Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Rio – Duran Duran (Full Album)

Never let it be said that you don’t get variety here! From the acoustic loveliness and down-home earthiness of the last post, here we are with what could be seen as the archetypal surface-and-sheen of vacuous 80s pop – all style, glamour and no substance.

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And whilst there is some truth in those accusations, the reality – as ever – is more complex. Emerging out of the nascent new romantic scene in (decidedly unromantic) Birmingham, Duran Duran (the name taken from a character in the cult classic 1968 sci-fi film, Barbarella) were effectively the house band for the city’s Rum Runner nightclub. From the outset, the notion of the band was to combine the sounds and ethos of disco and punk, equal parts Sex Pistols, Blondie, Gary Numan and Chic, and to be huge. There was no hiding that ambition, and for a group of lads growing up in late 70s urban Britain, the idea of becoming the biggest pop band on the planet, of being able to travel the world and partake in the glamorous jet-set lifestyle made perfect sense.

So whilst Duran Duran struck gold with their first album (spawning the hits Planet Earth and Girls On Film), it was 1982’s Rio that launched them into the stratosphere. With three huge singles accompanied by the infamous exotic videos (Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio and Save A Prayer), the band were perfectly positioned to capitalise on the musical revolution that was ushered in by MTV.

But this was pop with a twist. Not only were the band self-made – growing organically from the local music scene – and writers of their own material, the band managed create a unique amalgam of styles that took somewhat underground influences and art-rock influences (Japan, Roxy Music and David Bowie) and fashioned them into a mainstream phenomena that had teenage girls in paroxysms. In times when pop bands are just expected to be focus-grouped conceptions of marketing departments, performing material from the same bunch of face-less songwriting teams that is aimed at the same narrow commercial radio playlists, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the way things were. And for all their faults, Duran Duran were more intelligent than that, spikier than that, and certainly more capable and original as musicians than that.

It may be the big singles that Rio is remembered for. And rightly so. But dig beyond that and there are gems a plenty. Whether it be the post-punk funk of New Religion, the Voltaire-citing Last Chance On The Stairway, or the stately, cryptic, arpeggiated closer that is The Chauffeur (I’m not seeing any boy band getting away with a video like this today) this is a band at arguably both their commercial and artistic peak.

And so here we are with the songbook. The full album, all nine tracks, when you strip the production away these are for the most part great songs. All of these are in the same key as the originals, so playing along is possible (and to be encouraged). Shoulder pads and yachts are optional. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>

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After The Gold Rush – Neil Young (Full Album)

I’ve been looking around recently for albums that I think would work as part of our recent series of ukulele album nights. That’s proved harder than I thought – a whole album of good songs that can be reduced to the ukulele and that a bunch of people (of a certain age!) will know well enough to stop it being a solo rendition by yours truly.

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And that search led me to this. Originally I was looking at Harvest, the archetypal Neil Young acoustic album, the “if you only own one Neil Young album this should be it” (my personal favourite would be On The Beach” fyi). But on listening to it I wasn’t convinced that it would really work. And then I thought about this, the immediate predecessor to Harvest, and listening to it afresh (I hadn’t played it for a good few years) I fell back in love with it. And have been playing it on repeat for the last few weeks.

At the risk of gross simplification, Young’s outputs has tended to operate at the loud, ragged rocking end of the spectrum (often with his band Crazy Horse), or at the more songwriter-y acoustic folk/country end. And throughout his career lurches one way or the other have often been a reaction to his previous lurch. And so the folk/country rock stylings of his 1969 eponymous debut album (Young had previously found a reasonable amount of success with Buffalo Springfield) were followed by the world’s introduction to Crazy Horse on the same years’ Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, all crunchy rockers and 10 minute epics. In that light, After The Gold Rush can be seen as another reaction, a move that combines the more simple, stripped down singer-songwriter fare with Crazy Horse rockers (and all this was also just a few months after Young enhanced Crosby, Stills and Nash with the Déjà Vu album).

