The video opens innocently enough. A bell sounds as we gaze onto a U.S. Navy frigate, safely docked at port at Naval Base San Diego. A cadre of sailors, dressed in “crackerjack” style enlisted dress uniforms and hauling duffel bags over their shoulders, stride up a gangplank aboard the vessel. The officer on deck greets them with a blast of a boatswain's call. It could be the opening scene of a recruitment video for the greatest naval force on the planet.
Then the rhythmic clapping begins.
This is no recruitment video. It's 'In The Navy,' the legendary 1979 hit from disco queens The Village People, shot aboard the very real Knox-class USS Reasoner (FF-1063) frigate. And one of those five Navy sailors who strode up that gangplank during filming was Ronald Beck, at the time a legal yeoman and witness to one of the strangest collisions between the U.S. military and pop culture of the 20th century.
“They picked the ship and they picked us, I don't know why,” Beck, who left the Navy in 1982, told Task & Purpose in a phone interview from his Texas home in October. “I was just lucky to be one of 'em picked.”
The infamous video, shot aboard the Reasoner 40 years ago this year, was originally intended as a recruiting video. With the popularity of The Village People's 'Macho Man' and 'YMCA,' tying the post-Vietnam blue water force to one of the hottest acts in entertainment seemed like a no-brainer for Navy public affairs officials with the Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, who contacted Village People co-founder Henri Belolo (who died this year) about shooting a music video aboard a Navy vessel.
The Navy reportedly pulled out all the stops to make the video happen.
According to the book Macho Man, the Navy not only forked over the Reasoner, but several F-4 Phantom aircraft and dozens of additional personnel to make the video happen. The service even dubbed the band members honorary “members of the United States Navy, with all the rights and privileges, but none of the duties or obligations.”
Not everyone was so comfortable. While senior Navy officials didn't seem totally aware of the Village People's appeal to primarily-gay disco audiences at the time, enlisted sailors certainly were, and there were “mixed emotions” about having the group aboard to perform the song. At least one former enlisted sailor told Task & Purpose that he scheduled leave explicitly so he could avoid appearing in the video.
“I'm not against being gay, but I grew up in the Texas panhandle and had never seen or met an openly gay person until I joined the Navy,” Beck said.
The lead up to production took several months. According to Beck, a photographer arrived aboard the Reasoner months before the production opened to shoot every sailor; a month before production began, five sailors, Beck included, were fitted for the classic crackerjack-style dress uniform. Then, in June 1978 when filming began, Beck and his fellow sailors were assembled by the quarterdeck to meet the band.
“It happened very fast,” said one former Reasoner officer, whose signal gang was responsible for getting the up-and-over flags deployed across the Reasoner. “I went on leave on Wednesday to get married and the taping happened on the following Monday. We had no clue this was happening when I left.”
“When the Village People first arrived, the leader in the officer's uniform [Victor Willis] had a raincoat on and his hands in his pockets,” Beck recalled. “The officer on deck told him to remove his hands, and when he did, a big bag of pot fell on the deck.”
“The XO at the time walked over and said, 'That's not allowed on our ship,' and he kicked it over the side,” Beck added. “[Willis] yelled, 'That's 300 bucks!' And the XO replied, 'I don't' care.' Those were the rules.”
Representatives for Willis and The Village People did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Shooting the music video itself was a relatively painless process.
The band assembled on the quarterdeck to lip sync along to the song as it played over loudspeakers while dozens of Reasoner sailors were lucky enough to watch from the flight deck. Alex Briley, the group's original 'G.I.,' was decked out as a petty officer first class and touted a Shore Patrol armband and billy club, while bandleader Ellis appeared in an admiral's dress whites.
“[Willis] was a real troublemaker … He had this whole 'I'm better than you attitude,'” Beck recalled. “The rest of the band were great. We changed clothes with 'em to do our part and chit-chatted. At the time, we didn't know they were gay, not that I cared. I liked 'YMCA,' and they were okay folks.”
But while Beck and his fellow sailors are clearly visible standing at ease in the first minute of the video while the Village People gyrate in front of them, the yeoman says that he and his fellow sailors mostly didn't make the final cut. In fact, the opening sequence was supposed to feature each sailor strolling up the gangplank and asking for permission to come aboard, a cut that Beck says only ever aired once, on a Jerry Lewis telethon sometime in the 1980s.
The aftermath of the music video is now the stuff of legend.
According to one former officer, the Reasoner's XO received a message about a month after shooting describing COMNAVSURFPAC public affairs' plans for the video. The video itself premiered in March 1979; by the following April, the Village People appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in their 'In The Navy' costumes.
But a few weeks after the video started airing, Navy officials finally became aware of the group's LGBT innuendo after the New York Post ran a story blasting the service for using taxpayer dollars to fund the music video. Two members of the Reasoner crew told Task & Purpose that then-Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. disavowed the production entirely, claiming that then-Reasoner Capt. Jon Jared Gershon had acted on his own to bring the video aboard.
“Someone apparently mentioned to SecNav that the Village People 'had a large gay following' and SecNav disavowed the whole thing,” a former enlisted electronics technician told Task & Purpose.
The Navy can't confirm any of this, unfortunately. According to Paul Taylor, a spokesman for Naval History and Heritage Command, a search of existing Navy records indicates “no record of a connection” between the U.S. Navy and the Village People.
“If you know anything about the military, you know how ridiculous that is,” the technician told Task & Purpose. “They had to have clearance to get on base, to get to the ship, to get on board, etc … Gershon couldn't have let them on by himself even if he wanted to.”
Despite the Navy's post-filming disavowal, the reputation has stuck with the vessel. According to Beck, the local gay radio station in San Francisco routinely sent hundreds of visitors aboard the vessel during port calls in San Francisco. “We went overseas twice, and when you pulled into port, people wanted to come aboard just because the Village People waked where they were walking,” he said.
On the upside, members of the Reasoner crew do have one important souvenir from this brush with pop-culture greatness: a custom 45 vinyl record of the track. Unfortunately, Beck no longer has his: “By the end of my time in the Navy, I was tired of hearing that song, so I threw it across San Diego Bay.”
But even though he was only in the Navy for six years, Beck looks back on the experience fondly.
“I never dreamed it was possible, for a dirt-poor kid like me to join the Navy and have this happened,” he said. “I was honored by the Village People … and more importantly, I was honored by the Reasoner.”