Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Queen – Songbook

One thing that constantly surprises me is how different young people’s attitude to music is now, compared to how it was when I was younger (we’re talking late 70s/early 80s here). In my day (!) it was all about the latest thing – what was new, what was “in”, was what mattered. And music that was even 3 or 4 years old was considered ancient, passe, past it. Anything that was more than 10 years old we wouldn’t have given the time of day.

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I contrast that attitude with what I see from young people now, and whilst new music is still important, it’s mixed into a melting pot of music from across the generations. That is, I’m sure, something driven by an internet and streaming environment where (almost) every music ever made is available in a few clicks. Overall I think that’s a good thing, although it can make it challenging for new bands and artists to break through, and for them to have the long-lasting presence and careers that artists of old might have had.

I mentioned all this in the context of this post because the subject of this post – Queen – is one band that I’m particularly conscious has been embraced in this way. That is in no small part due to the success of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that seems to have become something of a phenomenon, despite – or maybe because of – a decidedly mixed critical reception. But the rehabilitation of Queen goes back much further than that, probably to the Live Aid appearance that plays such a pivotal role in the film. Not to mention *that* scene in Wayne’s World – something that even got a sly reference in Bohemian Rhapsody. Whatever you think of their music, it has become timeless, a part of our culture, and something that feels like it’s going to be around for a long time to come.

A Queen evening has been something that has been both discussed and requested for a while for our run of ukulele album/themed nights. And to be honest it’s something I’ve put off. Not because I don’t like the songs (although I wouldn’t really call myself a fan, and my awareness really starts and ends with the singles). But because I wasn’t sure that we could do the songs justice. A few passing glances at the songs led me to think that we would really struggle to find enough songs that were half-way playable. But recently I thought I’d have another look, and give it a bit more effort, and … here  we are.

It is fair to say that the selection of songs here was – to a certain extent – pre-determined. There are a whole bunch of other songs that I’d include if playability weren’t such an issue (Now I’m Here and Somebody To Love being a couple of examples). But what has fallen out has been what I think is a good cross-section of songs that – totally coincidentally (I certainly didn’t plan it!) – cover the full range of the band’s career, touch every album apart from their first and last. Now I’m not going to pretend that all of these are straightforward – Queen songs have a habit of going off in odd keys (that make transposing into “easier” keys pointless), and having various timing issues. So some of these do take a bit of attention and working at. But I do think they work, something that I’m going to be putting to the test when we will be listening to and playing most of these at a Queen evening in December (click on the poster below for more details)!

Anyway, here is the Queen songbook, which includes the following songs:

  • Another One Bites The Dust
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Crazy Little Thing Called Love
  • Don’t Stop Me Now
  • Flash
  • Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
  • I Want It All
  • I Want To Break Free
  • Killer Queen
  • A Kind Of Magic
  • Radio Ga Ga
  • Seven Seas Of Rhye
  • These Are The Days Of Our Lives
  • Under Pressure
  • We Are The Champions
  • We Will Rock You
  • You’re My Best Friend

I’ve tried to strike a balance between being faithful to the originals, and keeping them relatively playable. So there are some simplifications, and I’ve also included some “optional” chords which can be skipped with minimal impact. I *had* to include Bohemian Rhapsody, and that (particularly the middle section) I’m still not sure about – but hey, even Queen didn’t play that bit live, so don’t feel too bad about struggling with that. And Flash was a bit of fun – I really don’t know if that would work at all! But all in all, I think this is a playable selection of well-loved songs that will be a bit challenging but will add something different to your ukulele repertoire. Enjoy!

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Grass – XTC

XTC have always been one of those bands that I kind of thought I should get, but never really did. Yes, I loved those late 70s / early 80s hits like Sgt Rock, Senses Working Overtime, and Making Plans For Nigel (more of which later). But I never really got beyond that.

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So I decided to put that right recently. But where to start? After  bit of dithering I ended up plumping for a copy of 1986’s Skylarking, prompted in part by having recently heard one of the albums track, That’s Really Super, Supergirl, on the radio. An album that was strongly rated, critically acclaimed, but of which I knew almost nothing.

So how did it go, I hear you ask? Well, if I’m honest, first listen I was little unsure, a little non-plussed. A few songs sounded good first time, but much of it felt indistinct and uncertain. But I got the sense that this might be one of those albums you need to work at a little to really extract its riches. And so it proved to be. A few weeks later and the subtle riches of the album are beginning to worm their way into my head and heart.

