Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Mars Bars – The Undertones

The punk and new wave sounds of the late 70s have proven an unlikely but – when you  think about it – not unsurprising vein to plunder for certain ukulele groups.

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Unlikely, in that the ferocious anger and noise of punk would seem to be the antithesis of music played on a tiny acoustic instrument. But unsurprising, given that a significant part of the punk ethos was the “anybody can do it” mentality. Memorably articulated in the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue’s article on how playing in a band – “THIS IS A CHORD. THIS IS ANother. This IS A THIRD. NOW FORM A BAND” (see here) – that same mindset is part of what (I think) has made the ukulele so successful of late. Whilst yes, there are virtuoso’s out there who can do stunning things with the instrument, for most of us it is an opportunity to strum away to some well known tunes, sing together, and build a community in the process.

So here’s a community song for you all! The Undertones were not a hardcore punk band, and may have been derided in some quarters for that. But what they did do is bring a lot of punk values – short sharp  guitar  noise songs – combine it with a sense of teenage mischief, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and most of all some great, memorable tunes. They were also a singles band at heart, and that meant not just stunning A-Sides, but also some cracking B-Sides as well. Mars Bars is a case in point. The B-Side of Jimmy Jimmy, it’s obviously not Shakespeare, but what it is a blast of pure energy and fun, something to put a smile on your face as you pogo down the high street!

And so to the songsheet. I’ve taken it down from the original (which was in E, this version is in D) which I think makes it easier to play. There’s also a choice of chords – mainly designed to facilitate the D/C#/D riff at the end of the 1st and 3rd lines in the verse (use the barred chords for that and it’s easy). I’ve also included the opening riff which kicks the song off. Sing with a grin on your face. Enjoy!

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Robot Man – The Gymslips / Connie Francis

From the sublime (step forward, Brandy Clark) to the faintly ridiculous. Never let it be said that you don’t get variety around here!

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So here’s a song that I’ve lived with for 30 odd years, only to find a couple of hours ago that it wasn’t quite what I’d thought. The origin of this one for me was a purchase in an Edinburgh record shop of a shrink-wrapped bundle of 5 singles. It was bargain-basement time, and though you could see the covers of the two outside records, I didn’t have a clue what was inside. To be honest, I don’t remember all the records that were in that pack, but I do remember that one was the great double-sider by The Rezillos I Can’t Stand My Baby / I Wanna Be Your Man, and another was this slice of kitsch punk from The Gymslips.

Now I never knew anything else about The Gymslips, but really loved the definitely tongue-in-cheek, bubblegum punk that sprang from the turntable when I played this song. It’s only after the last year or so that I rediscovered this song and this band, primarily through a copy of their only album, Rocking With The Renees. An all-female punk band from London (and there’s no transatlantic twang here, the accents are full-on London), The Gymslips were never one to take the music business that seriously, and clearly had a blast doing what they were doing. This is sheer good time punk, replete with plenty of lyrics references to bums and getting pissed (there’s a very definite strain of English humour running through it all), a cartoon image exemplified in that album cover.

So Robot Man seemed to fit into that category without any trouble, a 2-minute blast of tuneful fabulousness. But it wasn’t until I was looking online for the chords and lyrics for this song (where there are zero references) that I accidentally discovered that actually this is a cover of a song originally recorded back in the 1960s by Connie Frances, part of a double-sided single that made it to number 2 in the UK charts. So not so obscure after all. Actually, thinking about it the lyrical content (a robot lover, somehow strangely back in vogue) is obviously such a theme of the late 50s / early 60s it’s quite obvious really. But The Gymslips version gives the original a spirited kick up the arse (as I’m sure the band would say!) and is just a pure joy to listen to.

So here’s the song sheet. As to be expected from such a straight-ahead punk song, it’s not tricky. Four chords (surely that’s one more than necessary!) and a lot of attitude. This version is in the same key as the Gymslips version, the Connie Francis version being a semi-tone lower. Oh, and I’ve thrown in the four note opening riff as a bonus. Enjoy!


