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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