Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Mars Bars – The Undertones

The punk and new wave sounds of the late 70s have proven an unlikely but – when you  think about it – not unsurprising vein to plunder for certain ukulele groups.

<songsheet>

Unlikely, in that the ferocious anger and noise of punk would seem to be the antithesis of music played on a tiny acoustic instrument. But unsurprising, given that a significant part of the punk ethos was the “anybody can do it” mentality. Memorably articulated in the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue’s article on how playing in a band – “THIS IS A CHORD. THIS IS ANother. This IS A THIRD. NOW FORM A BAND” (see here) – that same mindset is part of what (I think) has made the ukulele so successful of late. Whilst yes, there are virtuoso’s out there who can do stunning things with the instrument, for most of us it is an opportunity to strum away to some well known tunes, sing together, and build a community in the process.

So here’s a community song for you all! The Undertones were not a hardcore punk band, and may have been derided in some quarters for that. But what they did do is bring a lot of punk values – short sharp  guitar  noise songs – combine it with a sense of teenage mischief, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and most of all some great, memorable tunes. They were also a singles band at heart, and that meant not just stunning A-Sides, but also some cracking B-Sides as well. Mars Bars is a case in point. The B-Side of Jimmy Jimmy, it’s obviously not Shakespeare, but what it is a blast of pure energy and fun, something to put a smile on your face as you pogo down the high street!

And so to the songsheet. I’ve taken it down from the original (which was in E, this version is in D) which I think makes it easier to play. There’s also a choice of chords – mainly designed to facilitate the D/C#/D riff at the end of the 1st and 3rd lines in the verse (use the barred chords for that and it’s easy). I’ve also included the opening riff which kicks the song off. Sing with a grin on your face. Enjoy!

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Autobahn – Kraftwerk

So I think this must be something of an apogee for synthpop arranged for ukulele!

<songsheet>

I hadn’t intended doing this one, in fact I was just tidying up all the recent songs for inclusion in the next edition of the songbooks (coming soon). But then this popped up on my shuffle on my ipod, and it just seemed to be crying out for doing. So here it is.

Autobahn is one of those songs that can genuinely be called seminal. Can be seen as a genuine game-changer. A song that was like nothing else that had ever gone before it. Kraftwerk themselves had recorded a few albums before this one, but with Autobahn they toned down some of their more experimental side and conceived a song that was truly groundbreaking. Emulating the rhythmic, hypnotic sounds of a car journey on Germany’s autobahns, the album version clocked in at 22 minutes, a subtly and constantly evolving electronic soundscape. The first Kraftwerk song to feature lyrics, the “fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” phrase is clearly a homage to the Beach Boys “Fun, Fun, Fun”, so much so that it is often mis-heard as “fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn”.

Fortunately (for these purposes) the song was cut down to a more manageable 3-and-a-half-minutes single version, and that is what I’ve based this songsheet on.

So yes, the songsheet. Well, clearly this isn’t your usual sing-along ukulele song, is it. Firstly, the arrangement is primarily based on the single version, as per the YouTube link above. I’ve tabbed out the main synth lines that run throughout the song, and indicated (hopefully clearly) where the various bits fit in. None of them are too tricky, but if you struggle you can play along, as the song sheet is in the same key as the original. So probably best played with two – one for the strumming, one picking the synth lines. At some point I’ll try and get around to recording a version so you can hear what it sounds like. Enjoy!


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The Way Old Friends Do – ABBA

It’s strange how songs crop up in the most unlikely of places.

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Yesterday I attended the Wickham Festival. It’s a local festival, just down the road, and I was attending because Southampton Ukulele Jam had been asked to perform, somewhat at the last minute. We had a blast (here’s a clip of us doing Blitzrieg Bop – that’s me at the back in the straw hat!), and got a great reaction from the audience. But it meant we had a free day ticket, so got to enjoy some great music, largely of the folk variety, from the likes of Eliza Carthy, Gaz Brookfield, Imar and Brighde Chaimbeul. Anyway, inbetween sets there was an interesting mix of music being played, often with something of a 70s soft rock flavour (blatantly appealing to the majority demographic in attendance). And then this song popped up. It somewhat surprised me that something from a hyper-polished Swedish pop group would crop up during an English folk festival. But on reflection, it actually fitted really well.

