Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Let Your Yeah Be Yeah – The Pioneers

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So reggae took me a long time to get. Yes, I’ve had a copy of Bob Marley’s Legend for ever, and occassionaly the odd reggae song broke through as a pop hit. But that’s as far as it went. Then a few years ago, having got a little bored with a whole host of my usual musical tastes, I made a concerted effort to “get” into reggae. Spotify, and a bunch of days spent working alone at home, was my saviour. And with a bit of effort it all finally clicked.

One thing I like about reggae is the rawness of sound and attitude, something that – for all it’s wonderfulness – was a little lost in the music of Bob Marley. There’s a real punk spirit to a lot of reggae, that pre-dates the punk revolution of 1976/7, born in part from an outsider attitude and an anti-establishment mind-set. Interestingly, though, there was a real affinity for those original punks with reggae. DJs like Don Letts often played reggae between sets at punk gigs, and that cross-fertalisation spread into the music of some of the punk bands (The Clash’s cover of Police and Thieves being an obvious example). And then there was the whole Two-Tone movement, a blissful amalgam of punk and ska (a more up-beat version of reggae). There’s a good article here on the links between the punk and reggae.

The Pioneers were a vocal trio from Jamaica, formed in the early 60s, and were amongst the first wave of reggae bands to score international (i.e. UK!) success in the late 60s and early 70s. Their first hit was with Long Shot Kick De Bucket (later covered by The Specials), but Let Your Yeah Be Yeah, a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song, was their biggest hit, peaking at #5 in the UK singles charts in 1971.

[As an aside, I can highly recommend the following compilations if you want to move beyond the obvious into the treasures of reggae; Scratchy Sounds (Ska, Dub, Roots & Reggae nuggets), and Tighten Up! Trojan Reggae Classics (although admitidily not at the prices Amazon seem to be selling them for!).]

And so to the song sheet. A few words of explanation I think are required for this one. Firstly the chords. I originally did a version of the song in an easier key (G). But I subsequently realised that playing it in the original key works much better. Putting aside that I find it easier to sing in that key (Bb), having to use barre chords really helps to get the reggae feel for the song – it means that you can get the choppy rhythms much better because you can dampen all the strings when you need to. So the chord diagrams in the sheet represent the barre-chords that I think work best with this.

Secondly, there is the rhythm. I’m not going to give a lesson on how to play reggae here. Suffice to say that your best bet is to listen to the song, and get the feel from that. Basically I play it as a d-u-d-u rhythm all the way through, BUT with the first of those beats (the first down beat) dampened – i.e. with the fingers forming the chord shape on the strings, but not actually pressing down on the fret, AND the last down beat being clipped (i.e. the fingers lifting off the frets – but staying on the strings – almost as soon as the stroke has been completed). Listen to the song and have a play around and you’ll get the hang it.

Enjoy!

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Tears Of A Clown – The Beat

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It’s been something of an ’80s nostalgia-fest here of late hasn’t it. Sorry about that, but I guess these songs were from my formative years musically and so have a special resonance for me. And look, here comes another one pounding down the tracks. And before anybody starts, yes, I do know that this is a cover of the great Smokey Robinson song. But as with my earlier post of Dear Prudence, it’s the early 80s cover version that is my frame of reference for this song. And whilst I do like the Smokey Robinson original, the energy and drive of The Beat’s version is what makes it for me. The Beat (or English Beat, as they got named in the US) came to prominence as part of the Two-Tone movement in the late 1970s. Two-Tone took sounds that originated in Jamaica (rocksteady, ska, reggae), mixed it with the energy and attitude of punk and new wave, and sprinkled it liberally with a political conscience, creating a truly grass-roots, cross-cultural movement. Bands like The Specials, Madness, and Selector were all part of the scene, and The Beat were there right from the beginning. Tears of  a Clown was their début (and sole Two-Tone) single, reached the UK top 10 in early 1980. The Beat split in 1983 after just three albums. However the band have reformed, although now exist in two versions – one, mainly based in the US, fronted by singer and songwriter Dave Wakling, and another, based in the UK, fronted by vocalist Ranking Roger. I saw the UK version a few years ago here in Southampton and they were storming! Definitely worth checking out.

The songsheet aligns to The Beat’s version, and is relatively straightforward. In fact, other than the chorus it’s essentially just a repetition throughout of the A/D/G/D chords. The chorus chucks in a few curveballs (E, C#, F#m), but if you play E as the barred-D shape on the 4th fret, and C# as the Bb shape on the 4th fret as well, it works OK. I’ve included the little dinky riff as well, if you want to play around with that. And if you want to get something of The Beat’s feel to this, then the rhythm is key. Listen to the original to get the feel, but it’s something like [A] d d-u [D] d d-u [G] d-u-d [D] u u-d-u, repeated. Play with energy, and enjoy!

