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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Elvis Presley Songbook

I could write pages about today’s post. But it’s probably fair to say that it wouldn’t add anything to the millions upon millions of words that have already been written about this man. So I’m going to keep this one short.

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It’s probably fair to say that without Elvis, popular music would not be what it is today. The combination of rhythm and blues, boogie woogie, country and gospel that he stumbled on in the mid-50s set a trajectory for music that we are still living with today. And he was the template for the musical superstar, so many of whom would follow in his footsteps and shadow. And obviously that was a significant contributor to his untimely death, another tragic precedent that Elvis set for the tortured star.

At the same time, it’s also fair to say that, to a certain extent, Elvis was in the right place at the right time. Yes, clearly he had talent, and certainly a great deal of charisma. But the timing was right, the circumstances were right, and Elvis benefited from that. There will never be another Elvis, in the same way there will never be another Beatles, because it’s not just about the talent – it’s about a combination of circumstances, in particularly the cultural and societal expectations and climate, that made these artists the huge stars that they became.

But artists like Elvis are nothing without the songs. And what a legacy of song he left behind. Despite one or two credits, Elvis wasn’t really a songwriter. But the songs that he chose, or had chosen for him, includes a ridiculous number of stone-cold classics. Even songs that had been written for, and recorded by, others, Elvis took and made them his own. That, I guess, is the hallmark of a true talent, a true star.

The number of songs Elvis sung and recorded has been estimated in the 700-1000 range, so how do you cut that down to 19 songs (that’s the number in this songbook). Well, to be honest, it was all down to personal taste. This is a selection of Elvis songs that (a) I love, and (b) I think are familiar to others (the plan is to use this for a future ukulele artist evening). So you can blame me if your favourites are missing! Here’s the list of songs included:

  • All Shook Up
  • Always On My Mind
  • Blue Suede Shoes
  • Burning Love
  • Can’t Help Falling In Love
  • Don’t Be Cruel
  • Heartbreak Hotel
  • (Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame
  • Hound Dog
  • I Just Can’t Help Believing
  • In The Ghetto
  • Jailhouse Rock
  • A Little Less Conversation
  • Return To Sender
  • Suspicious Minds
  • (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
  • That’s All Right
  • Viva Las Vegas
  • Way Down

I won’t say too much about the songs or the songsheets themselves. For the most part these are simple songs, a good number of 3 or 4 chord songs, and they are songs that *everyone* knows. Sometimes the rhythms may be a little challenging, but for the most part these are the same key as the originals, so you can play along and get the hang of them. The most important thing is to enjoy them, so sing them loud!

<Full Album Songbook>


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The Sound Of The Suburbs – The Members

“Inspiration” for the songs posted on this blog comes from many and varied places. Today’s came a bit out of the blue with the notification that The Members are playing a gig in my home town (Southampton) early next year.

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Now The Members aren’t a band that I’m massively familiar with. This single, obviously, a perennial that crops up on almost every Punk / New Wave compilation album you care to mention, is one that nobody of a certain age will be ignorant of (although it never even made the top 10 at the time). Alongside that I have strong memories of a great couple of later singles (Working Girl, Radio) which were what was referred to at the time as “radio hits” (loads of airplay, nobody brought it). But I hadn’t dug much further than that.

Turns out that “The Sound of The Suburbs” is an anthem in more ways than one. As well as being a pogo-tastic punk/pop phenomenon, it’s lyrical focus (life in the suburbs – the band came from Camberley, songs of humdrum reality, rather than the big, exciting city) was something that was reflected across the band’s output. I love this quote from the inimitable Paul Morely in a 1979 edition of the NME:

The Members sing about silly, simple things, and do it with style. Their lyrics deal with pathetic characters, trivial frustrations, minor irritations, unimportant failures; so if you’re lonely or spotty, you daydream a lot, the beard won’t come, the figure won’t fill out, your mum won’t leave you alone, the girls/boys all laugh at you, you can’t do anything right, your life’s intolerably dull – then the Members are the band for you. 

The band combined both punk and reggae styles in their music, but The Sound of the Suburbs definitely falls into the former category – full on punk power-chords, brief and concise solos, vocals that verge on the shouty, but with lyrics that demonstrate a wit and wisdom that echoes some of the theatrical, music hall influences that contemporaries like Ian Dury and Madness also brought to the music scene of the time.

So an obvious candidate for a ukulele song! Well yes, obviously. And so here is the songsheet. Chord-wise there isn’t anything too tricky here – a C5 power chord being the only unusual one. Although that said, there is a run up the fret-board at the end of the instrumental section in the middle of the song that is a little unusual – however all it is is a D bar chord (2225) going up the fret board one fret at a time. I’ve also included some tab for the solos – the opening riff, the solo in the instrumental section, and the outro. But most of all, this is a song to be bashed and shouted out. Have fun. And enjoy!


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Transformer – Lou Reed (Full Album)

In the early 1970s, Lou Reed’s career was floundering. Having walked away from the Velvet Underground (possibly the hippest, most influential rock band of all time, albeit one who had almost zero commercial success in their lifetime) he had recorded a debut solo album that had followed the Velvet’s route to success (i.e. none). But he had established a reputation as a literate, alternative (before the term had even been invented) musician who was unafraid to tackle potentially controversial topics, with a particular focus on the seedy side of his home town, New York.

