John Travolta in white polyester and platform shoes. Cher and Olivia Newton- John on roller skates. The late ’70s disco era had nothing if not a quirky sense of camp humor. But the Village People got the biggest laughs of all; throughout that orgy of excess, they were the life of the party. And that party stretched a lot further than the group’s roots in the raucous gay subculture of New York’s Greenwich Village. The music was fun, the garb was outrageous, and that’s all that mattered to the heartland partisans of these six hip hunks. ”Macho Man,” their first hit, entered the Billboard singles chart at No. 40 on July 29, 1978, leading the way to two gold singles and three platinum albums. By the time the party ended, the Village People had parlayed such songs as ”Y.M.C.A.,” ”San Francisco,” and ”In the Navy” into a worldwide total of 50 million records sold. ”Everybody loves cowboys and Indians and anything American,” says David Hodo, the VP’s construction worker, trying to explain the group’s pandemic appeal. ”It pushed a button universally.”
The Village People sprang from the brain of record producer Jacques Morali. Working with Casablanca Records’ Neil Bogart, who discovered Donna Summer and Kiss, Morali first conceived the costumes and the music, then found guys to wear them and sing it. In 1977 he put advertisements in show-biz trade papers for ”singers with mustaches.”
The rest is disco history — and disco was itself soon history. The group’s records began slipping fast (the soundtrack of the VP’s 1980 movie, Can’t Stop the Music, stalled at No. 47), and their final gasp, 1981’s Renaissance, which came with a slick new punk look, provided no resurgence. ”It felt like we’d been group-loved by the world, then all of a sudden group-rejected,” says Hodo. Through much of the ’80s, the dudes found themselves back pretty much where they’d been pre-Village People — trying to make it as singers or dancers, taking the occasional odd job.
In the past few years, though, helped by the nascent revival of ’70s-style music and clubs, the Village People are making, yes, a comeback. Original lead singer Victor Willis (the cop) and Randy Jones (the cowboy), who have gone their own ways, have been replaced by Ray Simpson (cop) and Jeff Olson (cowboy). Back with the same old costumes but some catchy new songs, the group will perform in about 75 cities in the U.S. and abroad this year. Go figure. In Hodo’s eyes, the Village People fill a need for the ’90s. ”Kids today not only have to deal with safe sex but safe music,” he says. ”We grab our crotches and bump and grind — they go berserk.” Safe passage.
July 29, 1978
TV viewers were cruising with the new hit The Love Boat. At the movies, John Belushi ravaged fraternity row in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Andy Gibb topped the pop charts with ”Shadow Dancing,” a song he wrote with his Bee Gee brothers, and James Michener’s Chesapeake was the top-selling novel.