Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Wanda (Darling of the Jockey Club) – Duke Special

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My track record on these pages for songs recorded in this century isn’t great, I’ll have to admit. And when they do appear, they’re usually throwbacks, often country and folk, to a distant sound and era. This song is *not* going to change that, and then some!

Duke Special is an artist from Northern Ireland. Known to friends as Peter Wilson, Duke has adopted a somewhat unorthodox bohemiam, white-man-in-dreadlocks-and-make-up look that certainly makes him stand out from the crowd. And his music has adopted, almost wilfully so, a similarly unorthodox approach that has little truck with the fads and sounds of 21st Century popular music. From his initial adoption of the Duke Special persona over ten years ago, he has moved from a set of low-fi EPs, almost hitting the big time with his debut album Songs From The Deep Forest and it’s follow-up I Never Thought This Day Would Come, before taking a series of left-turns with albums of original songs for a Bertol Brecht play, a collection of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson songs from an unfinished musical based on Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an album of songs inspired by the fictional silent film star Hector Mann, an EP of songs from 1950s Irish country superstar Ruby Murray, and a suite of songs commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the work of pioneering photographers Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. And that’s before the wildly eclectic seleciton of cover versions, taking in the likes of Joy Division, Buggles, Chaka Khan, Razorlight, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 1950s rock-and-roll and country songs. Live he performs solo, sometimes accompanied by a vintage gramophone, sometimes with a band (including Roy Castle’s son Ben on woodwind), and often with the legendary percussion player “Temperance Society” Chip Bailey, who will almost play / hit anything including the kitchen sink! Despite the bewildering variety of material and styles, in concert Duke somehow manages to unite this seemingly disparate material in both an entertaining and deeply affecting way. Those concerts are a real joy, and usually something out of the ordinary – the last two times I’ve seem him involved (i) wheeling an upright, candlelit piano into the middle of the audience and singing a mini-set totally acoustically, and (ii) handing out songsheets for the audience to join in!

Wanda… is taken from The Silent World of Hector Mann, a collection of songs commissioned by Duke from his songwriting friends, with the premise that they should be in a “pre rock-and-roll style”. This particular song was written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and adopts a jaunty 1920s style. Telling the humorous story of a female aviator, it taps into a whole series of themes and styles from that period.

As you’ll notice the original is performed with a piano accompaniment. But the style and general vibe of the song lends itself quite nicely (I think) to the ukulele. So here is the songsheet. It throws in a lot of chords, but nothing too tricky. The trick is getting that jaunty 20s feel to the accompaniment – the rest of the song will then flow from that. Enjoy!

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Substitute – Clout / The Righteous Brothers

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I never knew that Substitute was a cover version. Until about an hour ago I’d always gone under the misconception that it was an original song from Clout, a South African all-girl band (seemingly a sub-genre of one!). In that guise, I’ve always viewed at as a great, sadly forgotten, example of melodic, veering-on-the-edge-of-cheesy 1970s pop. It reached number 2 in the UK charts, yet it seems to have dissappeared from most people’s consciousness. Clout were a one-hit wonder in the UK, althought they did have further success elsewhere.

But then I did a bit of googling, and find it’s not that straightforward at all. It appears that Substitute was first recorded by The Righteous Brothers and released as a single in 1975. It was written by a certain Willie H. Wilson, of whom I can find very little information, other than that he wrote another song (High Blood Pressure) for The Righteous Brothers, and sung a rather nice pop/soul recording called My Ship.

Then I find that, amongst a number of other cover versions, Substitute was also recorded by Gloria Gaynor. Not just that, but it was originally the A-Side of a single, the B-Side of which was I Will Survive! DJ’s started playing I Will Survive in preference to Substitute and the single was eventually flipped. And the rest, as they say, is history – I Will Survive became a bone-fide and (unfortunately!) staple of karaokes the world over.

But for me it will always be the Clout version that is definitive.

And so to the song sheets. Having unearthed this slightly surprising history for the song, I’ve now got no less than three versions of the song sheet! There’s the original Clout version, as performed in E. There’s also a transposed version of the Clout version, in D, which I find easier to sing. And then there is The Righteous Brothers version, which has slightly different lyrics (gender reassignment!), and is in the same key as their version, namely D. Take your pick, and enjoy!

