Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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1979

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In his book “1971 – Never A Dull Moment”, the music journalist and writer David Hepworth makes the case for that year being “the most febrile and creative time in the entire history of popular music”, rock music’s Annus Mirabilis. And whilst he may very well have a point (any year that included the release of Tapestry, Led Zepplin IV, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Blue, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and Hunky Dory has to have something going for it), I’m here to make the argument that – even as founder of Q magazine and Smash Hits, writer for the NME and Sounds, presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and anchor for Live Aid – he may very well have got this one wrong. For I’m here to make the incontrovertible claim that this accolade actually belongs to the other end of that turbulent decade. Yes, it is 1979, for sure, that must go down as the most satisfyingly disparate smorgasbord of rock and pop, the richest collision of sounds and influences, the time when anything was possible, when the rule book was well and truly trashed, when the foundations of whole future genres were being laid.

Now I’m going to lay all my cards on the table here upfront. In 1979 I was 14, and it is widely recognised that is an age where music has the biggest impact on your life. In fact, in a recent pseudo-scientific study carried out by the New York Times using Spotify listening habits, it concluded that the peak influence on listening habits is between the ages of 13 and 16, with men’s favourite song being released – on average – when they are 14 (for women it is 13). So clearly I’m less than objective on this one. But this is my party, and I’m not going to let any scientific evidence get in the way of a good story.

Admittedly in the outside world the claims for 1979 being a classic year feel somewhat wide of the mark. You’d think that a year that started with the country slowly grinding to an ignominious halt as the Winter of Discontent stretched on and on, rubbish stacking up on every street corner, bodies going unburied, with continued comparisons of the UK to third-world nations, could only get better. Yet the fall-out from those events saw one of the most divisive prime-ministers of all time enter Downing Street, somewhat ironically quoting the unifying words St Francis of Assisi, sending prices and unemployment spiralling, making changes to the country that it is still reeling from 40 years later. Alongside the continuing Irish “troubles”, the tension was palpable, the country was perched on a knife-edge. And yet maybe it was just this kind of background that provided the catalyst for what was to come in musical terms.

It’s probably true that the foundations were being laid throughout the years that preceded it. Disco had emerged from the underground gay clubs of New York in the early 1970s to become a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon by the end of the decade. The pub rock scene of the mid-1970s had collided with an art-school mind-set; been ignited by a huge sense of dissatisfaction with the escapist, irrelevant sounds of prog, soft rock and pop-pap; mixed in a healthy dose of boredom and disillusionment with a world of bleak inner cities, zero prospects, and the continued threat of nuclear annihilation; and in parallel with a nascent scene out of New York, had spawned the lightning bolt that was punk. Initial avant-garde experimentation with electronic sound creation had been channelled across Europe into more accessible forms by bands such as Kraftwerk, and was starting to bleed into the mainstream, thanks in no small parts to the attentions of that chameleon scene-setter, David Bowie. And the influx of migrants from Jamaica, the so-called Windrush generation, had brought with it the mutant rhythm and blues that had evolved into ska, reggae and rocksteady, sounds that were at once both exotic and familiar. Even that stalwart of unchangeability, hard rock, was being inspired by the energy and aggression of punk to evolve, including the tougher, leaner New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.

Out of this melting pot of influences emerged the shining beacon of popular music that was 1979. Admittedly it started somewhat inauspiciously. The number 1 single in the UK at the beginning of the year? Yes, that was YMCA by The Village People. Beloved of office parties and wedding discos ever since, it wasn’t exactly a beacon of quality, credibility and originality. The best-selling album during January? Well that will be Showaddywaddy’s Greatest Hits, re-hashed, watered down and popped-up rock and roll nostalgia. So does the case breakdown before it’s even had a chance to be heard? Certainly not.

