Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Plain Sailing – Tracey Thorn

Sometimes the songs I post on here come as a sudden inspiration. Sometimes they come as a result of a lot of hard thinking. And sometimes they come through a somewhat random series of connections. This is one of the latter.

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In a couple of months time I’m going to see Ben Watt play at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I’ve seen Ben a couple of times in recent years, and have really enjoyed both his shows and recent albums. It’s fair to say Ben’s music isn’t exactly edgy or raucous. But in my book it’s grown up music for grown ups, without being being boring, safe or retro.

Anyway, I was talking about this to a friend at Southampton Ukulele Jam, who was also consider going, and the conversation got onto Pillows and Prayers. Pillows and what, I hear you say! Well if you know, you know. And if you don’t, you don’t! Pillows and Prayers was a compilation album released in 1982 by the Cherry Red label as a sampler of acts on its books. Famously priced at 99p, it topped the independent album charts for months, and was became a touchstone in certain independent music circles at the time. For me, it was my introduction to artists such as The Monochrome Set, Felt and The Nightingales, as well a collection of tracks that circled around Everything But The Girl (this was before their first album had even been recorded). Ben Watt had a solo track on there, Everything But The Girl had a track, and so did that other half of both EBTG and Ben Watt), Tracey Thorn. In fact, Tracey had two songs – one with here pre-EBTG band, The Marine Girls. And one solo song. This one.

Plain Sailing was taken from Tracey Thorn’s solo debut album, A Distant Shore. It was a sparse record – just Tracey and her acoustic guitar, seven original songs and one cover (The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale). Apparently recorded for just £138, A Distant Shore was a welcome antidote to the big noise and melodrama that was the sound of the early 80s. This was stripped back, bedsit confessionals, and that was clearly what a section of the public wanted, as it made number one on the UK Indie album charts, and went on to sell 100,000 copies across Europe.

And so to the song sheet. This one is in 6/8 time (or 3/4 – I’m not very good at telling the difference!), and whilst at first glance it might seem to have an esoteric collection of chords (Major 7ths and 6s, mostly), they’re mostly unusual, not difficult. This one’s definitely a strummer (just get that D-DUDU rhythm going) and good to sing. Enjoy!


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Squeeze – Singles 45’s and Under

Squeeze are part of a long line of British observational songwriters/bands, taking their cure in particular from the likes of The Small Faces and The Kinks, with no small debt to The Beatles. Whilst never really making it big in the US, in the late 1970s and early 1980s they were constants in the UK charts, releasing classic single after classic single, the best of which were collected together onto a fabulous compilation album in 1982 called Singles – 45s and Under, released just after the band’s first split. It’s that collection (the UK version) that is contained in this songbook.

<Full Album Songbook>

At it’s heart, Squeeze songs were the product of a long-lasting (if sometimes fractious) songwriting partnership between Chris Difford (lyrics) and Glenn Tilbrook (music). Together with a band that included – for their first few albums – Jools Holland, Squeeze rode on the coat-tails of the late-70s New Wave scene, but were far more in the classic pop mould of their influences. Taking a particularly urban, British perspective, their songs were tightly observed vignettes of the life and characters that were part of their South London roots.

Whilst their first album, 1978’s self-titled debut, spawned a minor hit with Take Me I’m Yours, it was with 1979’s Cool For Cats that the band really broke through, scoring huge hits with the title track and Up The Junction, success that continued in the following year with Argybargy. 1981 brought arguably the bands masterpiece, the Elvis Costello-produced East Side Story, that saw the band’s sound broadening, exemplified by the country stylings of Labelled With Love (released at around the same time as Costello’s equally influenced single Good Year For The Roses). However, subsequent releases proved to be less successful, and increasing tension between Difford and Tilbrook, along with the stresses of touring, saw the band calling it a day in 1982.

This proved to be a temporary hiatus, however, and the band re-formed and extended in 1985, picking up where they left off with a series of albums that performed modestly, with the occasional breakout hit (Hourglass being the biggest). Splitting again in 1999, and then re-forming again in 2007, Squeeze continue as a fully-functioning band to this day, albeit in a somewhat more relaxed manner with the various members finding time for their own solo and side projects.

