Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Life In A Northern Town – Dream Academy

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Occassionally I look through the stats for this site, just to see what people are looking at (if you’re interested currently Baker Street is the top downloaded songsheet, followed by How Long Will I Love You). It also shows some of the search terms that people have used that find their way to this site. Earlier this week I noticed that one of those was “life in a northern town ukulele tabs” – it had taken the searcher to the page for Julian Cope’s Head Hang Low, which contained a reference to said song due to the contribution of one-time Ravishing Beauty and Dream Academy member Kate St. John. And I thought – well, why not? Let’s give it a go. And here it is!

Life In A Northern Town was a 1985 hit (and really their only hit of any substance) for The Dream Academy. Their polished, sophisticated pop sound was akin to a number of other bands around at the time, including Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and Everything But The Girl. This particular song was apparently intended as a tribute to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a deeply melancholic artist who recorded a number of rich and intensely personal albums in the early 1970s, but who never achieved any kind of significant success in his lifetime, and who died of an anti-depressant overdose at the age of 26. Since then his star has been in ascendence and he is now rightly reverred for his work.

I remember buying the 12″ single version of this when it came out (I think it was probably from Henry’s Records in Southampton), and it has always been a favourite song of mine. The contrast of the windswept (yes, you can here it) downbeat and nostalgic verses with the upbeat, almost African / tribal chorus was a winner for me, and it was one of those songs you could play again and again and never tire of. If you get a chance to check out the couple of additional tracks on that 12″ (Test Tape No. 3 and Poised On The Edge Of Forever) which are just gorgeous.

And so to the songsheet. This took a bit of working on, and even now I’m not convinced it totally does the job. But it’s good enough. First thing you’ll see is that there are a lot of chords, including some slightly unusual ones. No apologies for that, because I think they help contribute to making the song what it is. This is quite a subtle song, and those subtle chord variations are key to the making the song work. However, it’s not as bad as it looks – essentially the song is the chord sequence shown in the intro repeated, with a few subtle variations.  And if you struggle with the Aadd4 chord, just play Asus4 instead – that still works. Also I should give some thanks to Tony Canova, the creator of this video, from which I stole a few ideas. Nice version, Tony! Enjoy!

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I Shall Be Released – Bob Dylan

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So here’s a clasic example of one of the reasons I started putting this blog together in the first place. This is hardly an obscure song. In fact I think the word “classic” is not really open to debate on this one. And yet could I find a decent, clear, consistent set of chords for it? No, I couldn’t. Probably there is one lurking out there, and probably I’m being a bit fussy, but here’s my take anyway.

Wikipedia starts its entry for this by saying that “I Shall Be Released” is a 1967 song written by Bob Dylan. Well, that’s factually correct, I’ll give them that, but it all seems a bit terse for what is such a sublime song. The song has a real gospel influence to it, both in the musical structure of the song and in its lyrics, which combine themes of religious redemption with that of a man unjustly prisoned, looking forward to his release. There’s some heavy existential stuff going on in this song, yet as with much of Dylan’s material it’s not quite as simple and explicit as it might be in lesser hands, and leaves itself open to all manner of interpretations.

The song was originally released in a version by The Band, who had acted as Dylan’s backing band on those infamous folk-goes-electric gigs. The keening, falsetto harmonies of that version give it an otherwordly feel that are echoed on the original Dylan version, later released on The Bootleg tape series. The song has since been extensively covered, with notable versions being made by the likes of Nina Simone and reggae band The Heptones, who lent it a lovely chugging rhythm, something repeated on one of my favourite versions by Beth Rowley.

I couldn’t find a Youtube clip of the original Dylan version (try the Beth Rowley version for one in the same key as Dylan and the songsheet, or this Spotify link), but meanwhile here’s the classic version from The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Featuring the massed ranks of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins and Van Morrison – my what a concert that must have been!

And so here’s the song sheet. Nothing much to say about it, it’s a very simple song (three chords) with endless room for variation and improvisation. This is in the same key as the Dylan original. Enjoy!

