(Originally published September 7, 2015; updated September 4, 2016)
What better way to celebrate this year’s Labor Day holiday than with another djroblist, particularly one about working songs. While you’re getting those grills fired up for one last time this summer and preparing to celebrate the jobs that helped you buy those steaks and ka-bobs (or hamburgers and hot dogs) that you’ll no doubt be feasting upon, you can take a moment to pat yourself on the back for all the hard work you and others have done this year. After all, it’s you – the hard worker – that helps to make this country what it is and who this holiday is celebrating, right?
With that sentiment in mind, and with a musical connection always lurking somewhere near me, I’ve come up with a list of songs that celebrate jobs and labor, or just the idea of working or having to work. Rock and roll has plenty of ’em from which to choose. Heck, just doing a Spotify search on the word “work” alone yielded dozens of songs old and new that were candidates for the list. And even without relying on that search’s results, there are plenty of other songs that mention jobs that are worthy of inclusion.
But not everyone is thrilled about their jobs or the prospect of having to work. For them, Labor Day is just another reason not to have to work. And in the spirit of equal representation, there seems to be just as many songs about the prospect of not working as there are about the various jobs we maintain. So just to balance things a little, I’ve also included a list of those tunes that celebrate not having (or wanting) to work at all.
The following djroblist comes with some disclaimers. The songs included here are in no particular order. They are not listed alphabetically, by chart performance or even by the jobs’ pay grades. So if you’re working at the “Car Wash,” your job is just as important on djrobblog as those “Lawyers in Love,” maybe even more so depending on one’s perspective.
So here it is…my musical tribute to the jobs that make us all want to go back to work Tuesday…or maybe not want to go. And feel free to access the djrobblog Spotify playlist (link to be activated later) of these songs and enjoy them at your cookout on Monday:
Songs about work and jobs that we love:
“Please Mr. Postman” – Marvelettes
This song is more about a woman who spends her time waiting for a letter from her boyfriend than it is about the postal worker who hopefully delivers it. It’s a pre-email, pre-text messaging and pre-Facebook love story at best in a song that went to #1 twice: once in 1963 for the Marvelettes, and again in 1975 for the Carpenters.
“Car Wash” – Rose Royce
This is a rare case where the group’s name was inspired by the song, and not vice-versa. “Car Wash” was a 1976 movie during the blaxploitation era that was about people who, well, worked at a car wash. And Rose Royce was chosen as the name of the band by producer Norman Whitfield who was commissioned to produce the soundtrack. It was a wordplay on the movie’s car theme as well as a nod to lead singer Gwen “Rose” Dickey.
“Bad Girls” – Donna Summer
Before she was saved, many of Donna Summer’s songs touched on sexual themes, but probably none more so than this narrative about the oldest profession of them all. Even the album’s cover depicted Summer standing at a street corner and ready for “work.” Hey, no one said all the jobs on this list had to be legal.
“She Works Hard For The Money” – Donna Summer
After Summer’s spiritual transformation, she took on more benign themes, like this nod to the hard-working woman she once met at a restaurant whose tips were her pay. After her “Bad Girls” stint four years earlier, it would’ve been easy to think this was another, perhaps more subtle tribute to ladies of the evening with lyrics like “Onetta there on the corner stand” and “she’s looking real pretty just waiting for her clientele” (really, who refers to a waitress’ customers as “clientele”?). But, there were enough other hints (including the goofy album cover above) to redeem this 1983 hit as a tribute to the more noble occupation of serving tables.
“Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits
Mark Knopfler was inspired by hard-working blue-collar guys who had to transport large appliances (including “microwave ovens” since those are also really big) when he wrote this classic in 1985. He was also inspired by the growing popularity of MTV and flamboyant musicians that he deemed soft by comparison. His liberal use of a homosexual slur in the song’s second verse was edited out for most radio stations, while others simply refused to play it. It didn’t matter…the song went to #1 for three weeks in the fall of 1985.
