I was recently prompted to check out the post-Labor Day episode of Sound Opinions, the weekly WBEZ Chicago radio program, which featured Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot playing a small collection of songs inspired by the work holiday. As I’ll exhibit for the entire history of this blog (and one particular post in the very near future) I think liberal perspectives in relation to work and popular music are forever linked, and perhaps it’s the subject I enjoy in pop music more than any other. With that being said, I thought I’d offer a belated Labor Day Mix of my own, and like Sound Opinions, I’ll (unfortunately) limit it to four selections. I’ll call the mix ‘The Honorary Billy Bragg List’ since I chose not to include one of his but think his output in this area is exemplary. Without further ado;
‘When Do I Get Paid’ by the Staple Singers
This Stax number is forever timeless, and really needs nothing additional. Call it, with apologies to the Damned, the history of the world part 1. Live, the song would take on an even more transcendent, beautiful tone as the gospel moments were given full bore.
‘Just Who is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ by the Jam
This, in response to Greg’s selection of ‘Smithers-Jones’ is another of the Jam’s articulate shakers on the topic of work and the people who are rubbed out by it. I selected this one since it, unlike ‘Smithers-Jones’, comes from the pen of Paul Weller, a songwriter who devoted much of his professional and personal life to activities pro-labor. I think it’s the Jam’s clearest comment on the topic, but if I had to take the topic a little further in the bands discography I’d look to the more forlorn ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ that poetically muses that God has made us all equal, but not in the pro-Civil Rights vantage point that is usually associated with such statements, but rather that we are all equal in our unhappiness with which life prompts us.
‘Workin’ For the Man’ by Roy Orbison
A wonderful track about doing exactly what needs to be done to subvert the dynamic so that the system becomes one for you, not you one for it. Call it Joseph Losey’s The Servant (script by Harold Pinter) in under two-and-a-half minutes.
‘Charles’ by the Skids
Perhaps my favorite of them all is ‘Charles’ from Scotland’s wonderful the Skids. A highly descriptive tale of a factory worker who literally becomes seamlessly fused with his machine and his product over time. Delivered with typical guitar fury by the late, great Stuart Adamson (he’d later create Big Country from the ashes of the Skids and offer another great track on the topic called ‘What You Are Working For’ on The Buffalo Skinners from 1993) the song remains as much a call to arms as it does a sad tale of systemic approved abuse.
Honorable Mention; ‘Welcome to the Workin’ Week’ by Elvis Costello (sarcastic ode to office mundanity), ‘Keep on Working’ by Pete Townshend (he’s both manic and happy at the same time about the thought of work), ‘I Can’t Work No Longer’ by Billy Butler & the Chanters (maybe the most beautiful of my picks), ‘Steeltown’ by the Red Guitars (an English post-punk take on a track that we’d get from Bruce Springsteen here in the States), ‘Happy Hour’ by the Housemartins (the rare track that gets the gender politics of work life right) and ‘Bring it Down (This Insane Thing)’ by the Redskins seems to get the macro- quality of the whole system down in one track. McCarthy and Gang of Four (I’d take ‘Paralysed’ if I had to do one) while not represented here are like Billy Bragg in that almost every song from either band would fit nicely here.