Pre-Abba, each of the band members, in particular Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog, had established themselves in various parts of the Swedish folk scene. And there has often been elements of folk music creeping in to their music over the years. The Way Old Friends Do is certainly one of those songs, initially just accompanied on the accordion, there is something pure and honest about this lovely song. Never recorded in the studio, the version that found its way onto 1980’s Super Trouper album was recorded live during the band’s tour in 1979, and the simple sounds of voices and accordion show that, for all the studio wizardry and perfectionism that went into ABBA’s music, cut to the core they were four great musicians.

There is *nothing* complicated in this songsheet. The song only has one verse, repeated. The chords are as straightforward as they could be. The only slightly tricky thing if you try to play along (the songsheet is in the same key) is that the recording is not in any kind of regular tempo. When played alone, it’s easy to give it that regular tempo, though. So enjoy!


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Spacer – Sheila B. Devotion

It’s the late 1970s, and disco has taken over the world. Yes, I know that in the critics-written history of pop it was all about punk, post-punk and new wave. But in terms of commercial success and popularity it was disco all the way.

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Now I understand that disco had (and still has) its detractors, something that reached something of a crescendo with the infamous Disco Demolition Night where a crate of disco records was blown-up in the middle of a baseball game in the US to chants of “Disco Sucks”. And yes, I will accept that the tacking on of a disco beat to anything became something of a plague (although I definitely have a soft spot for The Rolling Stones’ Miss You). But alongside the dross and bandwagon jumpers there were some truly sublime moments.

Not a small number of those sublime moments came from the hands of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Most famously known for being the power behind disco behemoths Chic, over a hugely productive period at the end of the 70s and early 80s the pair lent their not inconsiderable talents to the likes of Sister Sledge (Lost in Music, We are Family, etc.), Diana Ross (Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and more), Debbie Harry (KooKoo) and Carly Simon (Why). But one of the more overlooked collaborations was with a French former  Yé-yé artist originally just known as Sheila. Adopting a more contemporary disco style, she had a huge European hit with a disco version of Singing In The Rain in 1977. But it was Spacer, the first fruits of that collaboration with Rodgers and Edwards, for which she will always be known. Full of the trademark Chic funky guitar and bass, I defy anybody now to want to strut their stuff to this collision of two late 1970s phenomenons – disco and sci-fi.

Star Wars had woken Hollywood to the sudden realisation that sci-fi was a cash cow, and for five minutes there was a sudden spate of sci-fi / disco cross-overs. Spacer was by far the best of those (and check out the extended version for it at its best), but it was joined in the charts by the likes of I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper (Sarah Brightman, before Andrew Lloyd Webber credibilty), Automatic Lover (Dee D Jackson, who had worked with Giorgio Moroder), the awesome Space by Magic Fly, and even a disco version of the Star Wars theme.

Ukulele-disco I hear you say. Are you mad?! Well maybe, but as has possibly been proven previously it might just work. There’s nothing too tricky chord-wise here (the E7sus4 to Em7 change is reasonably straightforward once you’ve got used to it). But clearly getting a good, steady rhythm is key to making this one work. To that end I’ve had a go at recording this over the top of the original so you have some idea of how *I* think it could go (see below – you can obviously do your own thing) – I hope this helps.

 

 

 


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Sweet Baby James / How Sweet It Is – James Taylor

james-taylorWhilst we’re on that early 70s singer songwriter vibe with the recent Carole King post, it seemed an opportune time to get a couple of James Taylor songs out there as well.

<How Sweet It Is> <Sweet Baby James>

The paths of King and Taylor have been linked ones throughout their careers, in large part because of those songs and recordings of the early 70s. Playing regularly at The Troubadour club in West Hollywood, Taylor played guitar on King’s Tapestry, and King returned the compliment by playing on Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, his breakout album. Taylor’s first US number one single was a cover of King’s You’ve Got A Friend from Tapestry. IN 2010 the pair reunited for a tour together, using the same band they had used back in The Troubadour in 1970.

