Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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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!

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Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

It’s fair to say that a few of the songs that I’ve posted lately haven’t exactly been the most well-known of songs. Today’s post should rectify that, as this is one of those timeless, universal songs.

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This was actually prompted by going to a gig last night. The gig was the absolutely wonderful Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, playing at The Joiners in Southampton. It was a superb gig – it was practically sold out, Stella was brilliant (you’d never have guessed she was suffering with a cold), and her band did a first-class job. Finishing her main set with Tricks, the crowd was begging for more, and Stella obliged. With a wonderful, solo version of this song.

An interestingly main-stream choice for an artist who, whilst certainly not deliberately seeking out obscurity, is definitely on the alternative side of things. Time after Time – of course – is a classic from Cyndi Lauper, co-written with Rob Hyman (of The Hooters). The follow-up to her break-out hit Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Time After Time showed a more reflective side to the kooky persona that Lauper often portrayed, and was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1985, eventually losing out to Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Much covered (the Eva Cassidy version is a favourite of mine) over time this has come to be something of a standard.

Here’s the Cyndi Lauper version (and it’s a great video)…

…and here’s Stella Donnelly’s version (recorded for an Australian New Year’s Eve TV show)…

And so the song sheet. It’s a relatively straightforward song, with basic chords. There’s not really much more to say. Give it a go. And enjoy!


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Something For The Pain – She Drew The Gun

She Drew The Gun are from Liverpool, and have been described as dreamy psych pop. That works for me.

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Fronted by / a vehicle for Louisa Roach, there’s more than a hint of the 60s, psychedelia and the like in the bands music. But this is also very much music for now. Winner of Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent contest in 2016, She Drew The Gun aren’t exactly what you think of as a protest singer, or their songs as protest songs. But these are songs rooted in the reality of 21st century life, but not ones that are content to let that life wash over her. Take this line from the Resister, the opening track of last year’s Revolution of Mind:

All the underdogs, black sheep/Fighters of the powers that be/
In tenements, high rises/Freedom fighters, the outsiders…

Roach isn’t a newbie on the block, either. Although having played music since her early teens, she has lived a life (she has a 12 year old son, returned to academia as a mature student) and her songs reflect that – shot through with a considered maturity and life experience, but not worn down by it. An observer, but one that empathises and roots for the underdog against the powerful. Something For The Pain comes from that place.

So probably not a massively well known song. But a good one nonetheless. Maybe a great one. The song sheet is quite a straightforward, nothing tricky chord wise, and a consistent chugging rhythm that works nice strummed on the uke. It’s a bit wordy, but those words are important. Persevere. And enjoy!

 


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River – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell recently turned 75, something that was celebrated with the help of an all-star concert. Mitchell herself wasn’t present, and has been something of a recluse of late, in no small part due to a number of health scares. She is unlikely to perform or record again, but my goodness what a legacy she has left us.

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Emerging from a Canadian coffee-house scene in the mid-1960s, she moved to the US where she was eventually spotted by David Crosby, and started releasing a series of intimate, confessional acoustic albums. Songs like Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock became anthems for a generation (the latter notable because she never actually made it the festival!), and in 1971 she turned in the album which really defined the term singer-songwriter, and which has become the litnus against which all subsequent albums in that genre, particularly female-fronted, will be compared. Described by the New York Times as one of the “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”, the album is a no-holds barred portrayal of Joni’s relationships (she had relationships with both Graham Nash and James Taylor prior to this record) that is startling in its honesty.

River, taken from Blue, has become one of Mitchell’s most recorded songs. Whether you class it as a Christmas song or not (it is set around that period, but isn’t really about Christmas, although the piano accompaniment does reference Jingle Bells), it has become something of a discerningly alternative Christmas standard (listen to this fabulous BBC Radio 4 documentary of personal stories related to the song). Somewhat surprising given that the song is a rueful song about a broken romance, the singer reflecting on what was, desperately wanting to escape the heartbreak.

So here is the songsheet. Joni Mitchell is famous for her alternative tunings and complex song structures. Fortunately this song is *relatively* straightforward (for a Joni song!), albeit it was originally written and performed on piano. I’ve added a few additional chords into the sheet to try and imitate aspects of the original piano accompaniment, and tried to replicate the ‘Jingle Bells’ references (including an optional, more complex intro). I’ve also done two versions of the song – one simplified version, and one that fleshes the song out with a few more complex chords and rhythms, The choice is yours, but enjoy either!

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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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War Baby – Tom Robinson

There’s been a few songs on here recently that have been inspired by gigs that I’ve either been to are going to. And you know what? Here comes another.

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In popular consciousness, when people think of Tom Robinson (if they think of him at all) there’s one, maybe two, songs that comes straight to the front of the queue. But they’re wrong! That’s not to say that 2-4-6-8 Motorway is a bad song – it’s a head-down pile-driver of a fist-pumping sing-along song that deserves to be up there in the pantheon of punk-inspired greats. Neither is Glad To Be Gay – a somewhat controversial (at the time) song that probably wasn’t the best career move Robinson ever made.

But if you’re looking for a sublime classic that represents quality songwriting, a timeless, emotionally brutal stream-of-consciousness evocation of nostalgia and regret, then look no further. This – for me – is peak Tom Robinson. This is such a gorgeous wonder of a song, very different to the rawness, aggression and political bite of his earlier sounds, but retaining the ferocious honesty that has been a hallmark of his whole career.

So last night there I was at the 1865 in Southampton (incidentally, the new home of Southampton Ukulele Jam) watching Tom Robinson perform, in full, his powerful debut album Power In The Darkness. It was a great show, with a great band, and a 68-year old Robinson in great form as singer, bass-player, band leader and host. The album played, the encore was made of the contemporaneous classics Martin, Glad to be Gay and a stretched-out rousing 2-4-6-8 Motorway. So job done, and what a good evening that would have been. But the best, the peak was yet to come. Responding to an audience who clearly wanted more, the unexpected gift to close out the evening was a wondrous version of this here classic. This boy couldn’t have been happier.

So how does it work for the ukulele? Well quite well, I think. There’s some lovely chords in here, and some lovely progressions. I’ve tried to simplify down from the original to something playable, but still retain the essence of the original song. So there are one or two slightly unusual chords in here, but persevere because it is those that make it.  Fitting the words in can be a little tricky (this is quite a verbose song) but if – like me – you know the song like the back of your hand, it will flow. Just enjoy!