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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Pete Shelley

In memory of Pete Shelley. Founder member, lead singer, key songwriter and singer with the Buzzcocks. Subsequent solo artist and electronic music pioneer.

Here are two songs reflecting those two periods of Shelley’s creativity. From Buzzcocks comes the 1979 single, You Say You Don’t Love Me – a classic Buzzcocks 3 minute song of unrequited love. And from his solo career, the debut solo single Homosapien, banned by the BBC but a classic combination of acoustics and electronics.

<You Say You Don’t Love Me>      <Homosapien>


       


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Souvenir – OMD

This blog has had its fair share of OMD songs, its true. But personally I’m a sucker for their music – as I’ve blogged earlier I love the way that these little synthpop riffs translate to the uke.

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And if a song were ever to be defined by its riff, this has to be one of those. Coming from their left-field, avant-garde electronic roots (beyond the singles, there is lots of weirdness across their back-catalogue, at least until the career jolt that was Dazzle Ships), Souvenir could be perceived as something of a sell-out – a lush, romantic ballad, voiced by the softer tones of Paul Humphries, a sure-fire attempt to make a huge hit. And in many ways it is those things – certainly it became one of their biggest selling singles, and most recognised recordings. Yet this is a far-from-standard hit-single – just two verses, no chorus to speak of (the riff performs that function, an approach that their previous hit, the class Enola Gay, had also done), an opening 10-seconds of just sampled choral sounds (there’s an interesting piece here on how that was achieved).

But for all that, it is a beautiful piece of music that revealed a softer side of these machine loving pioneers (previous songs having paid homage to telephone boxes, nuclear bombs and electricity), and which will immediately make those of a certain age go all wistful, transported back to another time and another place.

So here is the songsheet. The song itself is simple and straightforward – two verses, three chords, and then it’s gone. I’ve tabbed all of the riffs as best I can – they’re all variations on a similar theme, with some subtle variances throughout the song – and tried to indicate where the various sections fall. I’ve also transposed the song down a semi-tone (from F# to F) just to simplify the playing – capo 1 to play along with the original. 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!

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Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins

Thompson Twins were a strange one. Originally formed in the late 1970s as a somewhat anarchic and ramshackle collective, it took a deliberate change of direction off the back of the early 80s synthpop book for them to both shed their street-cred and to finally achieve success – huge success.

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Anybody coming to early Thompson Twins off the back of their huge pop success in the mid-80s is probably in for something of a shock. Strongly influenced by a lot of the post-punk sounds of the era, there’s scratchy guitar and world-music-inspired percussion all over this, reflecting the diverse nature of a 7-piece line-up. The band recorded a couple of albums in this mode – 1981’s “A Product Of… “,  and 1982’s “Set” – but it was in the opening track of the latter, a synth-heavy song called “In The Name Of Love“, that the seeds of the bands evolution were sown. The song was a huge hit in US clubs, and off the back of this a core set of the band – founder member Tom Currie, and percussionists Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway – broke away to form a new incarnation of the band. Their first fruits materialised as 1983’s Quick Step and Side Kick, which finally brought commercial success in the UK (including the hit single Love On Your Side). But it was that albums follow up, 1984’s Into The Gap, which finally broke the band world-wide, particularly in the US.

“Hold Me Now” was the first single from that album, and the first song to break through, top 10 across much of Europe, peaking at number 3 in the US. It’s a deceptively simple ballad, full of melancholy and longing, that gradually builds to a a final sustained, repeated choruses with soaring falsetto vocals overlaid. In many ways its a world away from those early sounds, and may seem to some a trite and corny commercial land-grab, but taken at face value is a lovely, enduring slice of sing-along pop.

And now for the songsheet. Basically the song is a simple repeated chord sequence all the way through (verse and chorus) of D / Bm / C / Asus4. I’e added a few optional “grace” chords in to the chorus – these are entirely optional, and the song doesn’t lose anything by not including them, but to my ears they do add something. Other than that just play away, and enjoy!


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Living By Numbers – New Musik

Reputations are usually sealed in hindsight. And as with history, where it is usually acknowledged that it is written by the victors, musical history and reputations are usually written by the taste-makers. So as we look back there is increasingly a musical pantheon, a set of classic and set texts that become a self-reinforcing by-word for goodness and excellence.

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New Musik will never be part of that canonical grouping. Coming to prominence in the late 70s, and embracing aspects of New Wave and the emerging futurist / synth-based sounds, leader, songwriter, singer and producer Tony Mansfield clearly had a pop mentality that he melded to great productions whilst still pursuing an experimental agenda. Yet in a the musically rich and diverse climate of the times, New Musik were seen as neither one thing nor the other – not edgy enough to be cool in the alternative scenes, too weird to be accepted as straight-up pop. As with The Buggles, another band similar in style and temperament, a degree of success was achieved with what came to be perceived as novelty hits (New Musik with Living By Numbers, The Buggles with the somewhat more successful Video Killed the Radio Star). In my book, though, this is shame, because both bands brought a different, intelligent, edgy yet melodic approach to pop music that should have been far more successful than it was.

Living By Numbers was the bands sole top 20 hit, it’s success in part driven by its adoption by Casio for use in a TV advertising campaign for pocket calculators. Subsequent singles (including the excellent Sanctuary) grazed the Top 40, but further success eluded them with subsequent albums, and eventually Mansfield called it quits, going on to more success as a producer with the likes of The B-52s, A-ha and other bands of the era (Vicious Pink, Captain Sensible, etc.). Vastly under-rated (in my books) Living By Numbers does at least still keep the New Musik flag flying in its use in multiple 80s-era compilations.

So here’s the songsheet. A fairly straightforward strum-along that – if you’re familiar with the original (it’s in the same key so you can play along) – should make sense and work without any problems. Enjoy!