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2013/03/01

Acquired Tastes, XXXV: The Village People

Introduction:

Last week, while researching the previous chapter of the Acquired Tastes series (Gay Erotic Illustrations, XXXIV), I happened on an image that inspired this week’s topic.  The Google search had to do with ‘gay erotic cartoons’, and up popped an image of The Village People.  It was a cute cartoon version that presented the group members as ‘little people’, like something that ABC TV would have picked up for a Saturday morning cartoon show (can you imagine!).  The image spoke to me. One of the facets of The Village People is their image.  It’s iconic and originated as a visual representation of the people who populated the then relatively ‘unknown’ (by the general populace) underground gay club scene. 

The first album cover literally featured people from the street.  The group itself was formed after the first album had been released and only because it had struck a commercial cord right out of the box.  It was an image that launched a very (briefly) successful enterprise that continues to this day and whose impact regarding the acceptance of gay men and the gay lifestyle is still being sociologically quantified to this day.  Love them or hate them, their legacy is undeniable.

So, let’s look beyond the cheesy tired beats, the frequently lame lyrics, the clownish attire, the glitz, the glamour, the shtick, the kitsch, and examine the enduring appeal, historical relevance, and sociological impact of…

The Village People

Scope of Activity:

An appreciation for the music and cultural impact of this iconic music group; a group with strong ties to the gay community and the disco movement. 

The Official Line:

I was going to include the entry from Allmusic.com, but found it dismissive, poorly written, and inaccurate.  Instead:

From Wikipedia

The group was the creation of Jacques Morali, a French musical composer. He had written a few dance tunes (The Ritchie Family) when he was given a demo tape recorded by singer/actor Victor Willis. Morali approached Willis and told him, “I had a dream that you sang lead on my album and it went very, very big”. Willis agreed to sing on the first album, Village People.

It was a success, and demand for live appearances soon followed. Morali and his business partner, Henri Belolo (under the collaboration Can't Stop Productions) hastily built a group of dancers around Willis to perform in clubs and on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. As Village People's popularity grew, Morali, Belolo, and Willis saw the need for a permanent group. They took out an ad in a music trade magazine which read: ‘Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache.’

Morali met the first recruit, Felipe Rose (Native American), on the streets of Greenwich Village. Rose was a bartender who wore jingle bells on his boots. He was invited to take part in the sessions for the first album. Alex Briley (who started as an athlete, but eventually took on the soldier persona) was Willis's friend. The others, Mark Mussler (construction worker), Dave Forrest (cowboy), Lee Mouton (leather man) and Peter Whitehead (one of the group's early songwriters) appeared on American Bandstand and in the video for the group's first hit, ‘San Francisco (You Got Me)’. They were later replaced by David Hodo, Randy Jones and Glenn Hughes, who all had more experience as actors/singers/dancers. Hughes had first been spotted as a toll collector at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Because Morali could not speak English, songwriters Phil Hurtt and Peter Whitehead were brought in to write the lyrics for the first album. However, Willis wrote the lyrics to the group's biggest hits, including ‘Y.M.C.A.’, ‘Macho Man,’ ‘Go West’, and ‘In the Navy,’ and for other Can't Stop Productions acts such as Ritchie Family and Patrick Juvet. Likewise, Gypsy Lane (the Village People band) and their conductor, Horace Ott, provided much of the musical arrangements for Morali, who did not play any instruments.

The band's name refers to New York City's Greenwich Village, at the time known for its large gay population. Morali and Belolo decided to create a group of stereotypes based on the gay men of Greenwich Village, who often dressed in fantasy attire.

‘Macho Man’ brought them mainstream attention, and their 1978 recording ‘Y.M.C.A.’ became one of the most popular hits of the 1970s.

In 1979, the United States Navy decided to use ‘In the Navy’ in a television and radio recruiting campaign. Belolo offered them the rights for free if the Navy would help them film the music video. The Navy provided them access to the San Diego Navy base, where the USS Reasoner (FF-1063), several aircraft, and the crew of the ship would be used. The Navy canceled the campaign after a short time.

The group's fame peaked in 1979, when Village People made several appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and travelled with Bob Hope to entertain U.S. troops. They were also featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, Vol. 289, April 19, 1979. Willis left the group at the end of an international tour in 1979, and a decline in popularity followed.

Ray Simpson, brother of Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson), replaced Willis for the group's highly anticipated 1980 feature film Can't Stop the Music, directed by Nancy Walker, written by Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard, music and lyrics by Jacques Morali (although Willis penned the lyrics to ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Magic Night’) and starred Steve Guttenberg, Valerie Perrine, Jean-Claude Billmaer, Bruce Jenner, and Village People. By the time it was released, however, disco had waned and the movie won the Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay prizes at the 1980 Golden Raspberry Awards in March 1981 and was nominated in almost all the other categories. The movie itself has since become a cult favorite, developing a worldwide fan base.

