Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

It’s fair to say that a few of the songs that I’ve posted lately haven’t exactly been the most well-known of songs. Today’s post should rectify that, as this is one of those timeless, universal songs.

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This was actually prompted by going to a gig last night. The gig was the absolutely wonderful Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, playing at The Joiners in Southampton. It was a superb gig – it was practically sold out, Stella was brilliant (you’d never have guessed she was suffering with a cold), and her band did a first-class job. Finishing her main set with Tricks, the crowd was begging for more, and Stella obliged. With a wonderful, solo version of this song.

An interestingly main-stream choice for an artist who, whilst certainly not deliberately seeking out obscurity, is definitely on the alternative side of things. Time after Time – of course – is a classic from Cyndi Lauper, co-written with Rob Hyman (of The Hooters). The follow-up to her break-out hit Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Time After Time showed a more reflective side to the kooky persona that Lauper often portrayed, and was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1985, eventually losing out to Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Much covered (the Eva Cassidy version is a favourite of mine) over time this has come to be something of a standard.

Here’s the Cyndi Lauper version (and it’s a great video)…

…and here’s Stella Donnelly’s version (recorded for an Australian New Year’s Eve TV show)…

And so the song sheet. It’s a relatively straightforward song, with basic chords. There’s not really much more to say. Give it a go. And enjoy!

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Something For The Pain – She Drew The Gun

She Drew The Gun are from Liverpool, and have been described as dreamy psych pop. That works for me.

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Fronted by / a vehicle for Louisa Roach, there’s more than a hint of the 60s, psychedelia and the like in the bands music. But this is also very much music for now. Winner of Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent contest in 2016, She Drew The Gun aren’t exactly what you think of as a protest singer, or their songs as protest songs. But these are songs rooted in the reality of 21st century life, but not ones that are content to let that life wash over her. Take this line from the Resister, the opening track of last year’s Revolution of Mind:

All the underdogs, black sheep/Fighters of the powers that be/
In tenements, high rises/Freedom fighters, the outsiders…

Roach isn’t a newbie on the block, either. Although having played music since her early teens, she has lived a life (she has a 12 year old son, returned to academia as a mature student) and her songs reflect that – shot through with a considered maturity and life experience, but not worn down by it. An observer, but one that empathises and roots for the underdog against the powerful. Something For The Pain comes from that place.

So probably not a massively well known song. But a good one nonetheless. Maybe a great one. The song sheet is quite a straightforward, nothing tricky chord wise, and a consistent chugging rhythm that works nice strummed on the uke. It’s a bit wordy, but those words are important. Persevere. And enjoy!

 


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River – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell recently turned 75, something that was celebrated with the help of an all-star concert. Mitchell herself wasn’t present, and has been something of a recluse of late, in no small part due to a number of health scares. She is unlikely to perform or record again, but my goodness what a legacy she has left us.

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Emerging from a Canadian coffee-house scene in the mid-1960s, she moved to the US where she was eventually spotted by David Crosby, and started releasing a series of intimate, confessional acoustic albums. Songs like Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock became anthems for a generation (the latter notable because she never actually made it the festival!), and in 1971 she turned in the album which really defined the term singer-songwriter, and which has become the litnus against which all subsequent albums in that genre, particularly female-fronted, will be compared. Described by the New York Times as one of the “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”, the album is a no-holds barred portrayal of Joni’s relationships (she had relationships with both Graham Nash and James Taylor prior to this record) that is startling in its honesty.

River, taken from Blue, has become one of Mitchell’s most recorded songs. Whether you class it as a Christmas song or not (it is set around that period, but isn’t really about Christmas, although the piano accompaniment does reference Jingle Bells), it has become something of a discerningly alternative Christmas standard (listen to this fabulous BBC Radio 4 documentary of personal stories related to the song). Somewhat surprising given that the song is a rueful song about a broken romance, the singer reflecting on what was, desperately wanting to escape the heartbreak.

So here is the songsheet. Joni Mitchell is famous for her alternative tunings and complex song structures. Fortunately this song is *relatively* straightforward (for a Joni song!), albeit it was originally written and performed on piano. I’ve added a few additional chords into the sheet to try and imitate aspects of the original piano accompaniment, and tried to replicate the ‘Jingle Bells’ references (including an optional, more complex intro). I’ve also done two versions of the song – one simplified version, and one that fleshes the song out with a few more complex chords and rhythms, The choice is yours, but enjoy either!

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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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After The Gold Rush – Neil Young (Full Album)

I’ve been looking around recently for albums that I think would work as part of our recent series of ukulele album nights. That’s proved harder than I thought – a whole album of good songs that can be reduced to the ukulele and that a bunch of people (of a certain age!) will know well enough to stop it being a solo rendition by yours truly.

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And that search led me to this. Originally I was looking at Harvest, the archetypal Neil Young acoustic album, the “if you only own one Neil Young album this should be it” (my personal favourite would be On The Beach” fyi). But on listening to it I wasn’t convinced that it would really work. And then I thought about this, the immediate predecessor to Harvest, and listening to it afresh (I hadn’t played it for a good few years) I fell back in love with it. And have been playing it on repeat for the last few weeks.

At the risk of gross simplification, Young’s outputs has tended to operate at the loud, ragged rocking end of the spectrum (often with his band Crazy Horse), or at the more songwriter-y acoustic folk/country end. And throughout his career lurches one way or the other have often been a reaction to his previous lurch. And so the folk/country rock stylings of his 1969 eponymous debut album (Young had previously found a reasonable amount of success with Buffalo Springfield) were followed by the world’s introduction to Crazy Horse on the same years’ Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, all crunchy rockers and 10 minute epics. In that light, After The Gold Rush can be seen as another reaction, a move that combines the more simple, stripped down singer-songwriter fare with Crazy Horse rockers (and all this was also just a few months after Young enhanced Crosby, Stills and Nash with the Déjà Vu album).

