Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Transformer – Lou Reed (Full Album)

In the early 1970s, Lou Reed’s career was floundering. Having walked away from the Velvet Underground (possibly the hippest, most influential rock band of all time, albeit one who had almost zero commercial success in their lifetime) he had recorded a debut solo album that had followed the Velvet’s route to success (i.e. none). But he had established a reputation as a literate, alternative (before the term had even been invented) musician who was unafraid to tackle potentially controversial topics, with a particular focus on the seedy side of his home town, New York.

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It was that reputation that led to him hooking up with David Bowie, a long-time fan of Velvet Underground, and Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. At the time of recording Bowie’s star was in the ascendant, having just broken through with Starman, via. his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, but he was far from the superstar that he was to become over the following year. Bowie and Ronson came on board to produce the album that would become Transformer, and arguably brought a focus and clarity to proceedings that reflected what they had achieved on The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, a record released just a couple of months before the Transformer recording sessions. Glam rock was reaching some kind of peak, and Transformer picks up on that vibe – less in the more cartoon-ish elements of that scene (Mud, Sweet, Gary Glitter) – but more aligned to the more literate likes of Bowie and Roxy Music.

Feature a selection of old songs that had originally been performed and/or demoed with Velvet Undergound (Andy’s Chest, Satellite Of LoveNew York Telephone Conversation and Goodnight Ladies), alongside a collection of sharply focussed new songs, Transformer is a strongly coherent collection of songs that takes a mirror to the strange and perverse underground scene that Reed took as his own. Whilst New York – by name – would be the title and subject of a much later album, much of Reed’s material is rooted in his experience of that city and its underground scene, and Transformer is a spectacular example of that. Characters from that scene (Candy, Holly, Daisy Mae, Biff) are constantly being referenced in the songs, along with nods to Andy Warhol (the Velvet’s were in effect the house band for The Factory), and the stories in the songs are liberally peppered with tales of transgender individuals, drug use, and sex. Walk On The Wild Side became a breakout hit from the album, yet when you listen to the lyrics it’s a wonder that it even got airplay given some of the subject areas it touches on.

Reed’s career flip-flopped over the years, seemingly alternating from commercial and critical success to almost-deliberate career suicide (Metal Machine Music being the most extreme example of that). In hindsight, Reed – always his own man – attempted to downplay the Bowie connection and influence, but it is without doubt that Transformer represents an early peak in his career, one that may at times have felt like an albatross around his neck, but which clearly established as a significant artist.

And so welcome to the Transformer songbook. Lou Reed songs aren’t – for the most part – musically complex, and that certainly applies to Transformer. Which means that these songs lend themselves well to translation to sing-along ukulele style. Only one of them (Perfect Day) I’ve had to transpose from the original key, so all the rest you can easily play along with. Sometimes the timing of the wording can be a little tricky, and I’ve tried to help in here with some occasional “…”‘s to highlight little pauses – whether these help or not you can decide. I’ve also added in some of the backing vocals which certainly enhance the songs (the outro to Satellite of Love being my favourite) – obviously these won’t work so well if you do these by yourself, but in a group setting they’re definitely work adding. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>

 

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Rio – Duran Duran (Full Album)

Never let it be said that you don’t get variety here! From the acoustic loveliness and down-home earthiness of the last post, here we are with what could be seen as the archetypal surface-and-sheen of vacuous 80s pop – all style, glamour and no substance.

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And whilst there is some truth in those accusations, the reality – as ever – is more complex. Emerging out of the nascent new romantic scene in (decidedly unromantic) Birmingham, Duran Duran (the name taken from a character in the cult classic 1968 sci-fi film, Barbarella) were effectively the house band for the city’s Rum Runner nightclub. From the outset, the notion of the band was to combine the sounds and ethos of disco and punk, equal parts Sex Pistols, Blondie, Gary Numan and Chic, and to be huge. There was no hiding that ambition, and for a group of lads growing up in late 70s urban Britain, the idea of becoming the biggest pop band on the planet, of being able to travel the world and partake in the glamorous jet-set lifestyle made perfect sense.