But for me, it is this collection of songs which really defining Squeeze. This is the ultimate collection of wonderful, witty, intelligent, concise songwriting that all aspiring songwriters should aspire to.

As to the songbook – well, you’ll notice that the songs get musically more sophisticated as they go on, but generally speaking these are *reasonably* straightforward songs that lend themselves well to both the ukulele and communal singing. There are one of two more challenging songs – Tempted, in particular – but nothing that won’t come with a little bit of practice. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>


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See You – Depeche Mode

Another 80s throwback, And another gig-inspired post. Although to be fair, it wasn’t as a result of seeing Basildon’s finest – I’m not expecting them anywhere near Southampton any time soon.

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No, last weekend I went to see Heaven 17 (second time in 6 months). It was a great gig, and maybe one day the Sheffield band that resulted from the fallout of the original The Human League may have their own post here. But the gig was preceded by a couple of DJs playing a great selection of early synthpop. And one of those was this often overlooked early single from Depeche Mode.

See You was actually quite a significant song for the band, marking as it did their first single since the departure of previous main songwriter Vince Clarke (who has had generous coverage on this site already). Clarke was the author of the bands first three singles (Dreaming of Me, New Life, Just Can’t Get Enough) but left the band towards the end of 1981, citing his unhappiness with the bands direction, with playing live and the toll that being a pop star was taking. Clarke went on to form the short-lived but highly influential Yazoo, before finding a long-term home with Andy Bell as Erasure,

So with Clarke gone, the band suddenly found itself needing to find both a new band member, and a new songwriter. Alan Wilder was found to do the former, and the songwriting duties were picked up by keyboard player and backing singer Martin Gore, who had been responsible for the couple of non-Vince Clarke songs on the band’s debut record, Speak and Spell. Any trepidation the band may have been feeling was soon set aside when See You peaked at a higher position in the charts (number 6) than any of the band’s previous songs.

So here we are with another synthpop song translated for the uke. It’s all relatively straightforward, and not a great deal to say on that front. I’ve also transcribed some of the various synth riffs, including the instrumental solo, should you want to embellish the song with those. 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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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!


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Down In The Subway / What! – Soft Cell

R-490877-1235309593.jpegR-116294-1241539463.jpegBy 1984 Soft Cell were imploding in a cocktail of drugs, sex, fame and general debauchery. It had been a steep, messy and rapid decline from the heights they had achieved with the massive success of Tainted Love 3 years earlier. It was an arc that can be traced through the titles of the three albums they released during that period – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, The Art Of Falling Apart, and This Last Night In Sodom.

<What!>  <Down In The Subway>

To the mass consciousness, Soft Cell are Tainted Love, Tainted Love is Soft Cell, and that’s all there is too
it. Clearly things were far more complex than that, and at their heart there was always a tension between their pop sensibilities and their more outré tendancies. But throughout their career, one influence that they kept coming back to was Marc Almonds passion for Northern Soul. Northern Soul was a dance movement that emerged in the north of England in the late 1960s, that focused on black American soul music with a heavy, four-to-the-floor beat and fast tempo, strongly influenced by the sound of Tamla Motown. And the more obscure the record the better.

Tainted Love, Soft Cell’s huge breakthrough hit, was a cover of a a 1964 original by Gloria Jones (and was backed with a cover of the Motown hit Where Did Our Love Go, famoulsy segued together on the 12″ version). And they returned to that format a number of times throughout their career. In 1982 their cover of “What”, originally a 1968 recording by Judy Street, climbed to the top 5. And their final single before their dissolution, 1984s Down In The Subway, was a cover of a 1968 original by Jack Hammer.

So two song sheets for the price of one today. Down In The Subway is a pretty straightforward song – three chords, and a lot of attitude. What! is a little more complex – the rhythm is one that needs a little practice and experimentation to get right. I’ve tried to transcribe the sound as close to the Soft Cell version, including the extended outro. I’ve also included some tab to cover some of the riffs, and the solo section in the middle.

Enjoy!

<What!>  <Down In The Subway>