Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Ellis Island – Mary Black

Sometimes you want a good old thrash. And sometimes you just need something a bit more gentle. This morning is a more gentle time.

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Mary Black first caught my attention back in the early 1990s. I think it was probably via. the “A Woman’s Heart” compilation album, a collection of songs by Irish singers Eleanor McEvoy, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon, Frances Black, and Maura O’Connell that became something of a phenomenon, selling over 750,000 copies, prompting a couple of follow-up albums and introducing a collection of contemporary folk-influenced female singers to a wider audience. I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of the emerald isle, in its many guises, from the rock sounds of U2, The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, through the soulful sounds of Van Morrison, the cathartic waywardness of Sinead O’Connor, the new-age vibe of Clannad, singer-songwriters like Juliet Turner, Duke Special and Luka Bloom, through to the folkier sounds of Sharon Shannon and Cara Dillon. And whilst the “A Woman’s Heart” collections were hardly cutting edge, there is an honesty and soulfulness in these singers and their recordings which I find very appealing.

Mary Black came from a typically Irish musical family (her father a fiddler, her mother a singer, and all her siblings involved in a band – sister Frances even had her own recordings on the Woman’s Heart album.  Black isn’t primarily a songwriter, but does know a good song when she hears it. Noel Brazil was one of her go-to songwriters, the author of some of her best such as Columbus, Vanities, Babes in the Woods, and this one – Ellis Island. Ellis Island is an island in New York (within sight of the Statue of Liberty) that for over sixty years, between 1892 and 1954,was the gateway to the US for 12 million immigrants, handling at its peak 5,000 immigrants a day. 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Obviously the route from Ireland to America is a hugely well-trodden one, inspiring a multitude of books, films and music, and so for an Irish singer like Black this tale of a pair of lovers who are being separated by emigration is a natural one that resonates deeply.

And so to the songsheet. A simple shuffle in the verses, alternating between Fmaj7 and Am7, leads into a chorus that chucks in a few additional chords (nothing tricky, although getting the rhythm right requires a little listening to the original), before dropping into a middle eight, back to the verse and choruses. Lots of gorgeous major7 and minor7 chords makes it obvious – to me at least – why this is such a beautiful song. Enjoy!

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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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Bonny – Prefab Sprout

SteveMcQueenNot only is Steve McQueen one of the albums of the 1980s, I would argue that it is one of the albums of all-time.

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Not that this seems to be a universally held truth. Despite a lot of love for it, it only manages to scrape in at number 434 on the NME list of the best 500 albums ever. And doesn’t appear at all on the equivalent Rolling Stone list. But in this case I can safely say that they are both wrong. Steve McQueen, the second album from Paddy McAloon and his erstwhile band Prefab Sprout, was/is pure genius.

Musically sophisticated  yet still totally accessible, lyrically witty whilst still emotionally resonant, melodies to die for, all given a superb pop sheen by producer Thomas Dolby. Oh, and the angelic backing vocals of Wendy Smith are (more than just) the icing on the cake.

From the opening meta-country of “Faron Young” (a country-tinged song taking “Four In The Morning” as its emotional reference point ) the standard is set. Side One then ploughs a furrow that, to my mind, is not excelled anywhere in pop music – Bonny, Appetite, When Love Breaks Down (released at least three times, and still only charting at #25!), Goodbye Lucille #1 (otherwise known as Johnny Johnny), Hallelujah (*not* the Leonard Cohen song!). And if Side Two is somehow less than the first, it is only because of the insanely high standards that have already been set – Moving The River, Horsin’ Around, Desire As, Blueberry Pies, When The Angels. Pure pop perfection in one single package.

Nobody could keep up that standard forever, but McAloon and Co. certainly didn’t let that stop them trying. Official follow-up From Langley Park To Memphis, the sprawling, ambitious, vaguely conceptual (Love, God, Elvis, Death!) Jordan: The Comeback, the more low-key Andromeda Heights, and the surprise solo (but still using the Prefab moniker) Crimson/Red all flew the flag for perfect, sophisticated pop (and McQueen’s predecessor, the slightly prickly Swoon, would be up there too). Yet Steve McQueen acts as a high water mark for just how perfect perfect pop can be.

So here is Bonny, a lyrically ambiguous tome (is it about a girl that’s left him, or a man that’s died) that is a perfect representation of the Steve McQueen sound. It was later covered very successfully in a more reflective, slowed down version by Editors (who – coincidence or not – were on the same record label – Newcastle-based Kitchenware – as the Prefab’s, at the time a veritable feast of goodness with stablemates including Hurrah!, Kane Gang and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees).

