Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Head Hang Low – Julian Cope

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Second-up in the Julian Cope double-bill is this gorgeous song from his 1984 debut solo album World Shut Your Mouth. The Teardrop Explodes disintegrated during the recording of a third-album that would eventually see the light of day many years later as “Everybody Wants To Shag … The Teardrop Explodes“. Julian retreated close to his childhood home of Tamworth, and the resulting solo album feels like a retreat from the madness of latter-day Teardrop’s into a cocoon-like world that probably only made sense in Julian’s head. Now perceived as a bona fide acid-casualty eccentric, Julian’s music was so out-of-step with the mood of the time that this album (and it’s follow-up a few months later, Fried, whose tortise-shell wearing cover didn’t do anything to assuage the public’s perception of him as lost and wasted) were largely ignored. But for me this is a real high-point of his back-catalogue.

Taking a resolutely low-fi approach to recording (I remember him in an interview at the time saying how the cost of recording the whole album had been less than half that of label-mates Tears For Fears current single The Way You Are) the album is chock-full of wonderful songs and vivid imagery. Elegant Chaos is a particular favourite (“People I see / Just remind me of mooing like a cow on the grass / And that’s not to say / That there’s anything wrong with being a cow anyway”!).

But the song I’m highlighting here is a particularly poignant one called Head Hang Low. Opening with a beautiful oboe line from Kate St John (later to be part of Dream Academy, famous for Life In A Northern Town) the instrumenation on song consistst of that oboe line, a reptative drum machine and a cheap Casio keyboard rhythm. Hardly promising fayre, and yet this is a hauntingly beautiful song of loss and confusion.

As with Tiny Children, there is a simplicity to this song which lends itself well to the humble ukulele. Nothing complicated, just a few basic chords with a simple strumming pattern (I use the same d-du-udu pattern 2 as on Tiny Children) this lovely lullaby is a joy to sing. Enjoy!

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Tiny Children – The Teardrop Explodes

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So here’s the first in a double-bill of Julian Cope ballads (lucky you!).

Julian is largely remembered, if he is remembered at all, in the guise of the leather flying jacketed (oh, how I wanted one of those jacket!) star of The Teardrop Explodes, performing Reward on Top Of The Pops. Something of a staple of early-80s compilations, the blast of sheer energy that song exudes has never waned, and has rightly become something of an alternative classic.

But one of the reasons (other than the obvious one of copious amounts of drugs) that the Teardrops didn’t become top 40 mainstays was that Julain was never really one for the obvious. In fact he was really one for the downright weird, strange and eccentric. Those eccentricities became more obvious in his solo career (more of which in the next post). But they were certainly there below the commercial underbelly of his early ’80s hits. One of the b-sides of Tiny Children was a 9 minute live version of their debut single, Sleeping Gas, which demonstrates perfectly how off-the-wall Cope could go.

That eccentricity didn’t just manifest itself in weird psychedelic wig-outs. Another consistent trend has been for simple, naive, nursery-rhyme-like songs that provide a space for breath amongst the surrounding weirdness. These songs didn’t usually crop-up as singles, but Tiny Children was the one exception (unsurprisingly it didn’t really bother the shiny-pop absorbed charts of the summer of 1982). Consisting of nothing but Julian’s little-boy voice set against a single-finger synth riff, this is a truly haunting and beautiful song. A song I have loved since I first heard it as part of the band’s desperately under-rated second album, Wilder.

So sing this on a ukulele? Well yes, actually. I think it works rather wonderfully. Not an obvious choice, I’ll grant you. And not one that all your friends are likely to instantly respond to in nostalgic recognition. But it works, all the same. In some ways similar to the blissed-out, trance-like vibe of  the last post (Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio), I find this best sung to a gentle repetitve strum pattern of d-du-udu (see pattern 2 here). Enjoy!

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Look At Miss Ohio – Gillian Welch

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A little while back I said that Gillian Welch might pop up quite regularly on this blog. To date she’s only appeared the once, and so it’s about time I put that right.

As I said on that first post, I do so love the music that Gillian Welch makes. Every time I come back to it there’s something warm and welcoming about it that wraps you up and holds you in its arms. That’s not to say this is bland, escapist stuff – there’s plenty of heartache, pain and tragedy sprinkled across these songs of hers, but there is something in these songs that leaves me with a sense of peace and contentment. I guess there was probably a time when I would have thought that was a bad thing. But right now I think that is a wonderful gift to give anybody. Edgy has its time and place, but sometimes you just want to be hugged, and Gillian’s songs do that for me.

