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.
There were two vital elements of England’s punk-rock movement in the late ’70s: fast, primitive, angular music and political lyrics that boldly protested the status quo. While Sex Pistols railed against the English monarchy with “God Save The Queen” and pushed for “Anarchy In The U.K.,” The Clash took a more economic approach on its genre-defining self-titled first album. Sure, the band members sneered that “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” (who wasn’t?) and pointed out class discrepancies with “White Riot” and “Police & Thieves.” But “Career Opportunities” may be the song that best highlighted the dead-end life for Britain’s population on the dole.
Calling out “Career opportunities / The ones that never knock,” the song rattles off a variety of unappealing open jobs, like serving in the military or as a bus driver or ticket inspector: “Do you want to make tea for the BBC / Do you really want to be a cop?” The line about not wanting to check mail for letter bombs was inspired by an actual government gig held by guitarist Mick Jones. In the dire straits of the Thatcher era, the job that ironically turned out to be the most advantageous for the members of The Clash was the one they were using to rail against the system. Despite only a brief history, the young band got signed to CBS Records to release that all-important first album, receiving a £100,000 advance that led some to call the deal “the day that punk died.” Unfortunately, that CBS contract was also held up in later years as an example of an astonishingly bad deal for the band, as far as rights and royalties went. Fortunately, that meant The Clash still had a lot to rebel against, and as we know now, the band was just getting started. And The Clash never forgot their earlier, unemployed roots, even offering a new keyboard-driven version of “Career Opportunities” on the experimental 1980 album Sandinista!, sung by the sons of keyboardist Mickey Gallagher.