Disco Meets Its Macho

While the Village People played dress-up on the outskirts of cultural mores, their music resonated with the mainstream

Because disco music was largely the product of assembly-line craftsmanship--conceived by megalomaniac producers and executed by anonymous session musicians--few superstars emerged from the genre. And those who did probably wish now they weren't so closely identified with that thump thump thumpity thump. Take the Bee Gees, who are still feeling the backlash in this country 15 years after "Tragedy" struck. The Brothers Gibb went on to chart hits practically everywhere except the United States, where their head-splitting Minnie Mouse falsettos have not been so easily forgiven. So routinely ignored were the latter-day Bee Gees on these shores that the group's last North American jaunt was billed as a "long-awaited reunion tour"--despite the shameful fact that Barry, Robin and Maurice haven't let up since 1971! Ha, ha, ha, ha: Staying alive, staying alive.

All is not lost, however. With '70s music enjoying a lucrative revival on the nostalgia circuit, the Village People have emerged as disco's retro goodwill ambassadors. Groan if you must, but this sextet--currently marching in place on a concert stage near you--wasn't quite the flash in the pan that pop elitists would have you believe. Left for deadafter disco's demise, the Village People had already scooped up four platinum albums for its songs about hot cops, life in the armed service and slumber parties at the Young Men's Christian Association.

Admittedly, the troop's trademark camp chorus sounded more like the spawn of G.I. Joe commercials than rock 'n' roll. Yet the Village People came closer to the Sex Pistols' brand of subversion than any other American act in the late '70s.

While Johnny Rotten employed snarling sarcasm and spitting to enrage delicate British sensibilities, the well-mannered Village People endeared themselves to Middle America by embracing all-American images and ideals: the industrious construction worker, the noble Indian, the brave soldier, the adventurous cowboy, the diligent police officer and, well, the rough-trade biker in S&M gear.

The Village People were a joke, sure, but the punch line was that so many among their audience were oblivious to the group's gay subtext. Had the Village People come out in ballet tights or dressed in drag like the New York Dolls, the mainstream record-buying public would have steered clear.

But there was something so, well, reassuring about polite, well-groomed men in costumes singing "Macho Man" on The Merv Griffin Show. Clearly, postbicentennial America was in the deep throes of denial--adoring men in uniforms and choosing not to notice the rouge on their cheeks.

It's this country's inability to process double-entendres that haven't already been clobbered to death on Three's Company that makes the Village People saga such a saucy one. Sadly, it's a tale few people have gone out of their way to tell. An intensive book search in San Francisco's Castro district, as well as several bookstores in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where the group was formed, unearthed not one slim volume on the Villagers. A 1994 Best of collection offers only bare-bones facts and nothing in the way of snappy anecdotes. Jacques Morali, the producer and architect of the group's distinctive look and sound, dropped out of sight in France in 1984 and reportedly died as a result of AIDS seven years later.

Former lead singer Victor Willis has kept a low profile since turning in his "Hot Cop" badge in 1979, and cowboy Randy Jones rode into the sunset in '81. That leaves a hardhat, a leather freak, a GI and one little Indian as keepers of the flaming flame. And, dammit, they're not talking!

It's hard to decide whether the group's current publicists are overprotective or merely bungling idiots. Why would anyone in his right mind want to stroll down memory lane with a third-generation traffic cop when he could be interviewing the original Leather Man? Not only weren't we guaranteed an interview with one of the remaining Village veterans, we were asked to fax a list of questions before negotiations for an interview could even get started.

Who do these People think they are--Diana Ross? Next thing you know, one of 'em might get huffy if he isn't addressed in the proper fashion. "It's Mr. Construction Worker to you!"

Ah, screw it--just about anything you might want to know about the Village People (and then some) is in the band's humorous, voluminous body of work--eight albums and one celluloid zeroof a movie, and that's not even counting the band's cameo appearance in Thank God It's Friday and a guest spot on The Love Boat.

Maybe the fellas have reason to make demands befitting the head Supreme--after all, they're sitting on a story that could conceivably have more bathos and sizzle than six Dream Girls rolled into one! Young man, are you listening to me?

Village People (1977)
Jacques Morali had a vision--construct Archies for the gay community! No "Sugar Sugar" here--Morali's studio concoction sings about popular boy-meets-boy locales like "Fire Island" and "San Francisco."

The only future Village personnel listed in the credits are lead vocalist Victor Willis--whose Levi Stubbs-meets-Teddy Pendergrass delivery can drive home even the corniest of the group's anthems--and Felipe Rose, "the Indian from the Anvil," who snags a crucial credit for playing "foot bells."

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