Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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It’s Christmas!!

…and it’s time to roll out all the usual Christmas tunes. There’s always something reassuring about those old chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), and it is that recurring familiarity that wraps us in a comfort blanket of sound and memories. But those old standards were new once – hard as it seems to imagine – and their all pervasiveness hinders equally classic, but much less well-known songs, from getting the attention they deserve. So this post is a my small attempt to put that right, as I present four Christmas songs that – in my book – *are* classics, and deserve far wider attention than they get.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>  <Christmas Day>  <I Wish It Was Christmas Today>  <Vegetarian Christmas>

 

Exhibit One. A Pretty Good Christmas, by The Disappointment Choir. I know *nothing* about this band, although I probably should investigate them further off the back of this absolutely gorgeous Christmas song. This falls into that slightly-miserable-but-ultimately-hopeful category of Christmas tunes. As I write this we’re awaiting the results of the UK 2019 General Election, and the words to this somehow chime relevant at the moment – “I don’t know what the first of the next year will bring / But it’s going to be a pretty good Christmas”.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>

 

Exhibit Two. Christmas Day, by Kasey Chambers. Kasey Chambers is an Australian country singer and songwriter who, over the period of 20 years has established a solid body of work. Chambers was raised a a Seventh Day Adventist, and although she hasn’t aligned herself with the church for a long time, she retains a strong spiritual belief, something that comes through in Christmas Day (from her 2014 album, Bittersweet) which picks up on the religious aspects of Christmas, and offers a telling of the Christmas story.

<Christmas Day>

 

Exhibit Three. I Wish It Was Christmas Today, by Julian Casablancas. Former lead man from The Strokes, I Wish It Was Christmas Today was originally a novelty item on the US variety show Saturday Night Live. But Casablancas amped it up, gave it a new wave work-over, and from that emerged this real banger. There is just *no* reason why this song shouldn’t be up there on the Christmas repeat list.

<I Wish It Was Christmas Today>

 

Exhibit Four. Vegetarian Christmas, by Feet. Bang up to date, Vegetarian Christmas was – as I write – only released a week ago. But in my book this deserves to become a regular fixture on Christmas playlists. I’ve actually seen Feet a couple of times this year, firstly supporting Lauren Hibberd, the second time headlining themselves. And they were fab! Intelligent guitar-driven indie in a vein not dissimilar to Sports Team, this is a band that is full of character, imagination and variety. Vegetarian Christmas extols the virtues of a meat-free diet with a surprisingly traditional, family-centric view of the season.

<Vegetarian Christmas>


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Tricks – Stella Donnelly

One of the best albums of 2019, and one of the best gigs I went to this year, were courtesy of this lovely lady from Australia (via. old South Wales).

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If you’re asking “Stella who?”, then do not hesitate, go check her out. She released her debut EP, the wonderfully titled Thrush Metal, back in 2017, a record that contained a song called Boys Will Be Boys, which made some noise (unlike the song itself) and got her noticed in certain quarters. Described by Stella as her “attempt at making sense of society’s tendency to blame the victims of sexual assault and rape and make excuses for the perpetrators”, it’s a hard hitting song that delivers its message through a heartfelt vocal and a rather pretty solo acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Included on her debut album, this year’s Beware Of The Dogs, that pattern continues. Musically these song’s aren’t a difficult listen – sometimes jangly indie pop/rock songs topped off with Donnelly’s not-quite perfect but always engaging vocals. But the lyrics are another story – smart, biting tales from the perspective of a young woman, it has been described as a “musical encyclopedia of male assholes”. Whether that be the aforementioned Boys Will Be Boys, badly behaved men accustomed to relying on their power to protect them from consequences (“Old Man”), or this wonderful song (“Tricks”), which takes aim at male stereotypes and their expectation of her. It is typical of her lyrical directness, and includes half-way through a rather wonderful rhyme-that-isn’t.

And so to the songsheet. Firstly don’t be put off by those big-and-scary sounding chords – C#m7b5 is actually as easy as an F, and sounds even better. Secondly, just strum along to the track and it should all come into place – this is quite a straightforward song, despite the unusual chords, and is a joy to sing along to. Enjoy!


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Tapestry – Carole King (Full Album)

When it comes to women who have trail-blazed in the music industry, it’s often the critical darlings that take the limelight. People like Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Debbie Harry and Bjork are regularly cited – quite rightly – as paving the way for many that followed. But the first solo female artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year, the first woman to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the creator of – until the late 90s – the best-selling female solo artist album of all time (and still in the top 50, with 25 million sales) – the recipient of all of these operated as an initially backroom creator of 60s pop songs, and found fame with the down-home warmth of melodic, piano-based soft rock. Carole King was never gunning for critical credibility.

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Starting out as a songwriter at the legendary Brill building in the late-1950s, Carole King was the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century in the US, having written or co-written 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and wrote 61 UK chart hits, making her the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts in the 20th century. Writing with then-husband Gerry Goffin, the Goffin-King partnership was responsible for a slew of classic songs that are considered standards to this day – The Loco-motion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up On The Roof, I’m Into Something Good, Pleasant Valley Sunday, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, Goin’ Back, amongst many others.

