Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Motown Chartbusters – The Sound Of Young America

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In popular music circles, certain words and phrases get thrown around with wilful abandon to the point that they become virtually meaningless. Classic, legendary, era-defining are amongst those that are applied to the next new thing, only for it to disappear into obscurity and be overtaken by the next week’s shiny new thing.

But in the context of the songs contained in this particular song book, I don’t think those words can be over-used. Founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordon Jr, Motown records swept all before it in the 1960s and 1970s, a real-life hit machine that oversaw every facet of the records and artists that made up it’s awe-inspiring roster. With it’s in-house songwriting teams (with the trio of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland the most prolific), it’s crack band that backed most of the recordings (The Funk Brothers), and the carefully cultivated aspirational image that each of its artists presented, Motown established a a particular brand of soul music that has been much imitated but rarely bettered.

Looking at the artists that Motown launched into the world you see a jaw-droppingly amazing set of legends – Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, The Jacksons, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Jimmy Ruffin, Edwin Starr, The Temptations, Mary Wells – the list is almost endless.

And then are the songs. True classic pop singles (despite a few notable exceptions, it was singles where Motown excelled) that – 60 years on – still sound as fresh and invigorating as they day they were minted in Hitsville USA. These are songs that still fill the dance floors wherever they are played, that are still covered by artists of all shapes and sizes, and that are a genuine high-water mark in popular culture. These are songs that have resonate down through the years, touching on matters of the heart that are both universal and enduring. And all set to insanely catching melodies and riffs, and against a musical backdrop that you just couldn’t sit down to.

Many have tried to imitate the formula, but none have really captured the long-lasting magic that is at the heart of Motown, it’s songs and it’s artists. There will never be anything like it again. But fortunately for us, the songs will live on forever. And so here are 24 of the best. Taken from the classic Motown period (1959-71) these songs represent some of the very best of what Motown was offering to the world. These are songs to be sung with gusto, with joy, and with a smile on the face. Enjoy!

Songs included in this songbook : Money (That’s What I Want) by Barret Strong / Please Mr Postman by The Marvelettes / My Guy by Mary Wells / Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes / Dancing In The Streets by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas / Baby Love by The Supremes / How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) by Marvin Gaye / He Was Really Sayin’ Something by The Velvelettes / Nowhere To Run by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas / I Can’t Help Myself by The Four Tops / The Tracks Of My Years by The Miracles / It’s The Same Old Song by The Four Tops / This Old Heart Of Mine by The Isley Brothers / What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted by Jimmy Ruffin / You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes / Reach Out I’ll Be There by The Four Tops / You Keep Me Hanging On by The Supremes / It Takes Two by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston / Jimmy Mack by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas / I Second That Emotion by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles / I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye / Get Ready by The Temptations / The Tears Of A Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles / Nathan Jones by The Supremes

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Roxy Music – The Singles (Songbook)

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It was summer 1972, and the sixties were about to end. For all the great music that had been created in its wake, it felt like that mythic decade had cast its long shadow across the early years of the ensuing decade. The nations favourite pop show, Top of the Pops, was full of long hair and flares, novelty pop songs, middle of the road niceties and saccharine pop. But within a couple of months of each other two legendary appearances would light a blue touch paper that would echo forever through the consciousness of a generation, igniting the imagination of a million would-be stars, demonstrating that anything was possible.

The first of those, on the 6th July, is the rightly celebrated appearance of David Bowie performing Starman, the lead single from his career-defining classic album Ziggy Stardust. A shock of red-haired androgyny dressed in a snakeskin jumpsuit, his arm draped ambiguously around Mick Ronson, sitting rooms across the country where transfixed, parents bemused, and a new generation of artists were inspired.

Six weeks later, the aliens landed. 24th August 1972, and the most unlikely collection of freaks were burned into the retinas of an unsuspecting public, one still reeling from Bowie’s culture bomb. Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain landed seemingly from nowhere (or maybe from Venus), a crash of the future and the past, bug-eyed glasses and affected vocals, a mad scientist, glitter and sequins, a vision perfectly formed that launched a blazing ten-year evolution that was only surpassed by Bowie’s stellar decade.