So whilst Duran Duran struck gold with their first album (spawning the hits Planet Earth and Girls On Film), it was 1982’s Rio that launched them into the stratosphere. With three huge singles accompanied by the infamous exotic videos (Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio and Save A Prayer), the band were perfectly positioned to capitalise on the musical revolution that was ushered in by MTV.

But this was pop with a twist. Not only were the band self-made – growing organically from the local music scene – and writers of their own material, the band managed create a unique amalgam of styles that took somewhat underground influences and art-rock influences (Japan, Roxy Music and David Bowie) and fashioned them into a mainstream phenomena that had teenage girls in paroxysms. In times when pop bands are just expected to be focus-grouped conceptions of marketing departments, performing material from the same bunch of face-less songwriting teams that is aimed at the same narrow commercial radio playlists, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the way things were. And for all their faults, Duran Duran were more intelligent than that, spikier than that, and certainly more capable and original as musicians than that.

It may be the big singles that Rio is remembered for. And rightly so. But dig beyond that and there are gems a plenty. Whether it be the post-punk funk of New Religion, the Voltaire-citing Last Chance On The Stairway, or the stately, cryptic, arpeggiated closer that is The Chauffeur (I’m not seeing any boy band getting away with a video like this today) this is a band at arguably both their commercial and artistic peak.

And so here we are with the songbook. The full album, all nine tracks, when you strip the production away these are for the most part great songs. All of these are in the same key as the originals, so playing along is possible (and to be encouraged). Shoulder pads and yachts are optional. Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>


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After The Gold Rush – Neil Young (Full Album)

I’ve been looking around recently for albums that I think would work as part of our recent series of ukulele album nights. That’s proved harder than I thought – a whole album of good songs that can be reduced to the ukulele and that a bunch of people (of a certain age!) will know well enough to stop it being a solo rendition by yours truly.

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And that search led me to this. Originally I was looking at Harvest, the archetypal Neil Young acoustic album, the “if you only own one Neil Young album this should be it” (my personal favourite would be On The Beach” fyi). But on listening to it I wasn’t convinced that it would really work. And then I thought about this, the immediate predecessor to Harvest, and listening to it afresh (I hadn’t played it for a good few years) I fell back in love with it. And have been playing it on repeat for the last few weeks.

At the risk of gross simplification, Young’s outputs has tended to operate at the loud, ragged rocking end of the spectrum (often with his band Crazy Horse), or at the more songwriter-y acoustic folk/country end. And throughout his career lurches one way or the other have often been a reaction to his previous lurch. And so the folk/country rock stylings of his 1969 eponymous debut album (Young had previously found a reasonable amount of success with Buffalo Springfield) were followed by the world’s introduction to Crazy Horse on the same years’ Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, all crunchy rockers and 10 minute epics. In that light, After The Gold Rush can be seen as another reaction, a move that combines the more simple, stripped down singer-songwriter fare with Crazy Horse rockers (and all this was also just a few months after Young enhanced Crosby, Stills and Nash with the Déjà Vu album).

From the opening Tell Me Why, a gentle country-ish guitar-strummed-and-picked tune, overlaid with some gorgeous harmonies (the CSN&Y influence in full evidence) the scene is set. Followed by the classic enigmatic eco-themed title track, and the gentle waltz-timed Only Love Can Break Your Heart (the St Etienne version was my introduction to this song!) the album offers a master class in concise, quality song-writing. Full of space, those aforementioned harmonies, and mostly restrained acoustic musicianship (songs like Southern Man and When You Dance, I Can Really Love intermittently turn up the electrics), After The Gold Rush is a thematically and musically consistent masterpiece that packs a lot into its 35 minute running time, but still leaves you wanting more. To these ears it always sounds fresh, a record that I never tire of.

The songbook contains all 11 songs from the album. The simplicity of these songs translates well – there’s nothing too tricksy in any of these, although the odd unusual chord is thrown in every now and then. With one exception these are all in the same key as the originals, so you can play along quite easily. Songs for singing around the campfire, for sure! Enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>

 


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Rumours – Fleetwood Mac (Full Album)

I freely admit that I was a child of the punk revolution. I fully brought into the Year Zero mindset that trashed everything that came before punk. As a result bands like Fleetwood Mac were anathema – self-indulgent west-coast soft rock that had no relevance to a late 70s urban teenager.

