“Whose ready to dance?” Well, back on this day in 1979, it would seem like the answer was “everybody” judging from the music charts. In the U.S., disco kings the Bee Gees had the #1 song in the slower “Too Much Heaven”, which was in a sort of Chic sandwich. “Le Freak” by Chic had been #1 before it and would retake the top spot for four more weeks. But over in Britain, one of the all-time Disco anthems, as well as it would seem Gay anthems, “YMCA” by the Village People had climbed to the top. It was also at #1 in Australia at the time and would end up being a chart-topper in 13 other countries including Canada, France, New Zealand and Italy. In the States, where they were from, it got stuck at #2 for three weeks.
The Village People were a group of singers/dancers put together in 1977 by Jacques Morali, a Moroccan-born French artist, who remarkably enough began his career writing orchestral music in the ’60s. He also had a mind to marketing and realized that disco was big in the mid-’70s, particularly with the gay crowd. So he made his “group” consist of the most archetypical gay stereotype sex symbols – a construction worker, a Native Indian chief, a cowboy etc. Looking back, it seemed remarkable that many people didn’t “get” the inside joke, despite their first chart hit being “Macho Man” and them following that up with “Just a Gigolo” (later popularized by David Lee Roth).
They signed to Casablanca Records which was in the middle of a very good streak, having disco queen Donna Summer on their roster as well.
“YMCA”s music was written by Morali (who produced the record) with the lyrics being by Vic Willis, the lead singer. Willis was the “cop”, or sometimes the “Navy man in uniform” in case you were wondering. Ironically, Willis was the son of a Texas Baptist minister and perhaps more so, he wasn’t gay. He in fact married Phylicia Rashad, who’d play Clair on The Cosby Show, around that time. He says he didn’t write “YMCA” as a gay endorsement but rather, as a thumbs up to the organization for giving young men a safe place to hang out and play basketball. He does admit however, he was aware some might see his song a bit differently and he did like a good double-entendre.
The YMCA – Young Man’s Christian Association – weren’t as amused by it and threatened to sue all involved, although in years to come they’d say they were “proud” of the association with the tune.
Billboard weren’t all that wowed by it, noting it was “another example of their droll humor.” Cashbox however, raved about its “layered horn work and a bright and soaring chorus.” Who supplied the horns is a mystery; the album liner notes credit a crew of relatively unknown session players for most instruments – Jimmy & Roger Lee on guitars, Richard Trifan on synthesizers for example – but no one on horns.
Bright and soaring also described the public’s reaction to it, especially after they performed it on American Bandstand. Dick Clark came up with the idea of having his audience mime the letters to the chorus in the now-familiar dance that still gets performed to this day. Often at sporting events often associated with the most homophobic of crowds, ironically enough. Like the 44 000 football fans that performed it in 2008 at a Sun Bowl game in Texas.
When all was said and done, the single had sold over 10 million copies, gone platinum in the States and Britain (double so in Canada) and be picked by Paste magazine later as the “best dance floor classic” of all-time. What’s more, the Library of Congress would go on to recognize it for its “cultural, historical or aesthetical significance.”