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China Girl – David Bowie

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Just for those who were wondering(!), when the strap line on the web-site says “uke-ifying my favourite songs”, the classification of “my favourite songs” has been stretched a little. I certainly like all the songs that I’ve posted on here. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I love all the songs I’ve posted. But whether they’re my favourite, favourite songs is a little less certain. If that were the case today I’d be including things like Primitive Painters by Felt, Temptation by New Order, Goodbye Lucile #1 (aka Johnny Johnny) by Prefab Sprout and the like (a bit of an 80s theme there!), although it would probably be a different list tomorrow. But the point is some of those songs don’t really translate that well to the ukulele. Or I’ve struggled to make them work for ukulele. So the songs I’ve posted here are songs that I like and I think work quite well for the humble uke.

This David Bowie post is a case in point. If I was going for my favourite favourties I’d be posting something like Sound and Vision, Young Americans or Wild Is The Wind (or “Heroes”, but I have already done that one!). But those songs don’t really work for me on the uke. This one does, though. China Girl is a single from Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance which, dependent on your viewpoint, is last album of his awesome streak through the 70s and early 80s, or the one where the rot set in. Certainly it was the one where Bowie became outwardly more focussed on a commercial sound and success (and boy did it work!). For me as an album it’s mixed – some great songs, this one included, but a fair bit of filler as well.

China Girl was a joint write between Bowie and Iggy Pop from as far back as 1977, that was recorded by Pop for his Bowie-produced album The Idiot. As you might expect, the Iggy version has a heavier and darker sound. The Bowie cover (on which Iggy sings) benefits – in my mind, at least – from a shinny production (and guitar playing) from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, which brings the song alive and turned it into a huge hit (UK number 2, US top 10). It probably provided Iggy Pop with a very nice and steady royalty stream as well!

So here’s the song sheet. It’s in the same key as the original (so you can play along!), and follows the lyrics  / arrangements of the original. I’ve also included the little intro riff that crops up throughout the song, and is really easy. One observation from when I play it – I think the Em / D / C / B sequence that crops up after the first break (there’s no real verse / chorus structure here) sounds best as a run up the fret board – i.e. Em as 9777, D as 7655, C as 5433 and B as 4322. Enjoy!

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Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

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Probably the last thing the ukulele world needs now is another songsheet for Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. But that’s what it’s going to get! This isn’t in any way an attempt to say that all the others are rubbish and that this is definitive or better. It’s just that when I was looking around I couldn’t find one that (a) was clear, (b) sounded right, and (c) was complete. So this sheet is an amalgam of a number of sources (particular this one), and gives me a version that I’m happy with.

This is a song from the awesome songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. During the 1960s and 70s they were responsible for a slew of sophisticated classic pop songs – songs such as I Say A Little Prayer, Walk On By, Close To You,  The Look Of Love, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Alfie, Always Something There To Remind Me. The list is endless. “Raindrops” was famously included in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in a beautiful dreamy scene involving a bicycle. Recorded by BJ Thomas, the song deservedly won an Oscar for best original song, and has gone on to be covered numerous times since.

So here’s the songsheet. It’s just chords and lyrics, which follow the BJ Thomas recording. As with all Bacharach songs, the timing is sometimes a little tricky, so you’ll need to play around with that and get the feel of it from the original recording. Note that I didn’t bother to include the instrumental outro section of the song, which is lovely but (a) a little tricky and (b) not ideally suited to solo uke! Enjoy!

P.S. If you want something a bit more challenging, there’s a great instrumental tab version of the song here, along with demo video. Well worth giving a go.

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True Faith – New Order

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It seems I’ve been doing this little blog for just over a year now. The very first song I posted was a slightly obscure New Order b-side (1963) and I promised at the time that I’d publish the slightly better known a-side at some point as well. So, it’s been a little while coming, but here it is.

True Faith is probably New Order at their pop-iest, and certainly was something of a commercial peak for the band. Produced by Stephen Hague, at the time on a roll with the early success of Pet Shop Boys, the song is a further move towards dance-oriented songs. From the opening clatter of electronic drums the recording is a full on, wall-of-sound type production, which contrasts with the slightly fragile vocals of Bernard Sumner. But if anything the song is best remembered for the surreal video that accompanied it.

