It’s hard to fathom that someone actually sat around and pondered “Let’s take a Native-American chief, a police officer, a construction worker, a biker, a police officer and a soldier and place them on the same stage together to sing rousing disco songs.” French music producer, Jacques Morali, not only pondered that idea, he saw it to fruition. For he knew that there was nothing too outrageous in the world of disco, especially considering he had already seen plenty of men hanging around French dance clubs in various costumes. The time had come to bring this pageantry to the stage and it appeared in the form of The Village People.
Hiring songwriters Phil Hurtt and Peter Whitehead, Morali commissioned them to write some catchy, (and rather manly) dance numbers that would get the crowd on their feet, cheering for his cast of costumed characters. The first single, released in 1977, was “San Francisco, You Got Me.” It was catchy enough, landing on the charts in Britain and getting regular rotation in the clubs, but it was only the precursor to much bigger things. The next release, “Macho Man,” featured “cop” Victor Willis singing about the attributes of the perfect male specimen. This song would take the band from relative obscurity and make them a household name the world over. Not only were a million copies of the single sold, but the accompanying album, Cruisin’, rose to the Top-5 of the pop charts. The ball was rolling and picking up speed.
The Village People soon became popular guests on variety shows around the world for their colorful costumes and energetic performances, but the question was – could they top the resounding success of their last single? You bet they could, with a rousing number about the pleasures of working out with friends at the “Y.M.C.A” And as if the catchy chorus didn’t already adhere to one’s brain cells as if attached by super glue, the band created a dance routine that featured them spelling out each letter in the title with hand signals. Audience participation at its finest – this little gimmick not only helped the song climb right up the charts but, to this day, every time the song is played in clubs, there will be people demonstrating the alphabetical choreography with all their heart. This song, which rose to #2 in America, and #1 in England, proved without a doubt that The Village People were a force to be reckoned with, funny costumes or not.
The virtues of one particular branch of military service was the topic for their next single, “In The Navy,” which rose to the #3 position on the charts. All of the familiar elements were there – the horn section blasting, the drums pulsing and the bass thumping the night away, but a clever use of handclaps used to accentuate the line ‘We want you – We want you – we want you as a new recruit!” gave fans another golden opportunity for some audience participation. Soon, the Navy was the most popular subject in dance clubs around the world. Military officials considered officially utilizing the band for recruitment efforts, but later changed their mind for some reason.
With a collection of characters this colorful, it was the logical next step to take them to the big screen. Opportunity came in 1980, with their first feature film, Can’t Stop The Music. The film’s plot shared a fictionalized comical account of how the band met, with plenty of elaborate dance numbers to show the guys in all their choreographed glory. Singer Valerie Simpson’s brother Ray took over for Willis as the cop in the film and although the title track was a hit for the band, the film wasn’t exactly Oscar material.
The band altered their image and sound for their next release, Renaissance, taking on a more futuristic “New Romantic” appearance and a decidedly more new-wave sound. An absence of any hits for the record caused the band to quickly and wisely pull the Indian headdress and construction boots out of storage. Fans wanted their beloved Village People back and got their wish with the return of frontman Victor Willis (along with Ray Simpson) to the lineup for their next release, In the Street. Although the album wasn’t a commercial success, it at least helped them make nice with their fans, who at this point, really just wanted to hear them sing their beloved hits.
And so, that is what they have been doing ever since – performing in films, television shows, and live performances all around the globe, much to the pleasure of their millions of fans, who are ready at a moment’s notice to clap their hands on cue and spell out those letters with reckless abandon. Although all of these gestures are going on 35 years old, The Village People show no sign of slowing down and their fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you have fond recollections of listening to The Village People back in the day, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section.