18
Aug 08

VILLAGE PEOPLE – “Y.M.C.A.”

FT + Popular109 comments • 4,001 views

#431, 6th January 1979

The baton passes from one manufactured disco band to another, but “Y.M.C.A.” is superior to “Mary’s Boy Child” in absolutely every respect – well, the dancing in the video is just as awful, but in “Y.M.C.A.”‘s case the wisdom of crowds soon provided a better alternative. A big part of this song’s success is Victor Willis, who gives his broad-chested lead vocal absolutely everything, starting stentorian and then going steadily more berserk (“PUT YOUR PRIDE ON THE SHELF!”) – gutbucket shouting put to the service of disco goodwill.

This remarkable year is the triumph of disco at the top of the charts, but more than that it’s the triumph of a particular effect of disco: the way the disco pulsebeat could work as an identity accelerator, its unobtrusive addictiveness pushing the spotlight onto performers and emotions and magnifying them, turning stars into icons, expressions into anthems. With a four-four backbone, cool would become cooler, resolve more resolute, cynicism more curdled. And “Y.M.C.A.” is an example of this, turning Willis into a kind of prophet of inclusiveness, and turning mainstream disco’s achilles heel – anyone could dance to this stuff – into a mission statement: everyone welcome. The gap between “it’s all the same” and “we’re all the same” is a thin one.

As a kid I loved this song – everybody did. It wasn’t just the dance, it was the dressing-up: five of the six VP costumes are standard kids’ birthday party fancy-dress – all that’s missing is a superhero, unless Leatherman qualifies. And this for me was an exotic record – vigorously, powerfully American: I remember my shock and disappointment at discovering a YMCA in Britain, an unglamorous blocky building on Great Russell Street. When it was a hit I was three or four years off even knowing what ‘gay’ meant, by which point “Y.M.C.A.” had become a great survivor of the disco era, entrenched in wedding disco playlists, its campness obvious but somehow hardly noticeable. In other words I feel utterly unqualified to even speculate on how it resonated at the time, within gay culture or in the mainstream. All I do know is that somehow, 30 years on, I’m still not sick of hearing that chorus.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    DJ Punctum on 21 Aug 2008 #

    I have mucho mistrust about doing that.

  2. 77
    rosie on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Real life? What’s that?

    I’m endlessly amused by the way the volume of Popular comments drops spectacularly round about office going-home time and at weekends.

    Marcello, you’re breaking my heart. It’s very fragile, you know. ;)

  3. 78
    Waldo on 21 Aug 2008 #

    My real life centres around sitting at home watching old VHS recordings of “Fresh Fields”. PLEEEEZZZE, Massa Tom, don’t send me back to that!

  4. 79
    Mark G on 21 Aug 2008 #

    There’s always “French Fields” of course…

  5. 80
    DJ Punctum on 21 Aug 2008 #

    One of the stars of Fresh Fields died eight months ago, Number 78.

  6. 81
    Waldo on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Indeed, yes, Flapjack Charlie! But Susan’s death will forever be only a year ago.

  7. 82
    Snif on 22 Aug 2008 #

    ““You Make Me Feel…” is a sleek, shiny bullet train of pure hedonism and energy speeding through the night”

    Almost sounds like “My Lovely Horse”

  8. 83
    Chris Brown on 24 Aug 2008 #

    Albumwatch: on the original Cruisin’ LP, ‘The Women’ appears as part of a medley with ‘I’m A Cruiser’. I’m slightly surprised they bothered to split them rather than pick one of the individual tracks from Side 2 as the B-side.

    Beyond that I haven’t much to add to what other people have pointed out. The one parody that sticks in my mind is Jasper Carrot singing about the SDP.

