Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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1979

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In his book “1971 – Never A Dull Moment”, the music journalist and writer David Hepworth makes the case for that year being “the most febrile and creative time in the entire history of popular music”, rock music’s Annus Mirabilis. And whilst he may very well have a point (any year that included the release of Tapestry, Led Zepplin IV, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Blue, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and Hunky Dory has to have something going for it), I’m here to make the argument that – even as founder of Q magazine and Smash Hits, writer for the NME and Sounds, presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and anchor for Live Aid – he may very well have got this one wrong. For I’m here to make the incontrovertible claim that this accolade actually belongs to the other end of that turbulent decade. Yes, it is 1979, for sure, that must go down as the most satisfyingly disparate smorgasbord of rock and pop, the richest collision of sounds and influences, the time when anything was possible, when the rule book was well and truly trashed, when the foundations of whole future genres were being laid.

Now I’m going to lay all my cards on the table here upfront. In 1979 I was 14, and it is widely recognised that is an age where music has the biggest impact on your life. In fact, in a recent pseudo-scientific study carried out by the New York Times using Spotify listening habits, it concluded that the peak influence on listening habits is between the ages of 13 and 16, with men’s favourite song being released – on average – when they are 14 (for women it is 13). So clearly I’m less than objective on this one. But this is my party, and I’m not going to let any scientific evidence get in the way of a good story.

Admittedly in the outside world the claims for 1979 being a classic year feel somewhat wide of the mark. You’d think that a year that started with the country slowly grinding to an ignominious halt as the Winter of Discontent stretched on and on, rubbish stacking up on every street corner, bodies going unburied, with continued comparisons of the UK to third-world nations, could only get better. Yet the fall-out from those events saw one of the most divisive prime-ministers of all time enter Downing Street, somewhat ironically quoting the unifying words St Francis of Assisi, sending prices and unemployment spiralling, making changes to the country that it is still reeling from 40 years later. Alongside the continuing Irish “troubles”, the tension was palpable, the country was perched on a knife-edge. And yet maybe it was just this kind of background that provided the catalyst for what was to come in musical terms.

It’s probably true that the foundations were being laid throughout the years that preceded it. Disco had emerged from the underground gay clubs of New York in the early 1970s to become a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon by the end of the decade. The pub rock scene of the mid-1970s had collided with an art-school mind-set; been ignited by a huge sense of dissatisfaction with the escapist, irrelevant sounds of prog, soft rock and pop-pap; mixed in a healthy dose of boredom and disillusionment with a world of bleak inner cities, zero prospects, and the continued threat of nuclear annihilation; and in parallel with a nascent scene out of New York, had spawned the lightning bolt that was punk. Initial avant-garde experimentation with electronic sound creation had been channelled across Europe into more accessible forms by bands such as Kraftwerk, and was starting to bleed into the mainstream, thanks in no small parts to the attentions of that chameleon scene-setter, David Bowie. And the influx of migrants from Jamaica, the so-called Windrush generation, had brought with it the mutant rhythm and blues that had evolved into ska, reggae and rocksteady, sounds that were at once both exotic and familiar. Even that stalwart of unchangeability, hard rock, was being inspired by the energy and aggression of punk to evolve, including the tougher, leaner New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.

Out of this melting pot of influences emerged the shining beacon of popular music that was 1979. Admittedly it started somewhat inauspiciously. The number 1 single in the UK at the beginning of the year? Yes, that was YMCA by The Village People. Beloved of office parties and wedding discos ever since, it wasn’t exactly a beacon of quality, credibility and originality. The best-selling album during January? Well that will be Showaddywaddy’s Greatest Hits, re-hashed, watered down and popped-up rock and roll nostalgia. So does the case breakdown before it’s even had a chance to be heard? Certainly not.

Look behind the headlines, and you’ll see the signs were there. January saw the release of two albums of classic (what was to become) new wave singer-songwriters – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (which would spawn Oliver’s Army amongst others) and Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! (likewise giving us Is She Really Going Out With Him?). Taking the energy, rawness and urgency of punk, but marrying it to more complex song structures, more literate and varied lyrical themes, and more diverse and original musical arrangements, these artists were there to move punk in new directions, to stretch it, grow it, evolve it and take it to new places. Clearly children of the punk ethos, they weren’t constrained by what had become for some a formulaic, rule-bound approach that was the antithesis of the spirit of punk.

Others were continuing a similar journey. Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Jam and The Clash were all maturing their sounds – still driven by that original punk spirit, but marrying it to classic pop formats, sixties mod stylings, and classic rock themes. And from across the Atlantic one of the seminal punk-inspired pop/new wave bands, Blondie, horrified many by “going disco” with Heart of Glass. Yet it was this transforming spirit, this desire to meld disparate sounds and not to be constrained by the ghetto that many felt punk had become, that sparked new directions, new sounds and new careers.

