Hitting #1 on the very last day of 1978… And what better soundtrack for your NYE party?
Y.M.C.A., by Village People (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 31st December 1978 – 21st January 1979
It’s an intro that pricks your ears right up. Disco drums, and an ominous foghorn. Once, twice, thrice… Just enough time to steamroller your way from the bar to the dancefloor. Then it explodes. Some songs build to a climax; this is four and bit minutes of pure climax. Exuberant – that’s the word I’d use. The horn blasts, the lead singers’ full throated vocals, the chorus. Nobody ever came away from listening to ‘Y.M.C.A.’ feeling sadder than before it started.
Young man! There’s no need to feel down… A small-town boy steps off the Greyhound bus in downtown NYC. The Big Apple. He looks up at the skyscrapers and gulps. Where should he go first…? Luckily for him he meets a kindly cowboy, policeman, builder, biker, soldier and, um, native American who offer to show him the ropes. It’s fun to stay at the YMCA, they tell him… They have everything for young men to enjoy, You can hang out with all the boys…
The one bit of trivia that everyone knows about the Village People is that only the cowboy was gay. Or was it the cop? Or the construction worker…? OK. Everyone knows that only one of the six was gay. (Actually, almost every source I checked says something different. They were all gay. Half of them were gay. The cop was the only straight one…) Either way, ‘Y.M.C.A’ is a pretty gay song. There is very little coding going on. I assume that people in 1978 knew perfectly well what these muscular, moustachioed men were hinting at… (I wasn’t around, so would welcome input from those who were…)
Which means that – despite the song having morphed into a kids party, wedding disco, nudge nudge wink wink bit of pantomime – this is a pretty significant moment in pop music history. Gay culture rammed down the throats – so to speak – of granny and grandad as they sat through Top of the Pops. However, one of the song’s writers, Henry Willis, claimed that it was simply a straight-faced run through of the wholesome activities on offer at your nearest Young Man’s Christian Association. Which is certainly one way to read it…
Anyway, back to the song. My favourite bit is one that your average wedding DJ cuts off, on the 12” version, when the horns take over and we sashay to a glorious finish. There’s a hint of melancholy about the ending. Our young man, freshly scrubbed and fed, still has to make his way in the big city. Maybe he’s been chucked out of his home? How will he survive? Also, knowing now that AIDS was but a couple of years away when this hit #1 adds even further poignancy.
Apparently, a few years ago Village People claimed they would sue anyone who referred to ‘Y.M.C.A.’ as a ‘gay anthem’. Which feels like a pretty late attempt to rewrite history. Any band that names itself after New York’s gay district, dresses one of its members up as a leather daddy, and releases songs like ‘Y.M.C.A’, ‘Macho Man’, and ‘In the Navy’ (can’t you see we need a hand…) will struggle to pass that argument off in court.
Still, subtexts aside, this is a song that everyone can enjoy, and that everyone still does enjoy. A song that, for me, will never really be ruined through over-exposure. A song that perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as high-quality pop. And, even though it hit the top on Hogmanay ’78, I’m counting it as Part I of early 1979’s run of classic chart-toppers. More of which are coming up very, very soon.
PS. Interestingly, the famous spell-out-the-letters-with-your-arms-above your-head dance doesn’t feature in this original video. Not sure when that became regulation…