Chart Week: May 5, 1979
Song: “Music Box Dancer” – Frank Mills
Chart Position: #3, 15th week on the chart. This was the song’s peak.

Songs like “Music Box Dancer,” complete outliers to everything else on the pop chart at the time, fascinate me. It makes no sense that this track spent over four months in the Hot 100 and climbed as high as number three. Even for the 1970’s, a decade loaded with bizarre records that landed in the top ten, it seems strange.

What else was on American Top 40 that week? The Disco era wasn’t officially over, but it was drawing its last breaths. Still there were at least twelve songs in this week’s countdown that could be categorized as Disco. The late 70’s were when what we eventually called Classic Rock reached its peak. There are at least six Classic Rock tracks amongst this week’s Top 40. The AM Radio Gold sound was fading like a bad radio signal, yet three artists that owed their success to that genre were in the countdown. There were two Beatles (Paul McCartney’s Wings and George Harrison) and two of the biggest artists of the New Wave era (Blondie and The Police).[1]

And then there was this, an instrumental track written to mimic the sound of a music box. It didn’t have a connection to a movie or TV show. Mills wasn’t famous for other things, bringing a built-in audience to his music. He wasn’t coming off a previous big hit. He wasn’t riding the wave of a departing fad or leading the charge of a new one. The track wasn’t part of a promotional campaign. This was about as random of a one-hit wonder as you can get.

And that’s what fascinates me. Somehow, in the midst of everything else that was being played on radio in 1979, this single triggered something in people that prompted them to call radio stations to request it and to walk into record stores to buy copies to play at home.

All that success is even crazier when you learn that “Music Box Dancer” was never supposed to be a single.

Mills first recorded the song for a 1974 album. When Polydor Records released a new single from a later Mills album in1978, they slapped “MBD” on as a B-side. A DJ at Ottawa’s CFRA radio didn’t view the A-side as a potential hit, and flipped the record, thinking Polydor had made a labelling mistake and “MBD” was the intended single. He was wrong about the labelling, but he still liked the track. He added it to the CFRA’s playlist, and by late June, 1978 it was their number one song.

That success soon spread across Canada, which led to a US release. The American record sold one million copies. A LOT OF FREAKING PEOPLE LIKED THIS SONG.

I remember “Music Box Dancer” well. It might be the first song I ever heard on the radio that I knew sucked. I don’t know whether that was my own opinion, formed from hearing it splitting up songs I liked on the radio, or one I came to after hearing older kids suggest it was trash in school bus conversations. Still, I knew it was awful.

Four decades later it remains tough for me to evaluate because it still does not sound like a pop song. While Mills never had another hit single in the US, he had placed an album in the top 10 of the Easy Listening album chart before “MBD”’s run. This song should have stayed in that realm and never wandered into the Hot 100.

I don’t know whether his piano playing is inspired or insipid. I hate the cheesy-ass strings that accompany him. The beat has always seemed like something a person who knows nothing about modern pop music would come up with in at attempt to modernize a sleepy Easy Listening song for younger crowds. Credit to Mills for taking advantage of a moment when pop music was in flux. But the song still sucks. 2/10

  1. These classifications are all pretty fluid – well except for who was/was not a Beatle – thus the lack of definitive counts.  ↩