Excellence is a fine thing. But can we live on a steady diet of excellence? I say no. Just as there would be no beauty without ugliness, there can be no excellence without crappiness.
And here’s another thing about crap: It is, to a large extent, in the eye or the ear of the beholder. Thirty-three years ago this week, “You Light Up My Life” was in the midst of a historic run atop the singles chart. Despite the fact that many millions claimed to hate it, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason. And even with all that airplay, you know there were people who bought the single or the album or the cassette and played it over and over again because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio. (“Seasons in the Sun” was the same way.) Conscientious music fans, and current or former radio DJs amongst the readership, we’re not normal. We have a thirst for the new, or at least for the different. There are days when I’m playing “Viva la Vida” and it makes me wanna go medieval on the next unfortunate bastard I see. But while I’m fighting the urge, somebody out there in radioland is thinking, “Hey, great, Coldplay—I love that song.”
One of the first songs I got truly good and sick of during my radio career is also one of the odder hit records of the 1970s. Pianist Frank Mills was a member of the Canadian group the Bells, but left before they scored their signature hit, “Stay Awhile,” in 1971. In 1974, he recorded a new album that contained something he called “Music Box Dancer.” And on the album it sat, for four years, until it was pulled for use as a B-side for a new Mills single. But when a radio station music director in Ottawa flipped the new record over, “Music Box Dancer” ended up a significant hit in Canada before crossing the border. We played the living hell out of it on KDTH, and fielded request calls for it at any moment it wasn’t on the air. It reached Number 3 on the Hot 100 in May 1979.
Mills took a songwriting credit for “Music Box Dancer,” although I recall hearing that somebody once called up a radio station somewhere and played them a hundred-year-old music box with the same tune. And although the hit version was an instrumental, the song has lyrics. The only recorded version I can find is from a 1979 album by the Ray Conniff Singers. If you’ve eaten recently, you probably should wait to click it, and I say that as somebody who is not necessarily allergic to Conniff’s appeal.
Sweet Jesus, I need to hear some death metal, stat. Come to think of it, the Conniff version makes Mills’ original sound like death metal.
Frank Mills is not a one-hit wonder. In 1972, “Love Me Love Me Love,” with its Lobo-esque vocal, made it to Number 46. Late in 1979, “Peter Piper” made it to Number 48. (We played that one at KDTH, too.)
If “Music Box Dancer” hadn’t popped up on an unlabeled CD while I was taking the cat to the vet today, you might have been spared all this. Welcome to my thought process, everybody.
Note to Patrons: Our semi-customary Friday Top 5 will appear on Monday.