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It was that reputation that led to him hooking up with David Bowie, a long-time fan of Velvet Underground, and Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. At the time of recording Bowie’s star was in the ascendant, having just broken through with Starman, via. his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, but he was far from the superstar that he was to become over the following year. Bowie and Ronson came on board to produce the album that would become Transformer, and arguably brought a focus and clarity to proceedings that reflected what they had achieved on The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, a record released just a couple of months before the Transformer recording sessions. Glam rock was reaching some kind of peak, and Transformer picks up on that vibe – less in the more cartoon-ish elements of that scene (Mud, Sweet, Gary Glitter) – but more aligned to the more literate likes of Bowie and Roxy Music.

Feature a selection of old songs that had originally been performed and/or demoed with Velvet Undergound (Andy’s Chest, Satellite Of LoveNew York Telephone Conversation and Goodnight Ladies), alongside a collection of sharply focussed new songs, Transformer is a strongly coherent collection of songs that takes a mirror to the strange and perverse underground scene that Reed took as his own. Whilst New York – by name – would be the title and subject of a much later album, much of Reed’s material is rooted in his experience of that city and its underground scene, and Transformer is a spectacular example of that. Characters from that scene (Candy, Holly, Daisy Mae, Biff) are constantly being referenced in the songs, along with nods to Andy Warhol (the Velvet’s were in effect the house band for The Factory), and the stories in the songs are liberally peppered with tales of transgender individuals, drug use, and sex. Walk On The Wild Side became a breakout hit from the album, yet when you listen to the lyrics it’s a wonder that it even got airplay given some of the subject areas it touches on.

Reed’s career flip-flopped over the years, seemingly alternating from commercial and critical success to almost-deliberate career suicide (Metal Machine Music being the most extreme example of that). In hindsight, Reed – always his own man – attempted to downplay the Bowie connection and influence, but it is without doubt that Transformer represents an early peak in his career, one that may at times have felt like an albatross around his neck, but which clearly established as a significant artist.

And so welcome to the Transformer songbook. Lou Reed songs aren’t – for the most part – musically complex, and that certainly applies to Transformer. Which means that these songs lend themselves well to translation to sing-along ukulele style. Only one of them (Perfect Day) I’ve had to transpose from the original key, so all the rest you can easily play along with. Sometimes the timing of the wording can be a little tricky, and I’ve tried to help in here with some occasional “…”‘s to highlight little pauses – whether these help or not you can decide. I’ve also added in some of the backing vocals which certainly enhance the songs (the outro to Satellite of Love being my favourite) – obviously these won’t work so well if you do these by yourself, but in a group setting they’re definitely work adding. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>

 


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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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After The Gold Rush – Neil Young (Full Album)

I’ve been looking around recently for albums that I think would work as part of our recent series of ukulele album nights. That’s proved harder than I thought – a whole album of good songs that can be reduced to the ukulele and that a bunch of people (of a certain age!) will know well enough to stop it being a solo rendition by yours truly.

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And that search led me to this. Originally I was looking at Harvest, the archetypal Neil Young acoustic album, the “if you only own one Neil Young album this should be it” (my personal favourite would be On The Beach” fyi). But on listening to it I wasn’t convinced that it would really work. And then I thought about this, the immediate predecessor to Harvest, and listening to it afresh (I hadn’t played it for a good few years) I fell back in love with it. And have been playing it on repeat for the last few weeks.

At the risk of gross simplification, Young’s outputs has tended to operate at the loud, ragged rocking end of the spectrum (often with his band Crazy Horse), or at the more songwriter-y acoustic folk/country end. And throughout his career lurches one way or the other have often been a reaction to his previous lurch. And so the folk/country rock stylings of his 1969 eponymous debut album (Young had previously found a reasonable amount of success with Buffalo Springfield) were followed by the world’s introduction to Crazy Horse on the same years’ Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, all crunchy rockers and 10 minute epics. In that light, After The Gold Rush can be seen as another reaction, a move that combines the more simple, stripped down singer-songwriter fare with Crazy Horse rockers (and all this was also just a few months after Young enhanced Crosby, Stills and Nash with the Déjà Vu album).

From the opening Tell Me Why, a gentle country-ish guitar-strummed-and-picked tune, overlaid with some gorgeous harmonies (the CSN&Y influence in full evidence) the scene is set. Followed by the classic enigmatic eco-themed title track, and the gentle waltz-timed Only Love Can Break Your Heart (the St Etienne version was my introduction to this song!) the album offers a master class in concise, quality song-writing. Full of space, those aforementioned harmonies, and mostly restrained acoustic musicianship (songs like Southern Man and When You Dance, I Can Really Love intermittently turn up the electrics), After The Gold Rush is a thematically and musically consistent masterpiece that packs a lot into its 35 minute running time, but still leaves you wanting more. To these ears it always sounds fresh, a record that I never tire of.

The songbook contains all 11 songs from the album. The simplicity of these songs translates well – there’s nothing too tricksy in any of these, although the odd unusual chord is thrown in every now and then. With one exception these are all in the same key as the originals, so you can play along quite easily. Songs for singing around the campfire, for sure! Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>