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!

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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]