Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Making Plans For Nigel – XTC

Hot on the heels of the previous post, which featured the more pastoral, psychedelic side of XTC, here is one of – if not THE – songs that the band is known for.

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XTC were originally formed in Swindon in the early 1970s, taking a while to find their sound (early incarnations were of a more glam / glitter rock persuasion), ultimately emerging as part of the punk generation in 1977. However, XTC were never one to be pigeon-holed, and to be honest were somewhat smarter that your average punk band, and from the get-go refused to bow to the somewhat conservative conventions and year zero mindset that the punk scene often created.

Characterised by a jagged, angular sound, and smart, often ironic lyrics, the band were three albums into their recording career before they finally found some kind of significant success, a purple period from 1979 to 1982 that saw them regulars in the mid-reaches of the charts.

Making Plans For Nigel was the song that brought them that initial flurry of recognition and success, and it is a song that has weathered well. From the pen and voice of Colin Moulding, this song has become a mainstay of a hundred new wave compilations. A song that still sounds as fresh as the day it was conceived, a song full of spaces, it is underpinned by a distinctive drum pattern and sound, topped with sharp angular guitar riffs, and a lyric that mocks the entry into dull careerism to the titular Nigel, all wrapped in a production that is both crisp and sharp, and also owes more than a little to the dub sounds and effects that were entering the mainstream at the time from reggae.

So here’s the songsheet. It’s quite a straightforward song, the trick is getting a rhythm / strumming pattern that works. I’m not going to be prescriptive about that, just experiment and seems what works. The D / D4 / D5 run down can easily be replaced with a straight D, but otherwise it should all work as written. Enjoy!

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O Children – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Another Nick Cave song, and another where appearances can be deceptive – a gentle but intense song that ultimately appears to be a ballad of murder and suicide.

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Yet this is the song that, despite having a moderate sized hit with Where The Wild Roses Grow, has probably had the biggest exposure of any Nick Cave song, albeit maybe unknowingly for the majority of it’s audience. O Children was first released in 2004 on Cave’s double album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, an album that was in effect two albums, almost flip-sides of each other – Abattoir Blues a more menacing, driving rock album, and The Lyre of Orpheus a quieter, more reflective album – elsewhere the distinction being stated much better as Abattoir Blues being “a rock & roll record… a pathos-drenched, volume-cranked rocker, full of crunch, punishment – and taste” and The Lyre of Orpheus “a much quieter, more elegant affair… more consciously restrained, its attention to craft and theatrical flair more prevalent.” O Children closes out The Lyre of Orpheus.

But it was the choice of the song to feature in a pivotal scene in the 2010 film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) that both brought a certain emotional intensity to the movie, and also brought Cave’s music to a far broader audience than he had ever been exposed to before. As this interesting article points out, the inclusion of music “from an artist whose work has been steeped in lechery, sin and redemption, characteristics [is] not necessarily associated with a holiday-season family blockbuster”. And yet it worked, and that scene, and this song, are held in great affection by many fans of Harry Potter.

And here is the songsheet. It’s a long sprawling song, so had to stretch to two pages – sorry about that. It’s a straightforward chord sequence, the rough timing of which I’ve indicated in the intro – the only trick being to delay the [D] chord at the end of the sequence (it’s only two beats). The song itself has Cave singing with a group of backing singers, and so in places the lines overlap – I’ve tried to indicate where these overlaps happen with asterisked chords – don’t play both of these chords, they are in effect the same chord, just shown twice for clarity. Enjoy!


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Murder Ballads – Nick Cave

Part 723 of my continued but ultimately fruitless attempt to refute the myth that the ukulele can only do jolly and happy…

<Henry Lee>  <Where The Wild Roses Grow>

…and what better way to demonstrate that than with a double-bill from the prince of Goth himself, Mr Nick Cave. And to make it doubly grizzly, let’s make it two from the gore-fest that is his Murder Ballads album.

Nick Cave is something of a polymath, being an author, screenwriter and soundtrack composer, but obviously most notable for his songwriting and performing, initially with the post-punk, proto-gothic sounds of the self-styled “most violent live band in the world” The Birthday Party, and subsequently (and for the past 30+ years) with his band The Bad Seeds, Cave often explores themes of death, religion, love and violence in his songs.

So 1996’s Murder Ballads was not exactly a bolt from the blue, but even by Cave’s standards it goes deep, dark and macarbe, sometimes to excess, albeit with a wry smile on its face. Composed of new and traditional murder-themed stories, taking the traditional use of the word ballad as a stories narrated in short stanzas, the album racks up a body count of 65 over its 10 tracks (bookended with a redemptive cover of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End). This is *not* background music, not easy listening, and certainly not for the squeamish (Stagger Lee has been described as “one of the finest foul-mouthed songs ever committed to tape, a swaggering tale of prostitutes and pistols, muddy roads and bloody murder”, and is brilliant!), but it is totally immersive, brilliantly executed career highlight.

To be honest, the two songs presented here aren’t totally representative of the album, but certainly are the two that probably translate best to the uke. Where The Wild Roses Grow is a duet with – of all people – Kylie Minogue, and gave Cave his one and only UK hit (what people buying Murder Ballads off the back of this song thought of it heaven only knows). Taking inspiration from the traditional song Down in the Willow Garden (also know as Rose Connelley), it tells the story of a man courting a woman and killing her while they are out together. Henry Lee is another duet, this time with PJ Harvey (with whom Cave had an affair, the breakup of which is a significant inspiration to Murder Ballads’ follow-up, The Boatman’s Call), and another variant on a traditional song (this time Young Hunting), this time turning the tables and telling the tale of a “the fury of a woman scorned”. Both songs tell their story in alternate versus from the man and woman’s perspective.