So can we do justice to this marvellous song on the ukulele? Probably not, but that won’t stop me or you trying. So here’s the songsheet. If it looks a little busy, don’t worry. Listen to the song, particularly the intro, to get the strumming pattern going which you can keeping going throughout the song. Some of the transition chords are very brief (e.g. the Asus4 at the beginning of the chorus lines, the A’s at the end of those lines, and all the Bm7’s) and could be skipped if you struggle with timing. But they do add to the colouring of the song. If in doubt at any time, just resort to that gorgeous major 7 chord! Enjoy!

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Life In A Northern Town – Dream Academy

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Occassionally I look through the stats for this site, just to see what people are looking at (if you’re interested currently Baker Street is the top downloaded songsheet, followed by How Long Will I Love You). It also shows some of the search terms that people have used that find their way to this site. Earlier this week I noticed that one of those was “life in a northern town ukulele tabs” – it had taken the searcher to the page for Julian Cope’s Head Hang Low, which contained a reference to said song due to the contribution of one-time Ravishing Beauty and Dream Academy member Kate St. John. And I thought – well, why not? Let’s give it a go. And here it is!

Life In A Northern Town was a 1985 hit (and really their only hit of any substance) for The Dream Academy. Their polished, sophisticated pop sound was akin to a number of other bands around at the time, including Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and Everything But The Girl. This particular song was apparently intended as a tribute to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a deeply melancholic artist who recorded a number of rich and intensely personal albums in the early 1970s, but who never achieved any kind of significant success in his lifetime, and who died of an anti-depressant overdose at the age of 26. Since then his star has been in ascendence and he is now rightly reverred for his work.

I remember buying the 12″ single version of this when it came out (I think it was probably from Henry’s Records in Southampton), and it has always been a favourite song of mine. The contrast of the windswept (yes, you can here it) downbeat and nostalgic verses with the upbeat, almost African / tribal chorus was a winner for me, and it was one of those songs you could play again and again and never tire of. If you get a chance to check out the couple of additional tracks on that 12″ (Test Tape No. 3 and Poised On The Edge Of Forever) which are just gorgeous.

And so to the songsheet. This took a bit of working on, and even now I’m not convinced it totally does the job. But it’s good enough. First thing you’ll see is that there are a lot of chords, including some slightly unusual ones. No apologies for that, because I think they help contribute to making the song what it is. This is quite a subtle song, and those subtle chord variations are key to the making the song work. However, it’s not as bad as it looks – essentially the song is the chord sequence shown in the intro repeated, with a few subtle variations.  And if you struggle with the Aadd4 chord, just play Asus4 instead – that still works. Also I should give some thanks to Tony Canova, the creator of this video, from which I stole a few ideas. Nice version, Tony! Enjoy!

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Duel – Propaganda

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It’s the mid-80s, and the phenomenon that is Frankie Goes To Hollywood is everywhere. This isn’t a time for subtlety – Frankie reflect the times and are big, loud and brash. Relax, Two Tribes, even the ballad The Power Of Love are not exactly wallflowers. Thanks to Trevor Horn’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink production these songs are huge, in-your-face efforts that are reinvented each week with a new re-mix and new pseudo-intellectual posturingfrom Paul Morely. This isn’t necessarily bad – I like these records, Two Tribes in particular is wonderful, and the whole Frankie thing certainlty made for colourful times.

The label that Frankie emerged on, ZTT, was the brainchild of Morley, Horn and Jill Sinclair, and was hugely distinctive in both its music (Horn’s production fingers were all over it) and in the way it presented the music. Amongst the roster of other artist on the label at the time was the German synthpop group Propaganda. In it’s original incarnation the band only managed a single album, 1985’s A Secret Wish. But what an album that was. More musically capable and coherent than Frankie Goes To Hollywood, this was definitely a ZTT record, but had much more of an experimental European sound to it.

Duel was a single from that album, and gave the band their only Top Of The Pop performance. It was by far their most poppy effort, although alternative version Jewel is a far a more aggressive, industrial style take on the same song, at times unrecognisable compared to the original (there is also a remix version which combines the two).

Ultimately Propaganda suffered from the huge success of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which diverted effort and resources away from promoting them, and so seem to languish in the twilight world of 80s almost-made-its. That is a shame, because for a short time at least Propoganda had something original and exciting to offer.

And this on ukulele? Well why not! As I said earlier, this is probably Propaganda at their most popy and tuneful, so it really is a good sing-a-long. The song comes with quite a few chords, one or two not too common, but nothing too tricky. Probably best to forget that huge Trevor Horn production and trim it back to the basics of the tune, and there you’ll find something very lovely. Enjoy!

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