For those who don’t know it, Skylarking has a more pastoral, quintessentially English sound than you might have expected if all you’ve heard is the new wave / post-punk sounds of those early hits. Produced by Todd Rundgren, it is loosely themed around various cycles in life and nature, and as a result really hangs together as a whole piece.

Grass, a song written and sung by Colin Moulding, was the lead single from the album (the flip-side, Dear God, was later to become the most well-known song from this set, a minor hit in the US), and exemplifies the mood and feel of the whole album. A song that looks back in almost bucolic terms to romantic fumbles in the summer grass, with more than a hint to doing so under the influence of that other grass (marijuana), the song captures a time and space so perfectly that for three minutes you feel yourself right there.

So here’s the song sheet. The song is actually quite a simple one, both in terms of structure and chords, and feels like it demands to be sung under a late summer evening sky, basking in the the great outdoors. I’ve included two versions, one in D and one if F, both a little easier to play than the original in E (play the first version with capo 2 if you want to play/sing along to the original. Enjoy!


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Bizarre Love Triangle – New Order

bizarreWe’ve already had a smattering of New Order on the site (see in the shape of both sides of the True Faith single), but nothing for a while, so when this little ditty popped up recently it seemed worth giving it a try. And what do you know, it works!

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Bizarre Love Triangle is New Order at their prime. The full length 12″ version is – in my books – just a perfect record, something that was amplified when I saw Peter Hook’s The Light perform it recently as part of a stunning concert where they performed both the Low-Life and Brotherhood albums in their entirety. Even cut down to the standard single version it is an amazing piece of music. And to prove it’s not just the recording that is strong, but there is a quality song at the heart of it, an acoustic version by Frente! (apparently a moderate hit in the US in the 1990s) gave a new perspective on the song.

A quick YouTube search reveals quite a few ukulele-based covers of the song. So it does work. You can either do it as a gentle finger-picked version (a la the Frente! cover) or give it a bit of wellie and go for the feel of the original (although be warned – try it too fast and you’ll run out of breath quite quickly!). It’s a simple, repeated chord sequence all the way through, and whilst the Fmaj7 may not be totally in line with the original I personally think it gives the song some additional colour. Enjoy!

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Happy Hour – The Housemartins

HappyHourThese days The Housemartins seem to be considered more as the prelude and launch pad for the careers of Paul Heaton (via. The Beautiful South) and Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim).

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But when they emerged in the mid-1980s, the self-styled “fourth best band in Hull” were a breath of fresh-air. Not exactly original in their music (their is undoubtedly a debt to the likes of The Smiths, Aztec Camera and the contemporary “jangle” indie pop sound) they nevertheless delivered a sound and an attitude that cut through some of the po-faced posturing of the time (they also had a love of acapella singing, something that often came out on b-sides). And whilst they were certainly very politically aware, something that would often spill into their songs, they were also no afraid to send themselves up.

Happy Hour was their breakthrough single. As was fairly typical of the band, the bouncy sound of the song was something of a contrast to the lyrical content of the song, which addressed the hypocrisy and sexism of young British males, particularly what was perceived to be the office culture of the time. The song peaked high in the charts (number 3), only bettered for them by their Christmas-time accapella version of Caravan Of Love.

So here’s the songsheet. I’ve kept this in the same key as the original. Whilst that means its not the most straightforward chords, I don’t think there is anything too tricky in here that justifies transposing it. Essentially it’s the same chord sequence all the way through – make sure you give it a bouncy, choppy rhythm all the way through.

Enjoy!

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Understanding Jane – The Icicle Works

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The Icicle Works emerged from the early 1980s Liverpool music scene that produced bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Wah!, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, China Crisis and many others. It was a hugely vibrant time for the city musically, it’s first significant resurgence since the days of 1960s mersybeat. This time round, however,  there was more of an “alternative” feel to the music, born of the spirit of punk, post-punk, new wave and all that followed it.

Fronted by Ian McNabb, the band had a couple of small hits with Love Is A Wonderful Colour and Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream) but never really achieved the kind of success and profiles of some of their contemporaries. Fusing the neo-psychedelic sound of the Bunnymen, a love of big rock statements, with a melodic pop sensibility, Icicle Works should have had far more success than they did, but were maybe too adventurous and too diverse for their own good (neither of which would be a problem in *my* book!).

