Aug 08


FT + Popular110 comments • 5,002 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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  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 110
    Larry on 21 Nov 2014 #

    Love, love, love YMCA. I agree with 8. I just watched the video for the first time – it shows the crumbling Manhattan of late 1978. Rotting wooden piers, the High Line when it was a disused train line, the Ramrod gay bar on West St. Very different from Bloomberg’s glittering city. Mike (#11) – they weren’t on top of a skyscraper, they were on a Hudson River pier.

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