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You can stop the music: The trouble with the Village People

Let’s get this straight from the start. It may be Pride Month but let nobody tell you that the Village People are not iconic, magnetic, and a little problematic. Indeed, if you’ve just the tiniest modicum of taste you would be forgiven for dismissing the camp combo as a cheesy novelty act. 

Young man or woman, I was once in your shoes, because I used to dismiss these steroidal stereotypes with a mixture of vehemence and indifference that these days seems to be reserved almost exclusively for Madonna. Let me explain.

The Village People were a hoot — in the same way that Boney M or Milli Vanilli were a hoot. Here were a posse of proudly ‘gay’ studmuffins singing chesty anthems whose subtexts were actually the whole text. The band reached astronomical heights with their theatrical and catchy music as they skyrocketed to fame, and they became the first disco band to play sports arenas before Earth, Wind and Fire, Chic and the Bee Gees; that’s no mean feat.

Among this massively manufactured band’s generic catalogue stand three or four songs that are among the most recognisable of the disco era, each of them lustful odes to queer community and spirit. In other words, vibrant expressions of one’s base desires. And about as subtle as a sledgehammer. All aboard.

The sexual politics of the 1970s were way more complex than people remember. The Stonewall Riots that kicked off on the day I was born in June 1969 brought the systematic oppression of gay and lesbian people into the national consciousness for the first time, and by the turn of the decade, what had long been underground was beginning to be celebrated in the mainstream. 

In just a few years, the Kinks scored a Top 10 hit with the transgender anthem Lola, androgynous switch-hitters Lou Reed and David Bowie made the big time while redefining sexual exploration. And in cinematic terms, cult classics like Cabaret, Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show explored themes of fluid sexuality while thrusting what would now be considered gender non-conforming non-binary characters centre stage.

Amazingly, these colourful campers influenced rockers as disparate as Queen, U2, the Rolling Stones and Judas Priest, as well as being covered by Adam And The Ants and, most famously, the Pet Shop Boys. 

Putting the obvious into dance music, the camp combo was the brainchild of a pair of Casablanca-born Frenchmen ­– Jacques Morali (gay) and Henri Belolo (not gay) –  an expat producing team who became New York City boys on a mission to break into the US market. In 1977, Morali and Belolo chanced upon a demo tape from a black American actor who’d been in the original Broadway production of The Wiz, real-life son of a preacher man Victor Willis.

Duly impressed, Willis became the vocalist on a quartet of disco ditties the pair were helming, with Belolo predominantly writing lyrics and Morali the music. Named after the residents of New York’s then uber-gay Greenwich Village, the “album” entitled Village People runs to a paltry 22 minutes, ie half the duration of a standard LP.

Nonetheless, the four songs became mainstays on the turntables of the emerging club scene. The disco craze was in full swing, and suddenly the Village People was at the centre of it all. Only there was one small problem. Although the group was called Village People, there wasn’t actually a group at all – only Willis and a bunch of faceless studio musicians.

With stage shows and the increasingly popular promotional video in mind, Morali and Belolo placed ads in the Village Voice which read “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache.”

The inspiration was simple: an assembly of archetypes based on the costumed horny hunks of the Village who frequently dressed in fantasy attire — seductive symbols of American masculinity looking for a good time, and how. 

Rounding out the line-up was a Cowboy (Randy Jones), a guy dressed in seductive black leather (Glenn Hughes), a Native American (Felipe Rose), a “hot” cop (Willis), a construction worker (David Hodo) and a soldier (Alex Briley). 

There was no denying the joyously sleazy and seditious nature of the group’s music, even if it turned out not all its members were into bumming. But as Jones remembered in a 2008 interview with Spin, it was the “black, Latin and gay underground clubs” that were first to latch on to the poppers rush of beat, meat and more beat.

Treading a gossamer thin line between overstatement and overstatement, the Village People sang about obvious gay meccas like Fire Island, Key West and the minor hit that was San Francisco (You’ve Got Me) – a 45 which also made 45 in Blighty in December ’77 as Wings’ Mull Of Kintyre was sending everyone on a pre-Christmas snooze. 

The follow-up, 1978’s Macho Man, marked the start of the group the way most people remember it — openly embracing an unrepentantly LGB identity – when it could be a perilous thing to do – and simultaneously managed to conjure up ear worm wonders that even the most strident opponents of what they stand for have been happily singing along with them for decades. 

Virtually every track on the LP combines straight-ahead disco beats and funky horn lines with tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps tongue on the floor) celebrations of the sexiness of blokes and their bodies, as well as full-throated defences of gay identity. “It’s so hot, my body… you’ll adore my body, come explore my body” sang Willis on the album’s title track before launching into the shouted refrain about being a Macho Man.

Almost immediately upon its release, Macho Man was everywhere. The Muppets sang it on their telly show, and it’s appeared in innumerable times on the big and small screen in the following decades. Hell, it was even used by the orange ogre himself, the not exactly gay-friendly Donald Trump, at campaign events. One can only laugh hysterically at how much the cloth-eared bint’s missed the irony of the lyrics there.

I mean, check out these ridiculous yet tongue-in-cheek calls to guns, I mean arms. 

“Every man wants to be a macho, macho man

To have the kind of body always in demand

Joggin’ in the mornings, go man go

Workouts in the health spa, muscles grow

You can best believe me, he’s a macho man

Glad he took you down with anyone you can

Hey! Hey! Hey, hey, hey!