But in 1968 King and Goffin divorced, and she headed to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, at the time an artistic hub that was home to musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, The Byrds, James Taylor and many others. King decided to re-invigorate what had been a stalled recording career, releasing her first solo album, Writer, in 1970. But it was Writer’s follow-up that was to be the making of the her.

On Tapestry King wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, including a number that were resurrected and reinterpreted from her earlier songwriter career. Recorded simultaneously with James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, and using the same bunch of musicians, Tapestry inadvertently set a template – alongside Joni Mitchell’s Blue – for the confessional female singer-songwriter album. With it’s pastoral and homely vibe echoed in the iconic album cover and packaging, this was an album that eschewed the heaviness of the late ’60s rock generation, and instead took an deliberately more open, organic, and softer approach. But when allied to genuinely great songs (Tapestry is a fine example of an all-killer/no-filler album, where every song is a classic in its own right), it couldn’t fail. It’s not all domestic bliss – some of these songs have real pain at their heart – but there is a reassurance and comfort that comes from these songs that sucks you in and wraps you up. They are old friends that you always feel comfortable in the presence of. They are those ever-present reminders of an old home, memories filling every crevice. This is an album to treasure, forever.

So one of the challenges with this songbook is that King writes, and performs, with piano. Consequently there are more chords and changes than you might necessarily want. And sometimes the timing can get a little tricky, particularly as the singing gets somewhat loose over the backing. But if you know the record, many of these songs will be embedded in your brain, and that will carry you through. Throughout I’ve tried to strike a balance between something that is playable, and something that retains the nuances of the original.

<Full Album Songbook>


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Keep On Loving You – REO Speedwagon

A quick one today, and one that completes a little trilogy of early 80s soft rock-ish classics (alongside recent posts from Lindsey Buckingham and Phil Collins).

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This one came through the unlikely route of a love songs compilation! For some reason, Sunday morning I was in the mood for a bunch of nostalgic 70s and 80s soft love songs (see, I do have a heart!). So I was trawling a bunch of Spotify playlists for songs that tickled that particular itch, and one of those that fell out of that process was this sing-along classic of the genre.

To be honest, I know next-to-nothing about REO Speedwagon, and don’t really have a strong desire to rectify that position. For me they represent a wholly anonymous brand of US rock bands from the era who were largely ignored here in the UK, save for the occasional signature song that somehow broke through. Bands like Foreigner, Styx and Journey – in my head – are part of this rather bland mush, but a mush from which the odd classic emerges. The term “Guilty Secrets” was coined for music like this, although I don’t like the term at all – there’s nothing to be guilty about in liking the music you like. I fully accept that my position in this regard is one of totally uninformed prejudice, so apologies if you disagree with my view. But time is too short, and there is too much other good music out there, for me to go exploring down this avenue.

But this song I love, and would happily belt out on a regular basis. The band actually had three top 20 hits here in the UK (the others being Take It On The Run, and Can’t Fight This Feeling), but this is the one they are remembered for, and rightly so. A fine example of it’s genre, I challenge anybody of a certain age hearing this not to sing-along, even if it’s just in your head. (N.B. The official video – below – has a slightly odd, and a little weird/disconcerting intro).

Here’s the songsheet. It’s a simple song, 4 chords, all easy ones. The only tip I’d give when playing is to make sure some of those chord changes are coming *just before* the beat / lyrics – that definitely gives it the feel of the original. Enjoy!


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Queen – Songbook

One thing that constantly surprises me is how different young people’s attitude to music is now, compared to how it was when I was younger (we’re talking late 70s/early 80s here). In my day (!) it was all about the latest thing – what was new, what was “in”, was what mattered. And music that was even 3 or 4 years old was considered ancient, passe, past it. Anything that was more than 10 years old we wouldn’t have given the time of day.

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I contrast that attitude with what I see from young people now, and whilst new music is still important, it’s mixed into a melting pot of music from across the generations. That is, I’m sure, something driven by an internet and streaming environment where (almost) every music ever made is available in a few clicks. Overall I think that’s a good thing, although it can make it challenging for new bands and artists to break through, and for them to have the long-lasting presence and careers that artists of old might have had.

I mentioned all this in the context of this post because the subject of this post – Queen – is one band that I’m particularly conscious has been embraced in this way. That is in no small part due to the success of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that seems to have become something of a phenomenon, despite – or maybe because of – a decidedly mixed critical reception. But the rehabilitation of Queen goes back much further than that, probably to the Live Aid appearance that plays such a pivotal role in the film. Not to mention *that* scene in Wayne’s World – something that even got a sly reference in Bohemian Rhapsody. Whatever you think of their music, it has become timeless, a part of our culture, and something that feels like it’s going to be around for a long time to come.

