When I reported that I’d found a job, I threw together a list of 19 songs about work to celebrate. Thanks to the educational efforts of Accused of Lurking, spinflipmag, Tttwitchy, Jerry Kaufman, mikenr, Special D, Mr. Seaside, Number 9, and further research by all of us here at the Bureau, I have expanded this list to 37 songs with some reference to working for a living in the title. And what a long strange trip it’s been.
The primary thing I’ve learned about songs about work is that almost no one who writes songs about work actually likes work. The secondary thing I’ve learned about songs about work is that work is usually a jumping-off point for something else. Heading the list: sex, parties, emotional misundertandings (see “sex”), and striving for a better life (“a better life” meaning a life that doesn’t include work).
I could easily have hit 40, but I had to draw the line somewhere, and that somewhere was anything that came too close to David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (a hit for Johnny Paycheck). For example, I didn’t include Sam Cooke’s “Working on a Chain Gang” because, well, chain gang. “Work Song” isn’t any better, as it involves chain gangs whether it’s performed by Nina Simone or Paul Butterfield. I like my new job. Chain gangs are right out.
“The Working Man” by Creedence Clearwater Revival found itself in the no-fly zone, as the spare lyrics hold enough hurt for a lifetime. Ditto “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Why does Tennessee Ernie Ford always sound like he’s lecturing me? If ever a singer needed to be backed by bongos or an accordion, it was him.) “Working for the Man” by Roy Orbison stopped me with this line about the boss: “I oughta kill him but it wouldn’t be right.”
These were tough choices. I love Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Paul Butterfield, CCR, and especially Roy Orbison. But I get paid to make the tough choices. OK, I don’t get paid. Only Domino’s gets paid when they stick their stupid pizza ads in my blog. But I still gotta be tough.
Here we go:
“9 to 5,” Dolly Parton
I didn’t want to include country, but this one is obvious. “You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder,” Ms. Parton wails in that voice that makes me want to push her off one.
“5 O’Clock World,” The Vogues
“Tradin’ my time for the pay I get/livin’ on money that I ain’t made yet.” The narrator is not on a promising career path. Fortunately for him, when he gets home “there’s a long-haired girl who waits, I know/to ease my troubled mind.” I can totally relate. Bowling for Soup does a good Smithereens-style cover of “5 O’Clock World.” You can avoid T-Pain’s similarly named “5 O’Clock.”
“Birth, School, Work, Death,” The Godfathers
“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords
It’s about sex, not work, but too bad.
“Career Opportunities,” The Clash
“Career opportunities are the ones that never knock.” I’m not sure these boys ever had a job. They certainly take a dim view of employment.
“Clockout” is code for sex. Starts in an office, at least.
“Dirty Work,” The Rolling Stones, Halestorm, Steely Dan, and probably others
The only thing notable about the Stones’ version is the photograph on the cover of the Dirty Work album (1986). They’re dressed up like they think they’re The B-52s. Halestorm’s “Dirty Work” is melodic hard rock with a tough woman singer. I hate to say anything good about Steely Dan, but their “Dirty Work” is by far the most mature song with this title. However, none are about actual work.
“Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working,” Little Village
One of the perks of writing a music blog is that people tell you about music you never knew about. Little Village was Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. Not a bad start! Their only album, Little Village (1992), is a bit reminiscent of Los Lobos, though Little Village doesn’t play at that level. Sill, they were a respectable unit and this album has some fun rock ’n’ roll moments. “Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working” is about a man who keeps bugging the narrator while he’s working, sleeping, and when he’s with his baby. Probably somebody calling from the Romney campaign. Also on Little Village we have a pretty stiff anti-work song, the Hawaiian-flavored “Do You Want My Job?”, which features this classic rhyme: “I hump the stuff, I take the cash/So my kids can wear Adidas.”
