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."

The rest of the guys on this first draft are nameless out-of-work actors who aren't invited back to finish out their 15 minutes when their strange characterizations (Tuxedo Man, Italian Guy Fresh Outta the Closet and Shirtless Boat Refugee) fail to catch on with the kids in Kansas.

Macho Man (1978)
All six members are listed by their full name, age and astrological sign on the back cover. Willis, the undisputed star, is entrusted with writing lyrics for every track except the "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody" medley that predates David Lee Roth's by seven years.

Rumors abound that Willis is straighter than an arrow, so he infuses the group's most overt gay anthem, "I Am What I Am," with unrelenting urgency. ("I did not choose the way I am/To love is not a sin.") However, he sounds a tad judgmental on "Sodom and Gomorrah," the ultimate disco inferno ("Because of all their lust/The Lord said destruction was a must!").

The Village People embarked on their first tour in support of Macho Man. Realizing you need an actual band to do live shows, Morali lays the groundwork for Milli Vanilli and Menudo by forcing five of his People to lip-synch (only Willis gets a live mike).

Macho Man also offers the first sighting of Village People merchandising in the album's pullout catalogue. Aimed directly at hetero America, it features a he-and-she duo who look like they were rerouted from the methadone clinic to model ugly tee shirts (regular and French cut). Their glad rags bear the legends "Macho Man," "Macho Woman," "Mucho Macho," "Village People" and, of course, the ghastly, glittery "Disco '78." The next year, when militant rock deejays mount their jingoistic "Disco Sucks" campaign, anyone caught wearing any of these tees in public might as well have on "Beat Me Senseless" sportswear.

Cruisin' (1978)
The highbrow concept for this album's cover art--putting each Villager on a vehicle appropriate to his purported occupation--requires Willis and Alexander Briley to settle on a career, and fast!

After floundering around with an effeminate teacher's aide look, Briley chooses the militia while Willis becomes a law enforcer. His move conveniently ties in with the single "Hot Cop," on which Victor boasts about being the funkiest patrolman on his decidedly disco beat. "YMCA" is the group's all-time biggest hit--the song's accompanying semaphore-signal dance rivals "The Hokey Pokey" for top honors with the wedding/bar mitzvah circuit.

Cruisin' ends on a down note (down for the Village People, that is) with the goofy, pill-popping confessional "Ups and Downs." Success has overworked these male mirth makers (three albums in 1978 alone!). Is it any wonder Victor and the boys rely on pharmaceuticals to help them concentrate on their dance steps, fall fast asleep and keep their personas straight (ha, ha)? Imagine gobbling a fistful of Percodan and suddenly realizing, "Oh, yeah, I'm Leather Man."

Go West (1978)
What's long and hard and full of seamen? If you answered "a submarine," chances are you're one of the millions who fell for "In the Navy" hook, line and sinker.

The U.S. Navy itself was so touched by this plea for a few good men that it actuallyconsidered adopting the song for a recruitment jingle. Good thing someone woke up and smelled the FabergŽ. "Don't ask, don't tell," indeed!

Go West is replete with 11-by-11, suitable-for-framing portraits of each member--Leather Man brilliantly accessorizing his usual bondage duds with a "Have a Nice Day" button.

The Pet Shop Boys had a fat hit with this record's title track in 1993--the only notable cover of a Village People song ever (unless you count Madison Avenue bastardizing "Macho Man" for nacho commercials).

Live and Sleazy! (1979)
Given this album's sleazy context, you'd half expect the fellas to turn in an ode about the joys of incarceration. Disappointingly, they don't--but the album is a turning point of sorts. Note the gang's tough fighting stance on the sleeve, sort of like gay bashing in reverse. Why so defensive? With the disco boom about to bottom out, the macho men are looking to diversify. But desperately declaring "Rock 'n' Roll Is Back Again"?

Contrary to claims the group makes on its last hit, the Village People are not quite "Ready for the Eighties," especially since Victor Willis left to pursue life as a civilian. Because he has co-writing credits on several tunes on the horrid flick Can't Stop the Music (see below), but none here, it's a safe bet Willis saw that Hindenburgian movie vehicle hurtling his way and decided to haul ass out of the public eye. His replacement is Raymond Simpson, brother of Valerie Simpson, the tougher half of lovey-dovey singing duo Ashford and Simpson. You can call him Ray or you can call him Gay Ray, but he still can't hold a nightstick to Willis.

Can't Stop the Music (1980)
Oh, it can be stopped, all right. Just team the Village People with champion thespians Bruce Jenner, Valerie Perrine and Steve Guttenberg. Then get Bounty commercial heroine Nancy Walker ("the quicker picker-upper" lunch-counter queen) to direct this eyesore. One of thefilm's biggest production numbers, "Milkshake," has Perrine kerplopped in an oversize champagne glass filled with milk while the Villagers try to suck out her calcium deposits with giant straws. The "YMCA" water ballet number has our gal Val naked in a hot tub with the lads oohing and aahing behind her--hell, she couldn't be safer with Allstate.

Jenner is nowhere in splashing range, as he plays this flick's on-again/offagain homophobe. Disgusted, he informs Perrine, "Your friends are a little too far out for me." This after she's already informed him, "This is the Eighties, doll, you're gonna see a lot of things you've never seen before." Like Felipe without his headdress, carrying on like a crazed Cherokee Harpo Marx. Or Construction Worker Dave, bumping and grinding like Schneider from One Day at a Time. And, worse, all the Village People in speaking roles! Years of carefully constructed mystique wantonly sailed into the Dumpster--and those few who are still wondering "are they or aren't they" can call off the bloodhounds once Leather Man makes his entrance two-thirds into the movie to lisp, "I quit my job collecting coins in the tollbooth for this?"

Renaissance (1981)
The Village People lost their golden touch two albums ago, and this LP ushers the group into the Dark Ages for good. Ditching their usual work duds, they go for an ill-advised New Romantic look that seems an ungodly marriage of Vidal Sassoon hair products and community-theatre Godspell makeup.

Side two contains far too many songs about food: "Big Mac," the nerdy, Devo-rhythmed "Food Fight" and "Diet," a Deal-a-Meal ditty that advises listeners to lose that extra tonnage or "you're gonna roll away." This from the same carefree bunch that advised everyone to take a milkshake break last time out. By 1982, Simpson bolts and is replaced by--ah, who cares? At this point, you could have a higher profile in the Witness Protection Program than fronting the Village People.

A U.K.-only 1985 album called F in the Box (featuring the single "Sex on the Phone") flopped like a flounder, and the Village People are never heard from again.

Until now.
The current tour has no "comeback" album behind it--but the Village People discography is a case where eight is more than enough. There's easily an evening's worth of entertainment crammed into those grooves, but the real thrill of seeing these morsels pulled out of the mothballs and returned to the stage is watching tough, beer-guzzling brutes in No Fear shirts pumping their fists to "YMCA." No rainbow curriculum could've spanned the gap between gays and straights any better.

The Village People are scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 25, at Party Gardens, with Boogie Knights. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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