Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Olivia Newton-John – Physical / Xanadu

Two for the price of one today. And a double-dose of the Australian songstress Olivia Newton-John, somebody who I wouldn’t be going too if I was trying to establish any critical credibility for this blog. But who I would go to it I was after some cracking pop tunes.

<Physical> <Xanadu>

Actually, truth be told the roots of this post didn’t actually start with ONJ herself, but with the alternative artist Juliana Hatfield. Earlier this week I cam across an album she released earlier this year which is all Newton-John covers. Hatfield was – and remains – a big fan, and had decided to record her version of 13 of her favourite songs. Running the gamut of the obvious (these two included) to more obscure album tracks, these aren’t radical re-interpretations, but clearly demonstrate a love and a respect for the original material, albeit roughing them up a little and giving them a slightly grungy makeover.

Newton-John herself was a huge star, particularly in the US and her native Australia. Originally breaking through with a country pop sound, her role in the hugely successful movie Grease, which saw her character Sandy move from a goody-goody character to spandex-clad vixen, prompted her to undertake a similar transformation of her own image, moving towards a (relatively speaking) raunchier appearance, taking her music into more of a pop/rock direction. In 1980 that led her to star in the film Xanadu which, whilst a critical and commercial flop, did spawn a successful soundtrack which she featured prominently in, including the huge international hit which was the Jeff Lynne-penned title track, performed with Electric Light Orchestra.

The immediate follow-up album to the Xanadu soundtrack was the biggest of Newton-John’s career, spawning a series of hit singles, of which the title track was the biggest. Ten weeks at number one in the US (the longest run for any song during the 1980s), achieving a similar feat in many other countries, the song was doubtless helped by it’s tongue-in-cheek video and the very recent launch of MTV, which gave song and video massive exposure. Yes, its a little corny, and maybe somewhat of its time, but it’s still a great song, as Juliana Hatfield’s cover faithfully demonstrates.

So two song sheets for the price of one. Physical is quite a straightforward song – simple chords, simple structure – nothing really much to say for this one. Xanadu, as befits an ELO song, has a bit more going on in it, both in terms of chords and in terms of the structure / timing. But listen and play along to the originals (both are in the same key as those originals) and you’ll get the picture (although good luck on those last notes on Xanadu!).

Enjoy!

<Physical> <Xanadu>

 

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Come Alive, from “The Greatest Showman”

From the dark sounds of grunge to the corniest of dance-pop musicals, never let it said that you don’t get variety on these pages.

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The Greatest Showman has become something of a phenomenon. A contemporary musical loosely based on the life of celebrated American showman P.T. Barnum (and, by all accounts, taking a slightly revisionist view of his character), the film opened to something of a critical mauling at the end of last year, but has seen its star slowly rise through word-of-mouth to become the most unlikely movie success of the year. Even now, 9 months after it’s release, it is still showing at cinemas around the country, with new life being breathed into it by hugely popular sing-a-long events.

Let’s be clear. This film is not subtle and is somewhat formulaic. But it is also hugely entertaining, a constant barrel of energy and exuberance, driven by a star performance from Hugh Jackman, and a supporting cast that includes Zac Efron and Michelle Williams. And a power-packed set of original songs that carry the film through to its inevitable, feel good conclusion. The soundtrack is the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who were also responsible for the Oscar-winning City Of Stars, from the slightly less feelgood La La Land.

And so to the songsheet for Come Alive. This – like a number of the songs from the film – really needs a strong rhythmic backing to work. I’m not going to try and suggest a strumming pattern for this, but you could do worse than listen to the rhythms in the song and try and ape that. Plenty of muted strums will add to the effect – some of those are indicated in the songsheet with the [X] chord. The song also has a number of places where it breaks into acapella / clapped interludes, that you could do worse than try and emulate. Probably best sung with a group of singers.  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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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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ABBA – Greatest Hits

 

ABBA SinglesABBA were my first band.

<Songbook> (link fixed!)

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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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.

<songsheet>

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!