The Number Ones

November 21, 1981

The Number Ones: Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”

Stayed at #1:

10 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


In the ’80s, people got really into bodies. People have always been into bodies, but sculpted, oiled-up musculature — and the work necessary to sculpt and maintain that musculature — became a pop-culture fixation during the Reagan years. The Jane Fonda’s Workout video came out in 1982 and became the biggest-selling VHS tape of all time. A whole lot more aerobics videos followed. Gyms popped up across suburban strip-malls, the same way that discos had done in the late ’70s.

Along the way, someone figured out that jacked-up muscles fit well with MTV-style cocaine-haze editing. That aesthetic started to take over blockbuster movies with 1983’s Flashdance, a film that will prove important to this column. Sylvester Stallone, already a star, got more juiced-up and became an even bigger box-office attraction. By the end of the decade, a former Mr. Universe had surpassed Stallone and arguably become the biggest movie star in the world. That freaky fascination in human bodies extended outside movies, too, and into other realms.

A young Vince McMahon took over his father’s regional wrestling promotion and transformed it into the global cultural behemoth known as the WWF by largely doing away with old pro-wrestling storytelling styles and betting instead on vascular maximalists like Hulk Hogan. By the time of the first Wrestlemania in 1985, McMahon had brought in the TV star Mr. T, another column of human sinew, to crank up the spectacle levels.

All of this is to say that Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” was in the right place at the right time and that hit helped set the stage for a whole decade of fascination. (Congress finally made anabolic steroids a controlled substance in 1990, which helped bring an end to the greasy-bodybuilding-fantasia era of popular culture.) “Physical” was a song about having sex, not working out. But through the magic of music video, Newton-John figured out how to transform it into a song about having sex and working out, and she turned it into a juggernaut.

“Physical” was a phenomenon. The song’s 10-week run at #1 tied a record previously set four years earlier by Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” “Physical” had most of its run at #1 in 1981, but Billboard still named it 1982’s #1 single. Years later, Billboard listed “Physical” as the best-selling single of the entire decade. Before “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John had scored four #1 singles and starred in the biggest box-office hit of 1978, but “Physical” remains her defining commercial achievement. It was about as big as a song can get, and in its slippery genre-free pulse, it helped establish a new era in blockbuster pop music.

With “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John created a perfect storm. She’d already pulled off a wild public transition, moving from the drippy adult-contempo ballads of her early years and into horny dance-pop. That evolution almost eerily mirrored the journey that Sandy, Newton-John’s character, went on in Grease. It was like Newton-John had watched how much people liked the movie, and she repeated all the same moves in her real public life.

On “Physical,” Newton-John sang explicitly but playfully about sex: “I took you to an intimate restaurant, then to a suggestive movie/ There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally.” This was the most innocent sort of raunch. A few radio stations in Utah refused to play “Physical,” and that vague frisson of transgression probably helped lift the song’s profile. Meanwhile, Newton-John harnessed the full power of the music video, using “Physical” to tell a cartoonish story about doughy guys who magically turn into baby-oiled hunks in Newton-John’s fitness class. That video recast “Physical” as a fitness anthem, but it kept all the innuendo intact.

“Physical” came from the songwriters Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who’d originally thought of it as a sleazily macho song for a male singer like Rod Stewart. But they first offered it to Tina Turner, who thought it was too sexual for her. (Turner will eventually appear in this column. Another Kipner co-write will show up in the column, too, but that won’t happen for a while.) Turner suggested the song to Newton-John, who hesitated but who also threw herself into the song. Newton-John recorded “Physical” with John Farrar, her regular producer, who’d been smart enough to pivot away from the sonics of her ’70s soft-rock days, moving her toward an amorphous kind of dance-pop instead.

There’s no real genre name for what “Physical” is, which is a real indictment of that era’s music critics. It’s not disco, and it’s not rock. Instead, “Physical” fits into a sleek, pulsating early-’80s dance-pop mode. Slinky synths dominate, but there are tootling saxophones in the mix, too. The guitars do sparkly, angular halfway-funky things, except when they’re called upon to bust out a blazing solo. (In this case, the solo comes from Toto’s Steve Lukather. Toto bassist David Hungate plays on “Physical,” too. Toto will eventually appear in this column.) “Physical” slides into a percolating, insistent post-disco groove — exactly the right tempo, as it happens, for aerobics classes.