The songsheet is quite straightforward. The key is getting a good steady strumming pattern behind it. I prefer something which mirrors the rhythm of the original, which is a little difficult to describe (something like ddddu-ud-dudu) but is best worked out playing along to the origianl (the song sheet is in the same key). Enjoy!

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I Like Birds – Eels

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I was listening to my iPod on shuffle the other day, and suddenly this little ditty popped up. And I thought – you know what, that would make a great little ukulele song. And I think I was right!

Eels are not a band I really claim to know well. I only know one of their albums, Daisies of the Galaxy, from which this song is taken. They are essentially the brainchild of Mark Oliver Everett, better known as “E”, who is the son of famous physicist Hugh Everett III. Everett is a fascinating and thoughtful character, something that shines through in his songwriting which, whilst it certainly does touch on some of the staple subjects of rock and pop music, does so from a a uniquely oblique perspective.

I Like Birds is typical of that quirkiness, and combines that with a stripped-back winsomeness that always made this a stand-out track for me. A simple, repeated strummed guitar pattern, with little adornment, I’m sure that there is some deeper psychological intent behind this song (I came across this description, which cites it as being about his recently deceased mother, who loved watching birds, with the song being an attempt to stay connected to her). But the song works fine for me as a reflection on the simple pleasures and life of a bird, contrasted with the absurdities and complications of modern life.

As an aside, Everett’s autobiography, “Things The Grandchildren Should Know“, is a great read even if you’re not familiar with the band and its music.

And so here’s the songsheet. Nothing complicated – it’s a simple song, as I’ve said. Once you’ve got the strumming rhythm figured out (just listen to the song) you’re almost there. But you do have to get the pauses and the “knock, knock” at the end of each verse – that’s what makes it! Note that this songsheet is in the key of C, because I find it easier to sing in that key. If you want to play along with the original, that is in E, so instead of C / Bb / F you would play E / D / A. Enjoy!

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Crash – The Primitives

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By the late-80s it seemed that the indie music scene had started its shift from its hugely eclectic post-punk roots of the late 70s and early 80s, when the Independent charts had first been established, into a specific and definable sound. The NME-cassette inspired C86 scene could be heralded as the beginning of this shift, with it’s emphasis on jangly guitars and power-pop.  This shift would ultimately lead to the nadir of “landfill indie”, but at the time there was still enough pzazz, energy and inventiveness for it to be an interesting and vibrant scene.

And even some glamour. Bands like Transvision Vamp (admitidly not on an indie label, but indie in spirit), The Darling Buds and The Primitives all combined that jangly power-pop sound with a striking peroxide-blonde female vocalist. A superficial commonality, maybe, but together they provided a pop / indie crossover that was refreshing in the late-80s, post-Live Aid music scene. Whilst not able to sustain a long-term career, while thesebands bloomed they brought a welcome sense of energy, fun and glamour to an indie scene that doesn’t always embrace some of those concepts.

The Primitives I remember seeing in a thrilling gig in the late 80s at Southampton University. I remember being part of a seething, constantly churning crown who pogoed and slam-danced to a constant succession of short, sharp 2 minute pop songs with punk energy and style. Crash was the epitome of the bands repetoire, their biggest hit and the one song that has probably outlived their brief career. Opening with that jangly riff, it bursts into life with lead singer Tracey Tracey’s vocals and doesn’t give up its thrills until two-and-a-half minutes later, fading away on a trail of na-na-nahs. Long enough to get hooked, short enough to want to put it on again, this is the sound of pure adrenalin pop in my book.

And so here’s the song sheet. As I’ve mentioned before these simple punk / new wave / indie three-chord pop songs seem to work really well on the uke, and this is no exception. The song sheet is simple and straightforward, just the chords (if you want to try transposing the guitar riff’s then you can find the guitar originals here!). I’ve also provided it in two keys – the original in B, but also a version in A which (a) is a little easier to play, and (b) I find easier to sing. Play with spirit and attitude, and enjoy!

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