Look behind the headlines, and you’ll see the signs were there. January saw the release of two albums of classic (what was to become) new wave singer-songwriters – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (which would spawn Oliver’s Army amongst others) and Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! (likewise giving us Is She Really Going Out With Him?). Taking the energy, rawness and urgency of punk, but marrying it to more complex song structures, more literate and varied lyrical themes, and more diverse and original musical arrangements, these artists were there to move punk in new directions, to stretch it, grow it, evolve it and take it to new places. Clearly children of the punk ethos, they weren’t constrained by what had become for some a formulaic, rule-bound approach that was the antithesis of the spirit of punk.

Others were continuing a similar journey. Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Jam and The Clash were all maturing their sounds – still driven by that original punk spirit, but marrying it to classic pop formats, sixties mod stylings, and classic rock themes. And from across the Atlantic one of the seminal punk-inspired pop/new wave bands, Blondie, horrified many by “going disco” with Heart of Glass. Yet it was this transforming spirit, this desire to meld disparate sounds and not to be constrained by the ghetto that many felt punk had become, that sparked new directions, new sounds and new careers.

Bands were also emerging under the banner of what would – only retrospectively – come to be described as post-punk; bands who stretched things even further. Definitely inspired by the spirit of punk, if not so obviously by its sounds, the likes of XTC and The Cure in the UK, and Talking Heads in the US, were pushing the boundaries. Angular, spiky, abrasive music that was born of a singular vision, this explosion of imagination was to take music in myriad directions – Talking Heads marrying their art-rock abstractness to African-inspired polyrhythmic sounds, The Cure almost inventing a new genre (Goth) alongside the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus (who’s awesome debut single, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, was like nothing anybody had ever heard in 1979). And then there was Joy Division. Inspired by a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, the band’s classic debut, Unknown Pleasures, was the archetypal post-punk record, inspiring generations to come, and the source of continuing t-shirt sales with *that* cover!

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as some are want to characterise those bands. Disco was in its heyday, and was everywhere. In fact it’s sheer ever-present-ness, and maybe also it’s ever-so-blatantly in-your-face non-macho-ness, led rise to the “Disco Sucks” movement in the US, a backlash that saw disco records being ceremoniously blown-up at a baseball game. Yet 1979 saw more classic disco songs that have outlived all their critics and continue to flourish on dance-floors across the world. Lost In Music, Good Times, Boogie Wonderland, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, I Will Survive, Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. Disco may not get the critical plaudits that white rock bands get, yet it changed the musical landscape forever, and most importantly has brought – and continues to bring – untold joy to millions.

In a very different way, the desire to dance was at the heart of another musical break-out during 1979. Marrying the energy and spirit of punk with infectious rhythms inspired by Jamaican ska music, the Two-Tone movement combined this with a sharp look and an up-front, in-yer-face multiculturalism and political awareness that was born of the inner-city. The Specials, Madness, The Beat, Selecter and others emerged in the year as flag-bearers for this new sound which was embraced in particular by the young across the country.

1979 was also the year that electronic music went over-ground. Inspired by the mid-70s albums of German band Kraftwerk, and the relative affordability of the basic instruments, a number of bands were experimenting with all-electronic formats. The early Human League were the critics darlings in this respect, and so when Gary Numan beat them to it and scored two number ones, firstly with his band Tubeway Army, and then solo, he was seen as something of a pretender, an upstart who wasn’t deserving of the privilege. Yet history and career longevity has shown Numan as a genuine innovator and talent. But those electronic sounds were bursting out all over during 1979, from OMD’s debut, Electricity, to the revitalised US mavericks Sparks, whose collaboration with legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder gave them with multiple hits. Even the Trevor Horn-led geek-band The Buggles were able to have a huge hit with the iconic Video Killed The Radio Star.

