And Now, a Few Words About Crap

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.

4 responses

  1. John Landecker of WLS/Chicago used to play the Top 10 of the week to begin his show on Thursday nights at 7pm. Whenever “Music Box Dancer” would come up, he’d just cut it off after about 30 seconds. I wonder if he always got in trouble for doing that.

  2. Wow, your cat must have really gone medieval on you. No more Frank Mills for Tabby!

    St. Cloudites embraced the record just like the Dubuquers did. It was the biggest thing since Boney M, and what really made it fun was to see adults get so jazzed about a tune that it drove them to pester the life out of the local station to find out the particulars. It was the rare bird that pulled off that kind of feat. Score another one for radio’s ability to sniff out a hit.

    As for the lyrics, what was the point? This wasn’t “Downtown,” for crying out loud. That rat-a-tat delivery to match Mills’ staccato playing style makes the vocals sound beyond ridiculous. Unless they were intended to mimic a singing china doll, that is. What did your cat think of Conniff’s take?

  3. Oh, my … couldn’t get past two lines of the Conniff version before having to stop. And I have to confess … I liked “Music Box Dancer”! But then, I was in Chicago, where Top 40 radio was either Styx’s “Renegade,” wall-to-wall disco or Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” nonstop, so “Music Box Dancer” was at least something different. (I agree now that it’s a mindworm…)

  4. Landecker used to do the same with “You Light Up My Life,” saying management told him to play it once an hour. He’d play a 10 or 15 second snippet a few times an hour. In the same vein of crap, what about that Will to Power medley of “Free Bird” and “Baby I Love Your Way?”

    I, too jb have lots of Ray Conniff and this is a hoot. But you should seek out his version of “Angie Baby” for a real shlock treat.

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