“Chain Gang” – Sam Cooke
Free labor as part of a “chain gang” is likely not what President Grover Cleveland had in mind when he signed the Labor Day holiday into law in 1894. But after seeing a group of chained prisoners laboring on a highway, Sam Cooke wrote and recorded this famous #2 hit in 1960. The above video provides a brief story of the chain gang with Cooke’s classic serving as the backdrop.
“Telephone Man” – Meri Wilson
Many of us have had a telephone man (or woman) come into our homes, install our phone service and ensure things are in working order before moving on to the next customer. But something tells me that one-hit wonder Meri Wilson had something else in mind for her telephone man when she recorded this top-20 hit in 1977. Watch the video above and get a kick out of where Meri’s “Telephone Man” provides his “service.”
“9 To 5” – Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton not only wrote and recorded this #1 pop and country classic from 1980, but she also co-starred in the movie alongside Lily Tomlinson and Jane Fonda. The movie cast Parton as a secretary, a job that paid much less than what the country superstar likely earned that year. The song was such a big hit in early 1981 that it forced Sheena Easton’s record label to change the title of her own song that was popular around the same time, from “9 to 5” to “Morning Train (9 to 5).” Ironically, Easton’s tune also celebrated a working man who “worked all day to earn his pay, so he could play all night.” Just a few weeks after Dolly’s hit did so, Sheena’s record also reached #1 on the pop charts.
“Working on the Highway” – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. contained seven singles – all of which reached the top ten. This track from that album was NOT one of them. The song tells the story of a highway construction worker who longs for a better life as he toils over black top and bedrock. He happens to fall for a girl he runs away with, only to have her brothers come and get her and have him put away. The song finishes with the protagonist now swinging with a chain gang. Now that’s a rough life.
“Allentown” – Billy Joel
The steel mills and other factories across Pennsylvania were closing down in the early 1980s, a fact of life that served as the inspiration for this poignant pop-rock tune from Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain album in late-1982. The song was part of the album’s overall theme of disillusionment with the American Dream, or the American Dream gone wrong. It also showed Joel’s ability to navigate between downbeat social commentary and the more joyful, upbeat tunes that would fill his next (and biggest) album, 1983’s An Innocent Man.
“Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell
This #3 Billboard Hot 100 hit was the song that got things rolling for the great Glen Campbell. He had already been a big country star by the time this ode to a utility worker became his first major crossover hit in 1968. Glen Campbell would do even better seven years later with another song celebrating a profession, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which reached #1 in ’75. Sometimes I guess it’s just easier for millionaire country artists like Campbell to sing in first person about jobs for the more common man, and sound so convincing doing it.
“Private Dancer” – Tina Turner
Who can forget an exasperated-sounding Tina Turner belting out this title track from her 1984 comeback album, Private Dancer…or its memorable music video? Can’t you just picture Turner’s character dancing lifelessly as she collects her wares from the gentlemen customers? Yet when you really think about it, whose lives are truly in need of examination? The dancer’s? Or the unfulfilled, clone-like men who regularly fill her dance card? (Added in 2016 thanks to frequent reader, Cameo Fox…thanks, Cameo!)
Now here are those non-working songs:
“Career Opportunities” – The Clash
Years before they “rocked the casbah,” the British punk-rock group The Clash recorded this tune that clocks in at a very short 1:54 and is considered a classic in many alternative rock circles. While the song refers to the many jobs – all government ones – that are apparently there for the taking, the lead singer (the late Joe Strummer) thumbs his nose up at all of them, claiming that “career opportunities are the ones that never knock” and that he’d never reduce himself to working for the man.
“Don’t Talk To Me About Work” – Lou Reed
I’m sensing a trend here with the non-working songs, as this punk-rockish gem from “Walk On The Wild Side” singer Lou Reed clocks in at a very short 2 minutes and 11 seconds. At least in this case, the song’s protagonist has a job, although he likens it to being in prison, and he’s made it clear to his partner that he doesn’t want to talk about his job (which is apparently in sales) when he gets home from it. Check out the video for it above.
