Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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War Baby – Tom Robinson

There’s been a few songs on here recently that have been inspired by gigs that I’ve either been to are going to. And you know what? Here comes another.

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In popular consciousness, when people think of Tom Robinson (if they think of him at all) there’s one, maybe two, songs that comes straight to the front of the queue. But they’re wrong! That’s not to say that 2-4-6-8 Motorway is a bad song – it’s a head-down pile-driver of a fist-pumping sing-along song that deserves to be up there in the pantheon of punk-inspired greats. Neither is Glad To Be Gay – a somewhat controversial (at the time) song that probably wasn’t the best career move Robinson ever made.

But if you’re looking for a sublime classic that represents quality songwriting, a timeless, emotionally brutal stream-of-consciousness evocation of nostalgia and regret, then look no further. This – for me – is peak Tom Robinson. This is such a gorgeous wonder of a song, very different to the rawness, aggression and political bite of his earlier sounds, but retaining the ferocious honesty that has been a hallmark of his whole career.

So last night there I was at the 1865 in Southampton (incidentally, the new home of Southampton Ukulele Jam) watching Tom Robinson perform, in full, his powerful debut album Power In The Darkness. It was a great show, with a great band, and a 68-year old Robinson in great form as singer, bass-player, band leader and host. The album played, the encore was made of the contemporaneous classics Martin, Glad to be Gay and a stretched-out rousing 2-4-6-8 Motorway. So job done, and what a good evening that would have been. But the best, the peak was yet to come. Responding to an audience who clearly wanted more, the unexpected gift to close out the evening was a wondrous version of this here classic. This boy couldn’t have been happier.

So how does it work for the ukulele? Well quite well, I think. There’s some lovely chords in here, and some lovely progressions. I’ve tried to simplify down from the original to something playable, but still retain the essence of the original song. So there are one or two slightly unusual chords in here, but persevere because it is those that make it.  Fitting the words in can be a little tricky (this is quite a verbose song) but if – like me – you know the song like the back of your hand, it will flow. Just enjoy!

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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.

<Physical> <Xanadu>

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!

<Physical> <Xanadu>

 


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Souvenir – OMD

This blog has had its fair share of OMD songs, its true. But personally I’m a sucker for their music – as I’ve blogged earlier I love the way that these little synthpop riffs translate to the uke.

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And if a song were ever to be defined by its riff, this has to be one of those. Coming from their left-field, avant-garde electronic roots (beyond the singles, there is lots of weirdness across their back-catalogue, at least until the career jolt that was Dazzle Ships), Souvenir could be perceived as something of a sell-out – a lush, romantic ballad, voiced by the softer tones of Paul Humphries, a sure-fire attempt to make a huge hit. And in many ways it is those things – certainly it became one of their biggest selling singles, and most recognised recordings. Yet this is a far-from-standard hit-single – just two verses, no chorus to speak of (the riff performs that function, an approach that their previous hit, the class Enola Gay, had also done), an opening 10-seconds of just sampled choral sounds (there’s an interesting piece here on how that was achieved).

But for all that, it is a beautiful piece of music that revealed a softer side of these machine loving pioneers (previous songs having paid homage to telephone boxes, nuclear bombs and electricity), and which will immediately make those of a certain age go all wistful, transported back to another time and another place.

So here is the songsheet. The song itself is simple and straightforward – two verses, three chords, and then it’s gone. I’ve tabbed all of the riffs as best I can – they’re all variations on a similar theme, with some subtle variances throughout the song – and tried to indicate where the various sections fall. I’ve also transposed the song down a semi-tone (from F# to F) just to simplify the playing – capo 1 to play along with the original. Enjoy!


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All Of My Heart – ABC

So there was me just ready to publish an update to the Uketunes songbook. And then last night I put ABC’s The Lexicon of Love on (it was warm and sunny, and in my book Lexicon is a summer album – summer 1982, to be precise). And what should happen but this absolute corker of song comes up and gets my uke ears thinking, “Well that would work, wouldn’t it”. And I think it does. So here it is.

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Obviously playing this song on the humble ukulele was clearly far from the mind of Martin Fry, ABC and (particularly) producer Trevor Horn when The Lexicon of Love was conceived and recorded. After all, this is an album that was the epitome of the “New Pop” sound of the early 1980s, aspirational, lush, glistening music that sought to marry the ethos of post-punk and new wave with pure pop sounds and chart appeal. And so Sheffield band ABC emerged from the ruins of a previous electronic incarnation (Vice Versa), and moved towards a more disco/soul sound. Trevor Horn (formery of Buggles, later of ZTT, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, etc.) came on board after the minor chart success of debut single Tears Are Not Enough, and turned the bands aspirations and a collection of literate, heart-on-the-sleeve songs into an epic recording that set the bar so high for the band that arguably the rest of their career has been lived in the shadow of this record.