From the opening Tell Me Why, a gentle country-ish guitar-strummed-and-picked tune, overlaid with some gorgeous harmonies (the CSN&Y influence in full evidence) the scene is set. Followed by the classic enigmatic eco-themed title track, and the gentle waltz-timed Only Love Can Break Your Heart (the St Etienne version was my introduction to this song!) the album offers a master class in concise, quality song-writing. Full of space, those aforementioned harmonies, and mostly restrained acoustic musicianship (songs like Southern Man and When You Dance, I Can Really Love intermittently turn up the electrics), After The Gold Rush is a thematically and musically consistent masterpiece that packs a lot into its 35 minute running time, but still leaves you wanting more. To these ears it always sounds fresh, a record that I never tire of.

The songbook contains all 11 songs from the album. The simplicity of these songs translates well – there’s nothing too tricksy in any of these, although the odd unusual chord is thrown in every now and then. With one exception these are all in the same key as the originals, so you can play along quite easily. Songs for singing around the campfire, for sure! Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>

 


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Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn

I’ve written previously about how much I love the music of Bruce Cockburn, and what it has meant to me. Prompted by the announcement of some UK dates in the autumn, I’ve been going back to his music, and enjoying it afresh. One of the songs that stood out was this one.

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The version that particularly caught my ear was from his live solo album, Slice O’ Life. The original version of the song appeared on the 1984 album, Stealing Fire, recorded at a time where Cockburn was turning from the acoustic, folk-y sounds of his earlier, 1970s recordings towards a more contemporary, rock-inspired source, something that coincided for him with a move in his lyrical outlook from an inward, spiritual focus towards a more outward looking perspective that – whilst infused with the spiritual – was more focussed on the world he saw, and the many injustices that he encountered as he started to travel more widely.

Outside of his native Canada, where Cockburn is something of an institution and widely reward, for most of his career Cockburn has been something of a cult figure. However “Lovers…” was a song that, alongside the much darker “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, became radio hits in the US. And to this day it remains one of his more well-known songs (well-known being something of a relative term when applied to Cockburn), even being referenced by U2 in their song “God Part II” (“heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). The song itself has been interpreted in multiple ways – as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and as a commentary on the Central American experience that inspired “Rocket Launcher”, but whilst Cockburn is on record as saying that both of those interpretations are valid ones, his has said of the song:

“I was thinking of kids in a schoolyard. I was thinking of my daughter. Sitting there wanting to hold hands with some little boy and looking at a future, looking at the world around them. How different that was when I was a kid when, even though we had air-raid drills, nobody took that seriously that the world would end. You could have hope when I was a kid. And now I think that’s very difficult. I think a lot of that is evident from the actions and the ethos of a lot of kids. It was kind of an attempt to offer a hopeful message to them. You still have to live and you have to give it your best shot.”

The acoustic version of the song strips it back to its essence. A showcase for Bruce’s exemplary guitar technique (never flashy, but always rich and deep), it is further proof that the mark of a good song is if it works when reduced to one-person-and-their-instrument. And boys does this version work – arguably getting to the heart of the song in a way that the more produced original version *may* have clouded a little.

And so to the songsheet. This is based on the acoustic version, and definitely – to my ears – sounds better as a picked version. It is true that I could have made this a bit simpler, could have put it in an easier key. But (a) this version allows you to play along with the Cockburn version above, and (b) it just sounds much better this way. If you’re OK with barre chords then this shouldn’t be problematic. Playing the A chords in the chorus as barred chords on the 4th fret (see here) adds an additional texture to the song as well. Enjoy!


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ABBA – Greatest Hits

 

ABBA SinglesABBA were my first band.

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I was relatively late to pop music, it wasn’t a big thing for my parents – they were all radio 2, Sing Something Simple and military bands. So it wasn’t until January 1977 when I first sat down and watched Top Of The Pops. And the only reason for that was because David Soul was topping the charts with Don’t Give Up On Us, and my sister, with something of a crush on the Starsky and Hutch star, wanted to watch it. A somewhat fateful and life-changing event that led on to a whole lifetime of musical obsession for me.

Anyway, TOTP became something of a habit, and a few week’s later this bunch of Scandinavian pop stars turned up on the show with that iconic video for Knowing Me, Knowing You. And I was hooked. I can’t say at this remove in time what it was about that song that really clicked for me, but it’s interesting in many ways to me how a song that is shot through with a such a strong dose of melancholia caught the imagination of an 11-year old school boy. That has probably been a consistent thread in my musical tastes ever since.

