Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness – John Prine / Nanci Griffith

John Prine is songwriters songwriter. Somebody who amassed a substantial body of work that influenced a raft of far more commercially successful songwriters from across the musical spectrum, but particularly those operating in a country and folk vein.

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I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Prine. Nor necessarily a fan. I’ve come to him more via. those he has influenced, including contemporary singers such as Jason Isbell, Kasey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, as well as those legends that revere him such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. But Nanci Griffith would have been my initial introduction to him, via. her cover of this beautiful song on her 1993 covers album, Other Voices, Other Rooms. On that album Griffith, already established as a respected country folk (too country for folk, too folk for country) songwriter and performer, recorded a collection of songs by her favourite songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, and Tom Paxton. And this gem by John Prine.

Described by critic David Fricke as “a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall way clock”, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness become an instant classic, something acknowledged by Prine when he later reflected “Jesus, that’s beautiful. I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was just pouring out of me”. Griffith had already performed the song as a duet with Prine, and so it made a lot of sense to record it for this project, particularly when joined by Prine on harmony vocals for the recording.

I was reminded of this song, and Griffiths recording of it, by a cover version by Kurt Vile on his recently released EP “Speed, Sound, Lonely KV”. Proof, if proof were needed, that a classic song is timeless.

Like many a classic song from this genre, this is a very straightforward song that shouldn’t prove too taxing. 3 chords (or 4 if you include the optional 7ths, which aren’t strictly part of the song but do add something), I’ve included two version – one in G as per Prine’s original, and one in C as per Griffith’s cover. Enjoy!

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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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