All Of My Heart was the last of four singles from the album, and if anything represents the “epic ballad” of the album. It’s actually quite up beat for a ballad, but here was a song swathed in the string arrangements of Anne Dudley, arguably the most wide-screen of songs on the album. Echoing themes from across the album, All Of My Heart is a tale of love lost, in turn reflective and bitter, this is most definitely *not* a song for walking down the aisle to!

So how does this bold and fearless classic translate to the uke? Well, quite well, I think. When it boils down to it, it’s only a four chord song, one that has a killer tune and leaves plenty of room for emoting. There’s one or two slightly tricky timing issues, primarily after the “All of my heart” lines at the end of the chorus, when an extra beat/pause is thrown in (which probably makes that a 5/4 bar). And the [D]/[G] sequence immediately after the second chorus “All of my heart” is 3 beats of D and 5 of G. But listen to the song (its in the same key as the songsheet) and you’ll get the hang of it. Enjoy!


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Rio – Duran Duran (Full Album)

Never let it be said that you don’t get variety here! From the acoustic loveliness and down-home earthiness of the last post, here we are with what could be seen as the archetypal surface-and-sheen of vacuous 80s pop – all style, glamour and no substance.

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And whilst there is some truth in those accusations, the reality – as ever – is more complex. Emerging out of the nascent new romantic scene in (decidedly unromantic) Birmingham, Duran Duran (the name taken from a character in the cult classic 1968 sci-fi film, Barbarella) were effectively the house band for the city’s Rum Runner nightclub. From the outset, the notion of the band was to combine the sounds and ethos of disco and punk, equal parts Sex Pistols, Blondie, Gary Numan and Chic, and to be huge. There was no hiding that ambition, and for a group of lads growing up in late 70s urban Britain, the idea of becoming the biggest pop band on the planet, of being able to travel the world and partake in the glamorous jet-set lifestyle made perfect sense.

So whilst Duran Duran struck gold with their first album (spawning the hits Planet Earth and Girls On Film), it was 1982’s Rio that launched them into the stratosphere. With three huge singles accompanied by the infamous exotic videos (Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio and Save A Prayer), the band were perfectly positioned to capitalise on the musical revolution that was ushered in by MTV.

But this was pop with a twist. Not only were the band self-made – growing organically from the local music scene – and writers of their own material, the band managed create a unique amalgam of styles that took somewhat underground influences and art-rock influences (Japan, Roxy Music and David Bowie) and fashioned them into a mainstream phenomena that had teenage girls in paroxysms. In times when pop bands are just expected to be focus-grouped conceptions of marketing departments, performing material from the same bunch of face-less songwriting teams that is aimed at the same narrow commercial radio playlists, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the way things were. And for all their faults, Duran Duran were more intelligent than that, spikier than that, and certainly more capable and original as musicians than that.

It may be the big singles that Rio is remembered for. And rightly so. But dig beyond that and there are gems a plenty. Whether it be the post-punk funk of New Religion, the Voltaire-citing Last Chance On The Stairway, or the stately, cryptic, arpeggiated closer that is The Chauffeur (I’m not seeing any boy band getting away with a video like this today) this is a band at arguably both their commercial and artistic peak.

And so here we are with the songbook. The full album, all nine tracks, when you strip the production away these are for the most part great songs. All of these are in the same key as the originals, so playing along is possible (and to be encouraged). Shoulder pads and yachts are optional. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>


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Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn

I’ve written previously about how much I love the music of Bruce Cockburn, and what it has meant to me. Prompted by the announcement of some UK dates in the autumn, I’ve been going back to his music, and enjoying it afresh. One of the songs that stood out was this one.

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The version that particularly caught my ear was from his live solo album, Slice O’ Life. The original version of the song appeared on the 1984 album, Stealing Fire, recorded at a time where Cockburn was turning from the acoustic, folk-y sounds of his earlier, 1970s recordings towards a more contemporary, rock-inspired source, something that coincided for him with a move in his lyrical outlook from an inward, spiritual focus towards a more outward looking perspective that – whilst infused with the spiritual – was more focussed on the world he saw, and the many injustices that he encountered as he started to travel more widely.

