Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Heaven – Talking Heads

I had – very briefly – contemplated doing Talking Heads’ classic live album, Speaking In Tongues, as one of our album nights. Then I looked at it and tried it and realised that translating a number of those great, funky, single-chord songs into a mass ukulele sing-a-long was going to be pushing it somewhat. But that did get me back into that album, and ultimately led to this.

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It’s fair to say that Heaven, a song that first appeared on their 1979 milestone, Fear of Music, doesn’t display a number of those classic Talking Heads tropes. There’s no funky poly-rhythms going on here. There’s no itchy guitar restlessness. This is quite a straight song, in Talking Heads terms. But look beyond that, and you’ll find at it’s heart a song that does touch in some recurring David Byrne themes. There’s plenty of existential angst going on here – this, after all, is a song that effectively ponders the dullness and banality of a perfect world, that – by implication – yearns for the messiness of real-life, and makes a strong argument that imperfection and mistakes are what makes humanity, and – this being a band with strong art-y leanings, makes great art. All of this delivered in a Byrne vocal – particularly in the live Stop Making Sense version – that increasingly reflects his desperation at the finding himself in a situation of stupefying mundanity.

There’s a great piece on the song here that expands on this.

And so here’s the song sheet. By Talking Heads standards this is a very conventional song, and has been described elsewhere as country rock. So no tricky rhythms to work through, no tricky chords, the only slightly awkward thing can be the timing of the lyrics – I’ve tried to provide some pointers to that in the song sheet. There are a few subtle transitions thrown in on some of the chord changes – I haven’t transcribed these, but if you listen to the original (either the studio or live version) you can fairly easy pick those out. Enjoy!

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All Of My Heart – ABC

So there was me just ready to publish an update to the Uketunes songbook. And then last night I put ABC’s The Lexicon of Love on (it was warm and sunny, and in my book Lexicon is a summer album – summer 1982, to be precise). And what should happen but this absolute corker of song comes up and gets my uke ears thinking, “Well that would work, wouldn’t it”. And I think it does. So here it is.

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Obviously playing this song on the humble ukulele was clearly far from the mind of Martin Fry, ABC and (particularly) producer Trevor Horn when The Lexicon of Love was conceived and recorded. After all, this is an album that was the epitome of the “New Pop” sound of the early 1980s, aspirational, lush, glistening music that sought to marry the ethos of post-punk and new wave with pure pop sounds and chart appeal. And so Sheffield band ABC emerged from the ruins of a previous electronic incarnation (Vice Versa), and moved towards a more disco/soul sound. Trevor Horn (formery of Buggles, later of ZTT, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, etc.) came on board after the minor chart success of debut single Tears Are Not Enough, and turned the bands aspirations and a collection of literate, heart-on-the-sleeve songs into an epic recording that set the bar so high for the band that arguably the rest of their career has been lived in the shadow of this record.

All Of My Heart was the last of four singles from the album, and if anything represents the “epic ballad” of the album. It’s actually quite up beat for a ballad, but here was a song swathed in the string arrangements of Anne Dudley, arguably the most wide-screen of songs on the album. Echoing themes from across the album, All Of My Heart is a tale of love lost, in turn reflective and bitter, this is most definitely *not* a song for walking down the aisle to!

So how does this bold and fearless classic translate to the uke? Well, quite well, I think. When it boils down to it, it’s only a four chord song, one that has a killer tune and leaves plenty of room for emoting. There’s one or two slightly tricky timing issues, primarily after the “All of my heart” lines at the end of the chorus, when an extra beat/pause is thrown in (which probably makes that a 5/4 bar). And the [D]/[G] sequence immediately after the second chorus “All of my heart” is 3 beats of D and 5 of G. But listen to the song (its in the same key as the songsheet) and you’ll get the hang of it. Enjoy!


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Making Plans For Nigel – XTC

Hot on the heels of the previous post, which featured the more pastoral, psychedelic side of XTC, here is one of – if not THE – songs that the band is known for.

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XTC were originally formed in Swindon in the early 1970s, taking a while to find their sound (early incarnations were of a more glam / glitter rock persuasion), ultimately emerging as part of the punk generation in 1977. However, XTC were never one to be pigeon-holed, and to be honest were somewhat smarter that your average punk band, and from the get-go refused to bow to the somewhat conservative conventions and year zero mindset that the punk scene often created.

Characterised by a jagged, angular sound, and smart, often ironic lyrics, the band were three albums into their recording career before they finally found some kind of significant success, a purple period from 1979 to 1982 that saw them regulars in the mid-reaches of the charts.