  9. 84
    Andy Pandy on 25 Aug 2008 #

    I agree with whoever mentioned that the YMCA dance appeared years lately (at least on a mass level). I was too young to be at clubs when this first came out but by about 1982 and thereafter I spent far too much of my time in often the dodgy kinds of clubs where such dances are done.And I never saw anyone do it then I read an article in (I think)the Sunday papers in probably the late 80s/even early 90s which mentioned this dance as though it was a big thing. And suddenly well over 10 years after the hit I noticed people started to treat the dance as though everyone had been doing it for years. But that’s not how I remember it at all…

  10. 85
    Erithian on 26 Aug 2008 #

    #70 – just to come back on-topic from the not unpleasant topic of Jamaican women sprinters… one of those sprinters, Aleen Bailey of the 4x400m relay team, is the sister of the dancehall star Capleton, who in the past has not been averse to making records advocating setting fire to homosexuals, but who last year was hailed by none other than Peter Tatchell for signing up to the Reggae Compassionate Act. It’s not a subject that will crop up on Popular for some while if at all, but is an interesting sideline in the Village People context.

  11. 86
    Erithian on 26 Aug 2008 #

    The link didn’t work – try http://www.jamaicans.com/news/announcements/Reggaestarsrenouncehomophobia062007.shtml

  12. 87
    Waldo on 26 Aug 2008 #

    # 85 – I recall the last couple of years at my primary school at the top of the seventies when we were allowed to bring in records on occasions. It was all very innocent and the records were left on a table for the kids to look at, our teacher, Mr Turner, watching closely. Most of us had committed the sacrilege of scribbling our names on the labels to stop other kids “borrowing” them. I recall bringing in Springwater’s “I Will Return”. The disc was not nicked but it wasn’t played either because DJ, Mr Turner told me: “I’m not putting that thing on, Waldo. It’s too sad. It will make all the girls cry.”

    Whilst still attempting to work out what this meant, I picked up a record with a blue label, which a boy called Noel Stewart had brought in. I can’t remember the group but to this day, I can still remember the titles. The A-Side was called “Drink Milk” and the B-Side “Smoke Dem Botty Men Out”.

    I can’t imagine Tatchell and John Barrowman doing a cheek to cheek to that one, quite frankly.

  13. 88
    intothefireuk on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Nope – I certainly wasn’t in the mood for this in 1978. Head full of macho rock – you can’t air guitar to it can you ? Disco, for me, did suck for at least another year, until I actually went to a nightclub and the penny dropped. So YMCA was off the radar but I did eventually come around to it, by then of course it was mobile DJ fodder so I was endlessly subjected to ‘the arm dance’ ad infinitum. It is so familiar I can no longer judge it subjectively – it just is and it’s still a guaranteed hit at every party and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing either.

  14. 89
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Re 87: I Will Return would have made me well up at primary school with its melancholic yet triumphant wall of guitars. One of the best drum sounds ever, too – as if they were recorded at the bottom of a lift shaft with a dictaphone, a cross between Trampled Under Foot and Spectre Vs Rector.

    I always pick up anything with Phil Cordell’s name attached – Springwater aside, Dan The Banjo Man gets a mention somewhere else on Popular I think (?). Probably repeating myself but it sounds exactly like the inside of a two-year old’s head.

  15. 90
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Here, to be exact.

  16. 91
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    As long as I remember that I’m repeating myself I can’t be going senile…

  17. 92
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    I’m still quite astonished at how well “I Will Return” did in the charts – when I listened to it recently I couldn’t remember it at all and don’t recall it being played on the radio, although obviously it must have been. Was it perchance a TV theme tune?

  18. 93
    Mark G on 5 Sep 2008 #

    I don’t remember it. File it next to Donald Peers then.

    I do remember “Dan the Banjo Man”, used to get a lot of Radio Luxembourg play…

    although, if “no banjo to be heard” is right, I must be thinking of something else…

  19. 94
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Possibly “When Grandma Played The Banjo,” the underselling debut solo single but Fab 208 Powerplay by Roy Wood, which featured plenty of excellent banjo playing from the Wizzard himself.

