By Waheeda Harris
May 12, 2009
The halcyon days of disco – with its freewheeling night clubs, conglomeration of people from all levels of society and the burgeoning era of gay rights – a brief period of the 1970s that burned fast and furious. Urban centres like New York revelled in the clash of classes with the music levelling the playing field.
But like any cultural trend, there’s always a corporation trying to monetize it. So the recording industry, a master at pop culture creations, formed The Village People. Concocted in 1977 by French producer Jacques Morali, The Village People was born out of a need to have singer Victor Willis (aka the Police Officer) surrounded by a group. Morali posted an ad in a music trade magazine requiring “Macho types wanted: must dance and have moustache.” Note the lack of singing expertise required!
Fixating on stereotypes to attract the gay community – the group was the Police Officer, American Indian chief, Cowboy, Construction Worker, Biker and Military Man. First appearing as a band on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – the simple lyrics of Macho Man resonated with disco lovers across the country.
The resounding hit was YMCA in 1978, another illusion to the gay community in NYC, but to a young girl in BC it was a fun dance she copied from tv. I had tried to learn the hustle but could never get all the steps. Of course, my fellow students were not as apt to learn such a planned exercise in elementary school, but for some reason we all learned how to form our arms into the letters to dance to YMCA. Did we understand the deeper meanings of the lyrics? No. We just laughed and danced – like the key comment on American Bandstand – the song has a good beat and you can dance to it.
With a quick trajectory, The Village People graced the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in April 1979 and made a deal with the US Navy, allowing the use of their song “In the Navy” as a recruiting song, while the band got to film a video on board a naval warship. At the end of 1979, Willis left the group, before the highly anticipated film debut “Can’t Stop the Music”. But in 1980 when the film opened, disco was declared dead, the film a flop and the group a wash-up.
Still kicking along, with some original members, The Village People continue to tour, now a blast from the past from the last days of disco. They’ve been imitated and parodied, and although many won’t claim to be fans, many can still sing the lyrics and name the members of the band by profession.
I still remember thrusting my arms in perfect time to the song’s beat, believing I had finally been able to participate in the disco era, even if from a gymnasium in small town BC.