NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m back to late-night recording.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Here’s a fun trivia question for ye: It was on June 2, 1953 that Queen Elizabeth the Second ascended the throne more than a year after the death of her father, King George the Sixth. Because, you know, you can’t rush coronations. A few months after that big event, a trio of choirboys performed for the new Queen at Christmastime, and one of those young singers later became a rather prominent figure in rock and roll. Who was this young lad who sang Christmas carols for a 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
The Village People, despite being a disco group, is an act that, believe it or not, musically falls somewhere between The Archies and The Monkees. Now, before you tune out too quickly, you did download the show already, so you may as well stick with me, here while I turn back the clock.
…and we land in mid 1970s France, where a couple of producers by the name of Henri Belolo and his partner-slash-composer Jacques Morali, are the heads of a company called Can’t Stop Productions. They had a bunch of hits in France and all over Europe, but they wanted to break into the American market, so they crossed the pond and came to New York City. Since this was the early Disco era, Morali was working on a few dance tunes when he met a musician and Broadway performer by the name of Victor Willis. Willis gave him a tape of a few songs he’d written. “I had a dream that you sang lead on my album and it went very, very big”. And with that, Willis agreed to be the voice of The Village People.
That name, the Village People, incidentally, derives from the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village, which was known for a pretty sizeable gay population. And make no mistake, while this was the band’s target audience, I don’t want you to confuse their appeal to gay audiences with the idea that the band members themselves are gay. But we’ll get to all of this shortly.
That first album only had four tracks on it, but it did manage to get some traction in the dance clubs, especially the first track, which is what you’re listening to now, titled “San Francisco (You’ve Got Me).”
Now, here’s the problem: when you’ve got a record that’s successful, people are going to come after you to perform. And when you don’t have a group as such, you need to put one together. So Morali had to throw a bunch of dancers together to perform behind Willis when they did club and television appearances. And because they were basically targeting a homosexual audience, they went for a bunch of macho, gay fantasy personae. From that they cast their Native American, the Cowboy, the Leatherman/biker type, the Construction Worker, and an athlete, who was soon re-cast as the Military Guy, sometimes appearing as a soldier and sometimes as a sailor. And, of course, they had Willis as the Police Officer. They also brought in Peter Whitehead to help with songwriting, but you can see him dancing in the video for “San Francisco”.
But this particular collection was just meant to fill the bill for the time being. Both Willis and Morali saw the need to put a more permanent group together. So Morali took out an ad in a theatre trade paper reading: “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache.” From that ad they cast a new Leatherman, a new Construction Worker and a new Cowboy. By this point most of the Macho Man album had already been recorded, so they did a quick photo shoot with this lineup and finished off the album, then released both the Macho Man album and the single around the same time, in February of 1978.
So before I move into “YMCA,” let me address the gay thing. The Village People were clearly designed to attract gay audiences while at the same time mocking the stereotypes. You could argue that they were exploiting those stereotypes, but at this point it’s pretty much po-tay-to, po-tah-to. But were the group’s members, themselves, gay? Not all of them, anyway. Now, while Jacques Morali was in fact gay, his partner Henri Belolo was not, and neither was Victor Willis. As far as the rest of the group, I’m sure it’s a mixed bag, but I’m not going to do a specific rundown, especially since at this point the group has had two dozen people cycling through its ranks. And while these stereotypical characters played well to the LGBT community in the dance clubs, it’s still kind of a big leap to declare that the discotheques were a “gay” thing, as I did hear more than once back in the day. I mean, Saturday Night Fever was the biggest disco soundtrack ever, and nobody ever accused the Bee Gees of being gay, so I don’t really get that argument. If you don’t like disco, fine. That’s up to you to like it or not. But it’s silly to place a genre of music in the “Gay” pile.
So the Village People were growing in popularity, and because the albums didn’t have a huge number of tracks on them—something like four or five total—the output of albums was kind of high for that period. It was only a couple of months later that work started on the next set of songs for their third album, titled Cruisin’. According to an interview he did with Spin Magazine, Cowboy Randy Jones said that, shortly after moving to New York in 1975, he joined the YMCA, specifically the McBurney YMCA, which at the time was located on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, and I’m pretty sure that places it in the Chelsea neighborhood rather than the Village, but no matter. He said he took Morali there a few times and Morali was fascinated by the place, because you could work out with weights, play basketball, swim, take classes AND get a room for a few days, up to several weeks, if you needed it. Plus, Jones said, as a gay man Morali was impressed by all of the people he was meeting who he’d seen in adult films.
