized Hatfield’s best work. That chorus melody has never sounded better or more intense than it does here. The cover arrives with a video directed by David Doobinin, which Hatfield explained via the following statement:
Olivia Newton-John’s lusty “Physical” is a groovy, bouncy song, but my take on it is darker, more aggro, because I don’t think of lust as fun or funny; I think it’s dangerous and disruptive and mostly unwelcome. So that is my interpretation of “Physical”: the human condition is a bummer, and desire a frustrating impediment to serenity. My visual take on the song is not as conceptual as Olivia’s 1981 colorful workout video. Mine is more of an impressionistic exploration of my own awkward and self-conscious physicality (especially self-conscious in front of the camera/other people).
Watch below, where you can also find Newton-John’s original video.
Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia-Newton John is out 4/13 on American Laundromat. Pre-order it here.