431. ‘Y.M.C.A.’, by Village People

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…


19 thoughts on “431. ‘Y.M.C.A.’, by Village People

  1. It’s 100% a gay anthem, Village people did the gay circuit, gay-themed songs, and appeared in a VERY gay movie, Can’t Stop The Music, and include I Am What I Am at live appearances to this day. Short of having a sign over your head flashing neon signs saying “I’m a bit gay!” it would have been difficult to have been much gayer in those straight days. We knew it was tongue-in-cheek gay innuendo at the time, but that was lost on lots of people (especially kids who just loved the tune and the dressing up). The original lead singer Victor Willis was the core of the group along with the producers (and a great singer), the rest were originally just hired help “Wanted: dancers with moustaches” and at the time they were all considered gay except Willis. Once Willis left, though, it was all over really in terms of hits – the replacement, Ray Simpson, brother of the great Valerie (see Ashford & Simpson and a host of great songs) just didn’t have the same oomph. But they have lived on as famous as ever thanks to this track.

    Now, Mary’s Boy Child was number one in the UK charts on the day I turned 21, but my personal charts had YMCA on top and Mary’s Boy Child at 2. A little bit wholesome, a little bit gay, oops! I’m afraid I’ve overdosed on YMCA over the years, and I loved it for a decade or two, though I still appreciate how good it is (it’s been recognised as a key US recording and saved for posterity). I’d much rather hear the Pet Shop Boys gay anthem cover of their Go West, turning a slice of forgettable disco cheese into a choral-gay-90’s anthem which both has the optimism of the time in terms of gay rights and partying mixed with the lamenting of the 80’s AID’s epidemic and what that actually did to the dream.

    • It’s sad that ‘YMCA’ has lost most of its subversive bite, then, what with it being a drunken wedding, or kids party, dance routine, with nobody noticing the lyrics about having orgies in the showers at the Y… Plus, try requesting this at a gay bar these days and see what kind of looks you get…

      One thing I wondered about – completely unrelated – is that the New Year #1 differing from the Xmas #1 was very rare back then. I was under the impression that the Xmas chart was simply republished the following week because everyone was on holiday. What happened in 1978?

      • To try and answer your question, I’ve just checked back in my much-thumbed copy of Guinness Top 40 Charts, published 1992, which includes every Top 40 from March 1960 to December 1991 (with an occasional Top 30 here and there, e.g. beginning of January 1978). The last occasion on which the previous week’s Top 40 was repeated over Christmas and new year was 31 December 1983 when the list of 24 December was used again. I’m not sure why December 1984 saw a break with that rule – possibly increasing automation in the chart returns system made it easier to produce a new one? I had a quick look on google, but couldn’t find any more info.

      • Hmm.. so why how did YMCA climb to #1 the week after Xmas ’78, then? I knew it was practice for many years, and one of the reasons why John and Yoko’s ‘Merry Xmas (War Is Over)’ didn’t get to #1 in 1980, when it probably should have…

      • These days the YMCA is more likely to contain some people with drug and alcohol problems so they are to be applauded still, but the sentiment is very much outdated these days if anyone turns up expecting YMCA the song 🙂 I don’t mind it being a party anthem, as long as I’m not at the party having to hear it for the millionth time 🙂

        Up to 1973 the Xmas chart was usually repeated for a week cos of the postal problems getting the info from Record shops to compile a fresh chart, what with the shops also being closed for almost half of the week too in those days (no Sunday trading). Sometimes they did collate, but not publish, the extra chart, I understand. By 1978 compiling was much more accurate, couriers were used, sales were bigger and I think things just became more organised as the chart expanded to a top 75, so the extra chart was compiled, broadcast as top 40, and retrospectively published in full a couple of weeks later with the start of the new year. Music Week never publishes over the holiday period either.

      • Just had a flick through and there were 3x in the 60s where the #1 changed for the final chart of the year: Cliff in 1960, Moon River in ’61 and Marmalade in 1969… For some reason I thought YMCA was the first. Oh well. I had heard about John and Yoko being denied the post-Xmas #1 in 1980, due to the chart being republished despite them probably being the highest sellers.

      • To which I go “doh!” if Happy Xmas War Is Over was denied by that woman (and co) from Coronation Street unjustly – she was on House Of Games repeat claiming she topped the charts for 4 weeks in 1980 where Jordan from Rizzle Kicks only got one from helping Olly Murs. “No you didn’t” I shouted at the telly 🙂

        The early 60’s I think used as official charts Record Retailer (Music Week) charts which were basically ticks in diaries from shops, so it would have been fairly easy to cobble something together, accurate or not (“hey give us some extra ticks love, here’s some freebies”). The BBC used to compile it’s own charts until 1969, mashing up all the music press charts into one hotchpotch mess, complete with joint number ones, if I remember correctly so memories of what topped the charts may not match what was retrospectively accepted in 1976 as “Guinness Book Of Hit Singles” listings. So Please Please Me MAY have been the real number one, or may not, in 1963, depending on who you think had the more accurate charts. Independent auditing started in 1963, but the BBC didn’t cough up for the cost until Summer 1969. F’rinstance my memory is that Hey Jude entered the BBC charts at 1 in 1968 – yet it didn’t according to the now-official charts, or I’ve mis-remembered and confused it with Get Back entering at 1. Hey Jude was much bigger though, it was an event, Get Back wasn’t. Who knows! Not me 🙂

  2. Just like you, I can’t possibly count the number of times I’ve heard “YMCA” get played at dances, celebrations, kid events, etc. It’s like a requirement to play “YMCA” at major functions. It’s a song that’s become so mainstream that I didn’t even realize it’s gay meaning for a long time and many others probably don’t too. Granted, I can kind of see why when you get past the Village People’s image. The song is delivered in an innocent matter that it makes all the gay connotations fly over your head. It could be a song about just having a good time at the YMCA. And it also a fun time regardless with the classic disco elements from the swirling strings, the four on the floor drums, and the walking bass line. The lead singer Victor Willis performs “YMCA” with lots of enthusiasm that makes the YMCA sound like a fun place to go to and from summer camp work experience it can be. It’s perfect for the dance floor. But in America, it couldn’t get the juice to get to #1 in early ‘79 over two other disco hits “Le Freak” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And before disco started to fall, they quickly followed up with the #3 “In The Navy” and quickly fell with the genre which was cemented by the negative reaction to their 1980 musical movie Can’t Stop The Music which along with Xanadu inspired the Razzie Awards winning the first Worst Picture award.

    • I think there are actual laws that mean a wedding disco DJ has to include this in their set, or you don’t have to pay them…

      As a kid, we all knew that YMCA, or the band at least, were ‘gay’… long before we really knew what being ‘gay’ involved. But yes, the song is simple and catchy enough to be kind of subtle (beyond being performed by a man in bondage gear…) to the point where Donald Trump seemed to think it would go down well at his rallies, along with ‘Macho Man’, apparently…

  3. All I know is, when this came out, I was in 7th grade. Any gay references were lost on me. I thought the guys were cute but, the rest…flew right over my 12 year old head. I loved ’em. They were fun to watch and the music was catchy.

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  6. I remember this at ballparks, pep rallies, and everywhere else. Even as a 10 years old…it was pretty damn obvious…I will say though…catchy as hell. I wonder where the arm signaling came from…I was also waiting for it in the video.

    • Yeah in the video they do the ‘Y’ then kind of give up… I read that they had the idea for the ‘official’ dance on a TV performance when the song became a hit. They must have filmed the video before that.

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