Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” would hardly make anyone blush in the ’90s, but in 1981, it was naughty enough to earn rock’s highest accolade: a radio boycott. Before it even hit the top of the charts on Nov. 21, the perky, ultra-wholesome blond’s million-selling single had made hot headlines when two Utah radio stations banned it for having obscene lyrics like “There’s nothing left to talk about/’Less it’s horizontally.” After receiving numerous complaints, Provo’s KFMY-FM and Salt Lake City’s KSL-FM (owned by the Mormon church) refused to program the hit. “The lyrics are more suggestive than most songs,” said the station’s program manager. “It goes the one additional step.”
The British-born, Australia-raised Newton-John, then 33, seemed the least likely person to rouse sexual controversy. For 10 years she had parlayed her breathy soprano and sunny persona into such cotton-candy tunes as “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Magic.” Nice-girl movie roles in Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980) had reinforced her white-bread image. She even performed “Physical” on stage less as a sexy vamp than as a tribute to aerobics, wearing workout clothes and wielding a jump rope — a routine mercilessly parodied by Bill Murray on the first Late Night With David Letterman in 1982.
While “Physical” may not have been an artistic breakthrough, it was surely a personal one for Newton-John, giving her the confidence to shake her Goody Two-shoes image. “By the time we recorded ‘Physical,’ I was ready to be more daring,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid any longer to open up.”
And open up she did. In 1984, she married soap-opera actor Matt Lattanzi, 10 years her junior, and posed topless (well, there was a strategically placed scarf) on the cover of her 1985 album, Soul Kiss. One of its songs, “Culture Shock,” was about a ménage à trois.
Since the “Physical” flap, Newton-John has made bigger headlines off stage. Last year, she scooped the tabloids by announcing she had breast cancer. “I am making this information public myself,” she said, ever cheerful, “to save ‘enquiring minds’ 95 cents.” After a partial mastectomy, she has fully recovered and lives with Lattanzi and their daughter, Chloe, 7, in Malibu (their home was reportedly untouched by the fires) and Australia. She’s also working on songs for a new album, which isn’t likely to signal a return to her “Physical” look. “People like seeing me as I am,” she said recently. “The girl next door.”