Construction Worker David Hodo continues the story by saying that Cruisin’ was nearly done, but they needed one more track to finish it out. Morali had been to the YMCA a few times and he knocked out the melody, the chorus, and the basic structure in about twenty minutes, then gave it to Victor Willis to finish. Now, Wilis’ story is a little bit different. In an interview he did on SiriusXM in 2013, he says that Morali approached him and asked “What exactly is the YMCA?” and after Willis explained it to him, Morali got a look on his face that told Willis they were about to write a song about it. But in the end he also says that the song came together very quickly.
And I think it’s that tension between Morali and Willis that gives the song the gay undertones without being an explicitly gay song. On its face, it’s an acknowledgement of the YMCA as a place for urban youths to get together and have fun through basketball and swimming, but you could also read it as a popular place for gays to cruise and hook up with one another, especially if you were younger. Willis has always acknowledged the double entendre of the song, but says he has no qualms with the gay community adopting it as an anthem. But in the meantime, the song still manages to keep its mainstream attraction.
The song does have a video, which is kind of rare for 1978, considering that MTV wasn’t around yet, but there were plenty of outlets in Europe that were showing videos, and since the Village People were popular in Europe, they shot a video using the McBurney YMCA as a backdrop. Unfortunately that YMCA has moved almost ten blocks from its original location so you can’t visit there anymore; in fact I’m pretty sure the building itself is gone now. But you can visit the West Side Piers and Hudson River Park, where other major parts of the video were shot, if you’re so inclined.
Now, something you’re NOT going to see in that video is the arm movements that everybody KNOWS, go with the letters in the chorus. That’s because the Village People didn’t come up with it. Now, in the video, when they get to the chorus, they throw their arms up in the air in the Y position, but that’s largely a coincidence. But now we fast-forward to a couple of months after the record was released, and the Village People are performing the song on American Bandstand. One of the things that becomes immediately apparent is that the group isn’t doing the arm letters, but the AUDIENCE is. What’s more, someone in production noticed it and starts showing more shots of the audience during the chorus than the Village People. When the song ends, Dick Clark does a quick interview with the band members, then has the technical crew re-cue the record so that the Village People can see what the audience was doing. The audience again goes into doing the arm letters, and after the chorus fades out, Dick Clark asks, “You think you can work that into your routine?” to which Willis replies, “I think we’re gonna HAVE to.” And a tradition was born in weddings, bar mitzvahs and sports events nationwide. And while I’m at it, I should point out that you do the “M” by touching your fingers in front of you or on top of your head, not on your shoulders. And when you do the “C” it’s supposed to look like a C to the people watching you, so it’s supposed to be backwards from your point of view.
The day of the Bandstand appearance was also the day that the song hit Number One in the UK and remained there for three weeks. Here in the United States it was stalled out at Number Two, but it stayed there for three weeks, held out of the top slot by “Le Freak” by Chic for the first week, and then by Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” for the other two. In many other countries it was a Number One it, including Australia, where it held the top spot for five weeks.
And what does the YMCA have to think about this? Their relationship with the song has gone back and forth. At first they didn’t like it, and around the same time that it was on the charts, the YMCA was threatening to sue the band. Then they kind of leaned into it, since it put a spotlight on their brand that, lets face it, lots of companies spend tons of money trying to attract. In that 2013 Spin article, their media relations manager was quoted as saying, “We at the Y.M.C.A. celebrate the song. It’s a positive statement about the Y.M.C.A. and what we offer to people all around the world.” Having said that, just two years ago a different spokesman for YMCA of the USA said they never authorized the Village People to use the trademark to sell goods or services, and would object to any use that could cause the public to conclude otherwise.
But by that time they’d already rebranded themselves as simply “The Y”, which the Village People were quoted as thinking it was kind of a silly change. And meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Australian YMCA is embracing the whole thing. Boy George recorded this acoustic cover for the Australian YMCA, as part of their Hashtag Why Not campaign, which aims to provide a voice to young people to speak out on issues that affect them, such as marriage equality, mental health and youth unemployment.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the future rock star who, as a choirboy, performed at a Christmas concert for a young Queen Elizabeth. That young boy would be Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
[YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT]
As a boy soprano, Keef was part of a trio who performed for the monarch at Westminster Abbey. He said once in an interview that he was recruited for the choir while he was a student at Dartford Technical High School, and he and his friends spent a lot of time practicing because they did a bunch of high-end performances. But when he turned 13 and his voice changed, that was the end of that, and he wound up having to repeat a year of school because he’d missed so much. Ultimately repeating the grade led to allowing his rebellious streak to come out, and he was eventually expelled for truancy. So while we definitely have Dartford Technical High School to thank for the Rolling Stones, we may also have Queen Elizabeth the Second to thank as well.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, when you’re a runaway.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.