From the opening Tell Me Why, a gentle country-ish guitar-strummed-and-picked tune, overlaid with some gorgeous harmonies (the CSN&Y influence in full evidence) the scene is set. Followed by the classic enigmatic eco-themed title track, and the gentle waltz-timed Only Love Can Break Your Heart (the St Etienne version was my introduction to this song!) the album offers a master class in concise, quality song-writing. Full of space, those aforementioned harmonies, and mostly restrained acoustic musicianship (songs like Southern Man and When You Dance, I Can Really Love intermittently turn up the electrics), After The Gold Rush is a thematically and musically consistent masterpiece that packs a lot into its 35 minute running time, but still leaves you wanting more. To these ears it always sounds fresh, a record that I never tire of.

The songbook contains all 11 songs from the album. The simplicity of these songs translates well – there’s nothing too tricksy in any of these, although the odd unusual chord is thrown in every now and then. With one exception these are all in the same key as the originals, so you can play along quite easily. Songs for singing around the campfire, for sure! Enjoy!

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Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn

I’ve written previously about how much I love the music of Bruce Cockburn, and what it has meant to me. Prompted by the announcement of some UK dates in the autumn, I’ve been going back to his music, and enjoying it afresh. One of the songs that stood out was this one.

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The version that particularly caught my ear was from his live solo album, Slice O’ Life. The original version of the song appeared on the 1984 album, Stealing Fire, recorded at a time where Cockburn was turning from the acoustic, folk-y sounds of his earlier, 1970s recordings towards a more contemporary, rock-inspired source, something that coincided for him with a move in his lyrical outlook from an inward, spiritual focus towards a more outward looking perspective that – whilst infused with the spiritual – was more focussed on the world he saw, and the many injustices that he encountered as he started to travel more widely.

Outside of his native Canada, where Cockburn is something of an institution and widely reward, for most of his career Cockburn has been something of a cult figure. However “Lovers…” was a song that, alongside the much darker “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, became radio hits in the US. And to this day it remains one of his more well-known songs (well-known being something of a relative term when applied to Cockburn), even being referenced by U2 in their song “God Part II” (“heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). The song itself has been interpreted in multiple ways – as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and as a commentary on the Central American experience that inspired “Rocket Launcher”, but whilst Cockburn is on record as saying that both of those interpretations are valid ones, his has said of the song:

“I was thinking of kids in a schoolyard. I was thinking of my daughter. Sitting there wanting to hold hands with some little boy and looking at a future, looking at the world around them. How different that was when I was a kid when, even though we had air-raid drills, nobody took that seriously that the world would end. You could have hope when I was a kid. And now I think that’s very difficult. I think a lot of that is evident from the actions and the ethos of a lot of kids. It was kind of an attempt to offer a hopeful message to them. You still have to live and you have to give it your best shot.”

The acoustic version of the song strips it back to its essence. A showcase for Bruce’s exemplary guitar technique (never flashy, but always rich and deep), it is further proof that the mark of a good song is if it works when reduced to one-person-and-their-instrument. And boys does this version work – arguably getting to the heart of the song in a way that the more produced original version *may* have clouded a little.

And so to the songsheet. This is based on the acoustic version, and definitely – to my ears – sounds better as a picked version. It is true that I could have made this a bit simpler, could have put it in an easier key. But (a) this version allows you to play along with the Cockburn version above, and (b) it just sounds much better this way. If you’re OK with barre chords then this shouldn’t be problematic. Playing the A chords in the chorus as barred chords on the 4th fret (see here) adds an additional texture to the song as well. Enjoy!


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You Do Something To Me – Paul Weller

Who’d have thought when The Jam burst onto the 1977 music scene – a mix of stark dappy mods and punk aggression – that the songwriter and guitarist at the heart of that sound would have become a national icon 40 years later.

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But Weller was clearly more than your average punk opportunist – the lyrics, sound and image were all sharp and biting, and here was clearly a young man (he was only 19 when The Jam had their first hits) who had a vision and the drive to realise it. The Jam were a phenomenon , blazing a trail through the late 70s and early 80s, growing and evolving over their 6 albums in 5 years before Weller broke up the band in 1982 at the height of their success.

Ever restless, Weller returned the next year with The Style Council, a more sophisticated soul-influenced sound that continued the success without compromising on his core values (if anything The Style Council were even more political than The Jam) before the band finally fell apart at the end of the 80s, having had their house-influenced album rejected by the record label.

Taking some time off, Weller slowly started out again, this time as a solo artist. Initially low-key, he started to make headway, with the more pastoral second solo album Wild Wood starting to spawn hits whilst garnering a Mercury nomination for itself. But it was that albums follow-up, 1995’s Stanley Road, that really re-established Weller in the public consciousness. Appearing at the same time as BritPop was turning into the scene that it became, Weller was almost seen as an honorary god-father for that scene, back at the top end of the charts with songs like The Changingman, Out Of The Sinking, and this gorgeous, soulful mid-tempo ballad, You Do Something To Me. Opening with circling piano chords, the song gradually layers warm organ sounds and guitar riffs under a wistful vocal expressing a yearning love. I’m sure this must have been “our song” for countless couples over the years.

And so to the songsheet. Looks like a lot of chords, but it’s not really. A basic four chord sequence throughout the verses, the timing may take a little getting used to if you don’t know the song, but play along (it’s in the same key) and you’ll get the hang of it. The Em / Em6 / Em7 sequence at the beginning and end is designed to emulate those piano chords, but you can get away with just Em if you want. And that C/D at the end of the bridge/chorus is just a passing, one beat chord. But whatever you do, enjoy!