It is worth commenting on the videos for these two songs as well, as they are both remarkable. Where The Wild Roses Grow adopts the imagery of Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 painting Ophelia, with Cave and Minogue in role. Henry Lee is a single-take, straight-to-camera, studio-bound video that practically explodes with the barely restrained sexual tension between the two singers.

 

 

 

And so (finally!) to the song sheets. In terms of chords, neither of these does anything tricky or unusual. Essentially these are ballads where the music’s job is to carry the stories. However there are one or two tricky timing issues. Henry Lee plays in 6/8 time, but chucks in an extra three beats (a 3/8 bar?) on the “a little bird lit down on Henry Lee” line. Likewise Where The Wild Roses Grow is also in 6/8, this time straight and without interruptions, the only slightly tricky bit being the first and third lines of the chorus, which is timed as [Gm] 1 2 3 4 5 6 [Cm] 1 2 3 [Gm] 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 (if that makes sense).  I’ve also indicated on each song sheet where the singer is male, female or both. Enjoy!

<Henry Lee>  <Where The Wild Roses Grow>


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Bizarre Love Triangle – New Order

bizarreWe’ve already had a smattering of New Order on the site (see in the shape of both sides of the True Faith single), but nothing for a while, so when this little ditty popped up recently it seemed worth giving it a try. And what do you know, it works!

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Bizarre Love Triangle is New Order at their prime. The full length 12″ version is – in my books – just a perfect record, something that was amplified when I saw Peter Hook’s The Light perform it recently as part of a stunning concert where they performed both the Low-Life and Brotherhood albums in their entirety. Even cut down to the standard single version it is an amazing piece of music. And to prove it’s not just the recording that is strong, but there is a quality song at the heart of it, an acoustic version by Frente! (apparently a moderate hit in the US in the 1990s) gave a new perspective on the song.

A quick YouTube search reveals quite a few ukulele-based covers of the song. So it does work. You can either do it as a gentle finger-picked version (a la the Frente! cover) or give it a bit of wellie and go for the feel of the original (although be warned – try it too fast and you’ll run out of breath quite quickly!). It’s a simple, repeated chord sequence all the way through, and whilst the Fmaj7 may not be totally in line with the original I personally think it gives the song some additional colour. Enjoy!

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The Great Dominions – The Teardrop Explodes

WilderIt’s been a little while since there’s been some Julian Cope magic on here, so it’s about time that was rectified.

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As with a previous post, this one takes us back to their second (and final) album, 1981’s Wilder. Their first album, the previous year’s Kilimanjaro, had a classic post-punk, 60s-garage-band-inspired, psychedelic-influenced scratchy sound, but was also strong on melody, tunes, and threw in a bit of brass to give it a real kick. Wilder, on the other hand, was an altogether more colourful, eclectic, experimental collection, and clearly one where the drug influences (Cope and the band were on a real long rock-and-roll bender by this time) shine through. From the sunshine-pop of Passionate Friend (all ba-ba-bas and horns) to the clipped funkiness of The Culture Bunker and the psychedelic wanderings of Like Leila Khaled Said, this is a more varied and rambling album than its predecessor, and one which – from my perspective – is all the richer because of that.

The Great Dominions is one of a clutch of slower songs on the album (Tiny Children and …and the fighting takes over being the others) that – in my mind – turn this into a classic. I haven’t a clue what it’s all about – I’m not really sure that Julian had much of an idea either, given the amount of drugs he was consuming at the time (“I’m still stuck in this pickle jar on a paper carpet” anyone?!) – but for all that it is a beautiful and touching hymn that suggests a yearning for lost innocence.

I couldn’t find any chords anywhere for this lovely song, so I’m hoping that what I’ve transcribed works OK. Personally I think it transfers well to the ukulele, but then I would. Nothing tricksy here – it’s just a continuing D / C / G chord loop – and the tune is almost nursery-rhyme like in its simplicity and innocence. Enjoy!

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Never Never – The Assembly

The_Assembly_-_Never_Never_coverVince Clarke was a constant presence throughout the 1980s. After kick-starting the career of Depeche Mode (he left after the first album), and then creating the template for the soulful electronic duo with Yazoo (and Alison Moyet), he struck a rich vein of pop success with Erasure.

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What sometimes gets left out of that story is this little gem. A one-off collaboration with Eric Radcliffe (a recording engineer and producer who worked with the aforementioned Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure), it also marked the first post-Undertones appearance of one Feargal Sharkey. Sharkey would go on to have more success in the 80s, including a number one single with the Maria Mckee-written A Good Heart, before moving to the business side of the music industry. But for both Clarke and Sharkey this would remain a one-off recording (even the b-side was just a Clarke instrumental) that reached number 4 in the charts of late 1983.

And so to the song sheet. There’s nothing too complicated about this, a regular set of chords repeated throughout. I’ve also tabbed the brief intro and the instrumental section, played on synth in the original but they work just fine on synth. Personally I’ve found this works best with a picked pattern rather than strummed, but as ever its up to you. 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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