Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Queen – Songbook

One thing that constantly surprises me is how different young people’s attitude to music is now, compared to how it was when I was younger (we’re talking late 70s/early 80s here). In my day (!) it was all about the latest thing – what was new, what was “in”, was what mattered. And music that was even 3 or 4 years old was considered ancient, passe, past it. Anything that was more than 10 years old we wouldn’t have given the time of day.

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I contrast that attitude with what I see from young people now, and whilst new music is still important, it’s mixed into a melting pot of music from across the generations. That is, I’m sure, something driven by an internet and streaming environment where (almost) every music ever made is available in a few clicks. Overall I think that’s a good thing, although it can make it challenging for new bands and artists to break through, and for them to have the long-lasting presence and careers that artists of old might have had.

I mentioned all this in the context of this post because the subject of this post – Queen – is one band that I’m particularly conscious has been embraced in this way. That is in no small part due to the success of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that seems to have become something of a phenomenon, despite – or maybe because of – a decidedly mixed critical reception. But the rehabilitation of Queen goes back much further than that, probably to the Live Aid appearance that plays such a pivotal role in the film. Not to mention *that* scene in Wayne’s World – something that even got a sly reference in Bohemian Rhapsody. Whatever you think of their music, it has become timeless, a part of our culture, and something that feels like it’s going to be around for a long time to come.

A Queen evening has been something that has been both discussed and requested for a while for our run of ukulele album/themed nights. And to be honest it’s something I’ve put off. Not because I don’t like the songs (although I wouldn’t really call myself a fan, and my awareness really starts and ends with the singles). But because I wasn’t sure that we could do the songs justice. A few passing glances at the songs led me to think that we would really struggle to find enough songs that were half-way playable. But recently I thought I’d have another look, and give it a bit more effort, and … here  we are.

It is fair to say that the selection of songs here was – to a certain extent – pre-determined. There are a whole bunch of other songs that I’d include if playability weren’t such an issue (Now I’m Here and Somebody To Love being a couple of examples). But what has fallen out has been what I think is a good cross-section of songs that – totally coincidentally (I certainly didn’t plan it!) – cover the full range of the band’s career, touch every album apart from their first and last. Now I’m not going to pretend that all of these are straightforward – Queen songs have a habit of going off in odd keys (that make transposing into “easier” keys pointless), and having various timing issues. So some of these do take a bit of attention and working at. But I do think they work, something that I’m going to be putting to the test when we will be listening to and playing most of these at a Queen evening in December (click on the poster below for more details)!

Anyway, here is the Queen songbook, which includes the following songs:

  • Another One Bites The Dust
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Crazy Little Thing Called Love
  • Don’t Stop Me Now
  • Flash
  • Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
  • I Want It All
  • I Want To Break Free
  • Killer Queen
  • A Kind Of Magic
  • Radio Ga Ga
  • Seven Seas Of Rhye
  • These Are The Days Of Our Lives
  • Under Pressure
  • We Are The Champions
  • We Will Rock You
  • You’re My Best Friend

I’ve tried to strike a balance between being faithful to the originals, and keeping them relatively playable. So there are some simplifications, and I’ve also included some “optional” chords which can be skipped with minimal impact. I *had* to include Bohemian Rhapsody, and that (particularly the middle section) I’m still not sure about – but hey, even Queen didn’t play that bit live, so don’t feel too bad about struggling with that. And Flash was a bit of fun – I really don’t know if that would work at all! But all in all, I think this is a playable selection of well-loved songs that will be a bit challenging but will add something different to your ukulele repertoire. Enjoy!

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You Give A Little Love – from “Bugsy Malone”

bugsymaloneMusicals are a strange beast. Some people can’t stand them, and certainly in some circles your musical credibility takes a nose-dive if you express even a smidgen of interest in them. Others love them, particularly the escapist, fantasy world they can create, and there’s a whole world of them out there that you can lose yourself in if you wish. Me, I sit somewhere in the middle of those extremes (what do you know!).

