The 20 Best Songs about Work
Work – we hate it, we need it, and if we didn’t have it, pop stars, country singers, and rockers would have one less thing to sing about than they do now. Over the years, the daily grind has inspired countless songs, surprisingly few of which have sung its praises. Whether it’s Johnny Pagecheck telling his boss to take his job and shove it, Dolly Parton lamenting gender inequality on the nine to five, or Jimmy Buffet counting down the hours till its 5 o clock somewhere, most artists seem even less impressed with working for a living than the rest of us. If a bit of music will help you through the Monday morning blues, check out these 20 songs about work.
20. The Vogues – Five O’Clock World
Best known as the theme song to the second season of “The Drew Carey Show,” Five O’Clock World was a huge hit for The Vogues in 1965, reaching No. 5 in Canada and No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
19. Lou Reed – Don’t Talk to Me About Work
Lou Reed didn’t like talking about much at all, especially if there was a music journalist with a microphone around. But he especially didn’t like talking about work, as evidenced by this classic tune from his 1983 album, Legendary Hearts.
18. Bruce Springsteen – Working on the Highway
If fairness, it’s harder to find a Bruce Springsteen song that’s not about work than one that is. Here, we’ve gone for Working on the Highway, a popular stable at Springsteen’s live shows and a highlight of the 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.
17. Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett – It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere
Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere might be less about work than it is about clocking off, but there can’t be many workers who don’t identify with the lines “My boss just pushed me over the limit/ I’d like to call him somethin’/ I think I’ll just call it a day.”
16. Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
No matter how much your colleagues irritate you, it’s nothing compared to the sadness of being a solitary lineman. Glen Campbell’s classic hit was written by Jimmy Web, who was inspired to write the song after driving past a solitary lineman atop a telephone pole in Washita County in rural southwestern Oklahoma. “I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that?” he explained. “A blue-collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere – working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street. I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, ‘Look there’s this great soul, and there’s this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we’re all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings.” Wichita Lineman, which has been described as “the first existential country song,” became a huge hit for Campbell, and is frequently cited as one of the best pop songs ever recorded.
15. Sam Cooke – Chain Gang
Think you’ve got it hard working the nine to five? Sam Cooke’s 1960 classic Chain Gang might convince you otherwise. According to Genius, the song was inspired by a chance moment when Cooke ran into a chain gang of prisoners working on a highway. Released in July 1960, it became one of Cooke’s best-selling singles, reaching No. 2 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Sides chart. In the UK, it peaked at No. 9,
14. Lee Dorsey – Working In The Coalmine
“When Saturday rolls around, I’m too tired for having fun,” Lee Dorsey sings on Working In The Coalmine. Released in 1966, it was a huge international hit, reaching No. 8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, No. 8 on the UK Singles Chart, and No. 20 in Australia. Two decades later, Devo bought it back to the charts with their 1981 cover version.
13. Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons
Merle Travis may have written Sixteen Tons over 70 years ago, but the sentiment (“Another day older and deeper in debt”) rings as true today as it ever did. The song, which was inspired by Travis’ family’s experiences of working in the Kentucky coal mines, was first released on the singer’s 1947 album, Folk Songs of the Hills. Almost a decade later, Tennessee Ernie Ford turned it into a number one hit.
12. Seven Dwarfs – Heigh-Ho
What list of work songs would be complete without this Disney classic? The term ‘Heigh Ho’ came about sometime in the 16th century as both an expression of weariness and a cry of encouragement, but it took writers Frank Churchill and Larry Morey and a crew of seven dwarfs to turn the phrase into a whistleable anthem for workers everywhere.
11. Loverboy – Working For the Weekend
As milesanthonysmith.com notes, hopefully, you don’t have a job that you simply can’t stand and only “work for the weekend”. But if you do, Loverboy’s 1981 hit Working For the Weekend might be just the ticket for pumping you up enough to find something better.
10. Kenny Chesney and George Strait – Shiftwork
Shiftwork was written by Troy Jones. Speaking via songfacts.com about his inspiration, he explained: “I worked in a paper mill for 20 years, and I worked shift work the whole time. When I signed a publishing deal with Carnival Music, I wanted to write a song about something I knew inside and out. I knew something about shift work!” Despite Jones being “a little worried about if somebody would even cut the song when you’re talking about ‘a big ole pile of shift work,” the song got snapped up by Kenny Chesney and George Strait, who took this classic ode to low paid shifts to No. 47 in the charts in 2007.