Understanding Jane was a single taken from the band’s third album, If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song. It bears all the hallmarks of a great Icicle Works (and particularly of a solo Ian McNabb) song – a relentlessly driving rhythm, wall-of-sound guitars, quite simple structure, but most importantly a huge, heart-on-the-sleeve chorus.

So here’s the song sheet. As I said, it’s a relatively simple song with straightforward chords. The songsheet has the song in two keys – C as per the original, and D which I personally find it easier to sing in. Obviously you can do what you want with it. I’ve found the song sounds great as the full on rocker that the original is (especially when played through my new mini-amp!), but also works really well slowed down as an almost country-ish ballard. Have a play round with it, give it a try. But most of all enjoy!

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Venus – Bananarama / Shocking Blue

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There hasn’t been enough Dutch bubblegum-inspired 80s disco on this site of late, so here’s one to break that drought.

Venus was a song written by Robbie van Leeuwen, guitarist, sitarist and lead song-writer with the 60s/70s Dutch band Shocking Blue (another song of van Leeuwen / Shocking Blue, Love Buzz, was later covered by Nirvana on their Bleach album). The song was a huge global hit around 1970, reaching number 1 in 5 countries including the USA – the first dutch song to do so. Their are claims that the song was more-than-a-little inspired by “The Banjo Song” from US folk-group The Big 3, which included a pre-Mamas and Papas Cass Elliot. That is something that has never been pursued by The Big 3, but you can judged for yourself by taking a listen here. There’s certainly more than a little similarity!

Despite the huge success of the original version of the song, it now seems more associated in most people’s minds with the Bananarama cover version from 1986. Venus was their first collaboration with the Stock, Aitken and Waterman team, and it’s huge world-wide success (number one in eight countries, including the US) led to a long and fruitful relationship between the band and the production team.

And so here’s the song sheet. It’s a simple song, based around a recurring chord sequence. For opening little flourish (the B7sus4) listen to the intro to the Bananarama version to get the rhythm. I’ve also thrown in the little riff that fills the gap between the verse and the chorus – the riff itself is quite straightforward, although fitting it in and keeping going is sometimes a little tricky. Enjoy!

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The Jesus And Mary Chain – Just Like Honey / Some Candy Talking / April Skies

aprilskiessomecandytalkingjustlikehoney <Just Like Honey>  <Some Candy Talking>  <April Skies>

Three for the price of one today! East Kilbride’s finest exploded onto a music scene that was in need of a rock band with attitude, with an element of danger and controversy.  Early gigs were short and often descended into violence and mayhem, whilst the songs were drenched in feedback and distortion. But here’s the thing – when you strip the songs back, when you take out all that noise, all that fuzz, that distortion, at their heart these are really great, really simple songs.

Listen hard, and alongside the more obvious Velvet Underground influences, there’s a stack of classic 60s references all the way through – Beach Boys (check out the chorus of Cherry Came Too), Shangri-Las, and the classics of Phil Spector (Ronettes, etc.). If the proof of a good song is that it works just as well with just an acoustic guitar, even our beloved four-string uke, then these are certainly good songs. My first exposure to Jesus and Mary Chain was via. the Some Candy Talking EP, which contained a whole bonus 7″ with acoustic versions, and I loved those almost as much as the effect-laden originals.

So here are three songs from the bands first flush of success in the mid-1980s that fulfil the promise of great songs.

Just Like Honey was the lead track (and later a single) from the bands debut album, Psychocandy. It’s a sweet confection that is atypical of that noise-drenched album, but is a gorgeous song that achieved later prominence through its inclusion in the wonderful Sofia Coppola film Lost In Translation.

Some Candy Talking was a single released between the first two albums, and was their first real hit. As I said previously this was my first real exposure to the band and has remained a favourite to this day.

April Skies was the lead single from the bands second album (and my personal favourite) Darklands. The feedback had largely been jetisoned highlighting a collection of melodic songs that made JAMC stand out from their contemporaries.

So here are the song sheets for each of these songs. Simple structure, simple chords, there’s not much really to say expect have a go. I’ve had a go at transcribing the guitar solos on each of these which you might want to have a go at as well. I can’t vouch for their total accuracy, partly as all the distortion makes it hard to actually work out what is being played. If they don’t work for you, just adapt them. Enjoy!

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(n.b. Just Like Honey and Some Candy Talking are in the same key as the originals, April Skies has been transposed a little just to make it a bit easier – for me! – to sing and play)

And just to prove that these songs work on the uke, take a listen to this lovely version of Just Like Honey.