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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The Passenger – Iggy Pop

By the mid-70s Iggy Pop was going nowhere. Despite the legendary and influential position that his band The Stooges had achieved (a seminal garage rock band, and a huge influence on punk), and despite a helping hand from David Bowie on 1973’s Raw Power, The Stooges had fallen apart, and Pop had descended into a spiral of drug abuse.

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However, Bowie continued to support his friend, and took him along as a companion on the 1976 Station to Station tour. Bowie himself, at that time, was deep into a drug dependency, and when he relocated to Berlin afterwards to kick his addiction, Iggy came with him. Thus began an extraordinary period of creativity from Bowie, and Iggy benefited hugely from that.  In early 1977 The Idiot was released, Pop’s first solo album, written, recorded and produced in collaboration with Bowie. Later that same year (a year in which Bowie also released both Low and “Heroes”) came Lust For Life, Iggy’s most commercially successful album, once again a collaboration with, including co-writing and producing, David Bowie.

Best known for it’s opening title track (which itself achieved iconic status via. its inclusion in the opening sequence of the film Trainspotting), The Passenger is the most covered song on the album (the likes of Nick Cave, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and REM have all performed the song),  allegedly inspired (according to Pop’s former girlfriend Esther Friedmann) by a Jim Morrison poem that viewed modern life as a journey by car, as well as rides on the Berlin rapid transit railway, the S-Bahn. Written by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, it was originally released as the B-side of a single (“Success”), but has since come to be one of the defining songs of Iggy’s career.

And so to the song sheet. In terms of chords, there’s nothing tricky here – it’s just an Am / F / C / G / Am / F / C / E sequence repeated all the way through the song (with one or two subtle exceptions. The real key to getting the song sounding right is the strumming pattern. This YouTube guitar lesson gives a good sense of the pattern, but essentially it’s a mute-down-up-down-up pattern, repeated all the way through – effectively there is no chord played on the first (and third) beats. Give it a try. And enjoy!


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Knowing Me, Knowing You – Abba

So I was talking with a friend about potentially doing a variation on the album evenings we’ve been doing recently, and wondered whether a greatest hits evening might work. And instead of playing the album on vinyl, bring playing those greatest hits as 7″ singles, in all they’re crackly glory. But who would we pick? Well the conversation soon turned towards this band, and so I thought I’d give a few of their songs a try and see whether they might work.

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My Abba journey has been a not untypical one, I suspect. This songs was – in fact – the first single that I ever brought, wrapped in the Epic orange sleeve. And the album from which it was taken, 1976’s Arrival, was likewise the first album I ever brought (from Landports department store in Portsmouth, if you’re asking!). Through the late 70s Abba were my band, and it wasn’t until 1981, when my musical interests started to broaden, and deviate somewhat from the mainstream, encouraged in no small part by my consumption of the music press, that the love affair with Abba began to wane. Clearly, at this point, the (apparently) cheesy, european, middle-of-the-road, mainstay of the middle-aged sounds were doing my musical credibility no good, something I remember being accentuated by Not The Nine O’Clock News’ Super Trouper parody. So the super Swedes were somewhat hastily jettisoned.

But years go by, we grow and up mature (a bit!), and in doing so we realise that some of the decisions of our youth were not always good ones. And slowly the rehabilitation followed. Obviously that re-discovery and re-evaluation was a more widespread phenomenon than just within my own head, because when 1992’s compilation Abba Gold was released it immediately became a huge best-seller, now ranked as the bands best-selling album ever, one of the top 50 selling albums across the world ever, with sales in excess of 28 million.

Knowing Me, Knowing You is – for me – a classic example why the music of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid (I was always a Friday girl, myself!) has lasted down the years. For all the accusations of cheesiness and inanity that are thrown at the group (and there are definitely examples of that) there are plenty of examples of real emotional depth and deep melancholy in their songs. The state of the bands own internal relationships were often mirrored and played out in the dynamics of the songs, none more so than in the video for 1980’s The Winner Takes It All. And sometimes were predicted by the songs, as was the case with Knowing Me, Knowing You. Written and recorded at the time that the band were happy loving couples (Agnetha and Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid) the song’s rather bleak relating of the breakdown of a relationship, haunted by the memories of the good times that are forever lost, certainly isn’t for the feint-hearted. Yet the song was a huge success all around the world, helped in no small part by the classic video (directed – as were many of the bands videos – by Lasse Hallström, later to find fame with films like Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News), partly set in the certainly allegorical icy Swedish landscape.

So here is the song sheet. For all their familiarity, Abba songs are not always the most straightforward. This certainly fits into that category. There are quite a few chords in there, but nothing very tricky, and they give real colour to the song (note that the Bm* is not a new type of chord, it’s just to distinguish that particular playing of Bm at that particular point in the song). Sometimes the timing can be a little odd as well (there’s the odd 2/4 bar thrown in along the way). But to be honest, if you know the song (and who doesn’t!) that will see you through. Oh, and I’ve also tabbed out the classic solo that occurs throughout the song. Enjoy (in a slightly maudlin, melancholic Scandinavian way)!


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Rumours – Fleetwood Mac (Full Album)

I freely admit that I was a child of the punk revolution. I fully brought into the Year Zero mindset that trashed everything that came before punk. As a result bands like Fleetwood Mac were anathema – self-indulgent west-coast soft rock that had no relevance to a late 70s urban teenager.

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So it was a long journey to come around to embracing Rumours. For me, that journey was one I can trace for an opening up to country music (via. the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack), which led via. Gram Parsons and The Byrds to the soft rock sounds of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the sounds of late 60s/early 70s Laurel Canyon, and ultimately to this polished slice of perfect grown-up West Coast pop/rock.