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Dancing With Myself – Generation X / Billy Idol

DancingWithMyselfGenXDancingWithMyselfBillyIdolGeneration X always came across as something of cartoon punks. Not sticking rigidly to the punk rule book, there was always an element of pop in their sound, a suspicion that they didn’t really “mean it” the way other punks meant it, and maybe were perceived as being too willing to compromise themselves to “make it”.

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Of course, the whole idea of a punk rule book was actually anathema to its true spirit, but one result is that Generation X are seen as second-tier punks, despite (or maybe because) they had (an admittedly quite modest) level of success. That reputation was probably cemented when lead singer Billy Idol went solo in the 80s and garnered a huge amount of success, particularly in the US, with an image that again came across as a crude mashup of punk, pop and Elvis.

Yet they left behind a number of songs which – to my mind, credibility be damned – captured some of the energy and dynamism of the times, coupled with a genuine, if maybe simplistic, tunefulness. Dancing With Myself was in fact written by the band’s bassist, Tony James, who later want on to higher-profile infamy/success with Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Recorded for the band’s third album, it only managed to claw itself into the bottom reaches of the singles chart in 1980. Idol re-recorded it as his first single when he went solo a year later, and whilst it still didn’t make much of an impact, it’s calling card status has given it a longevity that its chart position belies.

I have a strong preference for the original Generation X version of the song – the later Billy Idol version tones down the guitar sounds and makes what is a tuneful-yet-aggressive punk classic into a slightly watered down power-pop anthem. But in either guise this is a song whose driving rhythm, simple riff and singalong nature have sustained it throughout its 30+ years of life.

And here’s the songsheet. It’s a simple three chorder, although in this version (the same key as both the Generation X and Billy Idol versions) it contains the infamous E chord, which I know some people struggle with (if you do, just take it down to D, G and A, rather than E, A and B). I’ve also included tab for the introductory riff, and for the solo in the middle. Both are really simple, so give them a go. And enjoy!

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My Zero – Ezra Furman

MyZeroEzra Furman only popped onto my radar back in July. Ezra was playing at The Joiners, a local venue, the following week, and a friend has posted a YouTube clip on Facebook to highlight this. I took a listen, liked what I heard, explored a bit more and thought that this sounded like an interesting proposition. So booked tickets for myself and my daughter.

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The following day it happened to be my birthday, and as a result of mentioning the gig to said daughter she ended up buying me a copy of Furman’s 2013 album Day Of The Dog. It’s that album that My Zero is taken from.

Furman is a hard act to categorise. There’s definitely a punk attitude behind the music that he makes. There are strains of rockabilly in there, touches of do-wop. He seems to be a relatively shy individual, but his performances and songs are in-your-face, heart-on-the-sleeve, visceral, dwelling on his Jewish roots and his mental health challenges amongst other things. Oh, and he can often be found – on stage and off – in a dress and make-up.

But there’s no doubting the man’s commitment. He’s certainly not blessed with the prettiest of voices, but more than makes up for it with edge and attitude, songs that are real punch of rawness, energy and emotion. Yet for all that these are songs with melody at their heart. He’s unlikely to be a major star, but who cares. This is a man who clearly has to make music, and has to make music like this. The world is a better place for that.

And so to the song sheet. The song is basically just a constant repeat of four chords. And they’re not difficult chords (I’ve transposed it down a semitone from the original, which is in G#). I’ve also added in a couple of riffs as well which play over the top of the instrumentals – the first performed on guitar on the original, the second by keyboards. There’s a distinctive strumming pattern which you hear on the intro to the original, that isn’t too hard to replicate – it goes something like duXuduXu, where X is a damping the strings, but probably best just to listen to it to get the feel.

Enjoy!

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UkeTunes Songbooks!

UkeTunes Songbook, Volume 1So I thought it was about time I pulled together all the songs that I’ve posted on here so far into one, single, UkeTunes songbook. And here it is!

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Somewhat optimistically subtitled “Volume 1”, here is the songbook nobody has been waiting for. From the ridiculously popular (-ish) to the willfully obscure (Our Daughters Wedding, anybody?) UkeTunes Volume 1 brings together an eclectic mix of punk and synthpop, folk and country, showtunes and reggae, soul and ska, in the songbook that will revolutionise the four-stringed world and have ukulele groups all over the world casting aside their battered copies of Folsom Prison Blues, Bad Moon Rising and Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue in favour of songs about the ethics of silk-worm farming, Dostoyevsky’s reflections on free will, and the recurring disasters of April 14th. There might be a few broken-hearted love songs in there as well.

