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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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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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…

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…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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