Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

LetsDanceThere’s nothing else that I could post today other than something by David Bowie.

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Like many this morning, I was shocked by the news of Bowie’s death. I don’t remember being so affected by the death of a public figure. Like a number of comments I’ve seen today, there was an almost unwritten sense that he was immortal, this otherworldly man who seemed different in so many ways to the rest of us.

My first real connection with Bowie was when Ashes to Ashes was released and got to number one, with its strange sounds, strange video and slightly unhinged lyrics. I was just getting into music in a serious way, and here was the real deal – music both strange and beautiful, different to everything else around, and yet also strangely accessible. And so whilst I wouldn’t classify myself as a real Bowie-head, I dug deep into his past and discovered the multifarious catalogue that he had amassed through an amazing, unparalleled run through the seventies and into the eighties. From the amazing acoustic songs of Hunky Dory, the alien rock-god of Ziggy, the white-soul of Young Americans and the electronic sounds of his Berlin albums, Bowie was an artist and pop star unrivaled, skittering across the surface of culture, hoovering up influences, and pushing and defining the zeitgeist. At the time he was a marvel, looking back now it seems almost inconceivable what he achieved in that time. If he slowed down and lost the plot a little in the 80s its no surprise given what came before. And yet his latter day resurgence, with the achingly beautiful Where Are We Now, it’s attendant album (The Next Day) and finally what turned out to be his swansong (Blackstar) saw him pushing boundaries to the end, redefining himself even in death (see the video to his final single, Lazarus).

I’m not going to argue that this song, Let’s Dance, is his artistic peak. It’s not. It was certainly his most commercially successful period, and there were some good – if not great – songs that came from those sessions. But there is certainly a joyous feel to this song that has lasted down the years (that’s another amazing thing about the Bowie back-catalogue – so much of it still feels so contemporary, even 40 years after it was recorded). And the joy that he brought is something that should be celebrated, as much as the strangeness, the challenging, the glam and the new.

And so to the song sheet. It’s a relatively simple song in structure. There’s a few unusual chords in there, but there not tricky, and they give a really nice feel. The tricky bit is the rhythm, to capture that stuttering, syncopated funk sound of the original. I haven’t really had time to practice this properly so can’t give much advice. This cover by M.Ward potentially points to something that might work, but try it and see what you can do with it. Just – please – try and avoid the bog-standard ukulele strumming pattern. You’ll kill it!

Enjoy! (and see also songsheets for “Heroes” and China Girl)

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China Girl – David Bowie

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Just for those who were wondering(!), when the strap line on the web-site says “uke-ifying my favourite songs”, the classification of “my favourite songs” has been stretched a little. I certainly like all the songs that I’ve posted on here. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I love all the songs I’ve posted. But whether they’re my favourite, favourite songs is a little less certain. If that were the case today I’d be including things like Primitive Painters by Felt, Temptation by New Order, Goodbye Lucile #1 (aka Johnny Johnny) by Prefab Sprout and the like (a bit of an 80s theme there!), although it would probably be a different list tomorrow. But the point is some of those songs don’t really translate that well to the ukulele. Or I’ve struggled to make them work for ukulele. So the songs I’ve posted here are songs that I like and I think work quite well for the humble uke.

This David Bowie post is a case in point. If I was going for my favourite favourties I’d be posting something like Sound and Vision, Young Americans or Wild Is The Wind (or “Heroes”, but I have already done that one!). But those songs don’t really work for me on the uke. This one does, though. China Girl is a single from Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance which, dependent on your viewpoint, is last album of his awesome streak through the 70s and early 80s, or the one where the rot set in. Certainly it was the one where Bowie became outwardly more focussed on a commercial sound and success (and boy did it work!). For me as an album it’s mixed – some great songs, this one included, but a fair bit of filler as well.

China Girl was a joint write between Bowie and Iggy Pop from as far back as 1977, that was recorded by Pop for his Bowie-produced album The Idiot. As you might expect, the Iggy version has a heavier and darker sound. The Bowie cover (on which Iggy sings) benefits – in my mind, at least – from a shinny production (and guitar playing) from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, which brings the song alive and turned it into a huge hit (UK number 2, US top 10). It probably provided Iggy Pop with a very nice and steady royalty stream as well!

So here’s the song sheet. It’s in the same key as the original (so you can play along!), and follows the lyrics  / arrangements of the original. I’ve also included the little intro riff that crops up throughout the song, and is really easy. One observation from when I play it – I think the Em / D / C / B sequence that crops up after the first break (there’s no real verse / chorus structure here) sounds best as a run up the fret board – i.e. Em as 9777, D as 7655, C as 5433 and B as 4322. Enjoy!

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“Heroes” – David Bowie

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In my book songs don’t come more epic than this. “Heroes” (always with the deliberate affectation of quotation marks) is arguably the highpoint of Bowie’s hugely influential “Berlin period”, which spawned the Low, “Heroes” and Lodger albums. Arguably it is the highpoint of Bowie’s entire career (I, for one, would certainly argue that).

Inspired by the clandestine meeting of two lovers in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, next to the Hansa studios where the song was recorded, producer Tony Visconti has claimed to be that inspiration, viewed by Bowie in an embrace with backing vocalist Antonia Maaß (Visconti was married to Mary Hopkin – of Those Were The Days fame – at the time). A relative failure on its release (peaking at #24 in the UK singles charts, not charting at all in the US) the song has – over the years – come to be viewed (quite rightly) as a classic, a signature tune of Bowie, often cited highly in best song/single lists. And all that despite the misguided mawling it received at the hands of X-Factor in 2010 (and no, I’m *not* going to link to that!).

For me this has to be *the* Bowie performance. The huge wall of sound that wraps the song powers on and on, overlaid by what is probably the most emotive vocal performance Bowie has ever given. Gradually building and increasing in intensity throughout the song (and the 6-minute album version is the best to appreciate this) it reaches an almost painfully emotional crescendo about half-way through, and then continues to give and give. The video (see below) contrasts the huge sound of the song with a simple, effective, single-take.

So, an obvious choice for a ukulele song(!). Well, maybe not. But strip away that wall of sound, and at it’s heart there is a simple and effective song that tugs at the heart-strings, and just works. Here’s one version, but there are quite a few others out there on YouTube.

There’s two song sheets here. One for the single version (which is shorter) and one for the full length album version. Take your pick. Nothing really much to say about them, other than to highlight the possible backing vocal repeats on the “Standing by the wall” verse, and the abrupt stop on the short version (a single D chord on “day”) which I think works quite well.

[UPDATE : Listen to *my* version of “Heroes” here!]

Enjoy!

[Short version]  [Long version]