It wasn’t all just about the new kids on the block, though. Many established bands were at a commercial peak during 1979. A re-launched Roxy Music returned with Manifesto, a somewhat smoother version of their original sound, but one which was a clear continuation of their journey. Fleetwood Mac followed the enormous Rumours with Tusk – a less consistent record that still had some gorgeous peaks. Electric Light Orchestra followed the massive Out Of The Blue with the equally massive, hit spawning Discovery. Abba dominated the singles charts with multiple cuts from Voulez-Vous. And Pink Floyd finally gave in and released a single … and it was huge! Another Brick In The Wall, along with the haunting Gerald Scarfe video, was a somewhat unlikely and chilling Christmas number one. Prog-meets-confessional-singer-songwriter Kate Bush hit again with the stunning Wow (alongside the only full-scale tour of her career). Even heavy rock was propping up the top of the charts with the likes of Rainbow’s riff-tastic Since You’ve Been Gone.

So was this the best year ever? Clearly there is no objective way to answer that question. And that’s the great thing about those kind of questions – the fun is in the arguments, not in the answer. On a purely personal level the songs in this book represent a wonderfully diverse selection of totally classic songs that have – without exception – stood the test of time and, for the most part (certainly in my mind, at least) established themselves as bona fide classics. Whether you agree or not is not really the point. But I hope that you’ll concede that there was definitely something in the musical waters at the end of the “decade that taste forgot”.

Here is the songbook with all the songs in one place <songbook>

And here is the song list, with links to each of the individual song sheets:

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ABBA Ukulele Night

If you’re in the Southampton, UK area next week, you *might* be interested in this. Having previous attempts at Blondie’s Parallel Lines, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, the Ukulele Album night returns. Only this time a little bit different.

A Southampton Ukulele Jam (SUJ) twist on the vinyl listening party. This time it’s ABBA, only rather than picking a specific album it’s going to be a Gold-en Greatest Hits selection (hopefully) played from glorious 7″ vinyl singles (some authentic crackle will be included). So we’ll be listening to each of the original songs, and then playing each track together, as a ukulele jam. Getting a sense of how it was done, and then jamming together, putting SUJ’s unique spin on each track.

The set list for the evening will be as follows:

Side A
– Does Your Mother Know
– Money, Money, Money
– One Of Us
– S.O.S
– Knowing Me, Knowing You
– Waterloo
– Voulez-Vous
– Take A Chance On Me

Side B
– Dancing Queen
– The Winner Takes It All
– Chiquitita
– The Name Of The Game
– Fernando
– Gimme, Gimme, Gimme
– Mamma Mia

You can find all these songs in the songbook, which you can download here. Please bring your own copy.

For the final time (the venue closes at the end of this month) we’ll be in the Lounge Bar / Back Bar of the Talking Heads (on the left as you enter).

N.B. Dressing up, of any sort, is optional but encouraged.

More details in the Facebook event here.


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ABBA – Greatest Hits

 

ABBA SinglesABBA were my first band.

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I was relatively late to pop music, it wasn’t a big thing for my parents – they were all radio 2, Sing Something Simple and military bands. So it wasn’t until January 1977 when I first sat down and watched Top Of The Pops. And the only reason for that was because David Soul was topping the charts with Don’t Give Up On Us, and my sister, with something of a crush on the Starsky and Hutch star, wanted to watch it. A somewhat fateful and life-changing event that led on to a whole lifetime of musical obsession for me.

Anyway, TOTP became something of a habit, and a few week’s later this bunch of Scandinavian pop stars turned up on the show with that iconic video for Knowing Me, Knowing You. And I was hooked. I can’t say at this remove in time what it was about that song that really clicked for me, but it’s interesting in many ways to me how a song that is shot through with a such a strong dose of melancholia caught the imagination of an 11-year old school boy. That has probably been a consistent thread in my musical tastes ever since.

Obviously ABBA are a global phenomenon. And one that has gone through various levels of acceptability over the years. It’s fair to say that they were never “cool”, and there was always a slight sense of awkwardness with how the band fitted into the British music scene. But that was never their intention. Abba were always about great songs, coupled with superb production and arrangements. If the visual image was sometimes a bit corny, the constant up-front (save for a few exceptions) presence of Agnetha and Anna-Frid more than made up for that. Personally I was always an Anna-Frid guy, but clearly the presence of the two girls was a significant factor in making the band attractive to a certain part of their audience.