9. Huey Lewis & The News – Workin’ For a Livin’
Turn a blind eye to the lyrics and you’d be forgiven for thinking Huey Lewis & The News’ 1982 hit, Workin’ For a Livin’, was a sunny piece of power pop. But beneath that jaunty melody lies a deeply depressing song about the working conditions many Americans were forced to put up with during the Reagan Administration. Lewis wrote the semi-autobiographical song when he was working as a truck driver before becoming a pop star. “I wrote it when I was actually working,” he explained. “I thought about all of the jobs which just sort of popped out.” In 2007, Lewis revisited the song as part of a duet with country music singer Garth Brooks. Their version reached No. 19 on the Hot Country Songs chart – Lewis’ first-ever entry on the chart.
8. Todd Rundgren – Bang the Drum All Day
“I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day,” sings Todd Rundgren on Bang the Drum All Day. In fact, he doesn’t want to do anything at all except keep banging away at that drum. Since its release in 1983, the song has been adopted as an anti-work anthem by thousands of disgruntled employees sick of marching to the beat of their boss’s drum.
7. Donna Summer – She Works Hard For The Money
Summer wrote She Works Hard For The Money after encountering an exhausted restroom attendant at an after-party at the 25th Annual Grammy Awards. Describing her inspiration on the TV show You Write the Songs, Summer explained: “I went to the ladies’ room with my manager and there was a little woman… First of all we walk in the room and we heard a TV set going. And so we peeked around the corner, and there was a little lady sitting there with her head tilted to the side and she was just gone—she was asleep. And I looked at her and my heart just filled up with compassion for this lady, and I thought to myself, “God, she works hard for the money, cooped up in this stinky little room all night.” Then I thought about it, and I said, “She works hard for the money… She works hard for the money… This is it! This is it! I know this is it!”
6. Bachman Turner Overdrive – Takin’ Care of Business
As socialtalent.com explains, Takin’ Care of Business pays homage to all those workers who “get up every morning from your ‘larm’s clock warning,” only to rinse and repeat for the rest of their lives. Recorded in 1973 for Bachman Turner Overdrive’s second album, Bachman–Turner Overdrive II, it became a major hit, spending 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 (a record for the band) and peaking at No. 12.
5. Bob Dylan – Maggie’s Farm
A lot of people would say that Maggie’s Farm isn’t about work at all, and that like a lot of Bob Dylan’s early stuff, it’s an allegorical protest song. Which it probably is. But it still gets a place on our list because a) it’s an awesome song and b) interpret it one way, and it’s Dylan’s resignation letter. Dylan’s ‘job’ at the time was to write protest songs, but after getting bored of being told to “Sing while you slave” by the folk movement, he quit toiling away at protest songs, picked up an electric guitar, and started rocking instead.
4. Dire Straits – Money for Nothing
Money for Nothing is written from the perspective of a blue-collar worker watching MTV and getting riled up about the pop stars getting paid for doing nothing while he’s stuck earning peanuts for moving refrigerators and installing microwave ovens. But there’s a grudging admiration (or maybe just a bit of envy) in his mocking takedown: “That’s the way you do it / You play the guitar on the MTV … Lemme tell you, them guys ain’t dumb.” Released as a single from the album Brothers In Arms in 1987, it became Dire Straits’ biggest selling single, spending three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at No. 4 in the UK.
3. Johnny Paycheck – Take This Job and Shove It
If you’ve ever dreamt of telling your boss exactly what they can do with their job, Johnny Paycheck’s Take This Job and Shove It is the song for you. “You better not try to stand in my way / As I’m walking out the door / Take this job and shove it / I ain’t working here no more,” Paycheck sings, summing up the fantasy of every disgruntled employee that’s ever drawn a paycheck. Released in November 1977, it spent two weeks at number one on the country charts – the first (and last) of Paycheck’s songs to hit the top of the charts. The title has since inspired a movie, several books, an episode of the TV show “Hannah Montana,” and several thousand resignations.
2. Dolly Parton – 9 to 5
Dolly Parton composed 9 to 5 for the 1980 comedy film of the same name. It may have been delivered with her signature sweetness and charm, but the lyrics (“They got you where they want you/ It’s a rich man’s game / No matter what they call it / And you spend your life / Puttin’ money in his wallet”) seethe with righteous anger. Since picking up Grammy Awards for Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance in 1980, it’s become an anthem for office workers everywhere, uniting all underpaid, underrepresented employees in a battle cry for fairer working conditions.
1. The Beatles – A Hard Days Night
Openers don’t get much better than “It’s been a hard day’s night/And I’ve been working like a dog.” Ringo Starr came up with the title after a particularly hard day in the studio. “I came up still thinking it was day I suppose, and I said ‘It’s been a hard day… and I looked around and saw it was dark so I said, …night!” So we came to A Hard Day’s Night,” he’s explained. The band liked the song enough to use it as the title for both a film and an album, while their fans liked it enough to send it to the top of the charts in both the United Kingdom and the United States.