Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Spacer – Sheila B. Devotion

It’s the late 1970s, and disco has taken over the world. Yes, I know that in the critics-written history of pop it was all about punk, post-punk and new wave. But in terms of commercial success and popularity it was disco all the way.

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Now I understand that disco had (and still has) its detractors, something that reached something of a crescendo with the infamous Disco Demolition Night where a crate of disco records was blown-up in the middle of a baseball game in the US to chants of “Disco Sucks”. And yes, I will accept that the tacking on of a disco beat to anything became something of a plague (although I definitely have a soft spot for The Rolling Stones’ Miss You). But alongside the dross and bandwagon jumpers there were some truly sublime moments.

Not a small number of those sublime moments came from the hands of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Most famously known for being the power behind disco behemoths Chic, over a hugely productive period at the end of the 70s and early 80s the pair lent their not inconsiderable talents to the likes of Sister Sledge (Lost in Music, We are Family, etc.), Diana Ross (Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and more), Debbie Harry (KooKoo) and Carly Simon (Why). But one of the more overlooked collaborations was with a French former  Yé-yé artist originally just known as Sheila. Adopting a more contemporary disco style, she had a huge European hit with a disco version of Singing In The Rain in 1977. But it was Spacer, the first fruits of that collaboration with Rodgers and Edwards, for which she will always be known. Full of the trademark Chic funky guitar and bass, I defy anybody now to want to strut their stuff to this collision of two late 1970s phenomenons – disco and sci-fi.

Star Wars had woken Hollywood to the sudden realisation that sci-fi was a cash cow, and for five minutes there was a sudden spate of sci-fi / disco cross-overs. Spacer was by far the best of those (and check out the extended version for it at its best), but it was joined in the charts by the likes of I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper (Sarah Brightman, before Andrew Lloyd Webber credibilty), Automatic Lover (Dee D Jackson, who had worked with Giorgio Moroder), the awesome Space by Magic Fly, and even a disco version of the Star Wars theme.

Ukulele-disco I hear you say. Are you mad?! Well maybe, but as has possibly been proven previously it might just work. There’s nothing too tricky chord-wise here (the E7sus4 to Em7 change is reasonably straightforward once you’ve got used to it). But clearly getting a good, steady rhythm is key to making this one work. To that end I’ve had a go at recording this over the top of the original so you have some idea of how *I* think it could go (see below – you can obviously do your own thing) – I hope this helps.

 

 

 


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Kiss Me – Sixpence None The Richer

kiss-meMostly remembered as a one-hit wonder (although – in the UK at least – this was successfully followed up by a cover of The La’s classic There She Goes) Kiss Me is one of those songs that has stood the test of time, being a song that has passed the rather haphazard selection process to become a staple of oldies radio.

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Sixpence None The Richer were that rare thing, a band that broke out of the Christian music scene to achieve some proper commercial success. Admittedly that success was mainly limited to a couple of singles and their corresponding album, but all the same such a breakout is unusual. With something of a jangle-y sound (which probably inspired the choice of There She Goes as a cover) Kiss Me is no more – and no less – than an encapsulation of a shimmering, golden moment in a romantic relationship. The world needs songs like this.

And so the song sheet. It’s a simple song that relies on that D / Dmaj7 / D7 rundown (I’ve taken it down a semitone to make it easier to play – use a capo on the first fret to play along) during the verses, and a similar rundown towards the end of the chorus. The strumming pattern can be a bit tricksy, but as usual listen to the original and get the feel from there.

Enjoy!

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Bonny – Prefab Sprout

SteveMcQueenNot only is Steve McQueen one of the albums of the 1980s, I would argue that it is one of the albums of all-time.

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Not that this seems to be a universally held truth. Despite a lot of love for it, it only manages to scrape in at number 434 on the NME list of the best 500 albums ever. And doesn’t appear at all on the equivalent Rolling Stone list. But in this case I can safely say that they are both wrong. Steve McQueen, the second album from Paddy McAloon and his erstwhile band Prefab Sprout, was/is pure genius.

Musically sophisticated  yet still totally accessible, lyrically witty whilst still emotionally resonant, melodies to die for, all given a superb pop sheen by producer Thomas Dolby. Oh, and the angelic backing vocals of Wendy Smith are (more than just) the icing on the cake.

From the opening meta-country of “Faron Young” (a country-tinged song taking “Four In The Morning” as its emotional reference point ) the standard is set. Side One then ploughs a furrow that, to my mind, is not excelled anywhere in pop music – Bonny, Appetite, When Love Breaks Down (released at least three times, and still only charting at #25!), Goodbye Lucille #1 (otherwise known as Johnny Johnny), Hallelujah (*not* the Leonard Cohen song!). And if Side Two is somehow less than the first, it is only because of the insanely high standards that have already been set – Moving The River, Horsin’ Around, Desire As, Blueberry Pies, When The Angels. Pure pop perfection in one single package.

Nobody could keep up that standard forever, but McAloon and Co. certainly didn’t let that stop them trying. Official follow-up From Langley Park To Memphis, the sprawling, ambitious, vaguely conceptual (Love, God, Elvis, Death!) Jordan: The Comeback, the more low-key Andromeda Heights, and the surprise solo (but still using the Prefab moniker) Crimson/Red all flew the flag for perfect, sophisticated pop (and McQueen’s predecessor, the slightly prickly Swoon, would be up there too). Yet Steve McQueen acts as a high water mark for just how perfect perfect pop can be.

