Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Robot Man – The Gymslips / Connie Francis

From the sublime (step forward, Brandy Clark) to the faintly ridiculous. Never let it be said that you don’t get variety around here!

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So here’s a song that I’ve lived with for 30 odd years, only to find a couple of hours ago that it wasn’t quite what I’d thought. The origin of this one for me was a purchase in an Edinburgh record shop of a shrink-wrapped bundle of 5 singles. It was bargain-basement time, and though you could see the covers of the two outside records, I didn’t have a clue what was inside. To be honest, I don’t remember all the records that were in that pack, but I do remember that one was the great double-sider by The Rezillos I Can’t Stand My Baby / I Wanna Be Your Man, and another was this slice of kitsch punk from The Gymslips.

Now I never knew anything else about The Gymslips, but really loved the definitely tongue-in-cheek, bubblegum punk that sprang from the turntable when I played this song. It’s only after the last year or so that I rediscovered this song and this band, primarily through a copy of their only album, Rocking With The Renees. An all-female punk band from London (and there’s no transatlantic twang here, the accents are full-on London), The Gymslips were never one to take the music business that seriously, and clearly had a blast doing what they were doing. This is sheer good time punk, replete with plenty of lyrics references to bums and getting pissed (there’s a very definite strain of English humour running through it all), a cartoon image exemplified in that album cover.

So Robot Man seemed to fit into that category without any trouble, a 2-minute blast of tuneful fabulousness. But it wasn’t until I was looking online for the chords and lyrics for this song (where there are zero references) that I accidentally discovered that actually this is a cover of a song originally recorded back in the 1960s by Connie Frances, part of a double-sided single that made it to number 2 in the UK charts. So not so obscure after all. Actually, thinking about it the lyrical content (a robot lover, somehow strangely back in vogue) is obviously such a theme of the late 50s / early 60s it’s quite obvious really. But The Gymslips version gives the original a spirited kick up the arse (as I’m sure the band would say!) and is just a pure joy to listen to.

So here’s the song sheet. As to be expected from such a straight-ahead punk song, it’s not tricky. Four chords (surely that’s one more than necessary!) and a lot of attitude. This version is in the same key as the Gymslips version, the Connie Francis version being a semi-tone lower. Oh, and I’ve thrown in the four note opening riff as a bonus. Enjoy!


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Dancing With Myself – Generation X / Billy Idol

DancingWithMyselfGenXDancingWithMyselfBillyIdolGeneration X always came across as something of cartoon punks. Not sticking rigidly to the punk rule book, there was always an element of pop in their sound, a suspicion that they didn’t really “mean it” the way other punks meant it, and maybe were perceived as being too willing to compromise themselves to “make it”.

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Of course, the whole idea of a punk rule book was actually anathema to its true spirit, but one result is that Generation X are seen as second-tier punks, despite (or maybe because) they had (an admittedly quite modest) level of success. That reputation was probably cemented when lead singer Billy Idol went solo in the 80s and garnered a huge amount of success, particularly in the US, with an image that again came across as a crude mashup of punk, pop and Elvis.

Yet they left behind a number of songs which – to my mind, credibility be damned – captured some of the energy and dynamism of the times, coupled with a genuine, if maybe simplistic, tunefulness. Dancing With Myself was in fact written by the band’s bassist, Tony James, who later want on to higher-profile infamy/success with Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Recorded for the band’s third album, it only managed to claw itself into the bottom reaches of the singles chart in 1980. Idol re-recorded it as his first single when he went solo a year later, and whilst it still didn’t make much of an impact, it’s calling card status has given it a longevity that its chart position belies.

I have a strong preference for the original Generation X version of the song – the later Billy Idol version tones down the guitar sounds and makes what is a tuneful-yet-aggressive punk classic into a slightly watered down power-pop anthem. But in either guise this is a song whose driving rhythm, simple riff and singalong nature have sustained it throughout its 30+ years of life.

And here’s the songsheet. It’s a simple three chorder, although in this version (the same key as both the Generation X and Billy Idol versions) it contains the infamous E chord, which I know some people struggle with (if you do, just take it down to D, G and A, rather than E, A and B). I’ve also included tab for the introductory riff, and for the solo in the middle. Both are really simple, so give them a go. And enjoy!

