FOR ALL ITS current popularity, disco produces few recognizable stars who can bring a skeptical live audience to a fever pitch and keep it there. This is because the music is largely a studio entity, frequently requiring entire string sections, choruses of singers, and extensive recording and mixing facilities. Such complex equipment often precludes the effective (and profitable) touring which is one of the indispensable cogs in the star-making machinery. Until recently, most disco groups lacked what is known as "breakout potential."
That was before February 1978 when the Village People burst onto the scene with their single, "Macho Man." The group emerged out of disco impresario Jacques Morali's quaint vision of archetypal American masculinity. Clothed in the distinctive garb of construction workers, GIs, policemen, motorcycle thugs, cowboys and Indian chiefs, Morali's brainchildren churned out four albums (three of them platinum) and three hit singles in less than 22 months. On the strength of "Macho Man," their first hit, the band did what few other disco acts had dared to do: they hit the road.
The Village People's difficulties on the live disco circuit were similar to those of all uninitiated bands. But in addition to the usual stage and equipment problems, the group was forced to endure all manner of verbal and physical abuse from the audiences. It wasn't until they rode triumphantly in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade that the Village People began to feel that the whole ordeal had been worth the effort.
Within the larger context of popular music, however, all the furor over the Village People has been much ado about next-to-nothing. Except for the wry, tongue-in-cheek lyrical twists of "Macho Man" and the two latest hits, "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy," their music is pure MOR disco, fleshed out with a bouncier beat and a Spector-like fullness of sound.
Yet because they are willing and able to do creditable live performances, the Village People have a real, corporeal existence for their audiences. While lead singer (and policeman/admiral) Victor Willis is the most readily recognizable band member, all the Village People have distinct identities rooted in the American machismo mythology. They are products of Morali's vision, a vision so wittily embodied in "Macho Man":
Every man wants to be a macho, macho man
To have the kind of body always in demand...
You can best believe that he's a macho man
Ready to get down with anyone he can.
As the Village People focused their double entendre humor on other American institutions, some sensibilities were offended. "Y.M.C.A.," the band's quadruple platinum hit off the third album, Cruisin", sounded so much like a Y.M.C.A. promotion song that many listeners simply assumed that it was an advertisement.
If it had been specifically ordered by the Y.M.C.A., it couldn't have been a nicer musical tribute: a strong drum track, a squiggly bass line, Sousa-like horns, "stand up and shout" vocals. Unfortunately, some people wondered about the lurking homosexual undertones of the lyrics:
Young man, there's a place you can go
I said young man, when you're short on your dough
You can stay there
And I'm sure you can find
Many ways to have a good time.
While claiming to be unconcerned with such implications, assistant general counsel to the National Board of the Y.M.C.A. Bob Jenkins brought up the issue of registered trademarks. "The only concern we have with the record," Jenkins said, "is that it may be an infringement of the copyright "Y.M.C.A.," which is registered with the U.S. Patent Office." He went on to say that he had been "in contact with Casablanca [Records] on this matter."
Go West (Casablanca 7144), the Village People's fourth album, steering relatively clear of controversy, favors more of the fun-and-games machismo that has become the group's trademark.
"In the Navy," the album's platinum single, sounds like a rousing tribute to our naval forces, which is evidently how the U.S. Navy took it. After allowing the band to film a Madison Avenue-type promotion aboard the fast frigate USS Reasoner, the Navy exercised its option to use the film in its own promotions. The videotape is being distributed to all vessels equpped with closed circuit television hook-ups, and the Navy rock ensemble, Port Authority, is learning the song.
The word from Commander Milton Baker, the Navy's unofficial "Village People spokesman," is that "the Navy thinks the song is great. It is a positive song with a positive message about the Navy." The fact that the majority of the group is admittedly gay apparently makes no difference to the Navy brass. The lyrics speak for themselves:
In the Navy, come on people, make a stand
In the Navy, can't you see we need a hand
In the Navy, come protect the Motherland
In the Navy, come and join your fellow man.
However, the formula that produced "Macho Man," "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy" is far from infallible. As was the case with the three previous albums, the other five cuts on Go West are burdened with lyrical inanities and vain attempts to extend the band's musical limits. Victor Willis is no Teddy Pendergrass, as the title song "Go West" demonstrates, and the rest of the Village People are a poor excuse for the Blue Notes.
Disco, as a genre, is typically unable to sustain much variation or improvisation. Still, the Village People should be satisfied - their unorthodoxy and star quality have had a leavening effect upon the unrelieved anonymous disco industry as a whole.