Friday, July 10, 2015

Songs About Working

For centuries the subject of working has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for songwriters. Tons of songs about working have been recorded over the years and in various music genres; some songs romanticize the plight of the working man and woman, while others condemn the workplace as a numbing, soul-crushing environment that stifles all creative thought and individuality. So I've decided to put together a list of my 14 favorite songs about being on the grind. Here it is in no particular order:

Let It Rock – Chuck Berry (1960)

The protagonist of this hot-rockin’ tune toils away on a railroad track in Mobile, Alabama as a distant train comes bearing down. Chuck Berry’s great storytelling gifts and wry sense of humor are on full display here, as are his impressive skills as a guitarist. He even makes his guitar sound like the oncoming train at one point in the song. This track was the second single from Berry’s 1960 album Rockin’ at the Hops, which was released on Chess Records. It peaked at #64 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and climbed all the way to #6 on the UK singles chart.
Let It Rock at Amazon

9 to 5 – Dolly Parton (1980)

Country music queen Dolly Parton landed a monster hit with this rousing anthem to working stiffs. Parton penned this track for the 1980 hit comedy of the same title in which she co-starred with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman. The song was also featured on Parton’s album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (1980). It topped both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard’s Adult Contemporary singles chart; it also reached #1 on Billboard's Country singles chart. Additionally, the song garnered Parton an Oscar nomination for "Best Original Song" and four Grammy noms, including two wins:  “Best Country Song” and “Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.”

  9 to 5 at Amazon

Hard Work – John Handy (1976)

Legendary alto saxophonist John Handy lays down some smooth soul-jazz on this bumpin’ instrumental. It's the title track from Handy’s 1976 LP. The groove is bolstered by Handy’s masterful sax playing. The album performed well on the charts, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Jazz chart and #43 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

Hard Work at Amazon

Banana Boat Song (Day-O) – Harry Belafonte (1956)

Singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte scored a big hit with his stirring
rendition of the traditional Jamaican folk song. The song is about dock workers who labor throughout the night loading bananas onto ships. The musical arrangement is impeccable and nicely frames Belafonte’s raspy tenor. His version of the song used lyrics adapted by renowned Caribbean composer Irving Burgie and American novelist/playwright William Attaway.

“Day-O” was a single from Belafonte’s album Calypso, released in 1956. The album was a massive success and became the first LP to sell a million copies, and “Day-O" peaked at #5 on the pop singles chart and reached #7 on the R&B singles chart. Belafonte is credited with putting Calypso music on the map worldwide, which earned him the nickname “The King of Calypso.”

The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) at Amazon

Let’s Work – Prince (1981)

This gospel-infused funk burner is about putting in work between the sheets. His Royal Badness serves up one of his funkiest slap bass lines on this blistering groove. The track was blasted at parties and clubs across the U.S. back in the day. It was the second single from Prince’s 1981 platinum-selling Controversy album, and it peaked at #9 on the U.S. R&B singles chart and topped Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs. It only reached #104 on the Billboard Hot 100.  In addition to the 3:57 album version of the track, there’s an eight-minute extended version that’s definitely worth checking out.

Let's Work extended version at Amazon

A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (1964)

The protagonist of this exuberant John Lennon-penned Beatles classic works marathon hours to buy nice things for his lady, who rewards him with plenty of love and affection when he finally gets home. The song is the title track from the Beatles’ superb third studio album, released in 1964. The LP also served as the soundtrack for the film A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which starred the Beatles in their feature-film debut. The proto-mockumentary effectively captured the excitement, madness and hysteria surrounding the band at the height of Beatlemania. 

Seven of the album’s 13 tracks were featured in the film. The song “A Hard Day’s Night” topped both the U.S. and UK pop charts. Its title was inspired by one of Ringo Starr’s characteristic dry malapropisms, giving Lennon all the inspiration he needed to write the song.

A Hard Day's Night at Amazon

Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)

This indelible tune tells the story a coal miner who works in a coalmine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Ford’s rich bass-baritone goes down real easy on this terrific song. It was originally written and recorded by acclaimed country and western guitarist/singer/songwriter Merle Travis. Travis’ version was released in 1947.  Ford’s rendition of the song—released in 1955—became a huge hit, topping both the pop and country charts in the U.S.