Taylor is renowned as an incredibly talented guitarist, not necessarily in a flashy way, but dazzling in the sounds that he coaxes from his acoustic guitars. Sweet Baby James is taken from the sophomore album of the same name, and is a song that Taylor has cited personally as one of his best. Set in a 3/4 waltz time, the apparent simplicity of the lilting lullaby-like tune deceptively hides a more complex structure and rhyming pattern that, whilst feeling totally natural, can take a little work when trying to play it. How Sweet It Is is a cover of a Motown song by the legendary writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. Taylor’s version, from his 1975 album Gorilla, took a more relaxed, soft-rock feel to that song, and was a huge hit.

So two song sheets. Sweet Baby James, as previously mentioned, is a quite straightforward 3/4 time song, although you do need to watch the timing of lyrics and chords throughout the verses. How Sweet It Is is a little more complex chord wise. There’s a few little run downs in there that add flavour to the song, but you can make a very passable version of the song without these (I’ve shown these optional chords as subscript in the song sheet – the E11 can be replaced with a straightforward E). The song does need to swing, though!

Enjoy!

<How Sweet It Is> <Sweet Baby James>


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It’s Too Late / You’ve Got A Friend – Carole King

tapestryRecords don’t come much more iconic that Carole King’s 1971 sophomore solo album, Tapestry.

<It’s Too Late>  <You’ve Got A Friend>

It’s a recording for which the records and superlatives are almost never ending. The winner of 4 Grammy awards in 1972 (including, album, record and song of the year), seller of 25 million copies, second only to Dark Side Of The Moon for number of weeks on the Billboard album chart (313 weeks), ranked the 36th best album ever by Rolling Stone in 2003, all of these statistics and critical acclaim are surprising when you consider that Tapestry is really such a humble and relatively unassuming record.

During the 1960s King had established herself – alongside then-husband Gerry Goffin – as one of the leading songwriters in the Brill building in New York, penning hits for others such as The Loco-motion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, and Up On The Roof. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s, following a divorce from Goffin and a move to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, that King focused more on recording her own songs, in the process becoming the archetypal singer-songwriter.

Tapestry is chock full of bone fide classics. Even if you’ve never heard it before it will be immediately familiar, the songs having become part of the DNA of popular music. It’s Too Late was the lead single (coupled with I Feel The Earth Move) and was number one on the US singles charts for 5 weeks, and won that Grammy for best record. You’ve Got A Friend won the best song Grammy, and was a US number one for 4 weeks when covered by James Taylor.

I thought there would be plenty of songsheets for these songs, but none of them worked for me. So here’s my versions. There’s nothing particularly to say about these, other than they have quite a lot of chords (You’ve Got A Friend in particular). But those chords are the things that add the colour, so stick with them (You’ve Got A Friend has a few “optional” chords – in subscript – that can be easily omitted if you want). A bit of feel in the strumming is in order as well, adopting the standard ukulele strumming patterns kind-of kills these songs, so listen well to the originals to get that feel. You’ve Got A Friend (G) is a semi-tone down from the original (Ab) so you’ll need a capo on fret one if you want to play along (but it does make it a whole lot easier to play). It’s Too Late is in the same key as the original.

Enjoy!

<It’s Too Late>  <You’ve Got A Friend>


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You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – Stevie Wonder

stevie_wonder-you_are_the_sunshine_of_my_life_s_1Songs don’t come a whole lot more classic than this one. Yet I struggled to find a decent uke-friendly chord sheet for it, and so hopefully here is one.

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You Are The Sunshine Of My Life comes from Wonder’s purple patch during the 1970s. Having grown up as Motown’s boy wonder during the 1960s, the 1970s saw him reach an extended creative peak with albums such as Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life, spawning solid-gold classic songs such as Superstition, Living For The City, Isn’t She Lovely, Sir Duke, and this. In terms of creativity and breaking new ground Wonder was arguably up there with the likes of David Bowie in the way he extended the possibilities of what was possible, becoming a critical success whilst still establishing a commercially successful career.

You Are The Sunshine Of My life won a Grammy in 1973, topped the charts in the US, and was nominated for both record and song of the year.

So here’s the songsheet. For such an apparently simple song there’s quite a lot of chords, but there’s nothing too tricky and they’re worth persevering with because its those that give the song its distinctive loveliness (the lovely Em7 to Gdim change is a particular favourite of mine). I did have a go at transcribing the intro from the original but it didn’t really work out too well, so I just stuck with the first two lines of the verse. Strumming pattern needs to have a bit of a swing / edge to it, but get that feel from the original.

Enjoy!

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