Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Plain Sailing – Tracey Thorn

Sometimes the songs I post on here come as a sudden inspiration. Sometimes they come as a result of a lot of hard thinking. And sometimes they come through a somewhat random series of connections. This is one of the latter.

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In a couple of months time I’m going to see Ben Watt play at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I’ve seen Ben a couple of times in recent years, and have really enjoyed both his shows and recent albums. It’s fair to say Ben’s music isn’t exactly edgy or raucous. But in my book it’s grown up music for grown ups, without being being boring, safe or retro.

Anyway, I was talking about this to a friend at Southampton Ukulele Jam, who was also consider going, and the conversation got onto Pillows and Prayers. Pillows and what, I hear you say! Well if you know, you know. And if you don’t, you don’t! Pillows and Prayers was a compilation album released in 1982 by the Cherry Red label as a sampler of acts on its books. Famously priced at 99p, it topped the independent album charts for months, and was became a touchstone in certain independent music circles at the time. For me, it was my introduction to artists such as The Monochrome Set, Felt and The Nightingales, as well a collection of tracks that circled around Everything But The Girl (this was before their first album had even been recorded). Ben Watt had a solo track on there, Everything But The Girl had a track, and so did that other half of both EBTG and Ben Watt), Tracey Thorn. In fact, Tracey had two songs – one with here pre-EBTG band, The Marine Girls. And one solo song. This one.

Plain Sailing was taken from Tracey Thorn’s solo debut album, A Distant Shore. It was a sparse record – just Tracey and her acoustic guitar, seven original songs and one cover (The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale). Apparently recorded for just £138, A Distant Shore was a welcome antidote to the big noise and melodrama that was the sound of the early 80s. This was stripped back, bedsit confessionals, and that was clearly what a section of the public wanted, as it made number one on the UK Indie album charts, and went on to sell 100,000 copies across Europe.

And so to the song sheet. This one is in 6/8 time (or 3/4 – I’m not very good at telling the difference!), and whilst at first glance it might seem to have an esoteric collection of chords (Major 7ths and 6s, mostly), they’re mostly unusual, not difficult. This one’s definitely a strummer (just get that D-DUDU rhythm going) and good to sing. Enjoy!


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It’s Christmas!!

…and it’s time to roll out all the usual Christmas tunes. There’s always something reassuring about those old chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), and it is that recurring familiarity that wraps us in a comfort blanket of sound and memories. But those old standards were new once – hard as it seems to imagine – and their all pervasiveness hinders equally classic, but much less well-known songs, from getting the attention they deserve. So this post is a my small attempt to put that right, as I present four Christmas songs that – in my book – *are* classics, and deserve far wider attention than they get.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>  <Christmas Day>  <I Wish It Was Christmas Today>  <Vegetarian Christmas>

 

Exhibit One. A Pretty Good Christmas, by The Disappointment Choir. I know *nothing* about this band, although I probably should investigate them further off the back of this absolutely gorgeous Christmas song. This falls into that slightly-miserable-but-ultimately-hopeful category of Christmas tunes. As I write this we’re awaiting the results of the UK 2019 General Election, and the words to this somehow chime relevant at the moment – “I don’t know what the first of the next year will bring / But it’s going to be a pretty good Christmas”.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>

 

Exhibit Two. Christmas Day, by Kasey Chambers. Kasey Chambers is an Australian country singer and songwriter who, over the period of 20 years has established a solid body of work. Chambers was raised a a Seventh Day Adventist, and although she hasn’t aligned herself with the church for a long time, she retains a strong spiritual belief, something that comes through in Christmas Day (from her 2014 album, Bittersweet) which picks up on the religious aspects of Christmas, and offers a telling of the Christmas story.

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Exhibit Three. I Wish It Was Christmas Today, by Julian Casablancas. Former lead man from The Strokes, I Wish It Was Christmas Today was originally a novelty item on the US variety show Saturday Night Live. But Casablancas amped it up, gave it a new wave work-over, and from that emerged this real banger. There is just *no* reason why this song shouldn’t be up there on the Christmas repeat list.

<I Wish It Was Christmas Today>

 

Exhibit Four. Vegetarian Christmas, by Feet. Bang up to date, Vegetarian Christmas was – as I write – only released a week ago. But in my book this deserves to become a regular fixture on Christmas playlists. I’ve actually seen Feet a couple of times this year, firstly supporting Lauren Hibberd, the second time headlining themselves. And they were fab! Intelligent guitar-driven indie in a vein not dissimilar to Sports Team, this is a band that is full of character, imagination and variety. Vegetarian Christmas extols the virtues of a meat-free diet with a surprisingly traditional, family-centric view of the season.

<Vegetarian Christmas>


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Tricks – Stella Donnelly

One of the best albums of 2019, and one of the best gigs I went to this year, were courtesy of this lovely lady from Australia (via. old South Wales).