“Look At Miss Ohio” is another song from her 2003 album “Soul Journey“. If truth be known it’s probably my least favourite of all her albums (in part due to the more band-oriented sound), but that is just a relative judgement. Gillian has never made a bad record, and there are some wonderful songs on Soul Journey. Whereas No One Knows My Name has more of an upbeat, bluegrass-y feel to it, Look At Miss Ohio falls into my favourite category of Gillian Welch songs – the slowburners. Those gentle, repetative, almost trance-like songs that are just *so* gorgeous. She took this to a mighty extreme on 2001’s Time (The Revelator) with the track I Dream A Highway – 14 and a half minutes of pure bliss, and when it ends it just feels like too soon. That song could go on forever as far as I’m concerned!

Lok At Miss Ohio is a song about a girl who might want to settle down at some point, but wants to live, to have some fun, before she does that. Who wants to do right, but not right now. Personally I’m many years the other side of that particular dilema, but it still rings a chord, and maybe a little ache inside about not having done so as much as maybe I should have. It’s a gorgeous song, as this live acoustic version from St Lukes in London shows – just Gillian and constant musical companion Dave Rawlings.

And so to the song sheet. Quite straightforward for chords, although the instrumental interludes throw in one or two unusual chords. Not much more to say, to be honest  – just sing and enjoy!

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Road To Nowhere – Update

I published a version of Talking Head’s Road To Nowhere on here a little while ago. Since then we’ve been practising the song at Southampton Ukulele Jam, and one of the problems was getting the timing for the opening section right (we are trying to do it unaccompanied).

Anyway, to try and help with that I created an updated version of the song sheet with musical notation for the opening section. It’s less to get the notes right, more to get the rhythm and timing right. It seemed to work, so here’s the updated song sheet.

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One – U2 / Johnny Cash

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U2 have been a part of my life for twice as long as they haven’t. In 1981 I was attending the Greenbelt festival, and sandwiched between the likes of Garth Hewitt and Cliff Richard (I forget the exact artists) a relatively unknown Dublin foursome blagged their way at short notice onto the running order.  As an impressionable 16 year old that brief, explosive set was my introduction to a band that have – for better or worse – become an integral part of my world.

Their journey has been an interesting one. From their beginnings as post-punk music paper favourties, rally-rousing christian rock, and then tub-thumbing, white-flag waving earnest young men, they took a detour via. Brian Eno to a more ambient textured sound which peaked with the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree, turning them into true rock megastars. Moving on again after the critical mauling of Rattle and Hum, the band reinvented themselves for the 90s , become more playful and alive to the value of irony, broadening their musical pallette, loosing some of the early fans but gaining a new audience. By 2000 there was something of a retun to basics with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and if the last couple of albums have maybe shown a lack of adventure and/or songs, the sleek lines of their recent comeback song “Invisible” suggest good things for the future.

One is a pivitol song from their 90s reinvention masterpiece Achtung Baby. The band, desperately trying to find a way out of the cul-de-sac that was Rattle and Hum, were struggling to find a way forward. Whilst Bono and guitarist The Edge were pushing in more experimental directions, Larry and Adam (drums and bass respectively) were unsure, and the tension was threatening to pull the band apart. Then one day, during improvisations in the studio, this song suddenly emerged, almost fully formed. The band reaslied they could still do it.

What has always surprised me about this song is how misrepresented it often is. This is a song that people use for weddings, for goodness sake, yet The Edge described it on one level as a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who’ve been through some nasty, heavy stuff”. It’s not as bleak as all that – there is hope in the song, a recognition of differences and the need to get on – but it is not a lovey-docey declaration of one-ness that some seem to use it as.

The song itself has become probably U2’s most covered song. There are a host of great versions out there, including this one by Mica Paris, but my favourite has to be the Johnny Cash version from his American Recordings series of albums. In fact this song was my first introduction to Johnny Cash, and I have fond memories of playing this on a jukebox in a San Diego bar whilst on a work trip, and really surprisring my colleagues that this somewhat unhip hasbeen (as he was perceived at the time) could make such great music.