<Clout, original version>  <Clout version, in D>  <Righteous Brothers version>


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I’ll Find My Way Home – Jon and Vangelis

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Jon and Vangelis was a collaboration between Jon Anderson (lead singer with prog-rock titans Yes) and the Greek keyboard player Vangelis Papathanassiou (probably best known for the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire). Vangelis had briefly been considered as a replacement for Rick Wakeman when he left Yes, and although that didn’t happen the relationship between the two subsequently developed leading to this collaboration.

Surprisingly, given the relatively uncommercial backgrounds of both artists, the union provided a number of hit singles (the sublime I Hear You Now and this), as well as a hit for Donna Summer with her cover of State Of Independence. It’s probably fair to say that this isn’t the most cutting edge music that you’ll ever hear, and Jon Anderson’s vocal style is one that might grate for some. But this is a lovely little song, very much of it’s time, but no worse for that.

And so to the chord sheet. It’s just a number of repeating progressions of simple chords, nothing very tricksy at all. Given the prog roots of the artists involved that would appear surprising, but I’m not complaining. Simpler is often best (although it can be harder to achieve). Enjoy!

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Understanding Jane – The Icicle Works

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The Icicle Works emerged from the early 1980s Liverpool music scene that produced bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Wah!, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, China Crisis and many others. It was a hugely vibrant time for the city musically, it’s first significant resurgence since the days of 1960s mersybeat. This time round, however,  there was more of an “alternative” feel to the music, born of the spirit of punk, post-punk, new wave and all that followed it.

Fronted by Ian McNabb, the band had a couple of small hits with Love Is A Wonderful Colour and Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream) but never really achieved the kind of success and profiles of some of their contemporaries. Fusing the neo-psychedelic sound of the Bunnymen, a love of big rock statements, with a melodic pop sensibility, Icicle Works should have had far more success than they did, but were maybe too adventurous and too diverse for their own good (neither of which would be a problem in *my* book!).

Understanding Jane was a single taken from the band’s third album, If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song. It bears all the hallmarks of a great Icicle Works (and particularly of a solo Ian McNabb) song – a relentlessly driving rhythm, wall-of-sound guitars, quite simple structure, but most importantly a huge, heart-on-the-sleeve chorus.

So here’s the song sheet. As I said, it’s a relatively simple song with straightforward chords. The songsheet has the song in two keys – C as per the original, and D which I personally find it easier to sing in. Obviously you can do what you want with it. I’ve found the song sounds great as the full on rocker that the original is (especially when played through my new mini-amp!), but also works really well slowed down as an almost country-ish ballard. Have a play round with it, give it a try. But most of all enjoy!

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There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven – Iris DeMent

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There’s something very unpretentious about Iris DeMent that I love. The youngest child of 14, she grew up in a household steeped in country and gospel music, and full-on pentecostal fundamentalism. All of those influences are self-evident in her music. But it is the stripped back, tell-it-like-it-is, no-nonsense, sticking up for the underdog basis of her songs that I find particularly attractive. It’s true that her voice is probably an acquired taste (much like another of my favorites, Nanci Griffith), but for me there is a real soulfulness and truth in those vocals that only enhances the songs.

There was a sixteen year gap between her previous album of original material (1996’s The Way I Should) and it’s follow-up, 2012’s Sing The Delta, a period punctuated only by 2004’s Lifeline, an album of traditional gospel songs. Never one for the star-making machinery behind the popular song, Iris bided her time until, as she put it, “a handful of songs walked through and a few unfinished ones came together and I knew I had a record”. These songs, as the title alludes, are born of her birthplace and base for much of her family, the Arkansas Delta. There is a homeliness, honesty and power in these songs that are borne of true life experience.

“There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven” is just such a song, and at it’s root addresses a perenial theme of DeMent’s music – a rejection of the fundamentalist, literal nature of the belief system she was brought up with, whilst at the same time clinging to, and strongly valuing, the essence, the human values and appreciation, that came with that faith. That’s a journey that I, and probably many others, can share. Yeah, I know, a bit heavier than your average pop song, but you’ve probably noticed a predilection for that sort of thing around here. No apologies!

And so to the song sheet. The song is fairly straightforward, but a couple of things to point out. Firstly, this is in the same key as the above YouTube performance, not the recorded version on Sing The Delta. Secondly, take the positioning of the chords to the lyrics as a guide – I think this reflects how it works on the YouTube version, but it is definitely open to interpretation, so sing it how you’re comfortable. Regardless of how you do it, I love singing this song, and hope you do to. Enjoy!

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