Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Twentytwo – Sunflower Bean

So here we with the second gig-inspired song in the last couple of months. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of spending a lovely evening with my daughter at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth, in the company of New York band Sunflower Bean.

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Four months ago Sunflower Bean meant nothing to me. Since then, thanks to finally taking the plunge with a Spotify subscription (other streaming platforms are available), I’ve managed to catch-up on more new music than I’ve probably done in the last five years. And The Bean (as nobody calls them!) are one of my favourites. Whilst the band can certainly rock the house (new single Come For Me being a good example), one of the things that I love about the band is that they certainly don’t stick to a tried and tested formula. Indie in the original meaning of the word, the parent album for this song (Twentytwo in Blue) has moments of stomping Glam rock, Velvets-flavoured Garage rock, west-coast soft rock, dreamy psychedelics and shoe-gaze. And yet doesn’t come across as the stylistic ragbag that may suggest – there is a unified vision at the heart of the band that is all their own, and that gives them their own, unique identify.

Twentytwo is – I guess – the title track of the album. A twenty-something perspective on growing up and coming of age, the song packs a powerful combination of melancholy and defiance that has echoes Fleetwood Mac and the darker moments in the Abba catalogue. Luxurious and nostalgic, this is the sound of a band who know there mind and will follow the muse wherever it will take them.

And so to the song sheet. Nothing too clever or tricky here. This is a great song to belt out, but needs some textures and contrasts to bring it alive. Note that the song sheet is for the full version from the album – the video above is an edited version of the song that loses a verse and a few other nips and tucks. Enjoy!

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War Baby – Tom Robinson

There’s been a few songs on here recently that have been inspired by gigs that I’ve either been to are going to. And you know what? Here comes another.

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In popular consciousness, when people think of Tom Robinson (if they think of him at all) there’s one, maybe two, songs that comes straight to the front of the queue. But they’re wrong! That’s not to say that 2-4-6-8 Motorway is a bad song – it’s a head-down pile-driver of a fist-pumping sing-along song that deserves to be up there in the pantheon of punk-inspired greats. Neither is Glad To Be Gay – a somewhat controversial (at the time) song that probably wasn’t the best career move Robinson ever made.

But if you’re looking for a sublime classic that represents quality songwriting, a timeless, emotionally brutal stream-of-consciousness evocation of nostalgia and regret, then look no further. This – for me – is peak Tom Robinson. This is such a gorgeous wonder of a song, very different to the rawness, aggression and political bite of his earlier sounds, but retaining the ferocious honesty that has been a hallmark of his whole career.

So last night there I was at the 1865 in Southampton (incidentally, the new home of Southampton Ukulele Jam) watching Tom Robinson perform, in full, his powerful debut album Power In The Darkness. It was a great show, with a great band, and a 68-year old Robinson in great form as singer, bass-player, band leader and host. The album played, the encore was made of the contemporaneous classics Martin, Glad to be Gay and a stretched-out rousing 2-4-6-8 Motorway. So job done, and what a good evening that would have been. But the best, the peak was yet to come. Responding to an audience who clearly wanted more, the unexpected gift to close out the evening was a wondrous version of this here classic. This boy couldn’t have been happier.

So how does it work for the ukulele? Well quite well, I think. There’s some lovely chords in here, and some lovely progressions. I’ve tried to simplify down from the original to something playable, but still retain the essence of the original song. So there are one or two slightly unusual chords in here, but persevere because it is those that make it.  Fitting the words in can be a little tricky (this is quite a verbose song) but if – like me – you know the song like the back of your hand, it will flow. Just enjoy!


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The Sound Of The Suburbs – The Members

“Inspiration” for the songs posted on this blog comes from many and varied places. Today’s came a bit out of the blue with the notification that The Members are playing a gig in my home town (Southampton) early next year.

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Now The Members aren’t a band that I’m massively familiar with. This single, obviously, a perennial that crops up on almost every Punk / New Wave compilation album you care to mention, is one that nobody of a certain age will be ignorant of (although it never even made the top 10 at the time). Alongside that I have strong memories of a great couple of later singles (Working Girl, Radio) which were what was referred to at the time as “radio hits” (loads of airplay, nobody brought it). But I hadn’t dug much further than that.

