Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Innocence – Kirsty MacColl

If judged solely by commercial success, Kirsty MacColl doesn’t rank highly in the pantheon of singers or songwriters. But fortunately that isn’t the only way to measure these things, and when rated by the quality of her work, and the love felt for her and her songs, then Kirsty is right up there.

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Clearly she had something of a head start, being the daughter of the esteemed folk singer Ewan MacColl, who wrote “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But after being spotted singing backing vocals in a punk band by Stiff Records, she was signed and released her first single in 1979, They Don’t Know. From that point on it’s fair to say that her success was patchy. Whilst she scored a hit with an early single (There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis), and her appearance on the Christmas perennial Fairy Tale Of New York with The Pogues, her own songs seemed to struggle, although there was some success in the early 80s when comedienne Tracey Ullman had a hit with They Don’t know during her brief pop career. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the acclaim that she received as a songwriter, her biggest successes seemed to come with other people’s songs (Billy Bragg’s A New England, Ray Davies’ Days, and The Pogues).

MacColl released a number of albums over the years, somewhat sporadically, but every one was chock full of quality songs. 1989’s Kite probably came closest to being a big success, and its from that album that Innocence is taken. With a jangle guitar reminiscent of The Smiths (ironic in that whilst Johnny Marr was a big contributor to the album – both playing and writing – this is one song he *didn’t* play on), Innocence is classic Kirsty – sharp lyrics, melodic, gorgeous harmonies, perfectly packaged pop. The video (below) is also great fun, well worth a watch, including a cameo from Ed Tudor-Pole.

And here is the song sheet. It’s a fairly faithful translation, in the same key as the original. Nothing tricksy chord wise, or rhythmically for that matter. There are quite a lot of words to fit in, but they’re good ones, so worth pursuing.

Enjoy!

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Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins

Thompson Twins were a strange one. Originally formed in the late 1970s as a somewhat anarchic and ramshackle collective, it took a deliberate change of direction off the back of the early 80s synthpop book for them to both shed their street-cred and to finally achieve success – huge success.

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Anybody coming to early Thompson Twins off the back of their huge pop success in the mid-80s is probably in for something of a shock. Strongly influenced by a lot of the post-punk sounds of the era, there’s scratchy guitar and world-music-inspired percussion all over this, reflecting the diverse nature of a 7-piece line-up. The band recorded a couple of albums in this mode – 1981’s “A Product Of… “,  and 1982’s “Set” – but it was in the opening track of the latter, a synth-heavy song called “In The Name Of Love“, that the seeds of the bands evolution were sown. The song was a huge hit in US clubs, and off the back of this a core set of the band – founder member Tom Currie, and percussionists Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway – broke away to form a new incarnation of the band. Their first fruits materialised as 1983’s Quick Step and Side Kick, which finally brought commercial success in the UK (including the hit single Love On Your Side). But it was that albums follow up, 1984’s Into The Gap, which finally broke the band world-wide, particularly in the US.

“Hold Me Now” was the first single from that album, and the first song to break through, top 10 across much of Europe, peaking at number 3 in the US. It’s a deceptively simple ballad, full of melancholy and longing, that gradually builds to a a final sustained, repeated choruses with soaring falsetto vocals overlaid. In many ways its a world away from those early sounds, and may seem to some a trite and corny commercial land-grab, but taken at face value is a lovely, enduring slice of sing-along pop.

And now for the songsheet. Basically the song is a simple repeated chord sequence all the way through (verse and chorus) of D / Bm / C / Asus4. I’e added a few optional “grace” chords in to the chorus – these are entirely optional, and the song doesn’t lose anything by not including them, but to my ears they do add something. Other than that just play away, and enjoy!


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Ellis Island – Mary Black

Sometimes you want a good old thrash. And sometimes you just need something a bit more gentle. This morning is a more gentle time.

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Mary Black first caught my attention back in the early 1990s. I think it was probably via. the “A Woman’s Heart” compilation album, a collection of songs by Irish singers Eleanor McEvoy, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon, Frances Black, and Maura O’Connell that became something of a phenomenon, selling over 750,000 copies, prompting a couple of follow-up albums and introducing a collection of contemporary folk-influenced female singers to a wider audience. I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of the emerald isle, in its many guises, from the rock sounds of U2, The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, through the soulful sounds of Van Morrison, the cathartic waywardness of Sinead O’Connor, the new-age vibe of Clannad, singer-songwriters like Juliet Turner, Duke Special and Luka Bloom, through to the folkier sounds of Sharon Shannon and Cara Dillon. And whilst the “A Woman’s Heart” collections were hardly cutting edge, there is an honesty and soulfulness in these singers and their recordings which I find very appealing.