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If you’re asking “Stella who?”, then do not hesitate, go check her out. She released her debut EP, the wonderfully titled Thrush Metal, back in 2017, a record that contained a song called Boys Will Be Boys, which made some noise (unlike the song itself) and got her noticed in certain quarters. Described by Stella as her “attempt at making sense of society’s tendency to blame the victims of sexual assault and rape and make excuses for the perpetrators”, it’s a hard hitting song that delivers its message through a heartfelt vocal and a rather pretty solo acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Included on her debut album, this year’s Beware Of The Dogs, that pattern continues. Musically these song’s aren’t a difficult listen – sometimes jangly indie pop/rock songs topped off with Donnelly’s not-quite perfect but always engaging vocals. But the lyrics are another story – smart, biting tales from the perspective of a young woman, it has been described as a “musical encyclopedia of male assholes”. Whether that be the aforementioned Boys Will Be Boys, badly behaved men accustomed to relying on their power to protect them from consequences (“Old Man”), or this wonderful song (“Tricks”), which takes aim at male stereotypes and their expectation of her. It is typical of her lyrical directness, and includes half-way through a rather wonderful rhyme-that-isn’t.

And so to the songsheet. Firstly don’t be put off by those big-and-scary sounding chords – C#m7b5 is actually as easy as an F, and sounds even better. Secondly, just strum along to the track and it should all come into place – this is quite a straightforward song, despite the unusual chords, and is a joy to sing along to. Enjoy!


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Tapestry – Carole King (Full Album)

When it comes to women who have trail-blazed in the music industry, it’s often the critical darlings that take the limelight. People like Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Debbie Harry and Bjork are regularly cited – quite rightly – as paving the way for many that followed. But the first solo female artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year, the first woman to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the creator of – until the late 90s – the best-selling female solo artist album of all time (and still in the top 50, with 25 million sales) – the recipient of all of these operated as an initially backroom creator of 60s pop songs, and found fame with the down-home warmth of melodic, piano-based soft rock. Carole King was never gunning for critical credibility.

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Starting out as a songwriter at the legendary Brill building in the late-1950s, Carole King was the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century in the US, having written or co-written 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and wrote 61 UK chart hits, making her the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts in the 20th century. Writing with then-husband Gerry Goffin, the Goffin-King partnership was responsible for a slew of classic songs that are considered standards to this day – The Loco-motion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up On The Roof, I’m Into Something Good, Pleasant Valley Sunday, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, Goin’ Back, amongst many others.

But in 1968 King and Goffin divorced, and she headed to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, at the time an artistic hub that was home to musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, The Byrds, James Taylor and many others. King decided to re-invigorate what had been a stalled recording career, releasing her first solo album, Writer, in 1970. But it was Writer’s follow-up that was to be the making of the her.

On Tapestry King wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, including a number that were resurrected and reinterpreted from her earlier songwriter career. Recorded simultaneously with James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, and using the same bunch of musicians, Tapestry inadvertently set a template – alongside Joni Mitchell’s Blue – for the confessional female singer-songwriter album. With it’s pastoral and homely vibe echoed in the iconic album cover and packaging, this was an album that eschewed the heaviness of the late ’60s rock generation, and instead took an deliberately more open, organic, and softer approach. But when allied to genuinely great songs (Tapestry is a fine example of an all-killer/no-filler album, where every song is a classic in its own right), it couldn’t fail. It’s not all domestic bliss – some of these songs have real pain at their heart – but there is a reassurance and comfort that comes from these songs that sucks you in and wraps you up. They are old friends that you always feel comfortable in the presence of. They are those ever-present reminders of an old home, memories filling every crevice. This is an album to treasure, forever.

So one of the challenges with this songbook is that King writes, and performs, with piano. Consequently there are more chords and changes than you might necessarily want. And sometimes the timing can get a little tricky, particularly as the singing gets somewhat loose over the backing. But if you know the record, many of these songs will be embedded in your brain, and that will carry you through. Throughout I’ve tried to strike a balance between something that is playable, and something that retains the nuances of the original.

<Full Album Songbook>


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In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins

Two songs coming up in quick succession here, with a common theme that binds them both – lead single from a member of a major 1970s rock band who strikes out on their own in 1981, inspired by a recently released cover version of said song.

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First up is this air-drumming classic, maybe best remembered in some quarters for that Cadbury’s gorilla advert, but one that has survived that relationship relatively untainted. The song is quite a dark and bleak one, inspired as it was (and as much of Collin’s debut solo album Face Value also was) by the divorce from his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, in 1980. Musically it’s familiarity masks the fact that this was quite an unusual, experimental, almost avant garde song to be such a huge hit (number one around the world, kept off the top in the UK only by John Lennon’s Woman) – droning synths, processed guitars, vocoded vocals, and *those* drums, that crash and explode about two-thirds of the way through.

And so to the inspiration for this post. It was prompted by hearing – only yesterday! – a great cover version of the song by the American indie singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus. I first came across Lucy last year via. here album Historian, and the release earlier this year of another classic cover, her take on La Vie En Rose, a signature song of Edith Piaf (she’s also done a great version of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark). Her version of In The Air Tonight is not a million miles away from the original in approach, but still brings something fresh to the song.