Bands were also emerging under the banner of what would – only retrospectively – come to be described as post-punk; bands who stretched things even further. Definitely inspired by the spirit of punk, if not so obviously by its sounds, the likes of XTC and The Cure in the UK, and Talking Heads in the US, were pushing the boundaries. Angular, spiky, abrasive music that was born of a singular vision, this explosion of imagination was to take music in myriad directions – Talking Heads marrying their art-rock abstractness to African-inspired polyrhythmic sounds, The Cure almost inventing a new genre (Goth) alongside the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus (who’s awesome debut single, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, was like nothing anybody had ever heard in 1979). And then there was Joy Division. Inspired by a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, the band’s classic debut, Unknown Pleasures, was the archetypal post-punk record, inspiring generations to come, and the source of continuing t-shirt sales with *that* cover!

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as some are want to characterise those bands. Disco was in its heyday, and was everywhere. In fact it’s sheer ever-present-ness, and maybe also it’s ever-so-blatantly in-your-face non-macho-ness, led rise to the “Disco Sucks” movement in the US, a backlash that saw disco records being ceremoniously blown-up at a baseball game. Yet 1979 saw more classic disco songs that have outlived all their critics and continue to flourish on dance-floors across the world. Lost In Music, Good Times, Boogie Wonderland, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, I Will Survive, Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. Disco may not get the critical plaudits that white rock bands get, yet it changed the musical landscape forever, and most importantly has brought – and continues to bring – untold joy to millions.

In a very different way, the desire to dance was at the heart of another musical break-out during 1979. Marrying the energy and spirit of punk with infectious rhythms inspired by Jamaican ska music, the Two-Tone movement combined this with a sharp look and an up-front, in-yer-face multiculturalism and political awareness that was born of the inner-city. The Specials, Madness, The Beat, Selecter and others emerged in the year as flag-bearers for this new sound which was embraced in particular by the young across the country.

1979 was also the year that electronic music went over-ground. Inspired by the mid-70s albums of German band Kraftwerk, and the relative affordability of the basic instruments, a number of bands were experimenting with all-electronic formats. The early Human League were the critics darlings in this respect, and so when Gary Numan beat them to it and scored two number ones, firstly with his band Tubeway Army, and then solo, he was seen as something of a pretender, an upstart who wasn’t deserving of the privilege. Yet history and career longevity has shown Numan as a genuine innovator and talent. But those electronic sounds were bursting out all over during 1979, from OMD’s debut, Electricity, to the revitalised US mavericks Sparks, whose collaboration with legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder gave them with multiple hits. Even the Trevor Horn-led geek-band The Buggles were able to have a huge hit with the iconic Video Killed The Radio Star.

It wasn’t all just about the new kids on the block, though. Many established bands were at a commercial peak during 1979. A re-launched Roxy Music returned with Manifesto, a somewhat smoother version of their original sound, but one which was a clear continuation of their journey. Fleetwood Mac followed the enormous Rumours with Tusk – a less consistent record that still had some gorgeous peaks. Electric Light Orchestra followed the massive Out Of The Blue with the equally massive, hit spawning Discovery. Abba dominated the singles charts with multiple cuts from Voulez-Vous. And Pink Floyd finally gave in and released a single … and it was huge! Another Brick In The Wall, along with the haunting Gerald Scarfe video, was a somewhat unlikely and chilling Christmas number one. Prog-meets-confessional-singer-songwriter Kate Bush hit again with the stunning Wow (alongside the only full-scale tour of her career). Even heavy rock was propping up the top of the charts with the likes of Rainbow’s riff-tastic Since You’ve Been Gone.

So was this the best year ever? Clearly there is no objective way to answer that question. And that’s the great thing about those kind of questions – the fun is in the arguments, not in the answer. On a purely personal level the songs in this book represent a wonderfully diverse selection of totally classic songs that have – without exception – stood the test of time and, for the most part (certainly in my mind, at least) established themselves as bona fide classics. Whether you agree or not is not really the point. But I hope that you’ll concede that there was definitely something in the musical waters at the end of the decade that taste forgot.

Here is the songbook with all the songs in one place <songbook>

And here is the song list, with links to each of the individual song sheets:

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Pete Shelley

In memory of Pete Shelley. Founder member, lead singer, key songwriter and singer with the Buzzcocks. Subsequent solo artist and electronic music pioneer.