Fleetwood Mac had a varied and convulted evolution. Emerging in the late 1960s as a UK-based blues band, the group has a significant measure of success, but somewhat lost their way in the early 1970s. It took a significant re-jig of the line up in 1974, and an evolution into a US/UK hyrid, for those fortunes to be turned around. 1975’s eponymous album, Fleetwood Mac, set the tone, with songs like Rhiannon and Say You Love Me establishing the band with hit singles, as well as racking up huge sales in the US.

But that success was dwarfed by its follow up, Rumours. Not that the circumstances of its birth were promising. The band – now comprising guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Buckingham, drummer Mick Fleetwood, keyboard player and vocalist Christine McVie, bass guitarist John McVie, and vocalist Stevie Nicks – were going through the most intense relationship breakdowns. The McVie’s were divorcing after eight years of marriage. Buckingham and Nicks were having a stormy on/off relationship. And Fleetwood was dealing with the discovery of his wife having an affair with his best friend. That a collection of such perfect songs should emerge from this maelstrom is nothing short of miraculous. With writing credits shared across the whole band, and singing duties likewise shared, this was a truly collaborative effort that captured a band at the height of their powers, at the same time their personal lives were falling apart, awash in a sea of cocaine excess.

With classics like Dreams, Go Your Own Way, The Chain and Don’t Stop, Rumours was the album that sent Fleetwood Mac into the stratosphere. Epitomising the smooth sun-drenched soft-rock California sound, Rumours was both a critical and commercial success. While clearly a product of its time, it has since transcended those times, becoming one of those albums that just goes on and on giving, a timeless record whose perfect sounds belie the raw emotions within. Topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it sold 13 million copies in its first three years, and by 2013 world-wide sales were over 40 million.

The songbook includes all the songs in the album. Most are in the same key as the originals, but a few I’ve transposed to make a little easier to play. At heart these are actually mostly deceptively simple songs, and translate well – to my ears – to the uke. The one song that I’ve probably fudged a little is the finger-picked Never Going Back Again. There are some great ukulele versions of this out there (watch here, see tab here), so feel free to check those out.

<Full Album Songbook>


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Substitute – Clout / The Righteous Brothers

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I never knew that Substitute was a cover version. Until about an hour ago I’d always gone under the misconception that it was an original song from Clout, a South African all-girl band (seemingly a sub-genre of one!). In that guise, I’ve always viewed at as a great, sadly forgotten, example of melodic, veering-on-the-edge-of-cheesy 1970s pop. It reached number 2 in the UK charts, yet it seems to have dissappeared from most people’s consciousness. Clout were a one-hit wonder in the UK, althought they did have further success elsewhere.

But then I did a bit of googling, and find it’s not that straightforward at all. It appears that Substitute was first recorded by The Righteous Brothers and released as a single in 1975. It was written by a certain Willie H. Wilson, of whom I can find very little information, other than that he wrote another song (High Blood Pressure) for The Righteous Brothers, and sung a rather nice pop/soul recording called My Ship.

Then I find that, amongst a number of other cover versions, Substitute was also recorded by Gloria Gaynor. Not just that, but it was originally the A-Side of a single, the B-Side of which was I Will Survive! DJ’s started playing I Will Survive in preference to Substitute and the single was eventually flipped. And the rest, as they say, is history – I Will Survive became a bone-fide and (unfortunately!) staple of karaokes the world over.

But for me it will always be the Clout version that is definitive.

And so to the song sheets. Having unearthed this slightly surprising history for the song, I’ve now got no less than three versions of the song sheet! There’s the original Clout version, as performed in E. There’s also a transposed version of the Clout version, in D, which I find easier to sing. And then there is The Righteous Brothers version, which has slightly different lyrics (gender reassignment!), and is in the same key as their version, namely D. Take your pick, and enjoy!

<Clout, original version>  <Clout version, in D>  <Righteous Brothers version>


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“Heroes” – David Bowie

heroes

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In my book songs don’t come more epic than this. “Heroes” (always with the deliberate affectation of quotation marks) is arguably the highpoint of Bowie’s hugely influential “Berlin period”, which spawned the Low, “Heroes” and Lodger albums. Arguably it is the highpoint of Bowie’s entire career (I, for one, would certainly argue that).

Inspired by the clandestine meeting of two lovers in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, next to the Hansa studios where the song was recorded, producer Tony Visconti has claimed to be that inspiration, viewed by Bowie in an embrace with backing vocalist Antonia Maaß (Visconti was married to Mary Hopkin – of Those Were The Days fame – at the time). A relative failure on its release (peaking at #24 in the UK singles charts, not charting at all in the US) the song has – over the years – come to be viewed (quite rightly) as a classic, a signature tune of Bowie, often cited highly in best song/single lists. And all that despite the misguided mawling it received at the hands of X-Factor in 2010 (and no, I’m *not* going to link to that!).

For me this has to be *the* Bowie performance. The huge wall of sound that wraps the song powers on and on, overlaid by what is probably the most emotive vocal performance Bowie has ever given. Gradually building and increasing in intensity throughout the song (and the 6-minute album version is the best to appreciate this) it reaches an almost painfully emotional crescendo about half-way through, and then continues to give and give. The video (see below) contrasts the huge sound of the song with a simple, effective, single-take.

So, an obvious choice for a ukulele song(!). Well, maybe not. But strip away that wall of sound, and at it’s heart there is a simple and effective song that tugs at the heart-strings, and just works. Here’s one version, but there are quite a few others out there on YouTube.

Enjoy!