A Queen evening has been something that has been both discussed and requested for a while for our run of ukulele album/themed nights. And to be honest it’s something I’ve put off. Not because I don’t like the songs (although I wouldn’t really call myself a fan, and my awareness really starts and ends with the singles). But because I wasn’t sure that we could do the songs justice. A few passing glances at the songs led me to think that we would really struggle to find enough songs that were half-way playable. But recently I thought I’d have another look, and give it a bit more effort, and … here  we are.

It is fair to say that the selection of songs here was – to a certain extent – pre-determined. There are a whole bunch of other songs that I’d include if playability weren’t such an issue (Now I’m Here and Somebody To Love being a couple of examples). But what has fallen out has been what I think is a good cross-section of songs that – totally coincidentally (I certainly didn’t plan it!) – cover the full range of the band’s career, touch every album apart from their first and last. Now I’m not going to pretend that all of these are straightforward – Queen songs have a habit of going off in odd keys (that make transposing into “easier” keys pointless), and having various timing issues. So some of these do take a bit of attention and working at. But I do think they work, something that I’m going to be putting to the test when we will be listening to and playing most of these at a Queen evening in December (click on the poster below for more details)!

Anyway, here is the Queen songbook, which includes the following songs:

  • Another One Bites The Dust
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Crazy Little Thing Called Love
  • Don’t Stop Me Now
  • Flash
  • Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
  • I Want It All
  • I Want To Break Free
  • Killer Queen
  • A Kind Of Magic
  • Radio Ga Ga
  • Seven Seas Of Rhye
  • These Are The Days Of Our Lives
  • Under Pressure
  • We Are The Champions
  • We Will Rock You
  • You’re My Best Friend

I’ve tried to strike a balance between being faithful to the originals, and keeping them relatively playable. So there are some simplifications, and I’ve also included some “optional” chords which can be skipped with minimal impact. I *had* to include Bohemian Rhapsody, and that (particularly the middle section) I’m still not sure about – but hey, even Queen didn’t play that bit live, so don’t feel too bad about struggling with that. And Flash was a bit of fun – I really don’t know if that would work at all! But all in all, I think this is a playable selection of well-loved songs that will be a bit challenging but will add something different to your ukulele repertoire. Enjoy!

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Trouble – Lindsey Buckingham

Number two in a brief series of posts where a member of a major 1970s rock band struck out on their own in 1981, with the post inspired by a recently released cover version of the song.

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This time around it’s the first solo single from Lindsey Buckingham, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter with Fleetwood Mac during the period when they were absolutely huge. Following the release of the band’s sprawling double album, Tusk (an album that sold four million copies but was perceived as something of a failure, only because it followed the globe-swallowing success of it’s predecessor, Rumours), and the subsequent world tour, a number of members of the band took time off to pursue solo projects.

Buckingham’s efforts in this regard emerged in 1981 as the album Law and Order. The lead single from that was this song, Trouble, a song that passed by with relatively little attention here in the UK (it peaked at number 32 in the single charts) but which did garner real success in the US and Canada, and in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

As with the previous post, this one was inspired by a recently head cover version. In this instance it was what is a fairly faithful acoustic version by American singer-songwriter Josh Rouse (whose Under Cold Blue Stars and 1972 albums are sublime classics in my book).

And here we have the ukulele song sheet. Unlike the previous post, this is a more obvious translation to ukulele. At heart it’s a simple song, only four chords, simple verses and one-line chorus, that doesn’t set the world alight but makes it a better place. I’ve included tab for the little riff that appears in the chorus, and which sprinkles a little more magic over the song. Enjoy!


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In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins

Two songs coming up in quick succession here, with a common theme that binds them both – lead single from a member of a major 1970s rock band who strikes out on their own in 1981, inspired by a recently released cover version of said song.

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First up is this air-drumming classic, maybe best remembered in some quarters for that Cadbury’s gorilla advert, but one that has survived that relationship relatively untainted. The song is quite a dark and bleak one, inspired as it was (and as much of Collin’s debut solo album Face Value also was) by the divorce from his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, in 1980. Musically it’s familiarity masks the fact that this was quite an unusual, experimental, almost avant garde song to be such a huge hit (number one around the world, kept off the top in the UK only by John Lennon’s Woman) – droning synths, processed guitars, vocoded vocals, and *those* drums, that crash and explode about two-thirds of the way through.

And so to the inspiration for this post. It was prompted by hearing – only yesterday! – a great cover version of the song by the American indie singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus. I first came across Lucy last year via. here album Historian, and the release earlier this year of another classic cover, her take on La Vie En Rose, a signature song of Edith Piaf (she’s also done a great version of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark). Her version of In The Air Tonight is not a million miles away from the original in approach, but still brings something fresh to the song.

So In The Air Tonight for ukulele? Well why not! And here’s the song sheet. At heart it’s a great song, and in this case a relatively simple one. A simple set of recurring chords, a gentle pace, and maybe even the strumming aping that drum break in the middle. I think it works well, give it a try.