Yesterday Olivia Newton-John aged 73 passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California. For most Australians she wasn’t just another performer, she was Australian royalty, a pop music icon and role model to thousands of young women. Her tireless work as an advocate for cancer awareness earned her gratitude and respect from around the world maybe even more so than her career as an entertainer. It’s fair to say everyone who came into her orbit was deeply moved by her, maybe no more so than by her lifelong friend John Travolta, who was forever paying tribute to Olivia’s humanitarian spirit and love of life. Even his touching Instagram tribute upon the announcement of her passing shows the love he often showered upon her for over some forty years: “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”
For this writer there are two images of Olivia that will forever stay in my mind or memory. The first is of her dancing as Sadie with John Travolta at the conclusion of the 1978 film Grease and the second is the image of Olivia on the album artwork of her eleventh studio album Physical. The album’s title track in particular cemented her legacy as a pop icon forever. Physical hit number one in Australia and spent a massive 10 weeks at #1 on the US Billboard charts. In hindsight now I somewhat regret not including the 1981 banger in my list of the 10 Best Songs of the 80s.
In 2017, Olivia spoke with Entertainment Weekly about her song Physical. She said: “I recorded it and then suddenly thought, “Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!” It was a bit raunchier than I realized. I called Roger and said, “We’ve got to pull this song!” He said, “It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.” I was horrified! [Laughs] I said, “Oh, wow…um…yeah…okay…well, maybe we should do a video and it should be about exercise — yeah! That’s it! Let’s make it about working out!”
While Physical’s music video (with its huge dollop of comedic flair) did its best to deflect attention away from its sizzling innuendo with lyrics like “I took you to an intimate restaurant / Then to a suggestive movie / There’s nothing left to talk about / Unless it’s horizontally”, I believe it created an unintentional new storm. Despite that, there is no denying that the song and video were a huge success. Interestingly the title tracks sexed-up lyrics caused it to be banned in several countries and in the process forever changed the girl next door image she attained during the 1970s upon the success of her 1974 ballad I Honestly Love You.
While there is a lot more to say about Olivia’s career and life, artistically Physical is the closest thing to being Olivia’s signature song. The song’s whopping guitar solo performed by Steve Lukather of Toto fame is a standout, as was Olivia’s unique voice as a storyteller.