You know how at the end of the movie Grease Olivia Newton-John transforms from a chaste good girl into a leather-clad vixen? She was definitely in vixen mode for this song, which if you are at all paying attention to the lyrics, is blatantly about sex: "There's nothin' left to talk about unless it's horizontally."
Olivia's real-life image was far more modest than what she portrays in this song, and she was concerned about how she would be perceived. Her managers talked her into recording it, as they knew they had a huge hit on their hands.
Songwriters Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick came up with this song, which was originally titled "Let's Get Physical." Instead of writing about the emotions of love, they decided to write this about the physical side, which many listeners found very refreshing in a pop song. Other songs Kipner helped write include "Hard Habit To Break" by Chicago and "Genie in a Bottle
" by Christina Aguilera.
The song was released about a month after MTV went on the air, so the video got a lot of spins on the new channel. In the clip, Newton-John is shown teasing fat men as they try to exercise in some kind of locker room/gym. The whole idea of the video was to distract from the fact that the song is about sex, and fat guys working out accomplished that goal.
Aerobics was just gaining popularity when the song came out, so the video jumped on the trend and included some scenes where Olivia leads a cardio routine the guys can't handle. Eventually, the schlubs are replaced by fit, muscular men who ignore Olivia and pair off, indicating that they are gay. Despite the lascivious themes, the video was a huge commercial and critical hit - it won the Grammy for Video of the Year.
This was a #1 hit in the US for an amazing 10 weeks. The only song to that point that stayed at #1 longer was Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog
." In America, it was the best-selling single of the '80s.
For nine of the 10 weeks that "Physical" topped the charts, "Waiting For A Girl Like You
" by Foreigner was the runner-up. When "Physical" did finally fall, it was replaced at #1 by "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)
" by Hall & Oates. The #2 song that week: "Waiting For A Girl Like You" for the 10th consecutive week.
A few radio stations in conservative communities (including Salt Lake City, Utah) refused to play this song because of its veiled sexual content. This just added to the song's popularity and didn't hurt Olivia's reputation as one of the least offensive women in music.
After this song was released, Newton-John appeared on a US TV special called Olivia Newton-John: Let's Get Physical, which featured this and other songs from her album, along with little skits where we got to know her better. Olivia did a great job of using her acting talents to promote her music. These TV specials got a huge audience in the days when there weren't a lot of viewing options.
The video was directed by Brian Grant, whose experience was mostly on British TV shows. It was his idea to make fun of the overtly sexual lyrics by setting the video in a gym, and the gay reveal at the end (long before "Call Me Maybe
"), was also his idea. The choreographer on the shoot was Kenny Ortega, who had worked with Newton-John on the movie Xanadu
Steve Lukather of Toto played guitar on this track. When he came in the studio to record his tracks with the album's producer, John Farrar, he thought it was hilariously lascivious, with no chance of becoming a hit. "That's going to be the big one," Farrar assured him.
This wasn't the last time Lukather misjudged a song's hit potential: He thought the Toto song "Africa
" would go nowhere.
A slow and sultry version was recorded by Kylie Minogue for the movie Moulin Rouge
, but it was cut by director Baz Luhrmann. Minogue, as the Green Fairy, was to have performed the song in the movie.
Ross - Brisbane, Australia
In 1999 remixed versions of the song (titled "Physical '99: Single Edit," "Neutron Bomb Mix," "Mustard Deep Dub," & "Mustard Full Vocal") with different vocals and an added vocal bridge were to be released in the UK, but the single was pulled at the last minute.
On her fall 2002 "Heartstrings Tour," Olivia performed an unplugged/bossa nova-style version that was a true crowd pleaser. Due to popular demand by her fans, she recorded this version of the song and included it as an unlisted "bonus" track on her Australian duets album called 2
, which was released in November 2002.
James - Minneapolis, MN, for above 2
This was used in a Tropicana Light advertisement that featured oranges exercising.
Tiffany - Dover, FL
In a survey by Billboard
magazine based on each song's performance on the Hot 100 chart, "Physical" was named the #1 Sexiest Song Of All Time. The runner-up was Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night
," followed by Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love To You
" in third place.
The Season 1 Glee episode "Bad Reputation" features a parody duet with Jane Lynch and Newton-John.
A longstanding rumor suggested that Kipner and Shaddick had Rod Stewart in mind when they wrote this, but Kipner told Pop Matters
otherwise. "I imagined someone like
Rod Stewart might record it," he clarified. Instead of going to Rod, the duo sought out another vocal powerhouse: Tina Turner.
According to Newton-John's 2019 memoir, Don't Stop Believin'
, Kipner and Shaddick offered the song to Turner, but she thought the lyrics were too sexy and suggested they give it to Newton-John instead. A few years later, Turner had a hit with an even more provocative number: "Private Dancer
In The Office episode "Business Ethics" (2008), Holly and Michael use this song to open their business ethics meeting, singing, "Let's get ethical, ethical."
This lends its name to the 2021 Apple TV+ series Physical, starring Rose Byrne as an insecure housewife who discovers herself through the aerobics craze of the '80s. Despite its influence, the song doesn't appear on the show, but - aside from the pilot - the episode titles are introduced with a variation of "Let's Get…" as a nod to the lyrics. (The second episode is called "Let's Get Political.")