Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Black Man Ray – China Crisis

It’s 1985, and having gained a reputation as a slightly wimpy synthpop band via. a couple of hits (Christian and Wishful Thinking), China Crisis hook up with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker to produce their next album, Flaunt The Imperfection.

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The result is an career high for the band, combining the bands trademark wistful melodies with a sophisticated Dan-esque production that could have come across as a little cold and aloof, but thankfully ends up as a warm cloak that soaks a quality song with a crystal-clear sheen. And in so doing manages to avoid the worst excesses of 80s production.

Black Man Ray was the albums lead single, and a classy choice it was too. Giving the band their third top 20 hit, I can’t really be sure what the song is actually about, other than references in the songs title and the single cover to Man Ray, an American visual artist who spent most of his career in France, and who was a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements.

So the basic structure and chords for the song are reasonably straightforward, and there’s nothing too challenging here rhythmically either. I’ve tabbed out the little synth riff in the intro (that also re-appears at the end of the first chorus), and also the picking pattern that accompanies the songs fade-out as well as the end of the second chorus. This is a lovely song, so enjoy!

 


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Since Yesterday – Strawberry Switchblade

Remembered as a one-hit wonder, Strawberry Switchblade emerged from the Glasgow’s post-punk scene in the early 1980s and left us with this slice of glorious pop-goth.

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Taken under the wing of managers David Balfe and Bill Drummond, who both had Teardrop Explodes connections (Drummond later going on to huge success with The KLF), and releasing their first single on the label of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sargent, Strawberry Switchblade (essentially a duo of Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall) took their time to become overnight successes, and when it came were almost as famous for their costumes (all ribbons and polka-dots) as their songs. To be honest they probably suffered from being neither Goth enough nor poppy enough, but their one album is a great mix of those extremes (the name Strawberry Switchblade was designed to reflect the juxtaposition of sweetness and darkness), although may be a bit too much on the catchy, sweet side for some. Since Yesterday was a huge, deserved hit, and one that takes you right back to the mid-80s.

There’s nothing too much to say about the song sheet. It’s a simple 4 chord song, basic structure, and lots of la la las, just something to strum and sing. Enjoy!


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Joan Of Arc – OMD

So here we are going full circle in the series of recent posts, back to some synthpop, back to the 80s, and back to OMD.

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OMD (or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, or Orchestral Manoeuvres as the sleeve for this song described them) had always straddled the line between experimentation and commerciality. Sometimes they went further in one direction than the other, but they are arguably at their best we they manage to hold those two tendancies in tension. As an album, 1981’s Architecture and Morality could be seen as a career highlight in achieving that, birthing three hit singles, hit still with enough elements of outright weirdness and oddity to make it interesting.

Two of those three singles focussed on the French heroine Joan of Arc (nicknamed Maid of Orleans, the title of the second such song). Having been in receipt of many religious visions in her early years, Joan was famed for her role in influencing the outcome of battles with the English in the 15th Century. She was ultimately handed over for trial and burnt at the stake at the age of 19, but it was not until the early 19th century that she was declared a national symbol, and not until the early 20th century that she was made a saint.

So it’s just a simple three-chord song, chorus-less but with a bridge-like interlude before the final verse. The original is unaccompanied (just a drum machine) at the beginning, but I’ve chorded it. Works both strummed or picked. Enjoy!


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Forest Fire – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

More back to the 80s, I’m afraid. But no excuses for this one, for this song is just pure class.

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Taken from their debut album, Rattlesnakes, Forest Fire is a gem amongst an album of ridiculous riches. Lloyd Cole and his Commotions may have had a reputation for pretentiousness (to be fair, a not undeserved criticism, given it contains lyrical references to Renata Adler, Simone de Beauvoir and Norman Mailer) and a somewhat affected vocal style, but this was an album that crammed more ideas and tunes into its 35 minutes than many bands manage in their whole career.