The group was one of the featured guests on a November 22, 1980 episode of Love Boat, (7th episode of season 4), entitled ‘Secretary to the Stars/Julie's Decision/The Horse Lover/Gopher and Isaac Buy a Horse’. At the end of 1980, cowboy Randy Jones left the group and was replaced by Jeff Olson.

In 1981, with the popularity of disco having faded and New Wave music on the rise, Village People replaced its on-stage costumes with a new look inspired by the New Romantic movement, and released the New Wave album Renaissance. It only attracted minor, mostly negative attention and produced no hits.

Victor Willis returned to the group briefly in late 1981 for the album Fox on the Box, which was released in 1982 only in Europe but did have limited release in the United States in 1983 under the title In the Street. Miles Jaye had briefly taken over for Ray Simpson as lead singer by 1983 and contributed an extra track to In the Street. Mark Lee replaced David Hodo in 1982.

Their last album containing new material, the 1985 dance/Hi-NRG release Sex Over the Phone, was not a huge commercial success. The title track, when released as a single, was banned by the BBC because of its content.  In recent years, ‘Sex Over the Phone’ has become a cult classic. Recently, an Associated Press declared ‘Sex Over the Phone’ to be the “Citizen Kane of music videos.”  The album featured yet another new lead singer, Ray Stephens (of The Great Space Coaster fame).

In 1985, the group took a hiatus, but reunited in 1987 with the line-up of Randy Jones, David Hodo, Felipe Rose, Glenn Hughes, Alex Briley and Ray Simpson.

Psychological Aspects:

In the days before The Village People, gay people were simply not talked about all that much or acknowledged except in the large metropolitan areas - such as San Francisco, Greenwich Village, and the like.  In those locales, gay people existed in numbers large enough to be able to organize, mobilize, and have their voices heard.  But for Middle America, gay people remained an anomaly. Middle America viewed gay people on the coasts as ‘other’.  They also categorized them as a fringe population full of deviants. 

Sex, to this day, remains a powerful divider.  People are uncomfortable with it and particularly the notion of gay sex.  Gay sex is inexorably intertwined and identified with gay people. When people reject gay people, it’s not necessarily because of the gay person, but because of the sex associated with the concept of ‘being gay’.  This is why we continue to have issues with gaining acceptance for gay marriage.  When people who are not gay consider the issue, they focus on the sexual aspects and the possible implicit validation of such sexual practices.  They do not focus on the people, their capacity to love, or their need for societal validation.  Their fear of the sexual component cancels out their ability to be fair.

So, maybe it’s time The Village People make a comeback in a big way.

Well, think about it: if you want to take the fear out of something, boil that something down and create a cartoon version that is easily digestible.  The Village People accomplished just that back in the late ‘70’s.  The sloganism in their music helped further that cause.  It was simple, inoffensive, easily digestible music that was not in the slightest way, scary.   In a way, they were the perfect propaganda machine to invade the airwaves and homes of America; which is exactly what they did.

What Stonewall accomplished locally?  In a way, The Village People were able to do globally.

That’s the power of image.  And that is at the heart of the legacy of The Village People.

My Experience:

My youngest sister, two years my junior, had a copy of the third album; the one with ‘Y.M.C.A.’  She was fascinated by them and eventually would incorporate the concept of them while playing with her Barbie dolls.  Ken was the construction worker.  Action Jackson (mine) was the leather dude.  Johnny West (mine) was, of course, the cowboy (Jane, his rather mannish wife, did not approve).  Johnny’s friend, Geronimo (mine) was, of course, the Native American and my Allan doll, which I had given her quite some time ago, was the lead singer.

To put the state of her musical tastes at that time into perspective, the other ‘loves’ of her life included Sean Cassidy and Barry Manilow.  In a way, I had a healthy respect for all three musical entities (success = respect), but kept my distance.  While I appreciated the pop appeal of what all three were doing, and the songwriting of Barry Manilow, in particular, it was not the sort of thing that I could admit to liking.  My musical life at the time was all about The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, David Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and whatever else my musically adventurous best friend happened to suggest.

At the time, not only was I in a ‘rock band’, but I was also DJing high school dances. For middle schoolers, I would dig into my two youngest sister’s collections, and ‘Y.M.C.A’ was always a dance floor filler. 

I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a gay community until I saw the Village People’s first album cover.  Sad as the thought is, I didn’t learn about Stonewall until I gained unlimited access to the internet.  It wasn’t taught in school as a part of history.  Women studies?  Yes. But nothing about the liberation of gay people or the existence of a community.
 