“Take This Job And Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck
The greatest thing about this list is the eclectic mix of the songs in it. This one is a country classic that served as an anthem for country fans and non-fans alike when it was a hit in 1977 and ’78. It appears in this tune that the protagonist didn’t mind work so much as he had just lost the motivation for it after his woman left him and he wasn’t reaping any of the job’s rewards.
“Out Of Work” – Gary U.S. Bonds
Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to pen a song about the hardships that can befall the common man in hard-time America. In this case, not only did Springsteen write and produce the song for Bonds in 1982, but his E. Street Band performed on it, which no doubt helped the song become the second (and last) top-40 single for Bonds in the 1980s.
“Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” – Styx
From their Pieces of Eight album in 1978 came this rocker from Chicago-based group, Styx. While its lyrics describe the plight of an unemployed man in search of a job, the protagonist (as vocalized by sometimes lead-singer Tommy Shaw) seems resigned to the fact that he’ll wind up being a blue-collar worker, a fate that will present him with many “long nights and impossible odds.”
“I Hate My Job” – Cam’ron
Rarely will you hear a rapper with all the machismo and bravado of Cam’ron spit a whole verse from the perspective of an everyday working…woman. But that’s what he does in the first verse of this 2009 track from his Crime Pays album. In it, the woman begrudges her boss, whom she also hates, her short lunch break, and her $12-an-hour paycheck. Then he flips the script and raps the second verse from the perspective of a man with a felony record who is seeking a job. In this land of few second chances, I think you know how this one ends.
“Manic Monday” – Bangles
Okay, finally here’s a song about not liking or having to work that you’re probably more familiar with. The Bangles took this song – written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher – to #2 in 1986 and told the story of someone waking from a dream and facing the prospect of going to work on Monday when she would rather it still be Sunday. After all, as interpreted by lead singer Susanna Hoffs, that was her fun day – her “I don’t have to run day.”
“Bang On The Drum All Day” – Todd Rundgren
You’ve all likely heard this anti-working anthem before, the 1983 song by Todd Rundgren that elevated the prospect of drumming all day to the top of the singer’s list of priorities, with both work and other play taking back seats. He described his frustrations with school and later work as he calls his boss a jerk and then imagines “pounding on that drum like it was the boss’ head.” I’m sure he isn’t alone in that sentiment.
“The Lazy Song” – Bruno Mars
We’ve all had days like the one Bruno Mars envisions for himself in this 2011 hit single. In fact, he and his fellow songwriters (not the monkeys shown above) apparently penned the tune while sitting around the studio one day with none of them really wanting to work. Oh, the irony of actually working to create a song about not really wanting to work.
“This F***ing Job” – Drive-by Truckers
Southern/alternative rock gets some love on djrobblog with this song about a nondescript job that the Drive-by Truckers find no pleasure in having. The lines “working this job, there’s nothing left but to hate it, I won’t get as far as my daddy made it” pretty much sum it up for this group out of Athens, GA. Oh, but it gets even better: “(the job) ain’t gettin me farther for all my strivin’ – in the dead-end I live in or the piece of shit I’m drivin’. Yeah, that’s the kind of job that you want to ditch quickly.
Honorable Mention (songs about working with no particular job in mind):
“Workin’ Day & Night” – Michael Jackson
“Work To Do” – Isley Brothers (remade by Vanessa Williams)
“Working For The Weekend” – Loverboy
“I Go To Work” – Kool Moe Dee
“Work” – Rihanna (2016 addition)
All those doctor songs like “Doctors Orders” (Carol Douglas), “Doctor, Doctor” (Thompson Twins), “Calling Dr. Love” (Kiss) and “Doctor, My Eyes” (Jackson Browne). After all (as Kiss suggests), none of them were really about doctors, just people (mostly lovelorn ones) seeking them.
And speaking of Browne, also omitted is his top-20 eighties hit, “Lawyers in Love.” I was never sure what this metaphor-filled song was about anyway, or why Browne chose to single out lawyers being in love to represent the point he was making.
And that’s it. Hopefully, you’ll access and follow my special djrob playlist of all these songs by clicking here (link to be activated later). If you can think of anymore, comment below and I’ll consider adding them.
As always, thanks for all the love and support and have a great Labor Day!