Mary Black came from a typically Irish musical family (her father a fiddler, her mother a singer, and all her siblings involved in a band – sister Frances even had her own recordings on the Woman’s Heart album.  Black isn’t primarily a songwriter, but does know a good song when she hears it. Noel Brazil was one of her go-to songwriters, the author of some of her best such as Columbus, Vanities, Babes in the Woods, and this one – Ellis Island. Ellis Island is an island in New York (within sight of the Statue of Liberty) that for over sixty years, between 1892 and 1954,was the gateway to the US for 12 million immigrants, handling at its peak 5,000 immigrants a day. 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Obviously the route from Ireland to America is a hugely well-trodden one, inspiring a multitude of books, films and music, and so for an Irish singer like Black this tale of a pair of lovers who are being separated by emigration is a natural one that resonates deeply.

And so to the songsheet. A simple shuffle in the verses, alternating between Fmaj7 and Am7, leads into a chorus that chucks in a few additional chords (nothing tricky, although getting the rhythm right requires a little listening to the original), before dropping into a middle eight, back to the verse and choruses. Lots of gorgeous major7 and minor7 chords makes it obvious – to me at least – why this is such a beautiful song. 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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Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow – Felt

I’ve kind-of giving up worrying about the preponderance of 80s tunes from my youth that I post on these pages. The songs that I post have always been influenced by the music that I’m listening to at any point of time, and – in no small part thanks to Decade, a wonderful event that happens not for from me that plays alternative music from 77-87 – I’ve been listening to a lot of music from that era, both songs that I’m familiar with, as well as tunes and artists that passed me by at the time.

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So this is a stone-cold classic from that era. Felt could be considered the quintessential 80s indie band. Essentially the platform for the artistic vision of the enigmatic Lawrence (no surname was ever used), Felt’s original jangle style was influenced by the likes of Television, but taken in a more fragile and luminescent direction. Early albums were resolutely low-fi and contained as many instrumentals as vocal songs, but through the 80s the Felt project grew and evolved, adding a bright and bubbling organ to the mix, branching off into lounge-style mini-instrumentals and kitsch-jazz before concluding (after 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years – all part of the masterplan) in 1989 with the vastly underrated, almost professional sounding Me and a Monkey on the Moon.

Top of the pile of all those songs, for me, is the swooningly gorgeous Primitive Painters, a duet with Cocteau Twin’s Liz Fraser (one of the few records I’ve ever brought on-spec after one hearing in a record shop). But that doesn’t translate too well to ukulele! So instead here is a song that scales pretty close to those dizzy heights, the 1984 single Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow. With a title like that how could a song fail (I’d love Felt just for their song and album titles, even without hearing the music – Rain of Crystal Spires, The World is as Soft as Lace, Evergreen Dazed, Sapphire Mansions, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun – the list is endless!). A resolutely up-beat sounding song that would appear to be a somewhat stinging observation of a friend, with the pretentiousness meter turned up high (the single and album versions differently reference a poem by Rimbaud or an Egyptian funerary text), the song is soaked in gorgeous shimmering and chiming guitars courtesy of Maurice Deebank, who was instrumental (literally) in the bands sounds for the first half of their career.

So translate this gloriousness to ukulele? Well, clearly its not going to sound *quite* like the original. But underneath all those wonderful sounds is a great song, and so I think it works. I’ve transcribed the ringing intro, solo and outro sections as well – Maurice Deebank never went in for guitar gymnatics, so these are definitely playable. It’s a great song, one that deserves more exposure. Enjoy!


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More Than This – Roxy Music

For many people Roxy Music were on a downhill trajectory from start. Understandable in some ways, because that debut album, and the hit single that sat alongside it (Virginia Plain) are such extraordinary records, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

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And in those people’s eyes, Avalon, Roxy’s swansong, became the epitome of everything that they had lost – smooth, bland, featureless, a triumph of style over substance. Well, I’m not one of those people, and I see it quite differently. Yes, Bryan Ferry would appear to have spent much of the rest of his career circling around and repeating that Avalon sound, but there are worse things to repeat. And that record, Avalon, is in my mind a classic, a subtle, sophisticated record that is a world away from songs like Editions of You and All I Want Is You, and yet retains much of the mysterious DNA that marked those early records out from the crowd.

More Than This was the lead single from Avalon, and landed at a time (Spring, 1982) when Roxy’s influence over other artists had never been stronger. Both musically and aesthetically, the sounds of the early 80s were indebted to the path that Roxy had pioneered, with groups like Duran Duran, Associates, Spandau Ballet and many others from that post-punk / new romantic era openly citing Roxy as a prime influence. That the rich, sophisticated sound that Avalon inspired may have resulted in some of the more vacuous, hollow, style-first content that followed later in the decade is hardly Roxy’s fault. This was a record that was taken to the heart (and bedroom!) of many that heard it, and to my ears is one of the bands masterpieces.

So here’s the songsheet. I’m aware that there are other ukulele versions floating about out there. But they didn’t quite cut it for me. Chords are relatively straightforward, the structure is pretty standard. I’ve included the opening riff as well, which definitely enhances the song. Not much more to say, really, other than enjoy!