Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Olivia Newton-John – Physical / Xanadu

Two for the price of one today. And a double-dose of the Australian songstress Olivia Newton-John, somebody who I wouldn’t be going too if I was trying to establish any critical credibility for this blog. But who I would go to it I was after some cracking pop tunes.

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Actually, truth be told the roots of this post didn’t actually start with ONJ herself, but with the alternative artist Juliana Hatfield. Earlier this week I cam across an album she released earlier this year which is all Newton-John covers. Hatfield was – and remains – a big fan, and had decided to record her version of 13 of her favourite songs. Running the gamut of the obvious (these two included) to more obscure album tracks, these aren’t radical re-interpretations, but clearly demonstrate a love and a respect for the original material, albeit roughing them up a little and giving them a slightly grungy makeover.

Newton-John herself was a huge star, particularly in the US and her native Australia. Originally breaking through with a country pop sound, her role in the hugely successful movie Grease, which saw her character Sandy move from a goody-goody character to spandex-clad vixen, prompted her to undertake a similar transformation of her own image, moving towards a (relatively speaking) raunchier appearance, taking her music into more of a pop/rock direction. In 1980 that led her to star in the film Xanadu which, whilst a critical and commercial flop, did spawn a successful soundtrack which she featured prominently in, including the huge international hit which was the Jeff Lynne-penned title track, performed with Electric Light Orchestra.

The immediate follow-up album to the Xanadu soundtrack was the biggest of Newton-John’s career, spawning a series of hit singles, of which the title track was the biggest. Ten weeks at number one in the US (the longest run for any song during the 1980s), achieving a similar feat in many other countries, the song was doubtless helped by it’s tongue-in-cheek video and the very recent launch of MTV, which gave song and video massive exposure. Yes, its a little corny, and maybe somewhat of its time, but it’s still a great song, as Juliana Hatfield’s cover faithfully demonstrates.

So two song sheets for the price of one. Physical is quite a straightforward song – simple chords, simple structure – nothing really much to say for this one. Xanadu, as befits an ELO song, has a bit more going on in it, both in terms of chords and in terms of the structure / timing. But listen and play along to the originals (both are in the same key as those originals) and you’ll get the picture (although good luck on those last notes on Xanadu!).

Enjoy!

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I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk – The Freshies

Welcome to ridiculously long song-title obscurity, everybody! Actually, if you were anywhere near a radio in 1981 this won’t be such an obscurity as it was one of those “radio hits” – played to death but never really catching on with the general public.

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The Freshies were largely the brain child of one Chris Sievey. If that name isn’t familiar as the leader of The Freshies, it may be more familiar in the guise of a Chris’s later career, via. his alter-ego Frank Sidebottom. A surreal comedic creation with a huge papier-mâché head, an extreme Mancunian accent and deliberately naff songs, Sidebottom was something of a cult success, a launchpad for somewhat more successful careers for the likes of Caroline Aherne (Mrs Merton was originally conceived as Frank’s neighbour) and Mark Radcliffe (a member of Sidebottom’s band).

But before all that there was The Freshies. A Manchester-based power-pop / new wave band, their songs bore all the hallmarks of the new wave sounds of the time (albeit with some classic tunes), but were shot through with Chris’s unique take on life. Whether it be the usual romantic travails given particular Sievey spin in the likes of Tell Her I’m Ill or If You Really Love Me … Buy Me A Shirt, or the record-buying woes of the wonderful I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes, you were always guaranteed a unique perspective in The Freshies songs.

But it is with “I’m In Love…” that they are best remembered. An almost hit, reaching the giddy heights of number 54 in the singles charts, the song was almost more famous for being the subject of a BBC furore,resulting in the song needing to be re-recorded to remove the reference to a certain record store (Virgin) in the songs title and chorus. Intertwining a tale of unrequited love for the record shop counter girl with the rejections that Chris and The Freshies were to constantly get from the record business, the song is a 2-and-a-half blast of pure power pop joy. Should have been massive, but was destined to never be so.

And so to the songsheet. I couldn’t find copies of either the lyrics or the chords for this online (although I did eventually find a YouTube version where somebody had transcribed the lyrics), so this is mostly my own creation. Therefore it might not be perfect! One slightly tricky chord (the F# in the intro and bridge) but the bigger challenge is more likely the timing – fitting the lyrics into the tune, particularly the bit that lists record labels! But it’s a great song, and you’ll have fun trying. Enjoy!


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Redemption Song – Bob Marley

Bob Marley was a huge part of bringing reggae music into a wider public consciousness. Whilst some may think that his was a somewhat watered down version that was deliberately aimed at crossing over to a white rock audience, there is no doubt that his music has had a profound affect around the world. And none more so than Redemption Song.