Here are two songs reflecting those two periods of Shelley’s creativity. From Buzzcocks comes the 1979 single, You Say You Don’t Love Me – a classic Buzzcocks 3 minute song of unrequited love. And from his solo career, the debut solo single Homosapien, banned by the BBC but a classic combination of acoustics and electronics.

<You Say You Don’t Love Me>      <Homosapien>


       


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The Sound Of The Suburbs – The Members

“Inspiration” for the songs posted on this blog comes from many and varied places. Today’s came a bit out of the blue with the notification that The Members are playing a gig in my home town (Southampton) early next year.

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Now The Members aren’t a band that I’m massively familiar with. This single, obviously, a perennial that crops up on almost every Punk / New Wave compilation album you care to mention, is one that nobody of a certain age will be ignorant of (although it never even made the top 10 at the time). Alongside that I have strong memories of a great couple of later singles (Working Girl, Radio) which were what was referred to at the time as “radio hits” (loads of airplay, nobody brought it). But I hadn’t dug much further than that.

Turns out that “The Sound of The Suburbs” is an anthem in more ways than one. As well as being a pogo-tastic punk/pop phenomenon, it’s lyrical focus (life in the suburbs – the band came from Camberley, songs of humdrum reality, rather than the big, exciting city) was something that was reflected across the band’s output. I love this quote from the inimitable Paul Morely in a 1979 edition of the NME:

The Members sing about silly, simple things, and do it with style. Their lyrics deal with pathetic characters, trivial frustrations, minor irritations, unimportant failures; so if you’re lonely or spotty, you daydream a lot, the beard won’t come, the figure won’t fill out, your mum won’t leave you alone, the girls/boys all laugh at you, you can’t do anything right, your life’s intolerably dull – then the Members are the band for you. 

The band combined both punk and reggae styles in their music, but The Sound of the Suburbs definitely falls into the former category – full on punk power-chords, brief and concise solos, vocals that verge on the shouty, but with lyrics that demonstrate a wit and wisdom that echoes some of the theatrical, music hall influences that contemporaries like Ian Dury and Madness also brought to the music scene of the time.

So an obvious candidate for a ukulele song! Well yes, obviously. And so here is the songsheet. Chord-wise there isn’t anything too tricky here – a C5 power chord being the only unusual one. Although that said, there is a run up the fret-board at the end of the instrumental section in the middle of the song that is a little unusual – however all it is is a D bar chord (2225) going up the fret board one fret at a time. I’ve also included some tab for the solos – the opening riff, the solo in the instrumental section, and the outro. But most of all, this is a song to be bashed and shouted out. Have fun. And enjoy!


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Heaven – Talking Heads

I had – very briefly – contemplated doing Talking Heads’ classic live album, Speaking In Tongues, as one of our album nights. Then I looked at it and tried it and realised that translating a number of those great, funky, single-chord songs into a mass ukulele sing-a-long was going to be pushing it somewhat. But that did get me back into that album, and ultimately led to this.

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It’s fair to say that Heaven, a song that first appeared on their 1979 milestone, Fear of Music, doesn’t display a number of those classic Talking Heads tropes. There’s no funky poly-rhythms going on here. There’s no itchy guitar restlessness. This is quite a straight song, in Talking Heads terms. But look beyond that, and you’ll find at it’s heart a song that does touch in some recurring David Byrne themes. There’s plenty of existential angst going on here – this, after all, is a song that effectively ponders the dullness and banality of a perfect world, that – by implication – yearns for the messiness of real-life, and makes a strong argument that imperfection and mistakes are what makes humanity, and – this being a band with strong art-y leanings, makes great art. All of this delivered in a Byrne vocal – particularly in the live Stop Making Sense version – that increasingly reflects his desperation at the finding himself in a situation of stupefying mundanity.

There’s a great piece on the song here that expands on this.

And so here’s the song sheet. By Talking Heads standards this is a very conventional song, and has been described elsewhere as country rock. So no tricky rhythms to work through, no tricky chords, the only slightly awkward thing can be the timing of the lyrics – I’ve tried to provide some pointers to that in the song sheet. There are a few subtle transitions thrown in on some of the chord changes – I haven’t transcribed these, but if you listen to the original (either the studio or live version) you can fairly easy pick those out. Enjoy!


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All Of My Heart – ABC

So there was me just ready to publish an update to the Uketunes songbook. And then last night I put ABC’s The Lexicon of Love on (it was warm and sunny, and in my book Lexicon is a summer album – summer 1982, to be precise). And what should happen but this absolute corker of song comes up and gets my uke ears thinking, “Well that would work, wouldn’t it”. And I think it does. So here it is.