“Factory,” Band of Horses
For people who thought the film Up in the Air wasn’t sad enough. I like the line “It’s temporary, this place I’m in/I permanently won’t do this again.” The song sounds like it could’ve been recorded by Badfinger if they had stayed together for 40 years and gotten really slow. No factory, though.
“Factory,” Bruce Springsteen
The usual Springsteen concerns of the ’70s: Early morning, Daddy going to work, death.
“Factory Girl,” The Rolling Stones
One of the weaker songs on Beggars Banquet (1968), and that’s not a slam. Songs on this galactic landmark appear weak or strong only when compared to each other. Compared to most other songs, they spontaneously ignite. The singer on this one is waiting for his factory girl to come home, from work or from something more sinister, we don’t know. Bonus: Congas!
“Finest Worksong,” R.E.M.
R.E.M. gets on my nerves. I like this stirring call to arms, though in accordance with the R.E.M. tradition you don’t know what they’re calling you to. Plus Michael Stipe and his colleagues prove yet again that they don’t quite understand their native language (“Another chance has been engaged”). Anyway, “Finest Worksong” is not the sound of the men working on the chain gang.
“Found a Job,” Talking Heads
“Happy Work Song,” Enchanted soundtrack
I’ve been informed by my alert readership that “Happy Work Song” is a parody of “Whistle While You Work”:
Trill a cheery tune in the tub
As we scrub a stubborn mildew stain
Lug a hair ball from the shower drain
To the gay refrain of a happy working song
I like Amy Adams, but on this number she sounds as if she’s gone running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper. I like my Stepford wives to be rebellious rather than snarky.
“Hard Work,” John Handy
The only words in this jazz tune are “hard” and “work.” It’s a souvenir of the jazz-fusion movement of the ’70s. “Fusion” as a critical term means nothing now, but “Hard Work” is a fine stretch of jazz.
“Heigh Ho,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soundtrack
The Dwarfs cheerfully dig up diamonds and rubies all day long, but “we don’t know what we dig ’em for.” They don’t know what to do with Snow White, either. Tom Waits took a shot at this, trying to turn the song into a Dickens novel of working-class horror. Nope. Louis Armstrong also tried it; he’s barely awake. No one can save this thing.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” composed by Frank Loesser
Though it’s plain that life in an office is like Europe on the verge of World War I, our narrator is enthusiastic and up for the challenge:
How to apply for a job
How to advance from the mail room
How to sit down on a desk
How to dictate memorandums
How to develop executive style
How to commute
In a three-button suit
With that weary executive smile.
Is all what I need
How to…how to…succeed!
“I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” traditional
According to Wikipedia, this is several songs bashed together. All things considered, the railroad seems to be a good place to work, even though they make you rise up so early in the morn.
“Livin’ for the Weekend,” The O’Jays
“5 O’Clock World” updated for the disco era. Work sucks, but on the weekend you get to party with the people who really know how to get down.
“Manic Monday,” The Bangles
This is a song about commuting, about earning a living in tough times, about holding a job you don’t like, and about supporting your partner. So it combines most of the themes the men use plus housekeeping and maintaining an appropriate wardrobe all in one song. Bravo, ladies!
“Millworker,” James Taylor
I’m not a James Taylor fan, but I found myself moved by this song, perhaps because I’m from New England and my father worked in the mills for 30 years.
But it’s my life has been wasted
And I have been the fool
To let this manufacturer
Use my body for a tool
Kudos to Taylor for being the only person on this list who wrote his song from the point of view of the other gender.
“Minimum Wage,” They Might Be Giants and The Expendables
Does the TMBG version even qualify as a song? It only lasts 47 seconds. Someone yells “Minimum wage!” at the beginning, a whip cracks, and then we get about 40 seconds of roller-rink music. I guess we’ve all had jobs like that at one time or another. The Expendables turn in a pleasant, temporarily reggae tune with lyrics right out of the Jean-Paul Sartre playbook: “But it’s time to go to work now/Maybe I’ll call in sick/or maybe heaven will fall to earth/better make it quick.” God abandons the singer just as the song jumps into metal mode. He never does go to work.
“Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits
“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” composed by George and Ira Gershwin
This one’s about love, not work. Clever for its era, but today it’s a Republican rallying cry: “The only work that really brings enjoyment/Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”
“Takin’ Care of Business,” Bachman Turner Overdrive
BTO was a gang of idiots, but this song rocks. A band we knew in Seattle, The Way-Backs, turned this number into a Santana-style 10-minute slugfest. “Takin’ Care of Business” is actually a big bowl of smug from a band that was riding high when they wrote it.
“The Work Song,” Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Cannonball Adderley, and of course Cinderella
Herb Alpert knew how to make a song swing, plus he intuitively recognized a good tune buried under dumb lyrics. Cannonball Adderley turns in a blistering 7-minute performance on Bon Voyage – Live in Paris (2012, taken from concerts in 1960 and ’61). Disney is Disney.
“The Working Song,” Richard Stepp
I don’t know who this gentleman is, but he can boogie. His voice is adequate but his guitar is superb. The song is about perfect attendance and the importance of being punctual. Also, of course, making a living. “I work to pay my bills/keep my stomach filled” doesn’t quite rhyme, but it’s fun.
“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” composed by Irving Berlin
Oh come on. There are plenty of businesses like show business. All you need are egos and large sums of money.
“Wild Sex (in the Working Class),” Oingo Boingo
There’s just one thing that keeps our hero going while he’s “greasin’ the wheels in a noisy factory,” and you guessed it from the superlative title. Musically, this is second-tier Oingo Boingo. Lyrically, the title deserved better.
“Work to Do,” Average White Band
A workaholic threatens to torpedo his relationship by coming home late every night. Can’t tell how he feels about his job – he’s mostly irritated that his mate doesn’t understand what he’s trying to do for her. An unexpectedly adult topic from one of our dumber bands.
“Working Day and Night,” Michael Jackson
This song has aged poorly, but the whole Off the Wall album (1979) has aged poorly, except for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” which still rocks all night and parties every day. Poor Michael is working around the clock because his lover has figured out that’s the best way to keep him occupied while she sees her lover. Kind of a bad love deal there.
“Working for the Weekend,” Loverboy
Loverboy: The lite beer version of Def Leppard. On this track they take the thematic material of The O’Jay’s “Living for the Weekend” and eliminate all mention of a job.
“Working on the Highway,” Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen sets up a song like he’s writing a short story for The New Yorker:
Friday night’s pay night, guys fresh out of work
Talking about the weekend, scrubbing off the dirt
Some heading home to their families, some looking to get hurt
Some going down to Stovell wearing trouble on their shirts
Even though our hero’s job offers no advancement, and even though his poorly planned romantic interaction with a “pretty little miss” ends in jail time, “Working on the Highway” sounds like fun all the way through. “Darlington County,” on the same album, is similarly joyous even thought the finisher there is “Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.”
“Working Man,” Rush
Working for a living ain’t easy:
I get up at seven, yeah,
And I go to work at nine.
I got no time for livin’.
Yes, I’m workin’ all the time.
It seems to me
I could live my life
A lot better than I think I am.
I guess that’s why they call me,
They call me the workin’ man.
Let’s review. The poor man has to get up at seven. Rough. He goes to work at nine and later in the song we learn that he’s home by five. That means he’s gone almost eight hours. OMFG! However, I do find this song interesting for sounding like Cream, Black Sabbath, and Alvin Lee all at once.
“Workin’ in a Coal Mine,” Devo
This song predates Devo by decades, but they had the hit. Mining coal is the most exhausting job there is, after motherhood.
“Whistle While You Work,” Snow White soundtrack
This one’s about housework – what Ursula K. LeGuin once called “the art of the infinite.” It’s not much of a song without the movie in front of it. Even then it’s still not much.
It’s Sunday. Tomorrow I go back to work, whistling or not. Found a job. Yes!