And so to the song sheet. I know there are probably loads of versions of this out there, but I couldn’t quite find one that summoned up the sound of the Johnny Cash version. So this is my attempt to do that. After all, it seems to make more sense to try and emulate the stripped back sound of Johnny Cash with a ukulele than it does that of a rock band like U2. Nothing too tricky here, a few slighltly unusual chords but they’re quite straightforward and sound good (to these ears). Enjoy!

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The Jesus And Mary Chain – Just Like Honey / Some Candy Talking / April Skies

aprilskiessomecandytalkingjustlikehoney <Just Like Honey>  <Some Candy Talking>  <April Skies>

Three for the price of one today! East Kilbride’s finest exploded onto a music scene that was in need of a rock band with attitude, with an element of danger and controversy.  Early gigs were short and often descended into violence and mayhem, whilst the songs were drenched in feedback and distortion. But here’s the thing – when you strip the songs back, when you take out all that noise, all that fuzz, that distortion, at their heart these are really great, really simple songs.

Listen hard, and alongside the more obvious Velvet Underground influences, there’s a stack of classic 60s references all the way through – Beach Boys (check out the chorus of Cherry Came Too), Shangri-Las, and the classics of Phil Spector (Ronettes, etc.). If the proof of a good song is that it works just as well with just an acoustic guitar, even our beloved four-string uke, then these are certainly good songs. My first exposure to Jesus and Mary Chain was via. the Some Candy Talking EP, which contained a whole bonus 7″ with acoustic versions, and I loved those almost as much as the effect-laden originals.

So here are three songs from the bands first flush of success in the mid-1980s that fulfil the promise of great songs.

Just Like Honey was the lead track (and later a single) from the bands debut album, Psychocandy. It’s a sweet confection that is atypical of that noise-drenched album, but is a gorgeous song that achieved later prominence through its inclusion in the wonderful Sofia Coppola film Lost In Translation.

Some Candy Talking was a single released between the first two albums, and was their first real hit. As I said previously this was my first real exposure to the band and has remained a favourite to this day.

April Skies was the lead single from the bands second album (and my personal favourite) Darklands. The feedback had largely been jetisoned highlighting a collection of melodic songs that made JAMC stand out from their contemporaries.

So here are the song sheets for each of these songs. Simple structure, simple chords, there’s not much really to say expect have a go. I’ve had a go at transcribing the guitar solos on each of these which you might want to have a go at as well. I can’t vouch for their total accuracy, partly as all the distortion makes it hard to actually work out what is being played. If they don’t work for you, just adapt them. Enjoy!

<Just Like Honey>  <Some Candy Talking>  <April Skies>

(n.b. Just Like Honey and Some Candy Talking are in the same key as the originals, April Skies has been transposed a little just to make it a bit easier – for me! – to sing and play)

And just to prove that these songs work on the uke, take a listen to this lovely version of Just Like Honey.


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Picture This – Blondie

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To be perfectly honest there’s a whole raft of Blondie songs I could have posted on here. OK, maybe not Rapture, and Heart of Glass might be a struggle, but much of the Blondie back catalogue just seems to work really well on ukulele. I guess that is testament to the fact that they wrote good strong songs, with good strong tunes – simple yet effective, and ear-worms that won’t loosen their grip for days on end.

Picture This is from the generally acknowledged highpoint of Blondie‘s career, Parallel Lines, an album that sold 20 million copies, spawned four hit singles in the UK (two of which were number one) and still sounds fresh and buzzing every time you play it. The album was produced by Mike Chapman, who was resonspible for a string of hit singles in the 1970s, particularly Glam Rock artists such as Mud, Sweet and Suzi Quattro. That crips, punchy, no nonsense sound permeates Parallel Lines, but obviously there is more to it than that.

And obviously there is Debbie Harry, who for many people was Blondie (unfairly but understandably so). The epitome of the sassy, spunky, sexy front woman, this was prime-era Harry, and whilst the songs are great, her presence fronting up these songs really makes them something else. I refer you to the video (below) for this song as evidence – essentially just long, lingering shots of Debbie backlit in a yellow dress again, peroxide blonde against a black backdrop. Cheap, simple, but totally effective and sexy as hell!

So what about the song. Well I don’t think there is too much that needs to be said about that . It is relatively simple and straightforward (apart from the occassional Ab chord), it has a little riff (which you can either sing! or play) and it powers on through from beginning to end. Play with attitude. Oh, and it needs a bit of a deep breath for a few lines in the chorus – you’ll find that out when you try to play it. Enjoy!

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