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Obviously playing this song on the humble ukulele was clearly far from the mind of Martin Fry, ABC and (particularly) producer Trevor Horn when The Lexicon of Love was conceived and recorded. After all, this is an album that was the epitome of the “New Pop” sound of the early 1980s, aspirational, lush, glistening music that sought to marry the ethos of post-punk and new wave with pure pop sounds and chart appeal. And so Sheffield band ABC emerged from the ruins of a previous electronic incarnation (Vice Versa), and moved towards a more disco/soul sound. Trevor Horn (formery of Buggles, later of ZTT, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, etc.) came on board after the minor chart success of debut single Tears Are Not Enough, and turned the bands aspirations and a collection of literate, heart-on-the-sleeve songs into an epic recording that set the bar so high for the band that arguably the rest of their career has been lived in the shadow of this record.

All Of My Heart was the last of four singles from the album, and if anything represents the “epic ballad” of the album. It’s actually quite up beat for a ballad, but here was a song swathed in the string arrangements of Anne Dudley, arguably the most wide-screen of songs on the album. Echoing themes from across the album, All Of My Heart is a tale of love lost, in turn reflective and bitter, this is most definitely *not* a song for walking down the aisle to!

So how does this bold and fearless classic translate to the uke? Well, quite well, I think. When it boils down to it, it’s only a four chord song, one that has a killer tune and leaves plenty of room for emoting. There’s one or two slightly tricky timing issues, primarily after the “All of my heart” lines at the end of the chorus, when an extra beat/pause is thrown in (which probably makes that a 5/4 bar). And the [D]/[G] sequence immediately after the second chorus “All of my heart” is 3 beats of D and 5 of G. But listen to the song (its in the same key as the songsheet) and you’ll get the hang of it. Enjoy!


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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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Parallel Lines – Blondie (Full Album)

I’d been promising to do this for a while – both to myself and to you good people – and a bit of spare time over the Christmas break has given me the opportunity. So ladies and gentlemen, I present you with a UkeTunes first – a songbook for a whole album, start to end, and all stations inbetween.

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When I’d previously done song sheets for Picture This and One Way Or Another, I’d suggested that it would be great idea – to me, at least – to do a ukulele-based full album show that was nothing but Parallel Lines, in sequence. Well the show hasn’t happened yet, but this is a step towards that – the full album transcribed (at least as far as the chords are concerned) for ukulele.

But why Parallel Lines (you may or may not be asking)? Well, for me it is one of those classic albums where every song could have been a single, a band at the top of their game, bashing our pop-punk gems (with the odd bit of disco thrown in) like there was no tomorrow. It is truly a classic, one that was of its time but which has outlasted its era, a touchstone of great songwriting, sharp production and strong performances. Each of the 12 song does just what it needs to do, never outstaying its welcome, bursting into life, burning brightly for the duration, and then gone, only for another gem to follow in its coat-tails.

The genesis and realisation of Parallel Lines is well-documented, and I’m not going to attempt to repeat those stories (try here and here, or the wonderful BBC documentary here, if you want to find out more). Suffice to say that this was the album that turned Blondie from a moderately successful New Wave band into the world-beating rock/pop phenomenon that they became (and, in many ways, remain). Bringing on board Australian producer Mike Chapman, who had had huge success in the 1970s with – amongst others – The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Mud, in hindsight would appear to be a deliberate attempt by the band to move beyond the constraints of the punk and new wave ghettos, and to become a pop band, albeit one that still retained that New York swagger, edge and attitude.

Chapman was clearly a significant part in creating the sound, but it would have been nothing without the songs. Here Blondie had clearly upped their game, with all the band contributing, along with a couple of covers (Hanging on the Telephone, by The Nerves, and I’m Gonna Love You To by Buddy Holly) – most of these songs were new, but some, such as Heart of Glass, harked back to the bands early days in the mid-70s. In the UK the album spawned two huge number one singles (Sunday Girl and the aforementioned Heart of Glass) as well as a couple of other huge hits. But it was in their homeland of the USA that Parallel Lines had arguably even more impact for the band, taking them from a somewhat hip but commercially unsuccessful band into the major league via. Heart of Glass’s ascension to the number one slot.

So here we have a songbook, not just a songsheet. All the songs from the album are included, in sequence. Most are in the same key as the originals, but a couple (11:59 and Just Go Away) I have transposed down by a semi-tone to make them a little easier to play – either play them as they are, or stick a capo on and play along in the same key as the originals. Most are largely faithful in arrangement to the originals.

Note that I’ve done my best to transcribe these as accurately as possible, whilst still remaining in the realm of playability. Most of the songs, with the exception of Just Go Away, had some online source of chords, so for the most part the arrangements aren’t original either. So if you find any mistakes, or potential improvements, let me know. But most of all, enjoy!