The Drama Behind The Village People Seems To Be Over, For Now

In order to keep a group alive for 40 years, it takes a Village, people.

They're one of the most recognisable pop groups of all time, with hits like "Y.M.C.A", "Go West" and "Macho Man".

Known for their iconic outfits of the construction worker, the Native American, the GI, the cop, the cowboy and the leather-clad biker.

But decades after their stardom reached its peak, the Village People became plagued with years of legal disputes and public arguments. A far cry from the fun-loving band who inspired generations to get themselves off the ground.

Formed in 1977 by a French producer, Jacques Morali, and his partner, Henri Belolo, joined forces with performer Victor Willis. Morali reportedly told Willis at the time, "I had a dream that you sang lead vocals on an album I produced and it went very, very big."

Willis agreed to sing on the first album and as it gained success there was a demand for live performances, however, "the Village People" at that stage was simply Willis.

Morali began to recruit a troupe of performers to back him during live shows.

These original members came in handy for a while, but when offers began to roll in for the Village People to perform on shows like American Bandstand, Morali and Willis made the decision to put a call-out to form a proper group.

Eventually, they decided to place an ad that read: "Macho Types Wanted... Must Dance and Have A Moustache."

The Drama Behind The Village People Seems To Be Over For Now

From the get-go, the Village People were icons of masculinity, presenting these characters as the various tropes and proud totems of what it meant to be a "Macho Man".

That emphasis on masculinity was also subverted, through their disco-loving ways, which has turned some of their classics into gay anthems.

Willis has long held the opinion that the "homosexual subtext" many of his songs accrued over the years was unintended and often rebuked by Willis himself over the years.

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In 2007 his publicist Alice Wolf issued a statement on Willis' behalf clarifying the meaning behind "Y.M.C.A." and denying any gay subtext in the song.

"Victor Willis wrote about the YMCA and having fun there, but the type of fun he was talking about was straight fun," Wolf said making sure to add that Willis had "nothing against homosexuality" then went on to say he was "appalled" by the gay subtext.

Wolf also claimed the rising popularity with gay fans was partly why Willis became frustrated, after a deal with the US Navy to use the song "In The Navy" fell apart, Willis blamed the band's link to queer culture.

That frustration, Wolf believed, was why Willis quit and sought his own solo career.

From 1977-1979 the new Village People, now featuring Randy Jones, David Hodo and Glenn Hughes along with Felipe Rose and Alex Briley, released some of their biggest tracks and catapulted them into international stardom with Willis writing, co-producing and performing for the group as well as other artists.

Right before the group made the critically panned feature film Can't Stop the Music, Willis left the group -- and although he doesn't star in the movie -- he did have a hand in writing lyrics for a few of the songs that it featured.

After Willis' departure, several others stepped into his (cop) shoes to fill the lead role.

The Drama Behind The Village People Seems To Be Over For Now

Victor Willis attended the Village People's induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008. The next year he would sue the group for using his likeness without permission. Image: by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic.

That's something substantial to remember because while Willis was instrumental in the development of the group and their early successes, he only briefly returned to the band momentarily during those 40 years.

Willis struggled with substance abuse throughout that time and -- following an arrest in 2006 -- was instructed by the courts to receive treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic.

After rehab, Willis set his sights on reclaiming his legacy with the Village People, and that's where years of legal battles began.

Due to Willis' work penning more than 30 of the Village People's tracks, he began to make use of the Copyright Act amendments which basically said if an artist signed away the rights to works at early stages of their career, after 35 years they could terminate those copyright grants and reclaim the rights.

During that battle, publishers made the argument that because Willis was a co-writer he had no right to terminate the grant, however, a judge ruled in favour of Willis and ultimately struck Henri Belolo's songwriter credit from 13 tracks.

The Drama Behind The Village People Seems To Be Over For Now
Victor Willis and the new line-up of the Village People. Image: Getty Images.

In 2009, Willis attempted to sue the group for using his likeness and voice as a promotional tool without his consent.

The final battle for Willis was to reclaim the name of the Village People from the band that had continued his work decades after he had left the group. In 2017 the group formerly known as the Village People became the Kings of Disco.

"There was nothing I could do about it until this legal stuff was straightened out," he told the BBC.

"This just happened to be at the 40-year anniversary of Village People. Everything seemed to fall into place where I could say, 'OK, it's time for me to take over the group again."

Clarifying that what Willis had planned was "not a reunion, but to reboot the group" he explained that he wanted to go back to the group's origins, "like when Jacques and I first sat down and decided we're going to create this Village People thing."

For the band's 40th anniversary, Willis was finally back in control. With a live band and a completely refreshed roster.

Reunited with his original songs, his band's name and a neckerchief and cop's helmet, Willis was back where he wanted to be after all these years.

Sometimes, you can go home again.

Image: Getty Images.