Making Plans For Nigel was the song that brought them that initial flurry of recognition and success, and it is a song that has weathered well. From the pen and voice of Colin Moulding, this song has become a mainstay of a hundred new wave compilations. A song that still sounds as fresh as the day it was conceived, a song full of spaces, it is underpinned by a distinctive drum pattern and sound, topped with sharp angular guitar riffs, and a lyric that mocks the entry into dull careerism to the titular Nigel, all wrapped in a production that is both crisp and sharp, and also owes more than a little to the dub sounds and effects that were entering the mainstream at the time from reggae.

So here’s the songsheet. It’s quite a straightforward song, the trick is getting a rhythm / strumming pattern that works. I’m not going to be prescriptive about that, just experiment and seems what works. The D / D4 / D5 run down can easily be replaced with a straight D, but otherwise it should all work as written. Enjoy!


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Mars Bars – The Undertones

The punk and new wave sounds of the late 70s have proven an unlikely but – when you  think about it – not unsurprising vein to plunder for certain ukulele groups.

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Unlikely, in that the ferocious anger and noise of punk would seem to be the antithesis of music played on a tiny acoustic instrument. But unsurprising, given that a significant part of the punk ethos was the “anybody can do it” mentality. Memorably articulated in the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue’s article on how playing in a band – “THIS IS A CHORD. THIS IS ANother. This IS A THIRD. NOW FORM A BAND” (see here) – that same mindset is part of what (I think) has made the ukulele so successful of late. Whilst yes, there are virtuoso’s out there who can do stunning things with the instrument, for most of us it is an opportunity to strum away to some well known tunes, sing together, and build a community in the process.

So here’s a community song for you all! The Undertones were not a hardcore punk band, and may have been derided in some quarters for that. But what they did do is bring a lot of punk values – short sharp  guitar  noise songs – combine it with a sense of teenage mischief, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and most of all some great, memorable tunes. They were also a singles band at heart, and that meant not just stunning A-Sides, but also some cracking B-Sides as well. Mars Bars is a case in point. The B-Side of Jimmy Jimmy, it’s obviously not Shakespeare, but what it is a blast of pure energy and fun, something to put a smile on your face as you pogo down the high street!

And so to the songsheet. I’ve taken it down from the original (which was in E, this version is in D) which I think makes it easier to play. There’s also a choice of chords – mainly designed to facilitate the D/C#/D riff at the end of the 1st and 3rd lines in the verse (use the barred chords for that and it’s easy). I’ve also included the opening riff which kicks the song off. Sing with a grin on your face. Enjoy!


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O Children – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Another Nick Cave song, and another where appearances can be deceptive – a gentle but intense song that ultimately appears to be a ballad of murder and suicide.

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Yet this is the song that, despite having a moderate sized hit with Where The Wild Roses Grow, has probably had the biggest exposure of any Nick Cave song, albeit maybe unknowingly for the majority of it’s audience. O Children was first released in 2004 on Cave’s double album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, an album that was in effect two albums, almost flip-sides of each other – Abattoir Blues a more menacing, driving rock album, and The Lyre of Orpheus a quieter, more reflective album – elsewhere the distinction being stated much better as Abattoir Blues being “a rock & roll record… a pathos-drenched, volume-cranked rocker, full of crunch, punishment – and taste” and The Lyre of Orpheus “a much quieter, more elegant affair… more consciously restrained, its attention to craft and theatrical flair more prevalent.” O Children closes out The Lyre of Orpheus.

But it was the choice of the song to feature in a pivotal scene in the 2010 film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) that both brought a certain emotional intensity to the movie, and also brought Cave’s music to a far broader audience than he had ever been exposed to before. As this interesting article points out, the inclusion of music “from an artist whose work has been steeped in lechery, sin and redemption, characteristics [is] not necessarily associated with a holiday-season family blockbuster”. And yet it worked, and that scene, and this song, are held in great affection by many fans of Harry Potter.

And here is the songsheet. It’s a long sprawling song, so had to stretch to two pages – sorry about that. It’s a straightforward chord sequence, the rough timing of which I’ve indicated in the intro – the only trick being to delay the [D] chord at the end of the sequence (it’s only two beats). The song itself has Cave singing with a group of backing singers, and so in places the lines overlap – I’ve tried to indicate where these overlaps happen with asterisked chords – don’t play both of these chords, they are in effect the same chord, just shown twice for clarity. Enjoy!