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Whilst clearly not a reggae song in itself, Redemption Song is the epitome of all that Marley sought to achieve in his music. The final track on the final album Marley released before his death from cancer in 1980 (Uprising), the song is in many ways Marley’s own eulogy, a song of hope despite the pain of the circumstances. But rather than focusing inwards on his own pain, the song turns that feeling into a universal call for the downtrodden, the oppressed, those who have lost so much, urging them to keep on, to keep singing these “songs of freedom”. The famous “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”, “none but ourselves can free our mind” lines were in fact inspired by a speech by Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black nationalism in Jamaica who was considered a religious prophet within Rastafarianism, a religion strongly linked to reggae and Marley.

Whilst the song was recorded and performed as a full band version (you can here it here), it is most famous in its most stripped back form – just Marley and an acoustic guitar. Which I think makes it a great candidate for playing on the uke.

The prompting for putting this song on UkeTunes came from hearing over Christmas a bit of the Radio 4 Soul Music documentary that focused on this song, and the impact it is had on a variety of people. It’s an informative and touching listen, and at the time of writing is still on the BBC IPlayer – you can listen to it here.

The song sheet is quite straightforward to play – no tricky chords or strumming patterns. That said, Marley’s phrasing is sometimes a little tricky to replicate, but don’t worry too much about that – this is a song to take and mould to your own experience. Also this is definitely a less-is-more song, so keeping the strumming sparse helps. I’ve also included tab for the opening guitar riff as well. 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!


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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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Dancing With Myself – Generation X / Billy Idol

DancingWithMyselfGenXDancingWithMyselfBillyIdolGeneration X always came across as something of cartoon punks. Not sticking rigidly to the punk rule book, there was always an element of pop in their sound, a suspicion that they didn’t really “mean it” the way other punks meant it, and maybe were perceived as being too willing to compromise themselves to “make it”.

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Of course, the whole idea of a punk rule book was actually anathema to its true spirit, but one result is that Generation X are seen as second-tier punks, despite (or maybe because) they had (an admittedly quite modest) level of success. That reputation was probably cemented when lead singer Billy Idol went solo in the 80s and garnered a huge amount of success, particularly in the US, with an image that again came across as a crude mashup of punk, pop and Elvis.

Yet they left behind a number of songs which – to my mind, credibility be damned – captured some of the energy and dynamism of the times, coupled with a genuine, if maybe simplistic, tunefulness. Dancing With Myself was in fact written by the band’s bassist, Tony James, who later want on to higher-profile infamy/success with Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Recorded for the band’s third album, it only managed to claw itself into the bottom reaches of the singles chart in 1980. Idol re-recorded it as his first single when he went solo a year later, and whilst it still didn’t make much of an impact, it’s calling card status has given it a longevity that its chart position belies.

I have a strong preference for the original Generation X version of the song – the later Billy Idol version tones down the guitar sounds and makes what is a tuneful-yet-aggressive punk classic into a slightly watered down power-pop anthem. But in either guise this is a song whose driving rhythm, simple riff and singalong nature have sustained it throughout its 30+ years of life.

And here’s the songsheet. It’s a simple three chorder, although in this version (the same key as both the Generation X and Billy Idol versions) it contains the infamous E chord, which I know some people struggle with (if you do, just take it down to D, G and A, rather than E, A and B). I’ve also included tab for the introductory riff, and for the solo in the middle. Both are really simple, so give them a go. And enjoy!

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A Song From Under The Floorboards – Magazine

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I’ll be honest. Magazine aren’t a band that I’ve ever been a huge fan of, or know too much about. Not because I don’t really like them, but more through ignorance. There’s a lot of music out there, and catching up on all of it is a hopeless task. But recently I’ve been listening to quite a lot of post-punk-type compilations, and Magazine crop up on a number of those quite regularly. This song in particular (alongside Shot By Both Sides) seems to crop quite frequently, and has wormed its way into my head.

Magazine were formed in 1977 when lead singer Howard Devoto left the influential Manchester punk band Buzzcocks after their first EP. They are often considered one of the first post-punk bands, thought of as an artsier and more experimental form of punk. Song From Under The Floorboards was taken from their 1980 album The Correct Use Of Soap. Lyrically, this is a somewhat intruiging song, and I won’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but it has been suggested that it is based on ‘Notes From the Underground’, a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in which the main character debates the concept of free will, regrets his lack of direction in life, and glorifies himself as a product of society, in turn condemning that society.

Released as a single in 1980, the song has been recently covered by Morrisey, as well as by Simple Minds.

Here’s the song sheet. There’s quite a bit of guitar tab out there for this song, but (unsurprisingly!) nothing for ukulele. It’s fair to say that this is an approximation of the original, and could probably do with some work and verification. But I’m putting it out there in the hope that somebody somewhere might be interested. Note that I’ve also included some tab for the guitar riff introduction – that again is an approximation as the limited range of the ukulele makes it difficult (impossible) to do it properly. But I think it sounds OK. Enjoy!

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