Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness – John Prine / Nanci Griffith

John Prine is songwriters songwriter. Somebody who amassed a substantial body of work that influenced a raft of far more commercially successful songwriters from across the musical spectrum, but particularly those operating in a country and folk vein.

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I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Prine. Nor necessarily a fan. I’ve come to him more via. those he has influenced, including contemporary singers such as Jason Isbell, Kasey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, as well as those legends that revere him such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. But Nanci Griffith would have been my initial introduction to him, via. her cover of this beautiful song on her 1993 covers album, Other Voices, Other Rooms. On that album Griffith, already established as a respected country folk (too country for folk, too folk for country) songwriter and performer, recorded a collection of songs by her favourite songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, and Tom Paxton. And this gem by John Prine.

Described by critic David Fricke as “a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall way clock”, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness become an instant classic, something acknowledged by Prine when he later reflected “Jesus, that’s beautiful. I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was just pouring out of me”. Griffith had already performed the song as a duet with Prine, and so it made a lot of sense to record it for this project, particularly when joined by Prine on harmony vocals for the recording.

I was reminded of this song, and Griffiths recording of it, by a cover version by Kurt Vile on his recently released EP “Speed, Sound, Lonely KV”. Proof, if proof were needed, that a classic song is timeless.

Like many a classic song from this genre, this is a very straightforward song that shouldn’t prove too taxing. 3 chords (or 4 if you include the optional 7ths, which aren’t strictly part of the song but do add something), I’ve included two version – one in G as per Prine’s original, and one in C as per Griffith’s cover. Enjoy!

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The Undertones – The Singles

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I’ve posted a number of times in the past about how well some of the punk and new wave classics translate to ukulele – if you give it enough enthusiasm and energy. The basic structure of the songs, the (usually) simple chord patterns, the repetitive sing-a-long nature of them, plus the fact that they’re often a but rough round the edges, lends them well to being played by ukulele groups who often treasure all those things. And so here is a song book from the masters of the form – Northern Ireland’s own legends, The Undertones. Teenage Kicks is a song that has been a staple of Southampton Ukulele Jam for many a year (and even got performed by us on BBC TV!), and more recently My Perfect Cousin has had a couple of appearances. So it seemed to make sense to try to widen out the possibilities.

The Undertones originally formed in 1974, but with the coming of the punk revolution in 1976 they shifted their focus and were soon plying their three-chord pop punk songs around Derry. Mostly eschewing the troubled political climate of 1970s Northern Ireland, the bands songs focussed more on the typical tropes of teenage growing up – girls, angst, girls, adolescence, and girls. Eventually getting noticed by Sire records (by way of ardent fan, the radio 1 DJ John Pee, who often cited Teenage Kicks as the best record ever), the band released a steady stream of classic singles, and four albums, before splitting in 1983 when lead singer Feargal Sharkey left, pursuing a brief solo career before moving into A&R and executive roles within the music industry.

The musical evolution of The Undertones is fascinating. Initially creating pop punk classics such as Teenage Kicks, Jimmy Jimmy and Here Comes The Summer, by the time of their second album, 1980’s Hypnotised, they had supplemented that with a more sophisticated 60s influenced sound as typified by hit single Wednesday Week. That trend continued in the band’s next album, Positive Touch, with their musical palette being extended with keyboards and brass, and lyrically a number of songs that did touch on the Troubles within Ireland. By the time of their final album, 1983’s The Sin Of Pride, full-on Motown influences can be heard (Got To Have You Back was original an Isley Brothers song), and whilst the album was a critical success the band’s commercial success had declined. Pressure from the record company, added to tensions and musical difference within the band, eventually led to the split later that year.

The band reformed in 1999, without Sharkey, and instead with Paul McLoone on lead vocals. Since they they have played and toured regularly and – from personal experience – I can highly recommend them. McLoone isn’t Sharkey, and doesn’t pretend to be, but it is a great night out. They have released a couple of albums in that time (I must admit I’ve never head them) but it will always be for the songs from that classic 5 year run that they will be known and loved.

For the song book, I’ve drawn together – in chronological order – the 13 singles that comprised their glory years. These are all fairly straightforward – there certainly aren’t any tricky chords in there (I’ve transposed a couple to make them a bit easier to play), and by and large they are structurally fairly standard. After their last hit, It’s Going To Happen!, there aren’t any chord sheets out there that I could draw on, so everything after that I’ve had to compile myself, via. the magic of Chordify. They sound OK to my ears, but I can’t vouch for them being perfect.

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List of songs, with links to individual song sheets, below:


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How Long – Iris DeMent

A long time ago, in the early days of this blog, I posted an Iris DeMent song. You can read about her, her music and her background in that post – I won’t repeat myself here. But Iris has recently released a song – one that she has had written for a while but I don’t think has recorded – that has been in part inspired by Black Lives Matter, and is raising funds for the Poor People’s Campaign, a US-based campaign focussed on addressing system racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism.