Turns out that “The Sound of The Suburbs” is an anthem in more ways than one. As well as being a pogo-tastic punk/pop phenomenon, it’s lyrical focus (life in the suburbs – the band came from Camberley, songs of humdrum reality, rather than the big, exciting city) was something that was reflected across the band’s output. I love this quote from the inimitable Paul Morely in a 1979 edition of the NME:

The Members sing about silly, simple things, and do it with style. Their lyrics deal with pathetic characters, trivial frustrations, minor irritations, unimportant failures; so if you’re lonely or spotty, you daydream a lot, the beard won’t come, the figure won’t fill out, your mum won’t leave you alone, the girls/boys all laugh at you, you can’t do anything right, your life’s intolerably dull – then the Members are the band for you. 

The band combined both punk and reggae styles in their music, but The Sound of the Suburbs definitely falls into the former category – full on punk power-chords, brief and concise solos, vocals that verge on the shouty, but with lyrics that demonstrate a wit and wisdom that echoes some of the theatrical, music hall influences that contemporaries like Ian Dury and Madness also brought to the music scene of the time.

So an obvious candidate for a ukulele song! Well yes, obviously. And so here is the songsheet. Chord-wise there isn’t anything too tricky here – a C5 power chord being the only unusual one. Although that said, there is a run up the fret-board at the end of the instrumental section in the middle of the song that is a little unusual – however all it is is a D bar chord (2225) going up the fret board one fret at a time. I’ve also included some tab for the solos – the opening riff, the solo in the instrumental section, and the outro. But most of all, this is a song to be bashed and shouted out. Have fun. And enjoy!


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Come As You Are – Nirvana

I must admit that by the early 90s my interest in popular and alternative music had somewhat dissipated. This probably had something to do with the advent of a family of my own, as well as the rise to dominance of the rave scene (which I just never connected with), but by that time my musical interests were headed off in a more rootsy, country, folky direction (Bruce Cockburn, Van Morrison, Nanci Griffth and others), and as a result I really lost touch with what was happening in mainstream music.

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So whilst Nirvana were definitely on my radar (it would be hard for them not to be, so ubiquitous were they at the time), they weren’t somebody that I really paid that much attention to. And I’m not going to stand here and say that I had a subsequent life-changing revelation and realised everything that I’d missed. But without you even trying certain songs just ooze into your consciousness, and become part of the background of your life. Come As You Are is one such song.

Released as the second single from the bands huge, iconic album Nevermind, Come As You Are was a more obviously commercial song than the surprise initial hit from the album, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Whilst still obviously retaining the sounds and template of grunge, this was clearly a song that would build on that success and establish Nirvana as more than just a one-hit wonder. That it did, but that success was – to a certain extent – part of what ultimately resulted in Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.

And so to the songsheet. There are other versions of this out there, not much different from this. This is the same key as the original recording (but  not the MTV Unplugged version), and I’ve tabbed both the main riff (which plays throughout the song) and the solo. Enjoy!


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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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Rio – Duran Duran (Full Album)

Never let it be said that you don’t get variety here! From the acoustic loveliness and down-home earthiness of the last post, here we are with what could be seen as the archetypal surface-and-sheen of vacuous 80s pop – all style, glamour and no substance.

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And whilst there is some truth in those accusations, the reality – as ever – is more complex. Emerging out of the nascent new romantic scene in (decidedly unromantic) Birmingham, Duran Duran (the name taken from a character in the cult classic 1968 sci-fi film, Barbarella) were effectively the house band for the city’s Rum Runner nightclub. From the outset, the notion of the band was to combine the sounds and ethos of disco and punk, equal parts Sex Pistols, Blondie, Gary Numan and Chic, and to be huge. There was no hiding that ambition, and for a group of lads growing up in late 70s urban Britain, the idea of becoming the biggest pop band on the planet, of being able to travel the world and partake in the glamorous jet-set lifestyle made perfect sense.