If you were invested in Olivia Newton-John’s public persona, then “Physical” was a big moment. On the song and in the video, Newton-John relies on the same girl-next-door sexiness that had helped make her a star in the ’70s, but she takes it into a different realm: “Let me hear your body talk.” She tells us that we’re bringing out the animal in her. But the whole time, she sounds happy and flirty — an internal push-pull dynamic that runs through the song.

The video is a small masterpiece of cartoonish early-MTV nonsense. Everything shines — the walls, the treadmills, the muscles. Newton-John does Benny Hill-level slapstick and gets into some light body-shaming. While she’s taking an ultra-pornographic shower, all the dudes in her gym magically transform into musclemen. But then — “Call Me Maybe” plot twist — they’re more into each other than into Newton-John. (Originally, MTV cut out the ending because it was too gay. MTV was not always the progressive influence that it sometimes pretended to be.)

All these decisions were extremely canny, and yet as a straight-up piece of music, “Physical” leaves me a little cold. In its shiny and insistent grooves, we can hear echoes of the Michael Jackson and Madonna ultra-pop anthems that would follow. But Newton-John’s whole charming-and-approachable vibe doesn’t have the same force of personality as the transcendent stars who would come up with their own versions of that style. The hook is slight and repetitive. The beat slinks effectively but never takes command. It’s all just somehow not enough.

This year, Dua Lipa came out with her own single “Physical,” which references the Olivia Newton-John track of the same name. (Lipa’s song doesn’t sample or interpolate Newton-John’s, which is why it’s not in the Bonus Beats section.) Lipa’s track is built around the same glossy post-disco grooves, and its video is built around the same kitschy workout scenarios. But Lipa sound hungry in ways that Newton-John just doesn’t. The difference throws a problem with the Newton-John song into relief: It just doesn’t have enough intensity or drama working for it. (Dua Lipa’s “Physical,” however, is nowhere near as big a hit as the Newton-John song. As I write this, Lipa’s “Physical” has peaked at #60. Dua Lipa’s highest-charting single, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)

But even if it doesn’t have the dramatic stakes that I might want, “Physical” was easily the biggest hit of Newton-John’s career. It was also the last of her five #1 singles. Newton-John’s career as a hitmaker didn’t last much longer. Her final top-10 single was 1983’s “Twist Of Fate,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.) “Twist Of Fate” came from the soundtrack of Two Of A Kind, the movie where Newton-John reunited with her Grease co-star John Travolta. The movie bombed, and Newton-John never took on another big film role.

But though Newton-John faded from the mainstream, both in pop and film, she’s led an interesting life. She’s beaten breast cancer several times, starting in the early ’90s. She’s become an activist for women’s health and environmental causes. She’s been married a few times, and one of her husbands presumably died when his boat was lost at sea. She’s 71 now, and she still looks great. She seems like a nice lady, and she had a hell of a chart run.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Bill Murray was the first guest on the first episode of Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, and he ended his appearance by doing a physically exaggerated performance of “Physical.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the unrecognizable industrial dance cover of “Physical” that the Ministry side project Revolting Cocks released in 1992:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Steve Carrell and Amy Ryan singing “Physical” as “Ethical” and doing a whole dance routine for it on a 2008 episode of The Office:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Olivia Newton-John and Jane Lynch parodying the “Physical” video on a 2010 episode of Glee:

(The Glee cast’s highest-charting single is their 2009 version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Juliana Hatfield’s video for her cover of “Physical,” from her 2018 album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John:

THE 10S: Journey’s timeless cheap-seats wailer “Don’t Stop Believin'” peaked at #9 — five spots below the aforementioned Glee version — behind “Physical.” It’s a feeling I want to hold onto, and it’s a 10:

more from The Number Ones