Olivia Newton John has had a kangaroo's pouch worth of hits during her career. And by far the biggest was Physical, which began its first of 10 weeks atop Billboard's "Hot 100" the week of Nov. 16, 1981. The song created controversy because, despite its catchy bubblegum beat, its lyrics were suggestive - at least by 1981 standards (this was the same year Sheena Easton's saccharine-sweet Morning Train was a big hit!).
Sure, salacious songs weren't uncommon in the R&B, disco or rock genres, but top-40 pop was a different matter. Some parents were a bit unsettled to hear little Sally innocently singing lyrics like, "there's nothin' left to talk about unless it's horizontally". But despite the song being stigmatized as "raunch pop" by some, Billboard Magazine reported it was the most popular song of the 80s. (Nearly 30 years later ONJ appeared in an episode of Glee in its first season and performed Physical with Sue Sylvester.)
A part of the song that still sticks with me was a wolf howling in the background as Olivia sang "let's get animal, animal". However, after buying the album I was surprised to discover that the howling was added by the radio station I listened to, New York's WKTU. In addition to the racy lyrics the accompanying video had a gay twist at the end. This didn't create much of a stir, probably because cable penetration was still very low (MTV had been on the air for just four months) and 24/7 digital media (such as You Tube) was still a generation away.
And although I like the song just fine, it's not one of my favorite ONJ efforts. So what are my top 5? They are: Deeper Than the Night (it just missed the top-10 on the Billboard Hot 100); Xanadu (a cheesy delight); A Little More Love (sexy but not blatantly so like Physical); If You Love Me Love Me Know (one of her first); and Hopelessly Devoted to You (always brings back memories from the movie Grease of Sandy singing it while looking into the wading pool as the face of John Travolta's character Danny appears - ah, young love!).
A year later Diana Ross released the single Muscles (written and produced by Michael Jackson), which also had masculine physicality as its theme. However, unlike Physical, it was slinkier and more sensual - and nowhere near the mainstream hit Physical was (it peaked at #10). But its "camp" factor made it very popular among "the gays".