  20. 95
    Mark G on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Noo, I know that one well!. Never seen a copy! (though, I have Boulders, obv)

    The “DTBM” I know went ‘plunka.. plunka..’ with some steel slide guitar in the background occasionally. Still, that was back in the early seventies, so…

  21. 96
    mike on 5 Sep 2008 #

    I remember watching Springwater rising up and falling down the charts, and feeling frustrated because I had never actually heard it. Indeed, I still haven’t heard it to this day.

  22. 97
    Billy Smart on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Here’s your chance to, Mike;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qk__jZfkc0

  23. 98
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Dan The Banjo Man has a relentless synth line that sounds like an over-excited sheepdog. No banjo or slide guitar. And it was on Berry Gordy’s Rare Earth label. Phil Cordell’s phenomenal ‘solo’ single Londonderry, one of the most dense sounding records ever made, was on Mowest.

    It’s rather like Motown signing The Fall. Which apparently (apocryphally?) they nearly did.

  24. 99
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Thanks Billy. Could it look more 1971 if it tried? Only if the mysterious lady turned out to be Sally Carr. I Will Return (says Wikipedia) earnt an entry on the Swiss version of Popular.

    And here’s Phil C three years later…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiTUxqH5BqA&NR=1

    Dan The Banjo Man was a no.1 in Germany (how queer), knocking Teenage Rampage from the top before being replaced a week later by Nazareth’s This Flight Tonight.

    Very sad to read that he’s no longer with us, I didn’t know. Anyone know anything else about him?

  25. 100
    mike on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Sounds more like a loved-up wasp to me! Amazing that this knocked “Teenage Rampage” off the top of the German charts…

  26. 101
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    A loved-up Wasp, even! I didn’t think it was a Moog but couldn’t place the sound. On the DTBM clip you can almost see the thought bubble: “Shit, I’ll have to make a whole album of this stuff now.”

    Mike, what did you make of I Will Return after waiting to hear it for 37 years?

  27. 102
    mike on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Well, it wasn’t what I was expecting. At all. Quite out of context with the charts of its time, which only serves to underline its “outsider” status. For some reason, it reminds me of the second part of the album version of “Layla”, slowed down to 16rpm. Also easy to imagine this being covered by a bagpipe troupe, but that might just be the fag-end of the man-flu talking; I’ve been a bit delirious all day.

  28. 103
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Reminds me rather more of “Abide With Me” but in keeping with a top ten which also included “Softly Whispering I Love You” by the Congregation. That strange Godhead tinge to the early seventies charts.

  29. 104
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    That’s not the flu talking, there’s a definite bagpipe feel, and someone else pointed out to me recently that the title could be religious. Prefer to think it isn’t. The promo clip and Phil Cordell’s demise keep its mystery caged.

  30. 105
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Given that he put out an album at the same time entitled Born Again I fear that this was the path he was treading.

  31. 106
    Waldo on 5 Sep 2008 #

    As the idiot who started all this “I Will Return” malarkey, I’ve just listened to it again for the first time in years and think it’s a lovely piece of music. “Abide With Me” is certainly in there and it’s clear that it’s all about a bloke who has just skied one and is simply waiting for deep mid-wicket to take the catch. It’s certainly NOT about someone telling his old lady that he’s just off to the grocers to pick up a medium Mother’s Pride and a pint of Goldtop.

    Mr Turner may have been right about the girls crying over this. I myself am holding a screwed up hankie now, although this has not so much to do with “I Will Return” as the fact that I’ve just checked the share prices…

  32. 107
    Iron J on 7 Feb 2012 #

    I attended YMCA’s “after-school day-camp” throughout primary school and this song was a feature on the annual talent shows. As such, I have an instinctively negative reaction to hearing “YMCA”. The descending horns in the chorus particularly evoke feelings of deep sadness and imminent doom. So gauche it hurts. I am fascinated by the U.K. perpsective of this being an emblematic American artifact.

  33. 108
    Brendan on 25 Sep 2012 #

    It’s a good rousing (oo-er!) song but its ubiquity has clearly blunted it over the years. But it’s still good enough for a 7.

  34. 109
    hectorthebat on 29 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 86
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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