Review: “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John (Vinyl, 1981)

Today’s Pop Rescue from an uncertain future, is the 1981 eleventh album Physical by British-Australian singer and actress, the late Olivia Newton-John. Will this album leave you feeling pumped, or will it give you cramps? Read on…

Olivia Newton-John - Physical (1981) album
Olivia Newton-John – Physical (1981) album

The LP opens with Landslide, sliding in with an air of urgency thanks to a siren-like synth and clattering drum fills. Olivia is soon on the microphone and her vocals flow effortlessly – able to show her vocal power alongside her breathy beauty with ease. There’s a slightly odd melody in this song during the verse that makes it feel a little bit meandering but by the time that the chorus comes along it sets you right again as Olivia shares how love hit her. This was the album’s second single, giving her a moderate #18 UK hit.

Strangers Touch follows this and the guitars and bass set us up for a nice mid-tempo love song. The vocals in this otherwise warm and tender track sound great, with Olivia joined by the album’s co-writer and musician John Farrar. The chorus lets Olivia really belt out the vocals with power, giving a nice contrast to the softer music.

That’s followed by Make A Move On Me and this is a bouncy pop song from the outset. The ‘making a move’ also fits closely thematically with the later seductive Physical track. The brushed drums and the synth keep the sound moving along as well as light on its toes, and they act as the perfectly complimenting platform from where Olivia’s breathy vocals project. This is a great song, and thankfully was released as the album’s third and final single, but sadly it stalled in the UK – getting stuck at #43.

Next up is Falling and this is a slow number. Here, Olivia’s vocals feel ‘tiny’ and delicate. She’s joined by some more really nice vocal harmonies and backing vocals from John (who had previously recorded and released the song on his own solo album in 1980, alongside later track here – Recovery). Whilst it feels tiny and delicate, the track does evolve slightly as more guitars and synths are added, but it’s slow and it doesn’t really end up anywhere new.

Love Make Me Strong is the final track of Side One, and this returns us to a nice upped tempo. There’s a nice energy brewing here and Olivia exhibits some stronger, louder, and more rock-ish vocals as the song builds. This culminates to a point where it almost sounds like Olivia is demanding to be made strong by love – as if to overcome some deadly hateful foe. Again, this fits well alongside the theme in Physical, which is just as well because…

… flip the record over and Side Two opens with lead single and titular track Physical. This song is laden with sexualised lyrics, and a video that was somewhat fun and controversial (at the time) for its scantily-clad men, body rubbing, and then finally the realisation that four of the now muscle-bound men are leaving the gym holding hands. Even the swaggering bass guitar sounds like it wants to lead you off to the bedroom with its sultry performance that’s only outdone by Olivia’s vocals and seductive lyrics. A guitar solo towards the end delivers the shot of testosterone in response to Olivia’s request to ‘hear your body talk’ – it growls obediently. It’s hard to imagine this song being performed by anyone else, but it was originally intended for Rod Stewart, and later declined by Tina Turner before landing at Olivia’s door.

Silvery Rain is next – a cover of the Hank Marvin penned track that first featured on one of Hank’s albums and later released as a moderate hit by Cliff Richard. The track starts off with its descending bass line and guitars that make it sound like it’s actually some kind of Beatles demo. It’s even hauling a narrative with it. The song then suddenly erupts almost unexpectedly with a shot of energy towards the end, but by then it’s too late.

Following that is Carried Away, and if you hadn’t realised that Barry Gibb (of Bee Gees) was one of the co-writers, then you might have made a guess, as it instantly sounds like a Bee Gee track. It’s a mid-tempo gentle song with plenty of vocal layers and harmonies. You can often hear what sounds like the Bee Gees singing alongside Olivia, but they’re not credited here. Instead John Farrar is given backing duties and he’s got a vocoder to play with, which perhaps affords us of a cheaper illusion. The track was apparently written by Gibb for Barbra Streisand, but she rejected it… and the track thankfully landed at Olivia’s door.

Second John Farrar cover Recovery follows this and it soon gives us some lovely marimba, adding to the opening claim that Olivia is living ‘on an island, far away, all by myself‘. This is another song that makes me think of the Bee Gees, but there’s no credit here either. The song evolves perfectly thanks to the songwriting of John and Olivia’s great pop vocal performance.

Part of the LP artwork documents the relationship between Olivia and a dolphin, so naturally The Promise (The Dolphin Song) written solely by Olivia, showcases that friendship. The track opens with waves crashing on the shores of Santa Monica, and then we hear the dolphins click and sing. Olivia joins in, not with clicking and dolphin tones, but with a genuine sense of heartfelt tenderness that carries her environmental dolphin-friendly song well. It’s a pretty simple song, and that works well, as the waves come crashing back in, so do the dolphins, and as it fades out you imagine Olivia being carried off to live as Queen in some kind of fantasy dolphin world beneath the waves.

Oliva Newton-John’s lead and titular single ‘Physical’ (1981)

Verdict

Over all, this album is kind of made of two halves. It’s a balance of the well written and well sung pop ballad and a breathy seductive statement.

Whilst Landslide isn’t the best starting point for the album, it’s opening urgency works well. That soon gives over to a solid pop performance from Olivia and there are many high points here – chiefly Physical, which perhaps overshadows the rest of the album with it’s sexual innuendo, but also Make A Move On Me, Love Make Me Strong, and Carried Away. These are precisely what you need to hear from Olivia, who at this point was in the midst of a successful music career.

The low points are mostly just dull points. The Silvery Rain cover feels boring until the guitar kicks in towards the end to give it a shot of energy, and Farrar’s Falling feels more like Failing due to the boredom that it induces.

Sadly, we already had this album reviewed and queued-up to go when Olivia’s death was announced. We’d like to think that she is now somewhere in that dolphin world beneath the waves with her friends, ruling them well, if perhaps a little bit sexily. So, good night Olivia. Thank you for visiting.

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2022 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 1981 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: #11, certified Gold by the BPI.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £1.28 from a Discogs.com seller.

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