So In The Air Tonight for ukulele? Well why not! And here’s the song sheet. At heart it’s a great song, and in this case a relatively simple one. A simple set of recurring chords, a gentle pace, and maybe even the strumming aping that drum break in the middle. I think it works well, give it a try.


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Norman and Norma – The Divine Comedy

And here we are, back in 2019. Although this is hardly what you would a modern contemporary sound.

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For Neil Hannon, who essentially *is* The Divine Comedy, is not one to be swayed by a need to be relevant or now. Since 1989 he has ploughed his own furrow, quietly establishing a body of work (12 albums, at the last count) that largely falls into the category of Chamber Pop. With a wry eye for detail, an often unusual choice of subject matter (Hannon’s collaboration with Thomas Walsh, The Duckworth Lewis Method, even included a concept album about cricket!), and a predilection for melodies, harmonies, and rich, textured, often orchestral arrangements, The Divine Comedy were never going for the big time. They *did* achieve a measure of success in the mid-to-late 90s, somehow getting themselves aligned to the Britpop movement, and singles like National Express and Something For The Weekend established themselves in the hearts of the more discerning music lover.

[As an aside, one of Hannon’s collaborations included working with Duke Special, one of my favourite’s, for who he wrote the wonderful Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club, and for which I’ve also done a songsheet]

This year Hannon released Office Politics under The Divine Comedy banner, a double album (the bands first) that is a loose concept album based on the workplace and the role of machines and automation in it. Norman and Norma is the lead single from that album, and tells a charming, affectionate tale of an un-extraordinary couple and their relationship, from their marriage and honeymoon, through to finding post-children contentment in a Norman and Saxon battle reenactment group (I said the choices of subject matter were out of the ordinary!), it has been described in one quarter as “an affectionate song about the peculiarly British awkwardness about sex in relationships that is as good as the best of Victoria Wood but here sounds like it’s sung by Jarvis Cocker” – what is not to like there!

And so here is the songsheet for Norman and Norma. It’s a fairly straightforward song that – whilst piano-based on the original – does, I believe, itself to a ukulele-based version, in no small part aided by the somewhat whimsical subject matter. I think this is a fun little song, and you can have a lot of fun singing it. Enjoy!


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Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel (Full Album)

Whilst I’ve published a number of songbooks over the last few months, it’s been a while since I’ve done a whole album. That’s partly because the “album” nights that we’ve been doing with Southampton Ukulele Jam have morphed into a series of themed nights (Abba, Elvis, 1979, Glam), and also – and not coincidentally – because I’ve struggled a little to think of albums that would work. There are a ton of albums that I personally would love to do, but finding something where 75%+ is relatively well known, and that works on the ukulele for a broad audience, has proven a little tricky. But today’s post does – I think – tick all those boxes.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water was the final studio album recorded by the duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. The American folk-rock duo had climbed a steady road to popularity since first getting together in the late 1950s as Tom and Jerry, and during the late 1960s achieved an unparalleled level of success. Despite a sound that remained remarkably consistent over their five albums, their recordings showed a gradual evolution and increased maturity and sophistication, something which reached a peak (and ultimately conclusion) on Bridge Over Troubled Water. Whilst still clearly rooted in the folk stylings of their early records (and the live recording of the Everly Brothers classic Bye Bye Love was a clear harking back to those early years), the album demonstrated a branching out. El Condor Pasa, based on an original Peruvian song, anticipated Paul Simon’s later excursions into world music, the title track owed a strong and clear debt to the Gospel sounds that Simon was listening to at the time, and Keep The Customer Satisfied adds a full-on brass section.

Whilst the release of the album met a mixed critical response (typically it was felt to be smooth and over-produced), the public response was anything but mixed. Despite their break-up, the album topped the charts in 10 countries, was the best selling album in the world in 1970, 1971 AND 1972, and remained CBS’s best-selling record until ultimately over-taken by Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 1980s. In the UK the album was number one for 35 weeks, and remained on the charts for 285 weeks – no self-respecting household was without a copy. 25 million copies of the album have been sold world-wide. Clearly this was a record that struck a chord with its audience, and which has continued to do so ever since.

These are songs that have become part of the musical DNA of western culture, known and loved by people across the world, many of whom are far younger than these recordings (it will be 50 years old next year), and who will have very little context of where these songs came from. In that context these songs have truly become modern folk songs – owned and loved by the people as much as they are by those who created them. Songs like The Boxer, Cecilia, Song For The Asking, El Condor Pasa and the title track are the kind of songs that feel like they have always been there, and it feels hard to conceive of a time when these songs didn’t exist.

So here is the Bridge Over Troubled Water songbook. I’ll be upfront – despite their apparent simplicity, some of these songs aren’t necessarily as straightforward as they sound. The relatively less well-known So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright is the most obvious example of that, but others have their moments. That said, with a bunch of songs as wonderful and well-known as these, it’s hard to go too far wrong. Most of the songs I’ve ended up transposing from their original keys to ensure they are an easier set of chords. I’m not claiming that these are 100% correct, so any feedback on corrections, improvements, etc. appreciated. But most of all, enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>