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Murder Ballads – Nick Cave

Part 723 of my continued but ultimately fruitless attempt to refute the myth that the ukulele can only do jolly and happy…

<Henry Lee>  <Where The Wild Roses Grow>

…and what better way to demonstrate that than with a double-bill from the prince of Goth himself, Mr Nick Cave. And to make it doubly grizzly, let’s make it two from the gore-fest that is his Murder Ballads album.

Nick Cave is something of a polymath, being an author, screenwriter and soundtrack composer, but obviously most notable for his songwriting and performing, initially with the post-punk, proto-gothic sounds of the self-styled “most violent live band in the world” The Birthday Party, and subsequently (and for the past 30+ years) with his band The Bad Seeds, Cave often explores themes of death, religion, love and violence in his songs.

So 1996’s Murder Ballads was not exactly a bolt from the blue, but even by Cave’s standards it goes deep, dark and macarbe, sometimes to excess, albeit with a wry smile on its face. Composed of new and traditional murder-themed stories, taking the traditional use of the word ballad as a stories narrated in short stanzas, the album racks up a body count of 65 over its 10 tracks (bookended with a redemptive cover of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End). This is *not* background music, not easy listening, and certainly not for the squeamish (Stagger Lee has been described as “one of the finest foul-mouthed songs ever committed to tape, a swaggering tale of prostitutes and pistols, muddy roads and bloody murder”, and is brilliant!), but it is totally immersive, brilliantly executed career highlight.

To be honest, the two songs presented here aren’t totally representative of the album, but certainly are the two that probably translate best to the uke. Where The Wild Roses Grow is a duet with – of all people – Kylie Minogue, and gave Cave his one and only UK hit (what people buying Murder Ballads off the back of this song thought of it heaven only knows). Taking inspiration from the traditional song Down in the Willow Garden (also know as Rose Connelley), it tells the story of a man courting a woman and killing her while they are out together. Henry Lee is another duet, this time with PJ Harvey (with whom Cave had an affair, the breakup of which is a significant inspiration to Murder Ballads’ follow-up, The Boatman’s Call), and another variant on a traditional song (this time Young Hunting), this time turning the tables and telling the tale of a “the fury of a woman scorned”. Both songs tell their story in alternate versus from the man and woman’s perspective.

It is worth commenting on the videos for these two songs as well, as they are both remarkable. Where The Wild Roses Grow adopts the imagery of Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 painting Ophelia, with Cave and Minogue in role. Henry Lee is a single-take, straight-to-camera, studio-bound video that practically explodes with the barely restrained sexual tension between the two singers.

 

 

 

And so (finally!) to the song sheets. In terms of chords, neither of these does anything tricky or unusual. Essentially these are ballads where the music’s job is to carry the stories. However there are one or two tricky timing issues. Henry Lee plays in 6/8 time, but chucks in an extra three beats (a 3/8 bar?) on the “a little bird lit down on Henry Lee” line. Likewise Where The Wild Roses Grow is also in 6/8, this time straight and without interruptions, the only slightly tricky bit being the first and third lines of the chorus, which is timed as [Gm] 1 2 3 4 5 6 [Cm] 1 2 3 [Gm] 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6 (if that makes sense).  I’ve also indicated on each song sheet where the singer is male, female or both. Enjoy!

<Henry Lee>  <Where The Wild Roses Grow>


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Bizarre Love Triangle – New Order

bizarreWe’ve already had a smattering of New Order on the site (see in the shape of both sides of the True Faith single), but nothing for a while, so when this little ditty popped up recently it seemed worth giving it a try. And what do you know, it works!

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Bizarre Love Triangle is New Order at their prime. The full length 12″ version is – in my books – just a perfect record, something that was amplified when I saw Peter Hook’s The Light perform it recently as part of a stunning concert where they performed both the Low-Life and Brotherhood albums in their entirety. Even cut down to the standard single version it is an amazing piece of music. And to prove it’s not just the recording that is strong, but there is a quality song at the heart of it, an acoustic version by Frente! (apparently a moderate hit in the US in the 1990s) gave a new perspective on the song.

A quick YouTube search reveals quite a few ukulele-based covers of the song. So it does work. You can either do it as a gentle finger-picked version (a la the Frente! cover) or give it a bit of wellie and go for the feel of the original (although be warned – try it too fast and you’ll run out of breath quite quickly!). It’s a simple, repeated chord sequence all the way through, and whilst the Fmaj7 may not be totally in line with the original I personally think it gives the song some additional colour. Enjoy!

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