So here is Bonny, a lyrically ambiguous tome (is it about a girl that’s left him, or a man that’s died) that is a perfect representation of the Steve McQueen sound. It was later covered very successfully in a more reflective, slowed down version by Editors (who – coincidence or not – were on the same record label – Newcastle-based Kitchenware – as the Prefab’s, at the time a veritable feast of goodness with stablemates including Hurrah!, Kane Gang and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees).

So can we do justice to this marvellous song on the ukulele? Probably not, but that won’t stop me or you trying. So here’s the songsheet. If it looks a little busy, don’t worry. Listen to the song, particularly the intro, to get the strumming pattern going which you can keeping going throughout the song. Some of the transition chords are very brief (e.g. the Asus4 at the beginning of the chorus lines, the A’s at the end of those lines, and all the Bm7’s) and could be skipped if you struggle with timing. But they do add to the colouring of the song. If in doubt at any time, just resort to that gorgeous major 7 chord! Enjoy!

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Whistle Down The Wind – Nick Heyward

WhistleDownTheWindNick Heyward is one of those classic instances of a songwriter who the public won’t let grow up.

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First shooting to prominence in the early 1980s with his band Haircut 100, Heyward took some of the hip sounds of the time (the jangly guitars of Orange Juice, the white-boy funk that was everywhere at the time), added a melodic pop sensibility, and cleaned up with some classic singles (Favourite Shirts, Love Plus One, Fantastic Day, Nobody’s Fool). The band didn’t last long though, and only recorded one album together (Pelican West). Heyward subsequently launched a solo career, kicking off with this classic pop song, a song that had originally been slated as a Haircut 100 single. Whilst his first album, North of  a Miracle, did quite well, Heyward soon fell off the pop radar (something probably not helped by having acquired a devoted but fickle young female fan base with Haircut 100). Albums struggled to be heard, and have been sporadic over the years. His last was in 2006, but it looks like there may be new material later this year. However don’t take that as any signifier of a lack of quality. Heyward is a dedicated and focussed songwriter, working in a classic british pop vein, and his lack of success or visibility says more about the fickle state of pop than it does about his talents.

Whistle Down The Wind takes its title from a 1961 British film that starred Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee and Alan Bates in a touching story of three young children finding a fugitive in a barn, mistaking him for Jesus Christ, unbeknown that he is wanted on suspicion of murder. The song only tangentially touches on these themes, and is a slightly more mellow sound than the Haircut 100 sounds that preceded it. I’ve only recently discovered the album this is from, North of  a Miracle, but it is a superb collection of classic pop sounds that is vastly underrated.

So here is the songsheet. Nothing too complicated, although a few unusual chords are thrown in there. But they do give the song its colour. Enjoy!

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History – One Direction

HistoryOK, so this isn’t my usual kind of thing. I know that. And to be honest, this isn’t a song that I would ever knowingly choose to listen to or plan. But when it was recently suggested that The Flukes give this a bash for a wedding gig we’re playing soon it seemed churlish not to give it a go. And you know what? It works rather well!

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There’s not a great deal to say about this. One Direction, a product of the X Factor TV programme in 2010, became huge, a global sensation, managed to churn our five albums in five years that sold astonishingly well, and in the process made a huge amount of money. Inevitably things eventually started coming apart, and the group is currently taking an extended break whilst the various members pursue their own thing.

History was the bands’ final single before that hiatus, and whilst not the massive success that some of their other songs have been, it has still performed respectably.

And so to the song sheet. There’s nothing too tricky in here chord wise, but the rhythm may be a little challenging. It’s performed to a light 12/8 shuffle that takes a little while to get the hang of. But once you do, it’s effectively that same rhythm the whole way through. The songsheet is in F just to make it a bit easier to play – the original is in Gb, so play with capo 1 if you want to play along with the original.

Enjoy!

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Save A Prayer – Duran Duran

Save A PrayerThings don’t come more 80’s than this. With its exotically located video and its synthpop stylings, for some this is the cliched 80s song – a vapid triumph of style over content. Yet whilst that might be true of some music and bands from the period, I would argue it is an unfair slight on this band. Yes, they did – for a while – become the screaming female band of choice, there was always more to them that that.

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Coming from a late-70s Birmingham art school scene, strongly influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music, Duran Duran were, alongside the likes of Spandau Ballet and Visage, a key part of the early 80s New Romantic scene that – in its strong emphasis on image and glamour – was both a reaction to and inspire by the spirit of punk. Whilst they had a good level of success with their first album, it was with their second album, Rio, that the band really hit the big time. Featuring a clutch of hit singles, including Hungry Like The Wolf, the title track Rio, My Own Way and this (the most successful of the bunch) it launched the band into the big time, and with the accompanying videos (filmed in the likes of Sri Lanka and Antigua) capturing something of the aspirational spirit of the age turned then into an iconic representation of that time.

But underneath all that there were good songs. And Save A Prayer is nothing if not a good song. More thoughtful and wistful than some of their more poppy moments, this is an accessible and yearning ballad that, whilst being immediately redolent of the age – at least for those who remember it – is also a timeless pop moment.

And so to the song sheet. I’ve tried to reflect the original recording as much as possible. Chords are relatively straightforward, and the rhythm is – I think – quite easy to pick up from listening to the original. I’ve also included some solo parts – the arpeggio and riff from the opening, parts of which are repeated throughout the song, plus a riff that occurs during the chorus. Obviously you can totally ignore those if you wish and just stick to the chords.

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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