Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Norman and Norma – The Divine Comedy

And here we are, back in 2019. Although this is hardly what you would a modern contemporary sound.

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For Neil Hannon, who essentially *is* The Divine Comedy, is not one to be swayed by a need to be relevant or now. Since 1989 he has ploughed his own furrow, quietly establishing a body of work (12 albums, at the last count) that largely falls into the category of Chamber Pop. With a wry eye for detail, an often unusual choice of subject matter (Hannon’s collaboration with Thomas Walsh, The Duckworth Lewis Method, even included a concept album about cricket!), and a predilection for melodies, harmonies, and rich, textured, often orchestral arrangements, The Divine Comedy were never going for the big time. They *did* achieve a measure of success in the mid-to-late 90s, somehow getting themselves aligned to the Britpop movement, and singles like National Express and Something For The Weekend established themselves in the hearts of the more discerning music lover.

[As an aside, one of Hannon’s collaborations included working with Duke Special, one of my favourite’s, for who he wrote the wonderful Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club, and for which I’ve also done a songsheet]

This year Hannon released Office Politics under The Divine Comedy banner, a double album (the bands first) that is a loose concept album based on the workplace and the role of machines and automation in it. Norman and Norma is the lead single from that album, and tells a charming, affectionate tale of an un-extraordinary couple and their relationship, from their marriage and honeymoon, through to finding post-children contentment in a Norman and Saxon battle reenactment group (I said the choices of subject matter were out of the ordinary!), it has been described in one quarter as “an affectionate song about the peculiarly British awkwardness about sex in relationships that is as good as the best of Victoria Wood but here sounds like it’s sung by Jarvis Cocker” – what is not to like there!

And so here is the songsheet for Norman and Norma. It’s a fairly straightforward song that – whilst piano-based on the original – does, I believe, itself to a ukulele-based version, in no small part aided by the somewhat whimsical subject matter. I think this is a fun little song, and you can have a lot of fun singing it. Enjoy!

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Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel (Full Album)

Whilst I’ve published a number of songbooks over the last few months, it’s been a while since I’ve done a whole album. That’s partly because the “album” nights that we’ve been doing with Southampton Ukulele Jam have morphed into a series of themed nights (Abba, Elvis, 1979, Glam), and also – and not coincidentally – because I’ve struggled a little to think of albums that would work. There are a ton of albums that I personally would love to do, but finding something where 75%+ is relatively well known, and that works on the ukulele for a broad audience, has proven a little tricky. But today’s post does – I think – tick all those boxes.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water was the final studio album recorded by the duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. The American folk-rock duo had climbed a steady road to popularity since first getting together in the late 1950s as Tom and Jerry, and during the late 1960s achieved an unparalleled level of success. Despite a sound that remained remarkably consistent over their five albums, their recordings showed a gradual evolution and increased maturity and sophistication, something which reached a peak (and ultimately conclusion) on Bridge Over Troubled Water. Whilst still clearly rooted in the folk stylings of their early records (and the live recording of the Everly Brothers classic Bye Bye Love was a clear harking back to those early years), the album demonstrated a branching out. El Condor Pasa, based on an original Peruvian song, anticipated Paul Simon’s later excursions into world music, the title track owed a strong and clear debt to the Gospel sounds that Simon was listening to at the time, and Keep The Customer Satisfied adds a full-on brass section.

Whilst the release of the album met a mixed critical response (typically it was felt to be smooth and over-produced), the public response was anything but mixed. Despite their break-up, the album topped the charts in 10 countries, was the best selling album in the world in 1970, 1971 AND 1972, and remained CBS’s best-selling record until ultimately over-taken by Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 1980s. In the UK the album was number one for 35 weeks, and remained on the charts for 285 weeks – no self-respecting household was without a copy. 25 million copies of the album have been sold world-wide. Clearly this was a record that struck a chord with its audience, and which has continued to do so ever since.

These are songs that have become part of the musical DNA of western culture, known and loved by people across the world, many of whom are far younger than these recordings (it will be 50 years old next year), and who will have very little context of where these songs came from. In that context these songs have truly become modern folk songs – owned and loved by the people as much as they are by those who created them. Songs like The Boxer, Cecilia, Song For The Asking, El Condor Pasa and the title track are the kind of songs that feel like they have always been there, and it feels hard to conceive of a time when these songs didn’t exist.

So here is the Bridge Over Troubled Water songbook. I’ll be upfront – despite their apparent simplicity, some of these songs aren’t necessarily as straightforward as they sound. The relatively less well-known So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright is the most obvious example of that, but others have their moments. That said, with a bunch of songs as wonderful and well-known as these, it’s hard to go too far wrong. Most of the songs I’ve ended up transposing from their original keys to ensure they are an easier set of chords. I’m not claiming that these are 100% correct, so any feedback on corrections, improvements, etc. appreciated. But most of all, enjoy!

<Full Album Songbook>


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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!

<Full Album Songbook>