Livin’ It Up (Friday Night) – Bell & James (1978)

This cookin’ groove by soul duo Bell & James is about a working slob who trudges through his boring, dead-end job each day simply for the paycheck. The only thing that gets him through the week is the thought of Friday night where he can finally lay his burden down, jump in his ride and head to where the party people hang. This cut resonated with a lot of people who could relate with the protagonist’s situation. The track boasts a sterling music arrangement and strong vocal performances from the duo. The song peaked at #15 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on Billboard’s R&B charts.

Bell & James were formed in 1978 by drummer/guitarist Leroy Bell and guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Casey James. Both were formerly members of Philadelphia band Special Blend.

Livin' It up (Friday Night) at Amazon

Working in a Coal Mine – Lee Dorsey (1966)

The infectious tune by famed New Orleans R&B singer Lee Dorsey reflects on the plight of a coal miner who's forced to endure the harsh and dangerous conditions of working in a coal mine five days a week. The song even contains the sound of a pickax clinking. It was written by legendary producer, songwriter and musician Allen Toussaint. It was Dorsey’s second biggest hit, peaking at  at #8 on the U.S. pop singles chart and #5 on the U.S. R&B singles chart. And the song reached #8 on the UK singles chart. Pioneering new  wave band Devo later covered the song, which was included on the soundtrack for the 1981 film Heavy Metal.  The 7” single of the song was packaged with Devo’s album New Traditionalists (1981).

Working in the Coal Mine at Amazon

Working Day and Night – Michael Jackson (1979)

This kinetic, high-powered track has MJ working around the clock in hopes of getting some sweet lovin’ from his girl.  The pop/soul superstar delivers a dynamic and extremely soulful vocal performance on this potent groove. It's a track from MJ’s landmark 1979 album Off The Wall. He penned the song as well as co-produced it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t released as a single. Nonetheless, it got massive play on the airwaves and at parties and clubs. And it was a crowd favorite at MJ’s concerts, and he never failed to blow the doors off the hinges whenever he performed it live.

Working Day and Night at Amazon

Work – Bob Marley & the Wailers (1980)

This powerful Bob Marley song is about working every day toward bettering the world and pushing for more positivity, love and African unity, as well as spreading the message of Rastafarianism. The song is from Bob Marley & the Wailers’ highly acclaimed 1980 album Uprising. This was the final studio album featuring Bob Marley & the Wailers to be released during the reggae legend’s lifetime. The album peaked at #45 on the U.S. album charts and #41 on the U.S. R&B album charts. It had a much stronger chart showing in other parts of the world, making the top ten on the album charts in several places, including the UK (#6), Sweden (#3), New Zealand (#1) and Norway (#6).

Work at Amazon

Chain Gang – Sam Cooke (1960)

This soul-pop gem is a poignant ode to prison chain-gangs who work along the highways and byways. The lush arrangement and Sam Cooke’s velvet-smooth vocal delivery belie the song’s harsh and depressing subject matter of chained prisoners doing thankless and grueling work. The song became one of the music legend's biggest hits, peaking at #2 on both the pop and R&B charts in the U.S., and it reached #9 on the UK singles chart.

Chain Gang at Amazon

Five O'Clock World – The Vogues (1965)

American vocal group the Vogues scored a top-five hit with this sterling slice of folk/rock/pop. It’s about a guy who hates his job and can’t wait for the five o’clock whistle to blow to set him free.  He doesn’t truly feel alive until the clock hits five; that’s when the world finally opens up for him. The song was written by producer and songwriter Allen Reynolds, who went on to produce country music superstar Garth Brooks’ multiplatinum albums in the ‘90s. The song reached #4 the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at #1 on Canadian RPM Top Singles

The Vogues were formed in 1960 by four high school friends from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania. The original and founding members of the quartet were Bill Burkette (lead baritone), Don Miller (baritone), Hugh Geyer (first tenor) and Chuck Blasko (second tenor).

Five O'Clock World at Amazon

Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976)

Rose Royce blew up the airwaves with this R&B/disco smash about working at a bustling car wash. The song is spilling over with energy, excitement and fun. The percolating groove boasts some sassy guitar licks and a nice string arrangement. And Gwen Dickey (aka Rose Norwalt) delivers a strong lead vocal performance. The song was written and produced by legendary Motown songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield. It was the lead single from Rose Royce’s 1976 debut album Car Wash, which served as the soundtrack for the raucous comedy of the same name. The song topped both the U.S. pop and R&B charts and reached #3 on the disco charts. The band had a few more hits in the ensuing years, but “Car Wash” remains their most universally recognized song.

Car Wash at Amazon

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