Feel free to onward share the book. It’s been put together with the intention of being used, although I think it would be a brave group to perform all of these (I’m thinking of you, “The Mating Game”!).

And foUkeTunes - The 80sr those for whom the eclecticism on offer in this songbook is maybe just a little too much, I’ve also pulled together a sub-volume which collects together all the songs published so far on this site from the 1980s. Remember, though, this is *my* 1980s, not the one of popular imagination, so it still veers off into some obscure bywaters. Click on the image or link below for UkeTunes – The 80s.

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Crash – The Primitives

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By the late-80s it seemed that the indie music scene had started its shift from its hugely eclectic post-punk roots of the late 70s and early 80s, when the Independent charts had first been established, into a specific and definable sound. The NME-cassette inspired C86 scene could be heralded as the beginning of this shift, with it’s emphasis on jangly guitars and power-pop.  This shift would ultimately lead to the nadir of “landfill indie”, but at the time there was still enough pzazz, energy and inventiveness for it to be an interesting and vibrant scene.

And even some glamour. Bands like Transvision Vamp (admitidly not on an indie label, but indie in spirit), The Darling Buds and The Primitives all combined that jangly power-pop sound with a striking peroxide-blonde female vocalist. A superficial commonality, maybe, but together they provided a pop / indie crossover that was refreshing in the late-80s, post-Live Aid music scene. Whilst not able to sustain a long-term career, while thesebands bloomed they brought a welcome sense of energy, fun and glamour to an indie scene that doesn’t always embrace some of those concepts.

The Primitives I remember seeing in a thrilling gig in the late 80s at Southampton University. I remember being part of a seething, constantly churning crown who pogoed and slam-danced to a constant succession of short, sharp 2 minute pop songs with punk energy and style. Crash was the epitome of the bands repetoire, their biggest hit and the one song that has probably outlived their brief career. Opening with that jangly riff, it bursts into life with lead singer Tracey Tracey’s vocals and doesn’t give up its thrills until two-and-a-half minutes later, fading away on a trail of na-na-nahs. Long enough to get hooked, short enough to want to put it on again, this is the sound of pure adrenalin pop in my book.

And so here’s the song sheet. As I’ve mentioned before these simple punk / new wave / indie three-chord pop songs seem to work really well on the uke, and this is no exception. The song sheet is simple and straightforward, just the chords (if you want to try transposing the guitar riff’s then you can find the guitar originals here!). I’ve also provided it in two keys – the original in B, but also a version in A which (a) is a little easier to play, and (b) I find easier to sing. Play with spirit and attitude, and enjoy!

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Tell That Girl To Shut Up – Holly & The Italians / Transvision Vamp

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There’s something about the best of the songs from the punk / new wave / post-punk / power-pop explosion of the late-70s and early-80s that lend themselves well to the ukulele. I’ve already posted songs by the like of Blondie and Rezillos, and here’s another in that ilk.

I was listening to a random shuffle of punk, post-punk and new wave songs yesterday, when this song popped up and grabbed my attention. More well known, if it’s known at all, for the cover version by Transvision Vamp, the original version of this song came from a short-lived band called Holly & The Italians, fronted by Holly Beth Vincent. Originally from the US, they relocated to UK and garnered a certain amount of critical success in the early 1980s, although none of that every translated into any kind of commercial success. Tell That Girl To Shut Up is the one song that seems to have outlasted (and maybe overshadowed) their career. It’s the somewhat bitter retort of a young woman who has been spurned by her lover for the attractions of another, and the physical violence she wishes to inflict on the new woman as a result. Maybe not totally PC as a result, it’s still a great song, with a real blast of energy.

So here’s the song sheet. I hunted high-and-low online trying to find any kind of chords for this, and failed miserably. So using the wonderful Chordify as a starting point, I’ve managed to work up something that seems to work. As you would expect there’s nothing very complicated here, no tricky chords, weird timings, etc. It’s just a straight up rock/pop song that deserves to be sung with passion and energy. Enjoy!

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