Obviously ABBA are a global phenomenon. And one that has gone through various levels of acceptability over the years. It’s fair to say that they were never “cool”, and there was always a slight sense of awkwardness with how the band fitted into the British music scene. But that was never their intention. Abba were always about great songs, coupled with superb production and arrangements. If the visual image was sometimes a bit corny, the constant up-front (save for a few exceptions) presence of Agnetha and Anna-Frid more than made up for that. Personally I was always an Anna-Frid guy, but clearly the presence of the two girls was a significant factor in making the band attractive to a certain part of their audience.

But it is the songs, the songs, that are what ABBA are all about for me. And those are just great. For all those accusations of corny, feel-good, inanity that can get thrown at them, their songs are actually quite musically sophisticated and subtle, and whilst lyrically they’re not always Bob Dylan (Bang-A-Boomerang, anybody?!), there is a depth and emotional resonance to their songs, particularly in the later years, that lends a lie to those views. Listen to The Winner Takes It All, Slipping Through My Fingers, or One Of Us, and those songs strike right to the heart.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Neil Tennant, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Noel Gallagher, Pete Townsend, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain have all extolled the virtues of these songs. The fact that ABBA Gold is one of the top 50 selling albums ever, and the continued success of the Mamma Mia film and stage show, illustrate that there is depth and quality in the ABBA cannon.

 

 

And so to the songbook. I’ve collected 26 of the most popular and well-know ABBA songs into one collection. There are a few “deep cuts” thrown in for good measure, but even those are – I think – relatively well known. I’ve tried to strike a balance between making these totally musically accurate and making them playable. The songs are actually quite complex and subtle in places, so I’ve tried to retain a balance between that richness and playability. The other slightly tricky aspect to these songs can be the timing – they’re not averse to throwing in the odd different-timed bar here and there, and that can throw you if you’re not careful. I think the saving grace is that – for a certain audience – these songs are so embedded in our consciousness that you just *know* how they go! Follow that feeling, and you won’t go wrong. But most of all, enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>


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I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk – The Freshies

Welcome to ridiculously long song-title obscurity, everybody! Actually, if you were anywhere near a radio in 1981 this won’t be such an obscurity as it was one of those “radio hits” – played to death but never really catching on with the general public.

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The Freshies were largely the brain child of one Chris Sievey. If that name isn’t familiar as the leader of The Freshies, it may be more familiar in the guise of a Chris’s later career, via. his alter-ego Frank Sidebottom. A surreal comedic creation with a huge papier-mâché head, an extreme Mancunian accent and deliberately naff songs, Sidebottom was something of a cult success, a launchpad for somewhat more successful careers for the likes of Caroline Aherne (Mrs Merton was originally conceived as Frank’s neighbour) and Mark Radcliffe (a member of Sidebottom’s band).

But before all that there was The Freshies. A Manchester-based power-pop / new wave band, their songs bore all the hallmarks of the new wave sounds of the time (albeit with some classic tunes), but were shot through with Chris’s unique take on life. Whether it be the usual romantic travails given particular Sievey spin in the likes of Tell Her I’m Ill or If You Really Love Me … Buy Me A Shirt, or the record-buying woes of the wonderful I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes, you were always guaranteed a unique perspective in The Freshies songs.

But it is with “I’m In Love…” that they are best remembered. An almost hit, reaching the giddy heights of number 54 in the singles charts, the song was almost more famous for being the subject of a BBC furore,resulting in the song needing to be re-recorded to remove the reference to a certain record store (Virgin) in the songs title and chorus. Intertwining a tale of unrequited love for the record shop counter girl with the rejections that Chris and The Freshies were to constantly get from the record business, the song is a 2-and-a-half blast of pure power pop joy. Should have been massive, but was destined to never be so.

And so to the songsheet. I couldn’t find copies of either the lyrics or the chords for this online (although I did eventually find a YouTube version where somebody had transcribed the lyrics), so this is mostly my own creation. Therefore it might not be perfect! One slightly tricky chord (the F# in the intro and bridge) but the bigger challenge is more likely the timing – fitting the lyrics into the tune, particularly the bit that lists record labels! But it’s a great song, and you’ll have fun trying. Enjoy!