Outside of his native Canada, where Cockburn is something of an institution and widely reward, for most of his career Cockburn has been something of a cult figure. However “Lovers…” was a song that, alongside the much darker “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, became radio hits in the US. And to this day it remains one of his more well-known songs (well-known being something of a relative term when applied to Cockburn), even being referenced by U2 in their song “God Part II” (“heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). The song itself has been interpreted in multiple ways – as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and as a commentary on the Central American experience that inspired “Rocket Launcher”, but whilst Cockburn is on record as saying that both of those interpretations are valid ones, his has said of the song:

“I was thinking of kids in a schoolyard. I was thinking of my daughter. Sitting there wanting to hold hands with some little boy and looking at a future, looking at the world around them. How different that was when I was a kid when, even though we had air-raid drills, nobody took that seriously that the world would end. You could have hope when I was a kid. And now I think that’s very difficult. I think a lot of that is evident from the actions and the ethos of a lot of kids. It was kind of an attempt to offer a hopeful message to them. You still have to live and you have to give it your best shot.”

The acoustic version of the song strips it back to its essence. A showcase for Bruce’s exemplary guitar technique (never flashy, but always rich and deep), it is further proof that the mark of a good song is if it works when reduced to one-person-and-their-instrument. And boys does this version work – arguably getting to the heart of the song in a way that the more produced original version *may* have clouded a little.

And so to the songsheet. This is based on the acoustic version, and definitely – to my ears – sounds better as a picked version. It is true that I could have made this a bit simpler, could have put it in an easier key. But (a) this version allows you to play along with the Cockburn version above, and (b) it just sounds much better this way. If you’re OK with barre chords then this shouldn’t be problematic. Playing the A chords in the chorus as barred chords on the 4th fret (see here) adds an additional texture to the song as well. Enjoy!


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ABBA – Greatest Hits

 

ABBA SinglesABBA were my first band.

<Songbook> (link fixed!)

I was relatively late to pop music, it wasn’t a big thing for my parents – they were all radio 2, Sing Something Simple and military bands. So it wasn’t until January 1977 when I first sat down and watched Top Of The Pops. And the only reason for that was because David Soul was topping the charts with Don’t Give Up On Us, and my sister, with something of a crush on the Starsky and Hutch star, wanted to watch it. A somewhat fateful and life-changing event that led on to a whole lifetime of musical obsession for me.

Anyway, TOTP became something of a habit, and a few week’s later this bunch of Scandinavian pop stars turned up on the show with that iconic video for Knowing Me, Knowing You. And I was hooked. I can’t say at this remove in time what it was about that song that really clicked for me, but it’s interesting in many ways to me how a song that is shot through with a such a strong dose of melancholia caught the imagination of an 11-year old school boy. That has probably been a consistent thread in my musical tastes ever since.

Obviously ABBA are a global phenomenon. And one that has gone through various levels of acceptability over the years. It’s fair to say that they were never “cool”, and there was always a slight sense of awkwardness with how the band fitted into the British music scene. But that was never their intention. Abba were always about great songs, coupled with superb production and arrangements. If the visual image was sometimes a bit corny, the constant up-front (save for a few exceptions) presence of Agnetha and Anna-Frid more than made up for that. Personally I was always an Anna-Frid guy, but clearly the presence of the two girls was a significant factor in making the band attractive to a certain part of their audience.

But it is the songs, the songs, that are what ABBA are all about for me. And those are just great. For all those accusations of corny, feel-good, inanity that can get thrown at them, their songs are actually quite musically sophisticated and subtle, and whilst lyrically they’re not always Bob Dylan (Bang-A-Boomerang, anybody?!), there is a depth and emotional resonance to their songs, particularly in the later years, that lends a lie to those views. Listen to The Winner Takes It All, Slipping Through My Fingers, or One Of Us, and those songs strike right to the heart.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Neil Tennant, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Noel Gallagher, Pete Townsend, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain have all extolled the virtues of these songs. The fact that ABBA Gold is one of the top 50 selling albums ever, and the continued success of the Mamma Mia film and stage show, illustrate that there is depth and quality in the ABBA cannon.

 

 

And so to the songbook. I’ve collected 26 of the most popular and well-know ABBA songs into one collection. There are a few “deep cuts” thrown in for good measure, but even those are – I think – relatively well known. I’ve tried to strike a balance between making these totally musically accurate and making them playable. The songs are actually quite complex and subtle in places, so I’ve tried to retain a balance between that richness and playability. The other slightly tricky aspect to these songs can be the timing – they’re not averse to throwing in the odd different-timed bar here and there, and that can throw you if you’re not careful. I think the saving grace is that – for a certain audience – these songs are so embedded in our consciousness that you just *know* how they go! Follow that feeling, and you won’t go wrong. But most of all, enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>