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So it was a long journey to come around to embracing Rumours. For me, that journey was one I can trace for an opening up to country music (via. the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack), which led via. Gram Parsons and The Byrds to the soft rock sounds of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the sounds of late 60s/early 70s Laurel Canyon, and ultimately to this polished slice of perfect grown-up West Coast pop/rock.

Fleetwood Mac had a varied and convulted evolution. Emerging in the late 1960s as a UK-based blues band, the group has a significant measure of success, but somewhat lost their way in the early 1970s. It took a significant re-jig of the line up in 1974, and an evolution into a US/UK hyrid, for those fortunes to be turned around. 1975’s eponymous album, Fleetwood Mac, set the tone, with songs like Rhiannon and Say You Love Me establishing the band with hit singles, as well as racking up huge sales in the US.

But that success was dwarfed by its follow up, Rumours. Not that the circumstances of its birth were promising. The band – now comprising guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Buckingham, drummer Mick Fleetwood, keyboard player and vocalist Christine McVie, bass guitarist John McVie, and vocalist Stevie Nicks – were going through the most intense relationship breakdowns. The McVie’s were divorcing after eight years of marriage. Buckingham and Nicks were having a stormy on/off relationship. And Fleetwood was dealing with the discovery of his wife having an affair with his best friend. That a collection of such perfect songs should emerge from this maelstrom is nothing short of miraculous. With writing credits shared across the whole band, and singing duties likewise shared, this was a truly collaborative effort that captured a band at the height of their powers, at the same time their personal lives were falling apart, awash in a sea of cocaine excess.

With classics like Dreams, Go Your Own Way, The Chain and Don’t Stop, Rumours was the album that sent Fleetwood Mac into the stratosphere. Epitomising the smooth sun-drenched soft-rock California sound, Rumours was both a critical and commercial success. While clearly a product of its time, it has since transcended those times, becoming one of those albums that just goes on and on giving, a timeless record whose perfect sounds belie the raw emotions within. Topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it sold 13 million copies in its first three years, and by 2013 world-wide sales were over 40 million.

The songbook includes all the songs in the album. Most are in the same key as the originals, but a few I’ve transposed to make a little easier to play. At heart these are actually mostly deceptively simple songs, and translate well – to my ears – to the uke. The one song that I’ve probably fudged a little is the finger-picked Never Going Back Again. There are some great ukulele versions of this out there (watch here, see tab here), so feel free to check those out.

<Full Album Songbook>


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Rubber Soul – The Beatles (Full Album)

I mentioned in the previous post about doing a full album night with Blondie’s Parallel Lines. Well here is the second classic album to get that treatment. And records don’t get much more classic than this one.

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Those arguments about what is the best Beatles’ album will doubtless run and run. For a long time it was apocryphal to consider it to be anything other than Sergeant Pepper. Then during the Britpop era Revolver seemed to pick up that baton, with occasionally The White Album pipping them both to the post. In all that time Rubber Soul has been something of an underdog, but there’s definitely a strand of opinion and an argument for this being the toppermost of the toppermost.

After all, this was the album that drove Brian Wilson to write God Only Knows, and whose existence was a massive inspiration for Pet Sounds, an album which in turn laid down the gauntlet that was taken back up by The Beatles in the aforementioned Sergeant Pepper (Wilson has been quoted as saying that Rubber Soul is better than Pet Sounds, citing it as “still the best album of all time”). And Rubber Soul is arguably the first album of the pop era that was more than just a collection of somewhat random songs – a coherent, paced collection that works as a whole, start-to-finish, experience.

