Disco didn't die. It just got the hell out of the way for a spell so that imminent movements in popular music -- punk, new wave, jangle rock, grunge, hip-hop -- could thunder on by. During that downtime, however, something funny happened to disco -- not so much to the music itself, but to the fans of beat-crazy dance pop. They gradually stopped calling it "disco." Today's bump 'n' grinders, in fact, wouldn't be caught dead shaking it to disco ("That was so '70s"). Yet what's the diff?

And where's the respect? Take the Village People, for instance (who open for Cher at the Arena this Sunday night). As one of the most successful groups of the much-maligned disco era, the upbeat, flamboyant vocal sextet typically wanders into the crosshairs whenever diehard "disco sucks" expatriates gather to reminisce about the bad old days when repetitive disco fluff clogged the nation's airwaves. Yet how can you bash a group that managed in their relatively short chart tenure to turn so many heads, to get so many people singing, dancing and smiling, to force Joe Sixpack to question his own prejudices?

As goofy as the Village People might have seemed, they were actually pretty subversive, especially back in 1978 when the group was burning up the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. with disco-era hits like "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A." For while the members were self-consciously gay men singing transparently gay anthems, mainstream America (not generally known for its tolerance of homosexuals) was almost entirely clueless to this fact -- and bought up the group's records by the millions. An amusing irony, which reached truly mind-blowing proportions when the United States Navy actually considered using the group's hit, "In the Navy," as a recruitment jingle -- that is, until someone explained the song's implications to the top brass. ("Excuse me, sir, but have you read the lyrics?")

It's an irony that continues to be enjoyed by gay-friendlies in 2005, as the Village People's legacy is invoked during sporting events all across this land. You know what I'm talking about -- that moment (usually during a pre-ordained lull in the action) when all the stout, manly white dudes, their mousy, God-fearing wives and their school-aged children get up on their feet to perform in unison the familiar "Y.M.C.A." routine at the top of their lungs. "You can hang out with all the boys!" I tell ya, it just doesn't get any better than that.

It all started in 1977 with the Village People's founding member, Felipe Rose, better know as "the Indian." Rose (whose father was Lakota Sioux) was first discovered by French producer/composer Jacques Morali in the New York gay disco bar where he worked as a dancer, performing in the traditional garb of his Native American ancestors. Morali was so impressed he was inspired to create the Village People (the name refers to NYC's Greenwich Village), a vocal group that would record and perform dance songs he would write and produce. He hired Rose and began recruiting other Manhattan-area male singers and dancers for the project. Before you could say "sale at Macy's," the Village People was formed, representing six all-American, all-gay male stereotypes: Rose as "the Indian," original lead vocalist Victor Willis as "the cop," David Hondo as "the construction worker," Randy Jones as "the cowboy," Alex Briley as "the soldier" and leather-clad Glenn Hughes as "the biker."

It was pure genius. And the Village People (with Morali firmly in control) wasted no time jumping on the disco rocket and riding it for all it was worth. The group's self-titled debut album -- containing the first single, "San Francisco (You Got Me)" -- spent 86 weeks on the U.S. charts. They next appeared on the soundtrack to the disco movie Thank God It's Friday with the gay anthem, "I Am What I Am." "Macho Man" -- with its slightly more subtle, tongue-in-cheek songwriting approach -- was the breakthrough single, followed closely by the super-camp smash, "Y.M.C.A.," which was the No. 2 record in all of America during 1979. The following year, the Village People starred in the movie, Can't Stop the Music, with Valerie Perrine and Bruce Jenner (a current cult fave among pop culture geeks and Studio 54 survivors).

Of the six Village People on the current Cher tour, three (Rose, Hondo and Briley) are founding members. Willis and Jones left the group in 1980 and were replaced by Ray Simpson and Jeff Olsen. Current biker Eric Anzalone joined the group in 1995, replacing the exiting Hughes (who died of lung cancer in 2001).

They may not have been able to wring much respect out of music critics, but the Village People have managed to sustain a 20-year performing career and have earned enough respect and love along the way to become fully accepted as pop culture icons. They're as all-American as Tom Cruise. And I hear they put on a hell of a show.

Publication date: 1/20/04

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