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My Zero – Ezra Furman

MyZeroEzra Furman only popped onto my radar back in July. Ezra was playing at The Joiners, a local venue, the following week, and a friend has posted a YouTube clip on Facebook to highlight this. I took a listen, liked what I heard, explored a bit more and thought that this sounded like an interesting proposition. So booked tickets for myself and my daughter.

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The following day it happened to be my birthday, and as a result of mentioning the gig to said daughter she ended up buying me a copy of Furman’s 2013 album Day Of The Dog. It’s that album that My Zero is taken from.

Furman is a hard act to categorise. There’s definitely a punk attitude behind the music that he makes. There are strains of rockabilly in there, touches of do-wop. He seems to be a relatively shy individual, but his performances and songs are in-your-face, heart-on-the-sleeve, visceral, dwelling on his Jewish roots and his mental health challenges amongst other things. Oh, and he can often be found – on stage and off – in a dress and make-up.

But there’s no doubting the man’s commitment. He’s certainly not blessed with the prettiest of voices, but more than makes up for it with edge and attitude, songs that are real punch of rawness, energy and emotion. Yet for all that these are songs with melody at their heart. He’s unlikely to be a major star, but who cares. This is a man who clearly has to make music, and has to make music like this. The world is a better place for that.

And so to the song sheet. The song is basically just a constant repeat of four chords. And they’re not difficult chords (I’ve transposed it down a semitone from the original, which is in G#). I’ve also added in a couple of riffs as well which play over the top of the instrumentals – the first performed on guitar on the original, the second by keyboards. There’s a distinctive strumming pattern which you hear on the intro to the original, that isn’t too hard to replicate – it goes something like duXuduXu, where X is a damping the strings, but probably best just to listen to it to get the feel.

Enjoy!

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One Way Or Another – Blondie

parallellinesA couple of days ago I finally got round to sitting down and watching the recent documentary on BBC4 about Blondie’s Parallel Lines. It’s worth seeing (watch it here), and re-ignitied my often dormant fantasy of trying to do a ukulele-based full-album show featuring Parallel Lines, in sequence! I don’t suppose that will ever come to fruition, but it did prompt me to have a go at this song, the second track from this album I’ve posted on here (see the previous post of Picture This). Surprisingly I couldn’t find a ukulele sheet for this song (that wasn’t polluted by 1D!) so here is one.

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It’s a mark of just how much a classic Parallel Lines is, that even an album track such as this is so well known. I’m not even going to entertain the notion that this is due to the ghastly One Direction mash-up with Teenage Kicks (it’s appearance in the Rugrats movie gives it more credibility than that!). One Way Or Another is a classic of the Debbie Harry “attitude” school, spat out with the venom of a (presumably somewhat agrieved) stalker who’s going to see ya / meetcha / getcha / trick ya. You really wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that treatment. There’s an interesting segment in that documentary (starting at 4:31) on the song, it’s genesis and recording.

So here’s the song sheet. For what might come across as a simple song there’s a lot of chords, but nothing too tricksy as long as you’re comfortable with barre chords. I’ve shown the chords as barre chords on the songsheet as they do work better that way, so if you can play them like that do. And if you can’t, practice! I found the little runs in the verse from D/C#/C/B and back again need a bit of concentration to get the timing right (it’s quite quick). The strumming pattern is something you need to listen to the original for, particularly in the verse where a nice bit of damping and scratching of the strings with the left hand gives it that chunky feel (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damping_(music) – I had to look the terms up!).  As ever, listen and play along to the original to get the overall feel and timing (it’s in the same key). And enjoy!

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Lawnchairs – Our Daughters Wedding

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I’ve been clearing the garden today. It has got horribly overgrown, so I’ve been uprooting weeds, brambles and other horrors. Not my idea of fun, but it’s quite satisfying seeing a somewhat clearer and tidier garden at the end of the day.

Anyway, to while away the time and motivate me I was listing to a compilation album called “The Mix Tapes: Alternative Music From The Late 70s And 80s“. It does what it says on the tin, and I guess this was really my era – the formative years of my musical journey, and as such music that has stayed with me and special to me ever since. One of the tracks that popped up was this somewhat neglected little gem from American synthpop trio Our Daughters Wedding.
This song takes me straight back to the summer of 1981. It was what was called a radio hit – i.e. played to death over the airwaves, but largely ignored by the great British record playing public. But it’s ubiquity at the time did enough to earn me a nickname of “Lawnchairs” due to my predilection for a rather fetching short-sleeved shirt in broad green and blue vertical stripes, interspersed with thin white stripes. Yes, in hindsight it did look something like a deckchair, but I loved it. As I did this record.