But it is the songs, the songs, that are what ABBA are all about for me. And those are just great. For all those accusations of corny, feel-good, inanity that can get thrown at them, their songs are actually quite musically sophisticated and subtle, and whilst lyrically they’re not always Bob Dylan (Bang-A-Boomerang, anybody?!), there is a depth and emotional resonance to their songs, particularly in the later years, that lends a lie to those views. Listen to The Winner Takes It All, Slipping Through My Fingers, or One Of Us, and those songs strike right to the heart.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Neil Tennant, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Noel Gallagher, Pete Townsend, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain have all extolled the virtues of these songs. The fact that ABBA Gold is one of the top 50 selling albums ever, and the continued success of the Mamma Mia film and stage show, illustrate that there is depth and quality in the ABBA cannon.

 

 

And so to the songbook. I’ve collected 26 of the most popular and well-know ABBA songs into one collection. There are a few “deep cuts” thrown in for good measure, but even those are – I think – relatively well known. I’ve tried to strike a balance between making these totally musically accurate and making them playable. The songs are actually quite complex and subtle in places, so I’ve tried to retain a balance between that richness and playability. The other slightly tricky aspect to these songs can be the timing – they’re not averse to throwing in the odd different-timed bar here and there, and that can throw you if you’re not careful. I think the saving grace is that – for a certain audience – these songs are so embedded in our consciousness that you just *know* how they go! Follow that feeling, and you won’t go wrong. But most of all, enjoy!

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Knowing Me, Knowing You – Abba

So I was talking with a friend about potentially doing a variation on the album evenings we’ve been doing recently, and wondered whether a greatest hits evening might work. And instead of playing the album on vinyl, bring playing those greatest hits as 7″ singles, in all they’re crackly glory. But who would we pick? Well the conversation soon turned towards this band, and so I thought I’d give a few of their songs a try and see whether they might work.

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My Abba journey has been a not untypical one, I suspect. This songs was – in fact – the first single that I ever brought, wrapped in the Epic orange sleeve. And the album from which it was taken, 1976’s Arrival, was likewise the first album I ever brought (from Landports department store in Portsmouth, if you’re asking!). Through the late 70s Abba were my band, and it wasn’t until 1981, when my musical interests started to broaden, and deviate somewhat from the mainstream, encouraged in no small part by my consumption of the music press, that the love affair with Abba began to wane. Clearly, at this point, the (apparently) cheesy, european, middle-of-the-road, mainstay of the middle-aged sounds were doing my musical credibility no good, something I remember being accentuated by Not The Nine O’Clock News’ Super Trouper parody. So the super Swedes were somewhat hastily jettisoned.

But years go by, we grow and up mature (a bit!), and in doing so we realise that some of the decisions of our youth were not always good ones. And slowly the rehabilitation followed. Obviously that re-discovery and re-evaluation was a more widespread phenomenon than just within my own head, because when 1992’s compilation Abba Gold was released it immediately became a huge best-seller, now ranked as the bands best-selling album ever, one of the top 50 selling albums across the world ever, with sales in excess of 28 million.

Knowing Me, Knowing You is – for me – a classic example why the music of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid (I was always a Friday girl, myself!) has lasted down the years. For all the accusations of cheesiness and inanity that are thrown at the group (and there are definitely examples of that) there are plenty of examples of real emotional depth and deep melancholy in their songs. The state of the bands own internal relationships were often mirrored and played out in the dynamics of the songs, none more so than in the video for 1980’s The Winner Takes It All. And sometimes were predicted by the songs, as was the case with Knowing Me, Knowing You. Written and recorded at the time that the band were happy loving couples (Agnetha and Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid) the song’s rather bleak relating of the breakdown of a relationship, haunted by the memories of the good times that are forever lost, certainly isn’t for the feint-hearted. Yet the song was a huge success all around the world, helped in no small part by the classic video (directed – as were many of the bands videos – by Lasse Hallström, later to find fame with films like Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News), partly set in the certainly allegorical icy Swedish landscape.

