It’s a strange irony that the artists who produce the most throwaway, upbeat music are often the ones with the most calamitous, misery-blighted life-stories. It’s true of Britney ‘bald rampage’ Spears, Whitney ‘imaginary piano’ Houston – and it certainly applies to The Village People, whose cartoon image as cuddly avatars of ’70s disco camp masks a personal litany of in-fighting and tragedy.
Today’s revelation that original singer Victor Willis (the policeman) is suing the current incarnation of the group for copyright infringement is only the latest instalment in this sorry narrative.
The Village People may have sold 85 million albums and singles, but almost all those sales relate to a brief window of success lasting less than one year. January 1979 saw the release of ‘YMCA’. By November that year, Willis had quit, the disco boom was over, and the band were on the scrapheap.
Ditching their trademark outfits in favour of a New Romantic-inspired look failed to stop the rot and in 1985 the band split, replaced two year later by an almost entirely different line-up.
Around this time the group’s mentor and main driving force, Jacques Morali, was diagnosed with AIDS. The virus ultimately killed him in 1991, aged 44, just months after Ray Stephens, a member of the second-wave Village People line-up, had passed away amidst rumours of drug abuse.
Tragedy struck again a decade later when original member Glenn ‘The Biker’ Hughes died as a result of lung cancer. Throughout this torrid period, Willis, famously the only straight member of the group, was struggling with what he has since called the “nightmare” of cocaine addiction. The vocalist was arrested in 2005 after police found a gun and crack cocaine in his car.
A lengthy spell in rehab followed, after which Willis planned a comeback tour but was forced to cancel when he developed nodes on his vocal cords, preventing him from singing. Perhaps that’s why he has now decided to claw back putative lost earnings via a lawsuit.
All of which should give you pause next time you witness a dancefloor full of drunk dads throwing themselves around to ‘YMCA’. Camp classic – or harbinger of limitless pain and suffering?