Macho, macho man 

I gotta be a macho man”

Well, I guess they won’t be winning any Pulitzer Prizes just yet. Still, it’s this happy subversion that powered their pop and means we are still talking about them almost half a century later. Even if, to be candid, on the musical talent scale, the Village People are nestled, tongues firmly in several cheeks, somewhere in between Bucks Fizz and Baccara.

Still, one Frederick Lucan of Mercury took the nudge-nudge, wink-wink lyrics a little too seriously and, after becoming a regular at the notorious Mineshaft niterie, not only remade his image to look like Glenn Hughes’s Leatherman kinkster but wilfully incorporated deliciously dirty dance floor grooves in Another One Bites The Dust and especially the discofied bacchanalia of his band’s tenth album — 1982’s Hot Space, a musical identity crisis that which lost Queen half their audience overnight.

Formerly a skinny little shy camp thing, Mercury had, like many homos and narcissists, cottoned on to the burgeoning gym craze designed to get you laid, see. 

Enter the YMCA.

The Village People’s most famous hit was inspired by Jacques Morali seeing “the big pink YMCA on 23rd [Street, seen in the background of the song’s video],” because, as a  Frenchman, Morali had never heard of the YMCA. After it was explained to him that the attraction for gay men wasn’t necessarily the temporary accommodation the Young Men’s Christian Association provide but that their buildings often have subsidised gym facilities with easy access for all, Hodo, the “tradie” of the group recalls that “someone joked, ‘Yeah, but don’t bend over in the showers.’ And Jacques, bless his heart, said, ‘I will write a song about this!’” 

“He was fascinated by a place where a person could work out with weights, play basketball, swim, take classes, and get a room. Plus, with Jacques being gay, I had a lot of friends I worked out with who were in the adult film industry, and he was impressed by meeting people he had seen in the videos and magazines. Those visits with me planted a seed in him, and that’s how he got the idea for YMCA.” — Randy Jones (the cowboy) talking to Spin in 2008

A humungous hit was born, and it didn’t take long before my middle school bestie Andy Goldberg and I escaped to the Springfield common room to sing filthy replacement lyrics into the school tape recorder. Something about “sucking your cock” and other choice filth. We didn’t know it at the time but we were the Milton Keynes answer to Morali (me, gay) and Belolo (Andy, not gay).

The fun yet relentlessly gaudy YMCA remains inescapable to this day, providing manufactured glee at everything from bar mitzvahs to baseball games. Such is the popularity of the attendant dance moves spelling out the letters that gives the song its name, I’ve seen no end of revellers “perform” the song, including scores of testosterone-fuelled soccer supporters take over my then local in West Hampstead. (Conveniently close to the Jubilee Line that whisks you from Wembley to Central London, The Railway had been the ’60s haunt of two Davids that started life in 1947 — Bowie and Pafford, I Laughing Gnome you not.)

In hindsight, there’s something brilliantly disruptive about such a flamboyantly and brazenly “gay” act attaining such popularity in the late seventies, let alone earn household-name status within months of their formation. So what if YMCA has become an assinine beer boy dance divorced from its subversive subtext of gay liberation? The beat goes on, and each generation throws up new believers. Or maybe just their barrel of Stella.

Such was the Village People’s popularity on both sides of the Atlantic that ahead of a No. 2 placing in their homeland,  YMCA went one better in Britain and camped out in pole position at the top of the charts for three weeks in January 1979 before being deposed by, with delicious irony, by Ian Dury’s Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

The follow-up, In The Navy, kept performed similar feat — a No. 3 in the US but in the UK it was only kept from the top spot by Gloria Gaynor’s immovable I Will Survive. 

Go West, the title track of the Village People’s fourth studio album, stands out as among the troupe’s most famous songs, even though their commercial decline had already taken hold

Released not ll that long after the staunch conservative cake face Anita Bryant launched her despicable Save Our Children campaign, — which became the blueprint for the next 30 years of anti-LGBT politics — Go West was a passionate, lustful ode to queer community and spirit that imagined a westbound utopia free of homophobia and discrimination. 

The rousing choral chantery of “Together!”—blasting over joyous horns and hi-hats—don’t just describe a man and his lover, but all those who don’t identify as heterosexual yearning to find their tribe and flourish in the sun, Californian or otherwise. 


Ultimately, I think the trouble I have with the Village People is that the sweet sand passage of time has romanticised the past and dulled folk’s memories of what was considered good music 45 years ago and what was regarded as gimmicky pantomime. The VP’s were definitely panto, and, let ’s face it, more comical than sexy, yet I’m sure they knew it.

There was nothing innovative or artistically trendsetting about them. And when in doubt as to whether being in a so-called gay bubble may affect one’s judgment about something, what better than to solicit the opinion of a heterosexual woman, ie my mother, even if I didn’t ask for it.

One day in the noughties, I was playing the Pet Shop Boys’ PopArt hits DVD at home with Mum visiting. She does like early PSB and even owns their Discography collection, but when she heard 1999’s New York City Boy she started laughing hysterically. When I enquired as to the reason for the merriment she said, pointedly

“It sounds like the Village People!”

Being all factual, I told her it was intentional and that the duo had earlier covered Go West, and made it much more famous second time round. Just one word was the bemused response that forced me to evaluate whether the Village People were actually any good.


From that day on I find it so hard to listen to the Village People without being reminded of that day.

Legacy forever tarnished. Maybe it is time to stop the music.

Steve Pafford


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