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For me, the best musicals take you on an emotional journey where music, lyric, story and staging combine to create a credible other world that does something none of those elements can do on their own. So shows like Les Miserables, West Side Story and Blood Brothers, neither of which could be classified as escapist fun, are ones I would see over and again. Of the little I’ve come across (A Little Night Music and Into The Woods) I’ve really enjoyed Stephen Sondheim’s work as well, even though they’re not big on blockbuster tunes (the classic Send In The Clowns excepted). More recently Matilda was one I particularly enjoyed.

But I also have time for the more traditional musicals, particularly those from the golden age of such in the mid 20th-century. I think that may be partly my parents fault(!) but shows like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane, Annie Get Your Gun and 42nd Street are just feel good bonanza’s.

But for sheer fun and feel-good vibes, you’d have to go a long way to beat Bugsy Malone. Featuring an all-child cast (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baia) the show is set in 1920s America during prohibition, and focusses on the exploits of a bunch of gangsters, although with the real-life bullets and machine guns being replaced with custard-shooting splurge guns. Directed by Alan Parker, whose film career has included other musicals such as Fame, The Commitments and Evita, the music was written by Paul Williams, notable for pop successes such as We’ve Only Just Begun for The Carpenters, and Evergreen, sung by Barbara Streisand from the film A Star Is Born. But for Bugsy, he composed a set of songs that reflect both the time the film is set, but also give it a more (1970s) contemporary feel. You Give A Little Love is the rousing, sing-along closing song from the film, noticably sung after the mother of all splurge gun fights, with the whole cast covered in custard!

So here’s the song sheet. I thought this might work largely because the instrumentation on the original (is that a banjo in there) seemed to lend itself to a strummed ukulele. I can’t find a lot of evidence that this does work out there, but having played with this a bit I’m sure it will. The chords are reasonably straightforward, although you can embelish it with – in particular – a nice G / F# / F / E7 run at the end of the third line in each verse (it is a bit quick, though). And playing the A chord in the second line as a slide up two frets from the G in the first line works well too. I’ve also transcribed the introduction – a nice clashing chord followed by a little riff. Listen to the original and you’ll work it out. Oh, and keep going at the end for as long as you want. Enjoy!

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Lord Of The Starfields – Bruce Cockburn

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fallingdarkI first became aware of Canadian singer-songwriter in the late-80s via. a copy of the Greenbelt magazine Strait. And I first heard his music via. a bargain bin discovery of his 1987 compilation Waiting For A Miracle. Cockburn emerged in the early 1970s as a folk/jazz influenced singer-songwriter. As his career progressed both spiritual and political themes became increasingly prevalent in his music, which during the 1980s became more rock-oriented in terms of sound. The 1990s saw him pick up display more roots influences (particularly on a trio of great albums recorded with T-Bone Burnett) before displaying more jazzy-influences on albums such as The Charity Of Night. To be honest much of his recent material has been less than stellar in my mind (with the notable exception of the double live album Slice O’ Life), but that doesn’t detract from the quality of that older material.

The Christian world-view was always a big part of the attraction of Cockburn to me. I guess that as that world-view (or at least the practice of it) has faded in relevance and credibility to me, so I’ve listened to less of his music. But that is probably my loss. Prompted by I-don’t-know-what I listened to a few of his songs last weekend and it reminded me of what a great and underrated artist he is (not to mention a phenomenal guitarist – I always marvel at how this live version of After The Rain is just one man!).

Lord Of The Starfields, from the 1976 In The Falling Dark album, has been described by Cockburn as his attempt at “trying to write something like a psalm”. It is deeply spiritual song about the wonder of creation, written from an explicitly Christian viewpoint. Whilst that viewpoint may be one I have less sympathy with than I once did, nevertheless this is still a wonderful and beautiful song – a song of awe and wonder.

So a ukulele version?! Well, on the assumption that a good song will always shine through, then why not. The songsheet is just chords, but I tend to finger-pick this one. I feel like the song deserves it – it is delicate and lovely (not words always associated with the ukulele, certainly not with my singing), and picking is my attempt to reflect that . Don’t ask me what pattern I use – I couldn’t tell you, and it’s probably different every time I do it – but give it a go. Enjoy!

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