In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Labor Day, we’re picking songs about work.
Huey Lewis And The News, “Workin For A Livin” (1982)
Prior to 1983’s Sports going nuclear, Huey Lewis And The News were struggling to find a commercial foothold. The Bay Area band’s self-titled 1980 debut album tanked, and while its self-produced sophomore effort, 1982’s Picture This, sold better—spawning a major hit (“Do You Believe In Love?”) and a minor top 40 entry (“Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do”)—it still wasn’t an unmitigated success. “Our future was anything but secure,” Lewis told Rolling Stone in 2013.
Still, Huey Lewis And The News unwittingly found a successful path forward with the third single from Picture This, “Workin For A Livin.” The tune didn’t crack the top 40 (it stalled at No. 41), and it only reached No. 20 on the mainstream rock charts. (In fact, as Sports was starting to pick up steam, the group was still toiling away on a trek it had dubbed the “Workin For A Livin” tour.) Nevertheless, the song astutely sums up the unpretentious, no-nonsense ethos that ultimately helped Huey Lewis And The News connect with a wider audience.
Musically, its buoyant keyboards, bluesy harmonica solo, and united-front harmonies nod to the troupe’s soulful, bar-band roots, while Lewis’ leathery lead vocals add just the right about of weary underdog grit. But in a brilliant twist, “Workin For A Livin” boasts a jaunty tempo that softens the blow of a “hundred dollar car note, two hundred rent / I get a check on Friday, but it’s already spent.” Possibly because of the empathy implied in that couplet, the song later doesn’t cast judgment on how people make ends meet: “Bus boy, bartender, ladies of the night/Grease monkey, ex-junkie, winner of the fight”—in Lewis’ eyes, all occupations are valid and respectable. That egalitarian perspective in particular made “Workin For A Livin”—and, by extension, Huey Lewis And The News—relatable on a wider scale, which primed them to become superstars a very short time later.