Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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It’s Christmas!!

…and it’s time to roll out all the usual Christmas tunes. There’s always something reassuring about those old chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), and it is that recurring familiarity that wraps us in a comfort blanket of sound and memories. But those old standards were new once – hard as it seems to imagine – and their all pervasiveness hinders equally classic, but much less well-known songs, from getting the attention they deserve. So this post is a my small attempt to put that right, as I present four Christmas songs that – in my book – *are* classics, and deserve far wider attention than they get.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>  <Christmas Day>  <I Wish It Was Christmas Today>  <Vegetarian Christmas>

 

Exhibit One. A Pretty Good Christmas, by The Disappointment Choir. I know *nothing* about this band, although I probably should investigate them further off the back of this absolutely gorgeous Christmas song. This falls into that slightly-miserable-but-ultimately-hopeful category of Christmas tunes. As I write this we’re awaiting the results of the UK 2019 General Election, and the words to this somehow chime relevant at the moment – “I don’t know what the first of the next year will bring / But it’s going to be a pretty good Christmas”.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>

 

Exhibit Two. Christmas Day, by Kasey Chambers. Kasey Chambers is an Australian country singer and songwriter who, over the period of 20 years has established a solid body of work. Chambers was raised a a Seventh Day Adventist, and although she hasn’t aligned herself with the church for a long time, she retains a strong spiritual belief, something that comes through in Christmas Day (from her 2014 album, Bittersweet) which picks up on the religious aspects of Christmas, and offers a telling of the Christmas story.

<Christmas Day>

 

Exhibit Three. I Wish It Was Christmas Today, by Julian Casablancas. Former lead man from The Strokes, I Wish It Was Christmas Today was originally a novelty item on the US variety show Saturday Night Live. But Casablancas amped it up, gave it a new wave work-over, and from that emerged this real banger. There is just *no* reason why this song shouldn’t be up there on the Christmas repeat list.

<I Wish It Was Christmas Today>

 

Exhibit Four. Vegetarian Christmas, by Feet. Bang up to date, Vegetarian Christmas was – as I write – only released a week ago. But in my book this deserves to become a regular fixture on Christmas playlists. I’ve actually seen Feet a couple of times this year, firstly supporting Lauren Hibberd, the second time headlining themselves. And they were fab! Intelligent guitar-driven indie in a vein not dissimilar to Sports Team, this is a band that is full of character, imagination and variety. Vegetarian Christmas extols the virtues of a meat-free diet with a surprisingly traditional, family-centric view of the season.

<Vegetarian Christmas>


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The Cure – Songbook

I’ve been searching around for something a bit different for our album nights. Whilst we’ve done had some great evenings and covered some great records, we somehow seem to have got ourselves stuck in the 1970s. I guess that’s in part to do with the demographic of our group, and where that era was such a formative time musically for many of us. It’s also something to do with the undeniable fact that there were some really classic records that came out during that time, records that have survived and thrived over the years.

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But I felt that I was maybe playing it a little bit safe, and so felt that it would be good to branch out a little bit. One of the things that Southampton Ukulele Jam prides itself on is singing songs that no other ukulele group would try. I think some of the songs we’ve done at the album evenings definitely fall into that category, and I wanted to honour that objective. So this is a result of that. Admittedly it’s not Crass, Cocteau Twins or Kraftwerk (to name a few), and the bulk of these songs are relatively well-known and well-loved. Songs like In Between Days and Friday I’m In Love have fairly regular outings at Southampton Ukulele Jam, and are relatively uke friendly. Others here such as Just Like Heaven I’ve published previously, and Boys Don’t Cry was wheeled out for one of our 1979 nights. And I’ve definitely gone for the more accessible end of Robert Smith’s oeuvre. But songs like A Forest (from the band’s earlier, dark and gloom phase), the whispered, under-the-breath vocals of Lullaby (which, lyrically at least, is definitely not designed to lull you to sleep), the electronic-based attempt to break away from the captive Goth fans and find a pop audience that is Let’s Go To Bed, and the manic intensity of Why Can’t I Be You are songs that certainly aren’t your average ukulele fare. Add to that a selection of hypnotic, introspective, mid-tempo classics from the high-water mark that is Disintegration (Lovesong and Pictures of You) and I think this little collection hits the mark that I was aiming for. That said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – we will do this as an evening, and I’ll report back on how they work.

I don’t think I need to say much more about The Cure. They’ve now been going for over forty years, in various guises, and have built up an impressive body of work that has established themselves as the elder statesman of alternative rock (whatever that means). Variously gothic and gloomy, poppy and perky, but at all times original and not willing to plough the same tried and tested furrow, the band’s recent closing headline set at Glastonbury re-affirmed the credentials of a band that shouldn’t really have lasted this far.

Here’s the list of songs included in the songbook:

  • A Forest
  • Boy’s Don’t Cry
  • Close To Me
  • Friday I’m In Love
  • In Between Days
  • Just Like Heaven
  • Let’s Go To Bed
  • The Lovecats
  • Lovesong
  • Lullaby
  • Pictures Of You
  • Why Can’t I Be You?

The songs are mostly true to the originals. I’ve transposed one or two, and where there is a choice they adhere to the single versions. I’ve also included a selection of tab for the various riffs that crop up in some of the songs – many of which are such an integral part of the songs that it felt only right to add them. Enjoy!

<Songbook>

 


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Roy’s Tune – Fontaines D.C.

If anybody is band of the moment it has to be Fontaines D.C. The hype for this group of Dublin post-punk-ers has been building and building over the last few months, and with the release of their debut album Dogrel yesterday that is likely to amplify. And deservedly so, in my book.

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Fontaines D.C. are not for the feint-hearted. There music is a full-on assault – clattering drums, punching bass and take-no-prisoners guitars, topped with the full-on Irish brogue of lead man Grian Chatten. That voice is truly Grian’s own – it’s not going to win any competitions, but in the context of this band it is just what is needed. Drawing on Ireland’s long literary heritage, this is serious music that doesn’t shirk from the gritty reality of life as it is now – as one of their other songs taunts, “Is it too real for ya?”.

But for all their reputation as pummelling, aggressive noiseniks, Dogrel show’s there is more to the band than that. Roy’s Tune is a case in point – a poignant reflection on how the behaviour of giant corporations can impact on the lives of ordinary people. Guitarist and writer of the song, Conor Curley, had this to say about the song:

It’s sung to Ireland – from a mindset of frustration, depression, and a loss of innocence… A couple years back the EU awarded Ireland €14 billion in back taxes from Apple, but the government here refuses to do anything with the money out of fear Apple will move their headquarters. They care more about a giant corporation than the people of our country, and all we can do is sit there and take it. We wanted this to be a moment of reflection on the album. We included this song with the purpose of showing our intent as a band and as songwriters. We intend to explore whatever emotions or ideas we see, not just make ‘another post-punk album’.

Oh, and do watch the video (below). It’s great, and really enhances the song.

As with many of the band’s songs, their is simplicity at the heart. The song is – at surface level – very basic, really only two chords. But there is a power and focus at the heart of the song that gives it its strength. Essentially it’s the same pattern repeated throughout the song, so once you get that (spelled out in the intro in the song sheet) you’ll have it. I’ve included two versions – one in the original key, and one transposed down to make it easier to play (removing those horrible E’s and B’s!). This is a song that deserves to be sung. Enjoy!


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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.

<songsheet>

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.

<songsheet>

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!