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Situation – Yazoo

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Yazoo’s Only You seems to be a staple of ukulele groups. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a good song (as long as you can rid your minds of the Flying Pickets), but a little… …safe? …nice? Well following on from the synthpop theme of the last post, I thought it might be good to lob this one out there, just as a reminder that both Yazoo and Alison Moyet are somewhat more than that one song.

It’s often forgotten that – at the time – Yazoo were real groundbreakers. Vince Clarke had just left Depeche Mode after their first album, and as the main songwriter in the band in those early days there were question marks over both their future, and what Clarke would do next. Few probably expected him to team up with an earthy blues vocalist like Alison Moyet, but in hindsight it seems such an obvious thing to do. Blending Clarke’s cold, precise synthetic keyboard and percussion sounds with a real, bluesy, soulful vocal, courtesy of Moyet, was a marriage made in heaven. And although it only lasted for little more than 18 months it set a template that has been repeated again and again ever since, not least in the diva sounds of dance and house music.

Situation was one of those songs that showcased Moyet’s voice to the full (and she still sounds great now). Widely acknowledged as a dance-floor classic, Situation was originally the b-side of Only You, appeared on the debut album Upstairs At Eric’s, and was a huge dance-floor smash in the US (number 1 in the dance charts). Listening to it now it sounds so familiar (not just itself, but in terms of the records that it has influenced) yet at the time it was like nothing else. The pulsating synth sounds and relentless percussion lay a foundation for Moyet’s rich, raw vocal.

So perfect for the ukulele then?! Well, I think so. It definately needs some kind of funky or rhythmic strumming to give it legs, so it’s not one for the standard strumming brigade. But give it some feeling, preferably a nice soulful vocal on top, and you can really make this one fly. Here is an example of the kind of result you might get. The song sheet is probably more of a starting point than something to be slavishly followed – there’s plenty of scope here for lots of improvisation and arranging. Enjoy!

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Lawnchairs – Our Daughters Wedding

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I’ve been clearing the garden today. It has got horribly overgrown, so I’ve been uprooting weeds, brambles and other horrors. Not my idea of fun, but it’s quite satisfying seeing a somewhat clearer and tidier garden at the end of the day.

Anyway, to while away the time and motivate me I was listing to a compilation album called “The Mix Tapes: Alternative Music From The Late 70s And 80s“. It does what it says on the tin, and I guess this was really my era – the formative years of my musical journey, and as such music that has stayed with me and special to me ever since. One of the tracks that popped up was this somewhat neglected little gem from American synthpop trio Our Daughters Wedding.
This song takes me straight back to the summer of 1981. It was what was called a radio hit – i.e. played to death over the airwaves, but largely ignored by the great British record playing public. But it’s ubiquity at the time did enough to earn me a nickname of “Lawnchairs” due to my predilection for a rather fetching short-sleeved shirt in broad green and blue vertical stripes, interspersed with thin white stripes. Yes, in hindsight it did look something like a deckchair, but I loved it. As I did this record.

It’s one of those extremely basic synthpop songs that proliferated in the early 80s – in many ways similar to early songs by the likes of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Maoeuvres In The Dark (whose Messages has an introduction uncannily similar to this). I guess you an think of these as the synthpop equivalents of those early punk singles – spirit and attitude was everything, electronic equivalents of the two-chord thrash. Our Daughters Wedding never really made it – this was the peak of their success, and it didn’t get any higher than #49 in the UK singles chart – and if only for this song they are fondly remembered, if the number of appearances of this song on alternative 80s compilation albums is anything to go by.

So a suitable song for ukulele?! Well maybe not the most obvious of choices, I’ll grant you. But yes, I think it actually works quite well. It’s hugely straightforward, at least in terms of largely just being two chords all the way through. And the simple and straightforward nature of the song makes it something that seems to work well with four strings and a few bits of wood (and whilst it’s an acoustic guitar rather than a uke, here’s some kind of proof). [Note that the song sheet contains the song in two keys – the original, plus a version in E which I personally find it a lot easier to sing] Enjoy!

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April the 14th (Part 1) – Gillian Welch

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Here’s another from Ms. Welch. I never tire of these songs.

