Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Synthpop and New Romantics

Anybody who has had more than a cursory glance over the pages of this blog will realise that, though strictly speaking a child of the 1970s, my formative musical years were the early 80s. I’ve written elsewhere about how that was such a fertile time musically, about how there was just so much variety, and so much exciting new stuff both in the charts and in more obscure corners. And so it should come as no surprise that this songbook has finally found its way out there.

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A couple of musical threads which overlapped during that period were the rise of electronic music, particularly the more commercial brand that came to be referred to as synthpop, and the New Romantic movement. The latter grew initially out of the legendary Blitz club in London and, whilst borrowing from the anybody-can-do-it mindset that punk had unleashed a few years earlier, was in many ways a reaction to the often dour and black-and-white world that it had created. New Romantics were characterised by flamboyant, extravagant costumes and make-up, adopted a far more hedonistic lifestyle, and their music was all colour and drama. Whilst a relatively short-lived phenomenon, it gave a platform for a series of colourful characters (Boy George, Steve Strange, Marilyn), provided an lightning rod and incubator for a number of subsequently hugely successful bands (Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet) and lent its sheen to a number of other artists who were on its periphery (not least of which was Adam Ant, who re-imagined himself in increasingly more glamorous and eccentric forms).

At the same time, the availability of cheaper electronic instruments created its own revolution, often inspired by true trailblazers such as Kraftwerk. The Human League were early out of the blocks, but initially had their thunder stolen by the upstart Gary Numan. But by 1980/81, you couldn’t move for electonic bands who were attempting to bring the left-field, subversive sounds that electronic music had originally rallied around into the charts. Bands like Depeche Mode, OMD, Soft Cell, Eurythmics, Yazoo, Tears for Fears, and many others rode on that wave. Often derided at the time, in a similar way to the way punk had been, for being talentless, one-finger keyboard operators, these artists often smuggled cutting edge contemporary themes into their songs and presentation.

On the surface, these songs and this genre are a thousand miles away from the world of ukulele. The sheer glamour of the New Romantics is not something that ukulele are renowned for. And the artificial, electronic sounds are not exactly what you associate ukulele with. But as has been proved in previous posts, and in a variety of ukulele groups around the country, these songs can actually translate quite well. Part of that comes down to the relatively straightforward nature of the songs, and the fact that – despite their origins – these are often classic, singalong songs. So I present you 30 songs that – to my mind, at least – are all classics of their kind, and translate really well to the humble ukulele. Give them a try, and enjoy!

Here is the songbook with all the songs in one place <songbook>

And here is the song list, with links to each of the individual song sheets:


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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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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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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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Whistle Down The Wind – Nick Heyward

WhistleDownTheWindNick Heyward is one of those classic instances of a songwriter who the public won’t let grow up.

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First shooting to prominence in the early 1980s with his band Haircut 100, Heyward took some of the hip sounds of the time (the jangly guitars of Orange Juice, the white-boy funk that was everywhere at the time), added a melodic pop sensibility, and cleaned up with some classic singles (Favourite Shirts, Love Plus One, Fantastic Day, Nobody’s Fool). The band didn’t last long though, and only recorded one album together (Pelican West). Heyward subsequently launched a solo career, kicking off with this classic pop song, a song that had originally been slated as a Haircut 100 single. Whilst his first album, North of  a Miracle, did quite well, Heyward soon fell off the pop radar (something probably not helped by having acquired a devoted but fickle young female fan base with Haircut 100). Albums struggled to be heard, and have been sporadic over the years. His last was in 2006, but it looks like there may be new material later this year. However don’t take that as any signifier of a lack of quality. Heyward is a dedicated and focussed songwriter, working in a classic british pop vein, and his lack of success or visibility says more about the fickle state of pop than it does about his talents.

Whistle Down The Wind takes its title from a 1961 British film that starred Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee and Alan Bates in a touching story of three young children finding a fugitive in a barn, mistaking him for Jesus Christ, unbeknown that he is wanted on suspicion of murder. The song only tangentially touches on these themes, and is a slightly more mellow sound than the Haircut 100 sounds that preceded it. I’ve only recently discovered the album this is from, North of  a Miracle, but it is a superb collection of classic pop sounds that is vastly underrated.

So here is the songsheet. Nothing too complicated, although a few unusual chords are thrown in there. But they do give the song its colour. Enjoy!

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