Rubber Soul was effectively the last album The Beatles toured. Marked by a more sophisticated production, and a wider variety of styles, Rubber Soul was laying the ground work for the more adventurous and experimental approaches that were such a big part of the band’s later albums. Rubber Soul feels like it is on the cusp – one foot in the classic pop songs that established them, one foot striding into new and uncharted territory. Personally this era (with Revolver) is my favourite of the bands, precisely because it crystallises the best of those dynamics. And whilst other Beatles albums, being admittedly being full  of fine songs, suffer from one or two bum tracks (the Fab Four certainly weren’t flawless), Rubber Soul has no bad tracks. Not one. OK, Run For Your Life may be a little dodgy lyrically, especially in these #metoo days. But I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Concise – 14 songs in 35 minutes, so much depth and variety in such a short period – and perfectly formed, here is a band at the height of their powers, yet at the same time stretching and growing. From the raw throwback that is “Drive My Car”, the folk-rock inspired-by-yet-outdoing-the-Byrds “If I Needed Someone”, the early Indian influences that come through “Norwegian Wood”, the folk stylings of “In My Life”, and the chanson leanings of “Michelle”, this is an album rich in variety yet still hanging together as a perfectly paced exemplar.

 

Full Album Songbook

Individual songsheets


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Parallel Lines – Blondie (Full Album)

I’d been promising to do this for a while – both to myself and to you good people – and a bit of spare time over the Christmas break has given me the opportunity. So ladies and gentlemen, I present you with a UkeTunes first – a songbook for a whole album, start to end, and all stations inbetween.

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When I’d previously done song sheets for Picture This and One Way Or Another, I’d suggested that it would be great idea – to me, at least – to do a ukulele-based full album show that was nothing but Parallel Lines, in sequence. Well the show hasn’t happened yet, but this is a step towards that – the full album transcribed (at least as far as the chords are concerned) for ukulele.

But why Parallel Lines (you may or may not be asking)? Well, for me it is one of those classic albums where every song could have been a single, a band at the top of their game, bashing our pop-punk gems (with the odd bit of disco thrown in) like there was no tomorrow. It is truly a classic, one that was of its time but which has outlasted its era, a touchstone of great songwriting, sharp production and strong performances. Each of the 12 song does just what it needs to do, never outstaying its welcome, bursting into life, burning brightly for the duration, and then gone, only for another gem to follow in its coat-tails.

The genesis and realisation of Parallel Lines is well-documented, and I’m not going to attempt to repeat those stories (try here and here, or the wonderful BBC documentary here, if you want to find out more). Suffice to say that this was the album that turned Blondie from a moderately successful New Wave band into the world-beating rock/pop phenomenon that they became (and, in many ways, remain). Bringing on board Australian producer Mike Chapman, who had had huge success in the 1970s with – amongst others – The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Mud, in hindsight would appear to be a deliberate attempt by the band to move beyond the constraints of the punk and new wave ghettos, and to become a pop band, albeit one that still retained that New York swagger, edge and attitude.

Chapman was clearly a significant part in creating the sound, but it would have been nothing without the songs. Here Blondie had clearly upped their game, with all the band contributing, along with a couple of covers (Hanging on the Telephone, by The Nerves, and I’m Gonna Love You To by Buddy Holly) – most of these songs were new, but some, such as Heart of Glass, harked back to the bands early days in the mid-70s. In the UK the album spawned two huge number one singles (Sunday Girl and the aforementioned Heart of Glass) as well as a couple of other huge hits. But it was in their homeland of the USA that Parallel Lines had arguably even more impact for the band, taking them from a somewhat hip but commercially unsuccessful band into the major league via. Heart of Glass’s ascension to the number one slot.

So here we have a songbook, not just a songsheet. All the songs from the album are included, in sequence. Most are in the same key as the originals, but a couple (11:59 and Just Go Away) I have transposed down by a semi-tone to make them a little easier to play – either play them as they are, or stick a capo on and play along in the same key as the originals. Most are largely faithful in arrangement to the originals.

Note that I’ve done my best to transcribe these as accurately as possible, whilst still remaining in the realm of playability. Most of the songs, with the exception of Just Go Away, had some online source of chords, so for the most part the arrangements aren’t original either. So if you find any mistakes, or potential improvements, let me know. But most of all, enjoy!