Thirty years after hitting the music scene, the iconically camp Village People will be performing in South Africa. Considering that the group was conceived as a concept band to cash in on the disco craze, the Village People’s music – including gay anthems such as YMCA, Macho Man, Go West and In The Navy – remains remarkably popular today across generations.
Whether it’s because of the band’s admittedly catchy tunes or its campy routines and costumes, the Village People continues to tour around the world. To-date the group has sold over 85 million albums and singles. However, the years have taken their toll and a number of the original members are not in the current line-up.
Still remaining from the original Village People are Alexander Briley (G.I./Military Man), Felipe Rose (American Indian Chief), David Hodo (Construction Worker). In 1980 Jeff Olson (Cowboy) and Ray Simpson (Cop) joined the group, and Eric Anzalone became the Biker in 1995.
While the group has been seen as part of the emerging gay rights movement of the seventies, thanks to its gay sensibility and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, this has not been without controversy.
In some ways the group has seemed intent on remaining ambiguous about its gay following. Many of the band members won’t discuss their sexuality, with former lead singer Victor Willis saying that he was appalled by the homosexual subtext people perceived in the Village People’s music.
He’s claimed that the band’s gay following was one of the reasons that led him to quit. Bizarrely, Willis went on to become a fugitive on drug-related charges and was even featured on America’s Most Wanted in 2005. He is set to release a tell-all book this year.
Questions sent by Mambaonline to Alex Briley, the original G.I./Military Man who will be appearing with the group in South Africa, about some of these contentious issues were ignored in favour of more PR-friendly questions.
Briley was introduced to the Village People’s creator, the producer and composer Jacques Morali, in New York in 1977 by Willis. He went on to join the group as a founding member and has arranged most of its vocal arrangements and harmonies over the years. In this e-mail interview Briley discusses the Village People and its continued success.
So just how busy are you lately? What’s been your touring schedule, and how has that affected you?
We’ve just been on the road so much that you don’t get to think about the next day. In the past month alone, we’ve been in France, Romania, Spain, Italy and of course the US.
Has the band always remained this popular, or have there been ups and downs?
It still surprises me every time I see a young person who wants to see YMCA and then I say “Thank You”. And yes, there have been ups and downs.
Why do you think the Village People have remained so popular over the decades, far outliving the “death of disco” and going beyond the label of novelty act?
For one thing, we’re such a visual act. People still like to see costumes. Also, they’ve probably learned some of our names and so we have fans. And the music of that time is so much fun. How often do you hear people these days say “I need a disco fix?” We’re about having a good time.
Did the Village People set out to be gay icons? How did that come about?
Music at the time had to go through the gay discos. The critics were there every night and they would see the floor packed. Our music was always energetic and people would associate the music with our characters.
Are you OK with being seen by some as kitschy or campy?
I don’t have a problem with that.
Many straight people, particularly back in the ‘70s, didn’t get the gay subtext to some of your songs? Was that by design?
Sometime people would listen to us and come up with phrases that weren’t even in the songs. I’m sure that some of the writers influenced the songs so that it could be taken in more than one way.
Just who is straight and who is gay in the group?
It’s not my business to tell.
How have changes in membership of the group affected the group as a whole? Was it traumatic when someone would leave?
In many instances it worked out well. The loss of Glenn Hughes [the Biker character, who died from lung cancer in 2001] was deeply felt.
What have you done in terms of projects outside the group?
There hasn’t been any time. Sometimes we work 24/7.
What songs are still the most fun to sing? Why?
YMCA – because of the crowd response.
Is there anything you are looking forward to seeing or doing while you are in town?
Maybe seeing a little bit of Johannesburg. Many times we’re in and out so fast – we’re never in one place long enough to enjoy it.
The Village People will be performing, along with Sister Sledge, at the Disco Inferno party – featuring a giant discotheque with DJs playing all the hit music of the 70’s, mirror balls, giant video screens, dancers and scantily clad waiters – at Carnival City in Joburg on Friday 4 and Saturday 5 April. Book at Computicket.