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…

409. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer

The Jacksons and Hot Chocolate were merely our disco’s warm-up acts, setting the tone and getting the audience limbered up. The headline act is ready now. Ms. Summer will take the stage…

I Feel Love, by Donna Summer (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 17th July – 14th August 1977

This is a shift forwards. They come along every few years, number ones that announce a new phase, a new sound, a real moment in popular music. ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘How Do You Do It’, Rock Your Baby’… Rarely, though, do the records in question sound as if they are from another galaxy altogether.

The first thing that hits you, after a short fade in, are the Moog synthesisers. They are harsh, drilling into your brain. We’ve had synths before, plenty of times, but not used like this. This feels like a slap in the face. Meanwhile, Donna Summer’s voice floats high above: ethereal, echoey… so unhuman that it could be as computerised as the music. It’s like her vocals were recorded years before, like this is already the remix.

It’s so good… There’s not much to the lyrics, really. Donna Summer is not the star of the show here – although her vocals are a huge part of the song’s appeal, and its legacy. I feel love, I feel love, I feel lo-o-ove… The stars are Giorgio Moroder’s synths: clanking, chirping, burping away. He layered them, he overdubbed them, he played them slightly out of sync with one another… They’re a world away from ‘Son of My Father’… You start to get a little dizzy if you play this for long enough at a high volume. I can’t imagine what it would have done to you in a sweaty disco in 1977. But you can picture it – the lights, the vibrating speakers, the amyl nitrate in the air…

It’s not a particularly nice song. It’s not one for any old time of day. But it is spectacular. And it’s not disco, at least not the kind of sparkly, flirty disco that’s been the dominant sound of the past few years. It’s dance music. EDM ground zero. (Though I’m not saying this invented dance music in one fell swoop. That’s the problem with only reviewing the chart-topping singles – it’s not an exact overview of popular music as a whole.) But what’s for sure is that it sounds not unlike something a big-name DJ could produce in 2021.

The best bit – sorry Donna – is when everything falls away but the metallic beat. We’re left with a thumping heartbeat, and what sounds like a mouse rattling around in your skirting boards. On ‘I Remember Yesterday’, the album this single is taken from, each track was designed to sound as if it were from a different era. ‘I Feel Love’ was the final track. The future.

For your pleasure, you can choose from the four minute single edit, the six minute album version, or the eight minute extended 12” mix. (We could stretch a case for this being the longest #1 single yet, but we’d be chancing it.) The #1 that this most reminds me of – not in terms of sound, but in terms of impact and weirdness – is another futuristic hit: ‘Telstar’. That, though, was an isolated one-off. Not many subsequent records have sounded like ‘Telstar’. Large swathes of the 1980s will sound like ‘I Feel Love’.

It is a shame that Donna Summer’s only UK #1 is this. Not that it’s not great, but she isn’t the main thing about it. If this was a more recent release, it’d be Giorgio Moroder ft. Donna Summer. The producer would be the star. In the US, this wasn’t a #1, but her other classics were. ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’… I may have to do a Donna Top 10 very soon, as I’m not happy with her just having one appearance on this blog. She passed away in 2012, recognised as an influence on every disco act, every dance act, and every black woman who had hit the charts ever since.