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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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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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

LetsDanceThere’s nothing else that I could post today other than something by David Bowie.

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Like many this morning, I was shocked by the news of Bowie’s death. I don’t remember being so affected by the death of a public figure. Like a number of comments I’ve seen today, there was an almost unwritten sense that he was immortal, this otherworldly man who seemed different in so many ways to the rest of us.

My first real connection with Bowie was when Ashes to Ashes was released and got to number one, with its strange sounds, strange video and slightly unhinged lyrics. I was just getting into music in a serious way, and here was the real deal – music both strange and beautiful, different to everything else around, and yet also strangely accessible. And so whilst I wouldn’t classify myself as a real Bowie-head, I dug deep into his past and discovered the multifarious catalogue that he had amassed through an amazing, unparalleled run through the seventies and into the eighties. From the amazing acoustic songs of Hunky Dory, the alien rock-god of Ziggy, the white-soul of Young Americans and the electronic sounds of his Berlin albums, Bowie was an artist and pop star unrivaled, skittering across the surface of culture, hoovering up influences, and pushing and defining the zeitgeist. At the time he was a marvel, looking back now it seems almost inconceivable what he achieved in that time. If he slowed down and lost the plot a little in the 80s its no surprise given what came before. And yet his latter day resurgence, with the achingly beautiful Where Are We Now, it’s attendant album (The Next Day) and finally what turned out to be his swansong (Blackstar) saw him pushing boundaries to the end, redefining himself even in death (see the video to his final single, Lazarus).

I’m not going to argue that this song, Let’s Dance, is his artistic peak. It’s not. It was certainly his most commercially successful period, and there were some good – if not great – songs that came from those sessions. But there is certainly a joyous feel to this song that has lasted down the years (that’s another amazing thing about the Bowie back-catalogue – so much of it still feels so contemporary, even 40 years after it was recorded). And the joy that he brought is something that should be celebrated, as much as the strangeness, the challenging, the glam and the new.

And so to the song sheet. It’s a relatively simple song in structure. There’s a few unusual chords in there, but there not tricky, and they give a really nice feel. The tricky bit is the rhythm, to capture that stuttering, syncopated funk sound of the original. I haven’t really had time to practice this properly so can’t give much advice. This cover by M.Ward potentially points to something that might work, but try it and see what you can do with it. Just – please – try and avoid the bog-standard ukulele strumming pattern. You’ll kill it!

Enjoy! (and see also songsheets for “Heroes” and China Girl)

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Never Never – The Assembly

The_Assembly_-_Never_Never_coverVince Clarke was a constant presence throughout the 1980s. After kick-starting the career of Depeche Mode (he left after the first album), and then creating the template for the soulful electronic duo with Yazoo (and Alison Moyet), he struck a rich vein of pop success with Erasure.

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What sometimes gets left out of that story is this little gem. A one-off collaboration with Eric Radcliffe (a recording engineer and producer who worked with the aforementioned Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure), it also marked the first post-Undertones appearance of one Feargal Sharkey. Sharkey would go on to have more success in the 80s, including a number one single with the Maria Mckee-written A Good Heart, before moving to the business side of the music industry. But for both Clarke and Sharkey this would remain a one-off recording (even the b-side was just a Clarke instrumental) that reached number 4 in the charts of late 1983.

And so to the song sheet. There’s nothing too complicated about this, a regular set of chords repeated throughout. I’ve also tabbed the brief intro and the instrumental section, played on synth in the original but they work just fine on synth. Personally I’ve found this works best with a picked pattern rather than strummed, but as ever its up to you. Enjoy!

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China Girl – David Bowie

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Just for those who were wondering(!), when the strap line on the web-site says “uke-ifying my favourite songs”, the classification of “my favourite songs” has been stretched a little. I certainly like all the songs that I’ve posted on here. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I love all the songs I’ve posted. But whether they’re my favourite, favourite songs is a little less certain. If that were the case today I’d be including things like Primitive Painters by Felt, Temptation by New Order, Goodbye Lucile #1 (aka Johnny Johnny) by Prefab Sprout and the like (a bit of an 80s theme there!), although it would probably be a different list tomorrow. But the point is some of those songs don’t really translate that well to the ukulele. Or I’ve struggled to make them work for ukulele. So the songs I’ve posted here are songs that I like and I think work quite well for the humble uke.

This David Bowie post is a case in point. If I was going for my favourite favourties I’d be posting something like Sound and Vision, Young Americans or Wild Is The Wind (or “Heroes”, but I have already done that one!). But those songs don’t really work for me on the uke. This one does, though. China Girl is a single from Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance which, dependent on your viewpoint, is last album of his awesome streak through the 70s and early 80s, or the one where the rot set in. Certainly it was the one where Bowie became outwardly more focussed on a commercial sound and success (and boy did it work!). For me as an album it’s mixed – some great songs, this one included, but a fair bit of filler as well.

China Girl was a joint write between Bowie and Iggy Pop from as far back as 1977, that was recorded by Pop for his Bowie-produced album The Idiot. As you might expect, the Iggy version has a heavier and darker sound. The Bowie cover (on which Iggy sings) benefits – in my mind, at least – from a shinny production (and guitar playing) from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, which brings the song alive and turned it into a huge hit (UK number 2, US top 10). It probably provided Iggy Pop with a very nice and steady royalty stream as well!

So here’s the song sheet. It’s in the same key as the original (so you can play along!), and follows the lyrics  / arrangements of the original. I’ve also included the little intro riff that crops up throughout the song, and is really easy. One observation from when I play it – I think the Em / D / C / B sequence that crops up after the first break (there’s no real verse / chorus structure here) sounds best as a run up the fret board – i.e. Em as 9777, D as 7655, C as 5433 and B as 4322. Enjoy!

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