I remember the first time I saw a Village People’s album.  It was their first album and if I remember correctly it was while going through the racks at J.C. Penny – a ritual I performed at every store I entered.  While fascinated by the image, I also knew I couldn’t be seen actually looking at it.  It felt like porn, something I was also fairly unfamiliar with at the time, but could properly identify when the opportunity arose. 

Growing up in the Midwest, I lived in a community where the word ‘gay’ was only hurled as an insult.  ‘Those people’ all lived elsewhere and were never talked about. And I know this is hard to believe, but when discussing The Village People and their music, I don’t recall anyone – ever - talking about them in terms of being ‘gay’. Not even on television. They were entertainers.  Flamboyant. Costumed characters as harmless as comic book heroes.  You see, in my community’s collective mind and way of thinking, one could not be a successful entertainer and be homosexual; the latter canceled out the former.  Being a homosexual was a one-way-ticket to failure.  This was brought home to me repeatedly by the head of my school’s drama department.  If I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, I couldn’t be ‘like that’. 

Somehow that translated to: The Village People are not really gay.  They are actors.  They are performers.  So, it was okay to listen to them and do that stupid ‘Y.M.C.A.’ dance.  Participating in this group activity was good, clean fun: the polar opposite of ‘gay’.  I mean, they were on American Bandstand, for chriss sake!  If Dick Clark’s sanitized seal of approval did not mean they were wholesome enough for mass consumption, then I don’t know what country we were living in. 

Yep, The Village People were consumed in the Midwest without any acknowledgement of what they really represented. We collectively turned a blind eye to the founding ideals at the core of the group and what they represented.  We enjoyed them as the novelty act we assumed they were.  I think that same attitude is true, in general, when examining the acceptance of disco in Middle America.  We appreciated the energy, the beats, and, ignorant of its true origins, saw it as nothing more than a harmless fad. Considering the ‘not-on-the-radar’ attitude toward gay people adopted by most of the people I came in contact with, that is not surprising.  Yes, gay people existed, but not in the Midwest.  And not on television.  Or in the movies. 

So, it’s not surprising that whenever The Village People and their music came into focus, I died a little inside.  Guilt by association, I guess.  And also, simple embarrassment.  While I was attracted by the flaunting of their sexual selves, it also made me cringe.  It struck me as crude and cartoonish.  If this was what being gay was then I wanted no part of it.  And yet, the image on that first album, remained alluring seductive, worming its way into my adolescent psyche. Something about it, beyond its potent sexuality, resonated.  Perhaps it was the sense of community that was at the heart of Jacques’ original vision that spoke to me.

As the group grew in popularity, they became less threatening and more cartoon-like.  The gay icons simply became accepted stereotypes, sanitized and homogenized for mass consumption.  Gay underground warriors reduced to show biz bullshit.  It was sad, but hardly surprising.  Did anyone really buy David Hodo as a construction worker?  And while Randy Jone’s mustache was right on the mark, was he really the gay cowboy of anybody’s dreams? And Alex Briley, tall and thin, was not what sprung to my mind when it came to ‘military might’.  Even Glenn Hughes was reduced to cuddly teddy bear, rather than the menacing dominant leather man he was meant to represent.  Only Felipe Rose’s Native American seemed remotely sexual, and that was only due to his skimpy costume and bountiful show of skin.

I reviewed some videos of the group at their peak.  There’s something grotesquely amateurish about the choreography, both in its design and execution.  But, hey, this is the ‘70’s we’re talking about.  Leisure suits were a recent thing.  Polyester (the kind that didn’t breathe) was still king.  Smarmy (Burt Reynolds) was considered ‘hot’.  So razor sharp perfection and execution was not a given, hell, it wasn’t expected at all. That said, the choreography is pretty lame, especially considering this is what these dudes did for a living.  But maybe it was designed that way on purpose; kept simple so everyone could be a village person!

It’s that same amateurishness that sank their swansong, Can’t Stop the Music.  Not only was disco on the wane and being forced underground once more, but adding to the film’s problems is its home movie like quality and poor editing.  I realize that Nancy Walker was a first time director.  I’ve heard the rumors about the set being a cocaine-fueled romp.  And I know the script and music were ‘slight’, to say the least.  I place this film in the same bin that ‘Xanadu’ goes in… a bad idea whose time had come and gone before its release date arrived.  

