Still can't stop the music
Not long ago Alexander Briley, who joined Village People soon after the group was formed in 1977, was waiting in an airport lounge with his bandmates. From behind him, he suddenly heard a 5-year-old boy start to sing the group's biggest hit, YMCA.
"He had no idea that Ray [Simpson, the group's lead singer] was sitting there and he was just singing the song.
"Ray turned around and looked at him and said, ‘Do you know what you're singing?' and he [the boy] said, ‘YMCA'.
"His parents said, ‘He sings it all the time. He just enjoys himself'.
"Ray said, ‘I just want you to know that I am one of the gentleman in the group'. They took some pictures with him and the little boy just sat there, shaking, with his mouth open. He didn't know what to do at that point, but he was enjoying himself so much, we just had to let him know."
The fact that a 5-year-old boy was singing a 33-year-old song sums up the enduring popularity of the New York disco group, born of the city's then largely fringe gay club scene.
Quiz any primary-school child in Wellington and most will not only know YMCA, but will be able to do the hand actions, spelling out the letters, which have almost become a rite of passage in embracing the song.
Many people who weren't even born when YMCA was No 1 in New Zealand in 1979, and the 11th biggest-selling single of that year, also know the group's other hits off by heart, including Macho Man, In the Navy, Go West and Can't Stop the Music.
But Briley, who for most of his time in Village People has dressed as the GI soldier, says YMCA was a fluke. The group had already recorded most of the songs for the third album, Cruisin', and YMCA was an afterthought for the group's brainchild, French record producer Jacques Morali, who was looking for a filler song.
"We were one song short of an album. We had left the studio and were walking down the street with the producer, when he said [in French], ‘YMCA'. One of us said, ‘YMCA - Young Man's Christian Association'. He immediately, as he continued to walk, had a little melody in his head. The song was written in 15 minutes or more.
"When they took it to the head of the record company, they were trying to decide on [the first single] and had another choice.
"He said, ‘No, YMCA is going to be the song. You are never going to have to worry about anything.' And so we followed it."
Morali's original goal was for a camp rock'n'roll dance group, but after signing to Casablanca Records - then having a string of disco hits with Donna Summer - Morali hired Felipe Rose, who was dressed as a Native American, and chose the popular disco sound.
Briley was hired after hearing about the group from Victor Willis, the first Village People lead singer.
Willis had been a backup singer for Morali's other act, the all-girl Ritchie Family.
Willis told Briley that Morali was putting together an all-male group and he had joined.
"I said, ‘I wish you the best'. Forty-eight hours later, he called me on the phone. ‘One of the guys has decided not to go on the road. Are you interested?'
"So I thought about it for 30 seconds and said yes. Here I am, 35 years later."
Briley says his soldier look was at the suggestion of the group and a wardrobe mistress, who hunted out uniforms in army surplus stores. He was relaxed about the idea because he owned a General Eisenhower-era jacket.
"I loved it. It was a classic and I was searching for the pants for that. So I elaborated on it and over the years came up with most of the branches of it."
Within a year of the group's formation, Village People songs were on the charts. But Briley says he lost count of the number of moments when he thought they couldn't become any more popular, and then they did. He gives some examples.
"You stand in front of 60,000 people at a New Year's Eve thing in El Paso. You do a show in Sydney or all these other places, and you realise, ‘My goodness, all these people really like us'.
"Then you go the American Music Awards and then you have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Those things just sort of say, ‘It actually happened'."
Briley is philosophical about the downside. For a time, Village People were targets of the anti-disco backlash. This resulted in a bizarre interlude in the Village People look, when they swapped the tongue-in-cheek costumes for a makeup-and-hairstyle-heavy New Romantic look. It didn't last long.
"It's funny. Every once and a while it still comes up.
"Our producer said, ‘We've got to change our look'. We said, ‘What are you going to change it to?' and he came up with this idea, as so many other groups had come up with - this New Romantic look.
"Since we were doing a great deal of television and travelling, he had a makeup artist and costume designer design this completely different look, which only went over in Italy."
Then there was the movie Can't Stop the Music. The soundtrack was a big hit, but critics savaged the film. It received a mixed response from audiences, although it was popular in some countries, including Australia.
"Even now, someone will call me and say, ‘I've just seen the movie'."
Briley says he had no regrets about the film, which had a cast including Valerie Perrine and veterans such as Tammy Grimes and Sammy Davis Jr's wife, Altovise Davis. "It was fun because of who I got to meet."
- Village People perform at Wellington Town Hall, November 29.
The Dominion Post