So here is the song sheet. For all their familiarity, Abba songs are not always the most straightforward. This certainly fits into that category. There are quite a few chords in there, but nothing very tricky, and they give real colour to the song (note that the Bm* is not a new type of chord, it’s just to distinguish that particular playing of Bm at that particular point in the song). Sometimes the timing can be a little odd as well (there’s the odd 2/4 bar thrown in along the way). But to be honest, if you know the song (and who doesn’t!) that will see you through. Oh, and I’ve also tabbed out the classic solo that occurs throughout the song. Enjoy (in a slightly maudlin, melancholic Scandinavian way)!


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WARNING : Videos! Of me! Doing songs!

So this is a bit of an experiment, and to be honest one I’m not wholly comfortable with, but there was no point avoiding the inevitable.

I had a request today to post recordings of some songs, on the premise that it might be a bit tricky for some people to pick up some of the songs without any guidance. I do get that, and so below are a couple of attempts to do that.

The first thing to say is that I’m not making any great claims to the quality of the videos. For one, they’re just recorded using the webcam on my laptop. But more significantly, it’s *me* singing, and that definitely is not my forte. So treat these as a very rough guide to how *I* think the songs *could* be played. Obviously they’re not sacred texts, and so you can do what you want with the songs. But hopefully these will be taken in the spirit that they are delivered – a rough approximation to be used as a guide.

So the song? Well the first one was a request / challenge, based on a comment that “I couldn’t imagine how you could do it”! It’s Abba’s “The Way Old Friends Do”, and this is how I imagine doing it.

The second song was not the second one that requested (that was Robert Palmer’s Big Log) – that might take a bit more practice, and might need me to drag my friend Sarah in to do it, as that was who we originally did the song for. No, the second is one that I felt a little more comfortable doing, and it is U2’s Beautiful Day. The main riff all the way through is a little tricky timing wise, so hopefully this gives some sense of what it could possibly sound like.

Thanks to Perry for the original prompt. If it’s not too disastrous, I might do a few more. Requests?!


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The Way Old Friends Do – ABBA

It’s strange how songs crop up in the most unlikely of places.

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Yesterday I attended the Wickham Festival. It’s a local festival, just down the road, and I was attending because Southampton Ukulele Jam had been asked to perform, somewhat at the last minute. We had a blast (here’s a clip of us doing Blitzrieg Bop – that’s me at the back in the straw hat!), and got a great reaction from the audience. But it meant we had a free day ticket, so got to enjoy some great music, largely of the folk variety, from the likes of Eliza Carthy, Gaz Brookfield, Imar and Brighde Chaimbeul. Anyway, inbetween sets there was an interesting mix of music being played, often with something of a 70s soft rock flavour (blatantly appealing to the majority demographic in attendance). And then this song popped up. It somewhat surprised me that something from a hyper-polished Swedish pop group would crop up during an English folk festival. But on reflection, it actually fitted really well.

Pre-Abba, each of the band members, in particular Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog, had established themselves in various parts of the Swedish folk scene. And there has often been elements of folk music creeping in to their music over the years. The Way Old Friends Do is certainly one of those songs, initially just accompanied on the accordion, there is something pure and honest about this lovely song. Never recorded in the studio, the version that found its way onto 1980’s Super Trouper album was recorded live during the band’s tour in 1979, and the simple sounds of voices and accordion show that, for all the studio wizardry and perfectionism that went into ABBA’s music, cut to the core they were four great musicians.

There is *nothing* complicated in this songsheet. The song only has one verse, repeated. The chords are as straightforward as they could be. The only slightly tricky thing if you try to play along (the songsheet is in the same key) is that the recording is not in any kind of regular tempo. When played alone, it’s easy to give it that regular tempo, though. So enjoy!