G.O.A.T.: Two For One: Physical by Olivia Newton John and Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Karnes (1981)


THE GREATEST OF ALL TUNES (G.O.A.T.) is a series of posts, producing my 100 favorite songs of all time.  The master list is here, and I update it about every two weeks or when I have another 10 songs or so. Today, I’m doing a whole bunch of GOATs all in a row. A bunch of posts, a bunch of cover versions!

Why two songs in one post?  Because they are tied, according to Billboard, as the best-selling, most-played songs in the United States for the decade of 1980-1989.  That’s a surprise, right?  Because lots of ‘80s songs have stood the test of time and get airplay to this day, but these two songs…Not so much. Also, as you’ll see below, Kylie Minogue covered both of these tunes.

Physical was a very, very silly song.  Olivia Newton-John is best known as Sandra Dee from the movie version of Grease—a girl who was so prudish she had to dress in leather and become a slut to attract her man, who, in turn, was willing to be a geek to get in her pants.  Ah, High School love.

It was curious that Newton-John was willing to record Physical.  It was an overtly sexual song, a big break from her other hits like Have You Ever Been Mellow and I Honestly Love You—so much so, in fact, that it was actually written for Rod “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” Stewart.  But she managed to co-opt the content in the video, which was basically her in stretch pants working out.  There was a controversial “shower scene” in the video, but in the end it turns out all the guys she was rubbing herself on were gay.  Seriously.  Watch it.  It’s fantastic.  It was also the first video watched by Beavis and Butthead—but they changed over to The Ramones in the middle.

As for Bette Davis Eyes, it was actually a Jackie “What the World Needs Now Is Love/He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” DeShannon song (she co-wrote it and recorded it back in 1974), but it was Kim Carnes who made it famous.  Carnes’ version made an unintentional allusion to prostitution.  Jackie DeShannon’s lyric was “she knows what it takes to make a crow blush,” but when Carnes was given the song to record the lyrics were transcribed as “pro blush.”  Most people sing it the way Carnes did because, hey, it’s just better.

Further listening: For Newton-John, I’m a fan of If You Love Me Let Me Know, Please Mr. Please, Magic, and Twist of Fate.  It’s guilty pleasures, though, so I can’t say any of them are GOATs.  (Except maybe Magic.)  For Carnes, this is her sole GOAT.

Cover versions:  Physical was the subject of its own tribute album in 2007 sponsored by WeSC (a Swedish clothes designer), which released an album of nothing of but this song covered by a ton of bands you’ve never heard of except maybe for The Black Ghosts and the A*Teens (recording under an alias).  There have been many other versions, too, including Olivia Newton-John’s own reworking of the song as a Bossa Nova.  Some of my favorites are below.  Bette Davis Eyes was covered by the Chipmunks.  And others.  Kylie Minouge covered BOTH of these songs.  Honestly, the things you learn when you research blog posts.  Check it out:

Physical: I’m starting with Olivia’s own bossa nova version. It makes me sad that her plastic surgery looks so painful.

Victor Willis (ex-Village People) also covered it. I couldn’t find the video, though.

And just to change it all up, here’s Revolting Cocks’ version.

And a few more, closing with a sadly bad copy of a great version by a superstar comic.

Bette Davis Eyes:

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