So whilst Duran Duran struck gold with their first album (spawning the hits Planet Earth and Girls On Film), it was 1982’s Rio that launched them into the stratosphere. With three huge singles accompanied by the infamous exotic videos (Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio and Save A Prayer), the band were perfectly positioned to capitalise on the musical revolution that was ushered in by MTV.

But this was pop with a twist. Not only were the band self-made – growing organically from the local music scene – and writers of their own material, the band managed create a unique amalgam of styles that took somewhat underground influences and art-rock influences (Japan, Roxy Music and David Bowie) and fashioned them into a mainstream phenomena that had teenage girls in paroxysms. In times when pop bands are just expected to be focus-grouped conceptions of marketing departments, performing material from the same bunch of face-less songwriting teams that is aimed at the same narrow commercial radio playlists, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the way things were. And for all their faults, Duran Duran were more intelligent than that, spikier than that, and certainly more capable and original as musicians than that.

It may be the big singles that Rio is remembered for. And rightly so. But dig beyond that and there are gems a plenty. Whether it be the post-punk funk of New Religion, the Voltaire-citing Last Chance On The Stairway, or the stately, cryptic, arpeggiated closer that is The Chauffeur (I’m not seeing any boy band getting away with a video like this today) this is a band at arguably both their commercial and artistic peak.

And so here we are with the songbook. The full album, all nine tracks, when you strip the production away these are for the most part great songs. All of these are in the same key as the originals, so playing along is possible (and to be encouraged). Shoulder pads and yachts are optional. Enjoy!

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The King Of Rock and Roll – Prefab Sprout

I’ve posted before about the insane wonderfulness of Prefab Sprout. In many ways its a shame that the only song of theirs that made any real impression on the record-buying public was this throwaway slice of meta-pop. But that’s only a shame because of the ridiculously high standards that they set elsewhere.

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Hailing from the County Durham, Prefab Sprout emerged in the early 80s with a sound that blended classic pop, jazz and scratchy post-punk influences (debut album Swoon in particular) with literate lyrical aspirations. Not alone in those kind of influences and sound (the likes of Aztec Camera, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole and Orange Juice would at times be bracketed together with the Sprouts in what has retrospectively – and somewhat clumsily – come to be known as sophisti-pop), main man Paddy McAloon ploughed a steadfast furrow with a vision all his own that introduced a sophistication to songwriting and musicianship that harked back to the likes of Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson in its ambition.

1988’s From Langley Park To Memphis was their commercial high-water mark, a record that added more gloss to the sound that they had refined (with produced Thomas Dolby) on 1985’s Steve McQueen. But this wasn’t a surface sheen to hide a lack of content and inspiration, rather it was a polish that complimented a collection of perfect (in a left-field kind of way) pop songs, songs whose seeming simplicity belied (much like Abba, another McAloon inspiration, whose Agnetha Faltskog was the inspiration behind The Ice Maiden) an underlying complexity, richness and ingenuity.

The King Of Rock And Roll was the second single from the album (following the Springsteen-baiting Cars and Girls), and gave the band their only top 10 single. Described later by McAloon as “novelty” effort, it is somewhat ironic – in a way that McAloon would undoubtedly appreciate – that a song which focusses on a washed-up pop star who is now only remembered for his one-hit novelty song should acquire the same status in the band’s back catalogue. Yet it’s apparent inanity lies its intelligence. For beneath the – undoubtedly deliberate – senseless chorus and relentlessly jaunty musical backing (watch the video for jumping frogs and dancing hot dogs!) is a song laced with poignancy and melancholy – “All the pretty birds have flown, now I’m dancing on my own”, anybody?

So here’s the songsheet for this deceptively trite piece of classic 80s pop! I don’t think there’s too much to say about it – it’s relatively straightforward, primarily as it’s transposed down half a tone (so capo 1 if you want to play along with the original). Timing should be no big problem, and whilst I’ve cut a couple of the “Hot dog…” lines from the end to fit the page, I don’t think it loses anything. Enjoy!