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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I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty

A number of the songs I’ve posted on this blog have been gig-inspired, and here’s another, although as with some of those previous songs this one clearly wasn’t as a result of seeing the original.

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Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Larmer Tree Festival in deepest Wiltshire, in what has now become a somewhat regular event playing with Southampton Ukulele Jam. A great weekend was had by all (here’s a clip of us performing). Part of the line-up for the festival included a set from KT Tunstall, to be honest not somebody I’m mad about, but somebody who I had enough interest in to give her a try. To be honest I left with the same opinion I arrived with with, BUT she did do a cover of this song, and I thought “that would make a good uke song”. And so here it is.

I Won’t Back Down was in fact Tom Petty’s first solo release, being as it was the lead single from his first solo album Full Moon Fever. Obviously Tom had recording and putting out records with his band The Heartbreakers since 1976, but following a spell with The Travelling Wilburys (alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison) he decided to temporarily put The Heartbreakers aside and record what was to become the most successful album of his career. Produced by Lynne, and with contributions from Harrison and Orbison (before his death), Full Moon Fever is chock full of great songs, including Free Fallin’, Runnin’ Down A Dream, and this.

A co-write with Jeff Lynne, I Won’t Back Down has become something of a classic. It’s universal and ambiguous message of defiance in the face of adversity has led to it being picked up and used in many public situations, not all of which Petty was happy with (its use by George Bush in his 2000 presidential campaign led to a cease and desist letter from Petty’s publisher). A later cover by Johnny Cash for his “American III: Solitary Man” album (on which Petty sang and played guitar) lent the song even more gravitas and helped cement it’s status.

So here we have the song sheet. It’s only four chords, and nothing tricksy in there at all (C, D, Em, G). The only slightly challenging parts are the passing chords in the chorus, and getting the timing for those. You’ll need to listen to the original to get a feel for how they work (maybe I’ll get around to recording what I think they sound like at some point), but if in doubt you can just skip the G chords in the chorus, and everything will be fine. Enjoy!


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Innocence – Kirsty MacColl

If judged solely by commercial success, Kirsty MacColl doesn’t rank highly in the pantheon of singers or songwriters. But fortunately that isn’t the only way to measure these things, and when rated by the quality of her work, and the love felt for her and her songs, then Kirsty is right up there.

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Clearly she had something of a head start, being the daughter of the esteemed folk singer Ewan MacColl, who wrote “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But after being spotted singing backing vocals in a punk band by Stiff Records, she was signed and released her first single in 1979, They Don’t Know. From that point on it’s fair to say that her success was patchy. Whilst she scored a hit with an early single (There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis), and her appearance on the Christmas perennial Fairy Tale Of New York with The Pogues, her own songs seemed to struggle, although there was some success in the early 80s when comedienne Tracey Ullman had a hit with They Don’t know during her brief pop career. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the acclaim that she received as a songwriter, her biggest successes seemed to come with other people’s songs (Billy Bragg’s A New England, Ray Davies’ Days, and The Pogues).

MacColl released a number of albums over the years, somewhat sporadically, but every one was chock full of quality songs. 1989’s Kite probably came closest to being a big success, and its from that album that Innocence is taken. With a jangle guitar reminiscent of The Smiths (ironic in that whilst Johnny Marr was a big contributor to the album – both playing and writing – this is one song he *didn’t* play on), Innocence is classic Kirsty – sharp lyrics, melodic, gorgeous harmonies, perfectly packaged pop. The video (below) is also great fun, well worth a watch, including a cameo from Ed Tudor-Pole.

And here is the song sheet. It’s a fairly faithful translation, in the same key as the original. Nothing tricksy chord wise, or rhythmically for that matter. There are quite a lot of words to fit in, but they’re good ones, so worth pursuing.

Enjoy!


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Rockin’ In The Free World – Neil Young

One of my favourite songwriters, Martyn Joseph, often comments how when you release a song you have to set it free, because at that point the songwriter has to hand over control as to exactly what that song is an means.

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Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World is a good example of that. Written and released at the end of the 1980s, it was a response to the early days of the George W Bush administration, and a comment on the social ills of contemporary America. And yet in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and communism across eastern Europe imploded, the song took on a life of its own as an anthem for the collapse of communism. Ironic, given that the song was actually a criticism of the failing state of the USA, communism’s greatest nemesis.

Released on Young’s album Freedom, marking something of a return-to-form after a patchy 1980s, Rockin’ In The Free World book ended that album in two forms – a live acoustic version, and a cranked up studio electric version. Young famously reprised the song a few years later at the MTV Awards in a collaboration with Pearl Jam that ended up in a destructive, guitar-fuelled freak-out.

So here’s the song sheet. I’ve used the acoustic version as a basis, principally because its lower and I find it easier to sing. But I’ve also included the third verse of the song, which was only used in the electric version. Chords are pretty straight-forward, rhythm is pretty simply. This isn’t a subtle song, its one to belt out at the top of your voice. Enjoy!