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The Fear – Lily Allen

I find Lily Allen an interesting proposition. In era of somewhat anodyne and airbrushed pop stars, it feels good to have one who doesn’t play by the PR and careerist rules, who gets people’s backs up, makes mistakes, says it like she sees it. If this sounds like I know what I’m talking about, I probably don’t! But what I do know is that this is a great song.

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The daughter of a comedian Keith Allen (something that has probably been a blessing and a curse), Allen first came to musical prominence in 2006 with the sunny pop-reggae of Smile and it’s accompanying album, Alright, Still. Smile was a number one single, and it launched her into a  the tabloid spotlight, a place she has lived in ever since through various career and personal ups and downs.

The Fear was the lead single from Allen’s second album, It’s Not Me, It’s You. Whilst musically the song sits on a sleek electropop groove, lyrically, the song takes a swipe at materialism, consumerism and celebrity culture, although given her background this struck some as at best ironic, and at worst down-right cynical. Some even missed the somewhat obvious sarcasm in the song and saw it as a  For me, though, the song is just a well-observed and well-deserved poke at (albeit fairly obvious) targets in our money and fame-obsessed society.

Given some of the lyrics, this probably isn’t one for public performance – certainly not family audiences (although there is a “clean” version)! But to my ears it works well as a uke song. Chord wise it’s pretty straightforward, singing it definitely pays to be familiar with the song. Allen is never going to get awards for vocal gymnastics and dexterity, but that means it’s not a tricky sing. Enjoy!


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The King Of Rock and Roll – Prefab Sprout

I’ve posted before about the insane wonderfulness of Prefab Sprout. In many ways its a shame that the only song of theirs that made any real impression on the record-buying public was this throwaway slice of meta-pop. But that’s only a shame because of the ridiculously high standards that they set elsewhere.

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Hailing from the County Durham, Prefab Sprout emerged in the early 80s with a sound that blended classic pop, jazz and scratchy post-punk influences (debut album Swoon in particular) with literate lyrical aspirations. Not alone in those kind of influences and sound (the likes of Aztec Camera, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole and Orange Juice would at times be bracketed together with the Sprouts in what has retrospectively – and somewhat clumsily – come to be known as sophisti-pop), main man Paddy McAloon ploughed a steadfast furrow with a vision all his own that introduced a sophistication to songwriting and musicianship that harked back to the likes of Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson in its ambition.

1988’s From Langley Park To Memphis was their commercial high-water mark, a record that added more gloss to the sound that they had refined (with produced Thomas Dolby) on 1985’s Steve McQueen. But this wasn’t a surface sheen to hide a lack of content and inspiration, rather it was a polish that complimented a collection of perfect (in a left-field kind of way) pop songs, songs whose seeming simplicity belied (much like Abba, another McAloon inspiration, whose Agnetha Faltskog was the inspiration behind The Ice Maiden) an underlying complexity, richness and ingenuity.

The King Of Rock And Roll was the second single from the album (following the Springsteen-baiting Cars and Girls), and gave the band their only top 10 single. Described later by McAloon as “novelty” effort, it is somewhat ironic – in a way that McAloon would undoubtedly appreciate – that a song which focusses on a washed-up pop star who is now only remembered for his one-hit novelty song should acquire the same status in the band’s back catalogue. Yet it’s apparent inanity lies its intelligence. For beneath the – undoubtedly deliberate – senseless chorus and relentlessly jaunty musical backing (watch the video for jumping frogs and dancing hot dogs!) is a song laced with poignancy and melancholy – “All the pretty birds have flown, now I’m dancing on my own”, anybody?

So here’s the songsheet for this deceptively trite piece of classic 80s pop! I don’t think there’s too much to say about it – it’s relatively straightforward, primarily as it’s transposed down half a tone (so capo 1 if you want to play along with the original). Timing should be no big problem, and whilst I’ve cut a couple of the “Hot dog…” lines from the end to fit the page, I don’t think it loses anything. Enjoy!