Oh, these boys were so NOT ‘Ready for the 80’s’

Take The Village People’s attempt at rebirth: 1981’s Renaissance.  I bought a copy for a dollar out of a cut-out bin at Woolworth’s in 1984.  I immediately became enamored with the would-be single, ‘5 O’Clock in The Morning’.  I still think it’s a great song.  I believe the dude from Toto had a hand in that track, which helps explain the song’s relative sophistication, especially when compared to the rest of the album.  The rest of the album?  I would go so far as to declare tracks like ‘Big Mac’, ‘Diet’, ‘Food Fight’, and the like - dire.   

  • Interesting Fact: Not all the members were gay.
  • Interesting Fact: Group members still insist that their music is not gay. (Really.)
  • Fun Fact:  Bruce Villanche wrote most of the lyrics for The V.P.’s album, Sex Over the Phone. I have never heard it but am curious as hell.  I’d also like to hear all of their post-success releases.
Yes, they released a few more albums after Renaissance.  They even toured as Cher’s opening act on her ‘Farewell’ tour But for all intents and purposes by the end of 1979, the bloom was off the Rose (get it), and The Village People were reduced to one-hit wonder status (despite having had three major hits).

I went so far as to buy a greatest hits collection in the early 2000’s.   I’ll be honest, the music’s appeal still escapes me and I am a HUGE fan of disco.  But then, sloganism, which I think is a category most of their music fits into, has never appealed to me.  I think that’s why I like ‘5 O’Clock in the Morning’; it had atmosphere, a couple hooks, and a story - a description that pretty much sums up the career of the Village People themselves as well.  Yes, they had atmosphere, a couple of hooks, and a story. 

And a purpose; one they accomplished quite well.

My Conclusion:

So maybe their music didn’t have all that much impact on the music world.  Maybe it can be easily dismissed as inconsequential fluff.   But the same certainly cannot be said of their impact on society as a whole. 

Yes, love them or hate them… we must give credit where credit is due.  To this day, The Village People continue to serve as ambassadors for the gay community.

Keep that in mind at the next high school reunion or wedding dance you attend, and realize that when the DJ breaks out ‘Y.M.C.A.’, hackneyed as it may seem – all those fools out there dancing? 

They’re dancing a dance that truly spells: gay liberation!





In the Navy

Y.M.C.A.

Macho Man

Sex Over the Phone

Go West

Movie Trailer for 'Can't Stop The Music'

7 comments:

SEAN said...

I love their hits - they still get me going.

Sex Over The Phone the Citizen Kane of music videos? Did he think CK was one of the worst movies ever made?

You should listen to The Pet Shop Boys version of Go West from VERY. The contrast of how the song is interpreted pre and post AIDS is haunting.

RobotJack said...

I really liked this post! I never thought much about the Village People at all. A little of what you bring up here had crossed my mind before. But, for the most part, you really put a lot of things together for me. I grew up in the middle of the country, too. And, I never thought much about the Village People being gay. My mom never told me to change the channel when they were on TV like she did when she saw me watching Billy Idol.
Also, this is really written well. Good work!

Stan said...

Great post! As someone who "came out" in the mid-70's I remember dancing in the clubs to their hits.
I always assumed at the time that they were gay.
I never really put them into the perspective as you do here until much later on.

Upton King said...

Sean... it's funny that you should mention the Pet Shop Boys version of that song. I meant to mention how that song resonated with me during my lone year living in Iowa. Their 'Very' CD was one of 5 CD's that I ran to (there was nothing else to do) so I fell in love with it then. One night, I was in Waterloo, sitting on a stool at their gay bar. This sad, young blonde boy kept going to the jukebox and playing that song over and over. It was haunting, and remains so. - Uptonking from Wonderland Burlesque

whkattk said...

For as much as a lot of people hated their music, it was catchy stuff and stayed with you. It was upbeat and fun and I think that's what Middle America focused on. As you say, the "goofy costumes" and silly choreography kept them harmless in the eyes of the average person. The lyrics didn't really sink in until later, but by then the songs were already a big hit!

The Black Centaur said...

Hi friend! Nice music! "Go West" is my favorite! In your next post, tell us about Freddy Mercury and The Queen! I love their show and their music! Love always and all ways! Kiss you! Bye bye!

Skilled4Men said...

Love how you covered so many dimensions of the group, the phenomenon, and social impact. Indeed, they were Ambassadors for The Gay Community - Glee comes to mind as a close modern-day parallel in terms of scope.
As a Child of The 70's, TVP linked to a subculture that sparked curiosity, inspired fantasies (and a few outfits) -and in general, made it seem "Okay to be Gay" whereas I may have been troubled otherwise. For me, the lighthearted, celebratory nature of the group redeemed any lack of substance.
As we mainstream, it prompts you to wonder what might be lost -and think about what remains relevant/noteworthy in that progression.