Roxy was always Bryan Ferry’s band, but they were nothing without the clash of influences that made up the band. Ferry, the art-school educated son of a Durham farm-hand, had (and always has had) a singular vision of what he wanted. But it was the cast of characters that were assembled around him that made the band so special. Phil Manzanera was a guitarist who wanted to experiment and challenge what was possible with the instrument, one who would play anything but the blues. Andy Mackay, responding to an advert for a keyboardist by turning up as an oboe and saxophone player, brought with him a unique musical pallet. And then there was Brian Eno. Exotic. Otherworldly. Unconventional. Eno brought the avant garde, his synthesizers, and a totally unique outlook that positioned him as joint leader within the band until the point – two albums in – that the tension of two egos in the same room could not be contained. Along with bass player Graham Simpson and drummer Paul Thompson, this was the line-up that collided past and present and future into an unholy and wholly glamourous future.

With Eno’s departure after the For Your Pleasure album, it is arguable that some of the more experimental and left-field leanings of the band were muted as Ferry’s influence became stronger and stronger. Certainly over the course of their next three records Roxy became more mainstream. But arguably that is a retrospective view – at the time they were, like Bowie, still stretching the boundaries, still attracting an audience of oddball and eccentric acolytes alongside the straights. When they took an extended break in 1976 – in part to allow Ferry to focus on the solo career that he had always pursued in parallel with the band – it felt like it was all over. A band that had blazed brightly had come to the end of its road.

When a re-formed and re-configured Roxy re-appeared with Manifesto, the landscape had been changed by the scorched-earth policy of punk. Their return was greeted with suspicion and cynicism, something that was reinforced by the apparently smooth sounds that echoed from the grooves of that record. And yet – commercially – Roxy Mark 2 was an even more successful proposition than what had come before. Whilst maybe not being the ground-breaking proposition that Mark 1 had been, Manifesto continued them along a distinct, focussed and uncompromising trajectory that took them all the way through to the absolute classic career closer that is Avalon. A record that is, in so many ways, a world away from their debut ten years earlier, it is a smooth, polished and oh-so-classy collection that – whilst it may have provided a rigid, unchanging template for Ferry’s subsequent solo career, was a hell of a way to go out.

Roxy Music were totally unique. And inspired the future. Their legacy is all around us.

So Roxy Music for the ukulele?! Well, why not. This song book pulls together all the singles that the band released throughout their ten year career. For a band that was definitely album focussed, the singles do stand as real peaks in that catalogue. And are also the songs that are probably more viable for our humble ukulele. I’ve changed the key of a few of the songs to make them easier to play, but generally have kept the arrangements close to the originals. Obviously the production and rich musical backing is so much part of the Roxy sound, and replicating that on a four stringed instrument is a challenge. But for the most part there are great songs at the heart of those recordings that mean they are workable in any situation. So give them a go. And most of all, enjoy!

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Individual song sheets are also available for all the songs in the songbook – links below:


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The Day Before You Came – Abba

And so it came down to this. A little over 8 years after the brash and glittery triumph of Waterloo at Eurovision in Brighton in 1974, and after becoming a world-wide phenomenon in the ensuing years, the final notes of Abba-music were this mature and haunting classic. A far cry from the uplifting confectionary that had brought them huge success – but at the personal cost of the relationships within the band – The Day Before You Came is most definitely not a Dancing Queen, a Does Your Mother Know, a Take A Chance On Me.

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As the 70s turned into the 80s, Abba had moved to more mature themes (their last album, The Visitors, is certainly a more introspective affair), and musically were embracing more electronic sounds in their production. The Day Before You Came was part of an attempt to record a follow-up to The Visitors. But it soon became clear to all involved that that wasn’t going to happen – the band was coming to its end, and this song ended up being the last recording they ever made. And it feels like it. A stark, mainly electronic backdrop provides a foil for Agnetha’s vocals, describing in flat and factual tones the schedule of an oh-so humdrum day before… …it’s never very clear what the “before” and “you” refer to. In fact, the inspiration for this post came from a great conjecture post – and ensuing discussion – here, which opens up all kinds of interpretations. It’s actually that ambiguity that is part of what – for me – makes this such a great song.

Whilst a relative commercial failure at the time (the single peaked at number 22 in the UK charts), time has been kind to this song, and it has quite rightly come to be considered as a late-period classic from the band. That was in part cemented by the cover version by electronic duo Blancmange a couple of years later, and it has been covered by a number of artists since, my favourite of which has to be by Tanita Tikaram.

So here is the song sheet. There’s lots of flattened chords in there, and some other strange and wonderful chords, but they are all part of the charm of the song – and aren’t *too* tricksy. The timing is a bit odd as well – occassional 2-beat bars are thrown in at various places, and I haven’t tried to reflect those in here to keep the sheet simple. If you know the song, I think you’ll be able to work it out. Enjoy – but in a bleak, existential, scandi-noir kind of way.


