No pain, no gain – looking back at the golden age of the workout LP.
The instructional LP has had a long and often eccentric existence. For many years, spoken-word documentaries, how-tos and reference guides jostled for space in the record racks with the latest pop hits and every so often, they would break through to become a genuine global phenomenon. In 1982, Jane Fonda produced her first Workout book and LP – while the video version of the Jane Fonda Workout is perhaps the best-known version, this would come along after the record and was strictly for those who had money to burn – VHS tapes were an expensive proposition and in 1982, the video version cost $59.95 – equivalent to $179 today. Of course, you could rent the tape but then your aerobic instruction would be limited to a day or two. Both the book and the record were probably more within the average household’s budget.
The Jane Fonda Workout was an immediate hit – the record was certified double platinum in 1984, having shifted two million copies and the project was probably seminal in helping shift public opinion towards the ever-controversial Fonda, who had upset many Americans with her anti-Vietnam War activism that had often crossed over from protesting the war to supporting the Vietcong. It launched the 1980s workout fashion of leg warmers and leotards and spawned countless imitators.
It wasn’t the first workout record, of course – they’d been around since the 1950s but were often rather prosaic affairs featuring fitness experts barking orders at the listener. These were, in fact, probably more authentic exercise regimes than Fonda’s but they were rarely fun listens and often came up against the curse that would follow the exercise record into the 1980s – having someone describe an exercise is just not the same as having someone show it to you. Listening to a workout record is often an act of faith and you never quite know if what you are doing is what the instructor is telling you to do. Fonda, of course, had the book to accompany the double LP so listeners could consult the illustrations (many albums would also come with an instructional booklet). She also had something else that was missing from earlier recordings – a soundtrack of pop and soft rock hits from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Quincey Jones, which helped blur the line between exercise and dance. The workout would forever be tracked with upbeat music and exaltation to “feel the burn” from now on.
The success of Fonda’s workout saw an explosion in recordings and pop culture references – the latter taking in everything from Olivia Newton-John’s Physical to the movie Perfect. It’s a matter of conjecture just how many of the various workout LPs and VHS tapes that emerged in the wake of Fonda’s production were being bought by the same people – you might think that with millions of sales, everyone who wanted a workout album had already bought one. But the 1980s producers had discovered the two things that helped sell new releases – celebrity and sex appeal.
Celebrity culture in the early 1980s was not what it is now, but it was still definitely a thing and if there was a recognisable face/voice attached to the project, it was certainly going to sell better. It seemed for a while that any celebrity who wasn’t grossly unfit and unhealthy was signed up to produce a record or a video – or both. And even the ‘fit and healthy’ part wasn’t a complete necessity – George Best, the former footballer turned full-time alcoholic, even got to co-present one with his partner Mary Stavin. This was part of the Shape Up and Dance series that ran for several volumes between 1982 and 1984 in the UK, featuring a baffling selection of household names that ranged from Generation Game hostess Isla St Clair, actresses Felicity Kendal and Suzanne Danielle and newsreader Angela Rippon to Bucks Fizz star Jay Aston and Lulu. These LPs featured the star leading the listener through a series of rather generic exercises backed by cover versions of recent chart hits – a bit like a workout version of those old Top of the Pops LPs. The first couple of releases were big sellers but people soon twigged that the stars were simply going through the motions – these were not exercise regimes that they’d come up with themselves and a cynic might think that they probably were probably sat in a chair in a recording booth rather than in the gym working up a sweat.
The market quickly became flooded with these opportunist releases – every country had their own celebs who were willing to put credibility aside for a hefty feel and spend an afternoon talking listeners through a series of uninspired exercises. The celebrity didn’t even need to be a real person – Barbie, Miss Piggy from the Muppets and the cast of Sesame Street all recorded workout albums.
These LPs – and the video releases that would supersede them – were primarily aimed at women. A few, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger Full Body Workout, were pitched at male audiences but aerobics, dancercise, jazzercise and any other made-up nonsense with the word ‘cise’ appended to it were all seen as very female pursuits. Nevertheless, producers were very aware that a sexy female star in skin-tight spandex would also attract the male eye, who might be more enticed by a pouty shot of the sultry Suzanne Danielle than by a more authentic personal trainer when buying a workout LP for his other half. The use of sex to shift products to horny males would become more of a thing in the VHS era when many a male viewer would happily sit watching a top model, sexy actress or pop star stretching and pumping without having any interest in joining in the exercises with his partner. Of course, producers had to walk a fine line – the star of the show had to be sexy enough to be aspirational but not so sexy that she seemed off-putting to the target audience. The world is littered with exercise videos that didn’t get this right.
Workout videos have never really gone away but the aerobics LP now feels like a thing of the past – and their effectiveness might be judged on how many copies would already litter the charity shops and thrift stores by the middle of the 1980s. There are better ways to get fit and while you would sometimes hear tales of people who completely transformed their lives with the Fonda record or others, I suspect that such results were the exception rather than the rule. Still, I’ll admit to having a fascination with just how shamelessly opportunistic and creatively bankrupt much of this scene was.
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