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How Long takes some words cited by Martin Luther King, Jr (let justice roll down like water), themselves a biblical quote (Amos 5:24 if you’re interested) as the basis of a cry for justice, against a background of “power, greed and profit”. With its call for compassion, understanding and living life for the benefit of all, How Long is part of a long tradition of folk music railing against injustice, standing up for the underdog and speaking truth to power.

Being as DeMent loosely comes from a country music background, she has taken some stick for this – and other songs – which probably don’t sit well with your more traditional country audience. But that has never stopped her shying away from what she believes and what she feels needs to be said. DeMent is fearless in that regard, and all power to her.

Here’s the song sheet. It’s a fairly simple, traditional gospel / country structured song. I’ve transcribed it in the original key, which I think works OK for ukulele – it’s not a beginner song, but it’s not a really tricksy one either. Sing it loud, and sing it proud. Enjoy!


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1981

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Well it’s been nearly two years since I did the 1979 songbook, and so it seemed about time to bring things bank up-to-date … with a 1981 equivalent. As mentioned previously, this is kind-of my era, and so I’m not one to be particularly balanced in an assessment of the musical qualities of the year.

As with last time, this is *my* selection, and takes a somewhat biased view on the musical output of the year. So sorry, but you won’t find any Shakin’ Stevens here. Nor will you find any Bucks Fizz, Joe Dolce, Julio Igelsias, Stars on 45 or The Birdie Song (all of whom were in the top 20 selling singles of the year). But what you will find is a selection that showcases some of the wide variety of music that was being made and – in most cases – being lapped up by the British music-buying public.

1981 was the year in which the New Romantics, and electronic music more generally, established itself in the charts. I’ve covered those genres off in more depth here, but included in this book are the likes of Soft Cell (whose cover of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love was everywhere), The Human League (who came from also-ran has-beens following the earlier split in the band to be triumphant pop conquerors with their classic album Dare, and the omnipresent Christmas Number 1, Don’t You Want Me), the studio-based Visage, OMD (with their songs of dead French saints – x2), the upcoming scream-sensation that was/is Duran Duran, and Basildon’s finest, Depeche Mode. With their strong emphasis on visuals and style, these new artists were truly of the video age, a fortuitous timing that – with the launch of MTV in the US in this year – saw their music being eagerly gobbled up by young Americans, leading to the second “British invasion” which really got under way the following year.

The US were not to be outdone, though. And whilst classic American rock bands have often had a hard-time making a lasting presence in the UK (at least from a singles perspective) the year did see the likes of REO Speedwagon and Journey have some success. But even then, the more “new wave” artists from stateside, such as The Go-Go’s and Kim Carnes (a kind of new wave / classic rock hybrid) had success, alongside the reinvigorated rock-and-roll stylings of Stray Cats.

But these were somewhat of an exception. British Pop was in rude health, as evidenced in more classic ways by the fresh face of Kim Wilde, the songwriting powerhouse that was Kirsty MacColl, and the singles-juggernaut that was Madness. But there were some particularly skewed versions of pop appearing during the year. Most significantly (and if it was anybody’s year, it was probably his) Adam and his Ants took a bizarre amalgam of tribal drumming, punk attitudes, twangy guitars, and almost-pantomime dressing up, married with a constantly evolving but somehow consistent visual style, and won Britain’s playground over big style. This even gave an opportunity for posh punk has-been Eddie Tudorpole to have a hit with the medieval-themed Swords of a Thousand Men.

The graduates of the punk and new wave scenes were still around, albeit in matured ways. The Police were still massive, The Stranglers had a big hit with the relatively laid-back and un-punk Golden Brown (odd time signatures included), XTC continued to plough their own furrow, The Undertones started to grow up, and both Squeeze and Elvis Costello took an unexpected country by-road. In addition the vibrant and varied post-punk scene started to go overground, with the likes of The Teardrop Explodes, Altered Images, Toyah and Scritti Politti establishing themselves.

But the old guard wasn’t to be outdone. Phil Collins took time out from Genesis to begin a parallel (and hugely successful) solo career, Dire Straits were further laying claim to their position as grown-up rock superstars, 10cc’s Godley and Creme broke away with their own brand of quirky pop, and even The Who returned from a few years away as if nothing much had changed (although clearly it had). And not to forget Olivia Newton-John having another gym-based makeover.

Anyway, here’s the book. I’m sure you’ll disagree with the selection of what is or should have been in the book. I’m in no way claiming this to be a definitive record of the year. But it is *my* selection. And I love every song here.

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Also, see below for a list of the songs included in the book, along with links to individual song sheets:


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2020 Songbook Updates

It’s a bit overdue, but I’ve finally got around to doing the annual update of the big songbooks. So now included in these are all the song sheets that I’ve published over the last year or so, as well as a small selection from the themed/album songbooks, and a few extra songs that hadn’t made it as far as song sheets. So that’s now nearly 300 songs compiled into one big song book, along with a couple of era-specific books.