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The Joshua Tree – U2 (Full album songbook)

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Well having put out a single song (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For) the rest of this just seemed to flow. I hadn’t intended this to happen, but here it is. I’d thought for many years about putting this one together, but had persuaded myself that (a) nobody would want it, and (b) the songs wouldn’t really work. Well I can’t vouch for (a), but having listened to the album afresh, and worked these through, I think I can say that I was wrong about (b).

I know that this band, and this album, is one that has attracted more than its fair share of opprobrium. I get some of that, and understand some of it. But personally U2 is the band that has sound-tracked my life more than any other. From having first seen them in a surprise appearance at the Greenbelt Festival in 1981 and then in a nightclub in Portsmouth later that year, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton have informed and inspired me over the years. Yes, the last few albums have been something of a disappointment. And I know that Bono’s ego can get in the way of things. But for me, the journey that this band have been on, and the journey that they have taken me on, is something I don’t regret.

From the fresh-faced post-punk misfits of Boy, through the initial breakthrough of War and Under A Blood Red Sky, to the world-wide domination that was announced at Live Aid and came to fruition with The Joshua Tree, this was a band that grew up in, and to an extend defined, the 1980s. Afterwards they spent the 1990s embracing their more detached, ironic side with Achtung Baby, Pop and the Zoo TV tour – although it’s fair to say that under the surface there was still a lot of deeply serious stuff going on, before returning to be U2 again in the 2000s and beyond.

And so here is The Joshua Tree. The real international break-through for the band, one that begins with three stone-cold classics (Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You), but which contains within its grooves a reservoir of deep cuts that have still bear repeated listening. Reprised a few years ago when the band – who usually stick rigidly to the mantra (from Rattle and Hum’s God Part II) that “you glorify the past when the future dries up” – toured the album in a series of world-wide shows, thematically the album is still is relevant as it was back in 1987. An album that riffs on themes of spiritual yearning and spiritual drought (those desert pictures aren’t coincidence), of the heart of America, and those on the fringes of that promised land who are cut-off and unable to participate, and of international tension and war-torn strife, this is a record that is still relevant, and which still inspires.

At the heart of the record, though, is a series of great songs. Strip away the effects and the production and – with a couple of probable exceptions (Bullet The Blue Sky and Exit, I’m looking at you!) – these are songs that works as stripped down, acoustic renditions, as much as they work as huge stadium-filling rock performances. And that is the measure of a great record.

And so here you have The Joshua Tree for ukulele. Unlikely, I’ll grant you. And whether these ever get to be played in public who knows. Stripped back, these songs are surprisingly simple. There’s no complicated chords here, no complicated rhythms, just a bunch of great songs that deserve to be sung proudly. I don’t think there’s more to be said than that. Just – whatever you’ve thought about the band and the record in the past – give it a chance. There’s riches in here.

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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2

An Easter weekend seemed an apposite time to post this one.

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At the time of the songs writing and recording, Bono had been listening to the likes of The Swan Silvertones, The Staple Singers, and Blind Willie Johnson, and producer Brian Eno had long held a love of gospel music. And those themes are evident deep in the roots of the song.

Yet whilst the lyric and sound echoed those gospel themes, there is a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty underlying it. This is a gospel song that recognises the reality of temptation, and embraces doubt and uncertainty. Described by Bono as a gospel song with a restless spirit, this was the sound of a band that was at the same time questioning and clinging on to their beliefs. That explicitly Christian spirituality had been something that almost broke the band earlier in their career, and whilst it had evolved and matured over the years, it is never something that has left them.

At the time of this songs release, it was totally misunderstood and condemned by a certain section of the Christian community that had previously embraced the band, turned away by the questioning and doubt that offended their sense of religious certainty. And yet it is this ambiguity and uncertainty that have made this song something of an anthem of its time. One that leaves room for multiple interpretation, for believer, non-believer, and all the shades in-between to find a common ground. With the divisiveness that those on the extremes of religious belief have wrought over the years, that should be a rallying cry that should be celebrated.

[N.B. As well as the obvious original (and check out the version that made itself onto Rattle and Hum) there are some great covers out there – check out versions by Mica Paris, Juliet Turner and Sarah Jarosz]

The song is a straightforward, 3-chord one. I’ve added in an additional Csus4 throughout the song to give it some colour, and there are plenty of opportunities for embellishment. This works both as a simple camp-fire song, and a ramped up to the max gospel shout-out. So give it a go. And enjoy!