Forest Fire was a little different to the rest of the album, being something of a brooding slow-burner, replete with an almost rock-ist guitar solo. But what a track! Time and again, when I come back to this song, I’m reminded of what a gorgeous experience it is. Not a minute of its 5 minutes and 15 seconds (always go for the album version, anything else and you’re just being short-changed) is wasted, gradually turning up the emotional heat until it bursts with a guitar solo of both grace and grit.

And so to the song sheet. It’s basically just verses, a repeated chord sequence that isn’t too stretching. I haven’t included the solo – you can work that out if you like, but I think it still holds up without. Rhythm might be a little tricky, but check out this solo acoustic version by Lloyd here for some ideas on that front. 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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Robot Man – The Gymslips / Connie Francis

From the sublime (step forward, Brandy Clark) to the faintly ridiculous. Never let it be said that you don’t get variety around here!

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So here’s a song that I’ve lived with for 30 odd years, only to find a couple of hours ago that it wasn’t quite what I’d thought. The origin of this one for me was a purchase in an Edinburgh record shop of a shrink-wrapped bundle of 5 singles. It was bargain-basement time, and though you could see the covers of the two outside records, I didn’t have a clue what was inside. To be honest, I don’t remember all the records that were in that pack, but I do remember that one was the great double-sider by The Rezillos I Can’t Stand My Baby / I Wanna Be Your Man, and another was this slice of kitsch punk from The Gymslips.

Now I never knew anything else about The Gymslips, but really loved the definitely tongue-in-cheek, bubblegum punk that sprang from the turntable when I played this song. It’s only after the last year or so that I rediscovered this song and this band, primarily through a copy of their only album, Rocking With The Renees. An all-female punk band from London (and there’s no transatlantic twang here, the accents are full-on London), The Gymslips were never one to take the music business that seriously, and clearly had a blast doing what they were doing. This is sheer good time punk, replete with plenty of lyrics references to bums and getting pissed (there’s a very definite strain of English humour running through it all), a cartoon image exemplified in that album cover.

So Robot Man seemed to fit into that category without any trouble, a 2-minute blast of tuneful fabulousness. But it wasn’t until I was looking online for the chords and lyrics for this song (where there are zero references) that I accidentally discovered that actually this is a cover of a song originally recorded back in the 1960s by Connie Frances, part of a double-sided single that made it to number 2 in the UK charts. So not so obscure after all. Actually, thinking about it the lyrical content (a robot lover, somehow strangely back in vogue) is obviously such a theme of the late 50s / early 60s it’s quite obvious really. But The Gymslips version gives the original a spirited kick up the arse (as I’m sure the band would say!) and is just a pure joy to listen to.

So here’s the song sheet. As to be expected from such a straight-ahead punk song, it’s not tricky. Four chords (surely that’s one more than necessary!) and a lot of attitude. This version is in the same key as the Gymslips version, the Connie Francis version being a semi-tone lower. Oh, and I’ve thrown in the four note opening riff as a bonus. Enjoy!


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Rockin’ In The Free World – Neil Young

One of my favourite songwriters, Martyn Joseph, often comments how when you release a song you have to set it free, because at that point the songwriter has to hand over control as to exactly what that song is an means.

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Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World is a good example of that. Written and released at the end of the 1980s, it was a response to the early days of the George W Bush administration, and a comment on the social ills of contemporary America. And yet in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and communism across eastern Europe imploded, the song took on a life of its own as an anthem for the collapse of communism. Ironic, given that the song was actually a criticism of the failing state of the USA, communism’s greatest nemesis.

Released on Young’s album Freedom, marking something of a return-to-form after a patchy 1980s, Rockin’ In The Free World book ended that album in two forms – a live acoustic version, and a cranked up studio electric version. Young famously reprised the song a few years later at the MTV Awards in a collaboration with Pearl Jam that ended up in a destructive, guitar-fuelled freak-out.

So here’s the song sheet. I’ve used the acoustic version as a basis, principally because its lower and I find it easier to sing. But I’ve also included the third verse of the song, which was only used in the electric version. Chords are pretty straight-forward, rhythm is pretty simply. This isn’t a subtle song, its one to belt out at the top of your voice. Enjoy!