It’s one of those extremely basic synthpop songs that proliferated in the early 80s – in many ways similar to early songs by the likes of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Maoeuvres In The Dark (whose Messages has an introduction uncannily similar to this). I guess you an think of these as the synthpop equivalents of those early punk singles – spirit and attitude was everything, electronic equivalents of the two-chord thrash. Our Daughters Wedding never really made it – this was the peak of their success, and it didn’t get any higher than #49 in the UK singles chart – and if only for this song they are fondly remembered, if the number of appearances of this song on alternative 80s compilation albums is anything to go by.

So a suitable song for ukulele?! Well maybe not the most obvious of choices, I’ll grant you. But yes, I think it actually works quite well. It’s hugely straightforward, at least in terms of largely just being two chords all the way through. And the simple and straightforward nature of the song makes it something that seems to work well with four strings and a few bits of wood (and whilst it’s an acoustic guitar rather than a uke, here’s some kind of proof). [Note that the song sheet contains the song in two keys – the original, plus a version in E which I personally find it a lot easier to sing] Enjoy!

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Tell That Girl To Shut Up – Holly & The Italians / Transvision Vamp

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There’s something about the best of the songs from the punk / new wave / post-punk / power-pop explosion of the late-70s and early-80s that lend themselves well to the ukulele. I’ve already posted songs by the like of Blondie and Rezillos, and here’s another in that ilk.

I was listening to a random shuffle of punk, post-punk and new wave songs yesterday, when this song popped up and grabbed my attention. More well known, if it’s known at all, for the cover version by Transvision Vamp, the original version of this song came from a short-lived band called Holly & The Italians, fronted by Holly Beth Vincent. Originally from the US, they relocated to UK and garnered a certain amount of critical success in the early 1980s, although none of that every translated into any kind of commercial success. Tell That Girl To Shut Up is the one song that seems to have outlasted (and maybe overshadowed) their career. It’s the somewhat bitter retort of a young woman who has been spurned by her lover for the attractions of another, and the physical violence she wishes to inflict on the new woman as a result. Maybe not totally PC as a result, it’s still a great song, with a real blast of energy.

So here’s the song sheet. I hunted high-and-low online trying to find any kind of chords for this, and failed miserably. So using the wonderful Chordify as a starting point, I’ve managed to work up something that seems to work. As you would expect there’s nothing very complicated here, no tricky chords, weird timings, etc. It’s just a straight up rock/pop song that deserves to be sung with passion and energy. Enjoy!

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Picture This – Blondie

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To be perfectly honest there’s a whole raft of Blondie songs I could have posted on here. OK, maybe not Rapture, and Heart of Glass might be a struggle, but much of the Blondie back catalogue just seems to work really well on ukulele. I guess that is testament to the fact that they wrote good strong songs, with good strong tunes – simple yet effective, and ear-worms that won’t loosen their grip for days on end.

Picture This is from the generally acknowledged highpoint of Blondie‘s career, Parallel Lines, an album that sold 20 million copies, spawned four hit singles in the UK (two of which were number one) and still sounds fresh and buzzing every time you play it. The album was produced by Mike Chapman, who was resonspible for a string of hit singles in the 1970s, particularly Glam Rock artists such as Mud, Sweet and Suzi Quattro. That crips, punchy, no nonsense sound permeates Parallel Lines, but obviously there is more to it than that.

And obviously there is Debbie Harry, who for many people was Blondie (unfairly but understandably so). The epitome of the sassy, spunky, sexy front woman, this was prime-era Harry, and whilst the songs are great, her presence fronting up these songs really makes them something else. I refer you to the video (below) for this song as evidence – essentially just long, lingering shots of Debbie backlit in a yellow dress again, peroxide blonde against a black backdrop. Cheap, simple, but totally effective and sexy as hell!

So what about the song. Well I don’t think there is too much that needs to be said about that . It is relatively simple and straightforward (apart from the occassional Ab chord), it has a little riff (which you can either sing! or play) and it powers on through from beginning to end. Play with attitude. Oh, and it needs a bit of a deep breath for a few lines in the chorus – you’ll find that out when you try to play it. Enjoy!

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