I first came across Gillian via. her involvement in the Coen brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou. The film, and more particularly the soundtrack album, was my country music epiphany, and from that I’ve gone on to discover and love a whole host of country-related music. But that soundtrack really opened my eye and ears, as I think it did for a lot of others. Gillian was involved in a couple of songs on that record, collaborating with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, a combination made in heaven if ever there was one. The soundtrack, masterminded by the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett, had a particular old-time (the film is set in the 1930s) take on country, and Gillian was custom-made for that job. Despite being born in 1960s New York, and spending much of her life growing up in Los Angeles, her music feels as old as the hills, stripped back, acoustic, shamelessly drawing on the spirit of early 20th century rural American music. As such, her authenticity has been questioned, but in my mind she inhabits the world these songs as fully as anyone. The songs, and the performances (usually with collaborator David Rawlings) ring true, and if you’ve ever seen her in performance you’ll know that these are from the heart.

[To be perfectly honest, that whole emphasis on “authenticity” comes across to me as a narrow and reactionary, almost fascist, view point that fails to recognise the inherent multi-cultural, variety of influences that people come under in their lives, and that regardless of people’s backgrounds these sources can and do connect with people in very real ways. Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music is a good read on this subject – read some of their (now inactive) blog entries here.]

Anyway. This some comes from Gillian’s 3rd album, Time (The Revelator), which was my introduction proper to Gillian’s music. It’s a languid, slow-burning song, befitting it’s subject matter. Focussing on the somewhat disastrours experience of a somewhat down-at-heel “rock and roll band”, those events get put into some kind of context by reference to a series of historical disasters that coincidently all happened on the same day – April 14th. In 1865 the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (the “Great Emancipator”) by John Wilkes Booth, in 1912 the sinking of the Titanic after striking an iceberg, and in 1935 “Black Sunday” – the worst dust bowl storm ever, resulting in the residents of the region fleeing for other areas (many went to California). And if that is not enough, the album also includes a “(Part 2)” in the song Ruination Day, which continues these themes in a similar bleak style. So no, not the cheeriest of songs! But a great one nonetheless.

So here’s the song sheet. Nothing complicated in the basics here – the song itself is sparse, so take this as a starting point and do what you want with it. Enjoy!

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I’m In Love With A German Film Star – The Passions

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I remember having this on a C120 cassette tape that I used to recorded my favourite songs from Sunday evening’s Top 40 show.

The Passions are generally perceived as one-hit wonders. Which is true – they only had one hit, and this it. To be fair, it wasn’t even much of a hit, “peaking” at number 25 in the UK singles chart in February 1981. And in so doing they notched up just two Top Of The Pops performance. And yet. And yet… my, what a song!

For a song that was born from a simple three-chord jam, with lyrics scribbled in a matter of minutes, there is something deeply arresting about this three-and-a-half-minute slice of post-punk-pop. Against a spacious, dark, echoing backdrop, full of brooding bass, chiming guitars and a metronomic beat, singer Barbara Gogan’s slightly detatched vocals intone a brief tale of grainy black-and-white obsession (or at least that’s how I always imagine it). And it is a song that has outlived and outperformed that original chart run. A staple of many early-80s compilation, it’s instantly recognisable sound seems to have carved in niche through time, it’s stature seemingly growing with. Witness the plethora of cover versions, from the likes of Foo Fighters, Dubstar, Pet Shop Boys with Sam Taylor-Wood, and even a pumping electopop version from Fiorious.

So another unlikely ukulele song, I hear you say? Well maybe, but a good song is a good song, and this one – to my mind – seems to work just fine. Nothing complicated, just a cyclic set of chords. Take at a gentle pace. Brood. And enjoy!

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Get The Message – Electronic

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Electronic was a short-lived collaboration between New Order’s Bernard Sumner and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. The supergroup status was augmented on their first album (from which this song is taken) by the appearance of Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant who sang on a couple of songs. Whilst I think it would be fair to say that, in general, the whole was less than the sum of the parts (and the weight of expectation around this at the time was *huge*), it’s also clear that there emerged from the collaboration some real gems. Debut single Getting Away With It (which also included Tennant) was certainly one, and this, the lead single from their debut album, is another.

Definitely coming closer to the New Order end of the spectrum than The Smiths end, the music for Get The Message was actually written by Marr. But for me this song is definitely more than its parts – that rich, strummed guitar, the pulsating bass-line, the clean synth lines topped off with a great vocal from Sumner who, whilst definitely limited in terms of vocal skills, gives the song just what it needs.

So a ukulele version?! Well, to be honest I can’t find any trace of this, or anything else by Electronic ever making its way to the ukulele. No suprise there. So all the more reason to include it here. I guess it was the strumming pattern that drew me to it, and certainly what I enjoy most when playing it. The song sheet is reasonably faithful to the original, which means that there are some quite lengthly instrumental sections, so feel free to abridge those if you feel so inclined. Enjoy!

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