Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Living By Numbers – New Musik

Reputations are usually sealed in hindsight. And as with history, where it is usually acknowledged that it is written by the victors, musical history and reputations are usually written by the taste-makers. So as we look back there is increasingly a musical pantheon, a set of classic and set texts that become a self-reinforcing by-word for goodness and excellence.

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New Musik will never be part of that canonical grouping. Coming to prominence in the late 70s, and embracing aspects of New Wave and the emerging futurist / synth-based sounds, leader, songwriter, singer and producer Tony Mansfield clearly had a pop mentality that he melded to great productions whilst still pursuing an experimental agenda. Yet in a the musically rich and diverse climate of the times, New Musik were seen as neither one thing nor the other – not edgy enough to be cool in the alternative scenes, too weird to be accepted as straight-up pop. As with The Buggles, another band similar in style and temperament, a degree of success was achieved with what came to be perceived as novelty hits (New Musik with Living By Numbers, The Buggles with the somewhat more successful Video Killed the Radio Star). In my book, though, this is shame, because both bands brought a different, intelligent, edgy yet melodic approach to pop music that should have been far more successful than it was.

Living By Numbers was the bands sole top 20 hit, it’s success in part driven by its adoption by Casio for use in a TV advertising campaign for pocket calculators. Subsequent singles (including the excellent Sanctuary) grazed the Top 40, but further success eluded them with subsequent albums, and eventually Mansfield called it quits, going on to more success as a producer with the likes of The B-52s, A-ha and other bands of the era (Vicious Pink, Captain Sensible, etc.). Vastly under-rated (in my books) Living By Numbers does at least still keep the New Musik flag flying in its use in multiple 80s-era compilations.

So here’s the songsheet. A fairly straightforward strum-along that – if you’re familiar with the original (it’s in the same key so you can play along) – should make sense and work without any problems. Enjoy!

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Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow – Felt

I’ve kind-of giving up worrying about the preponderance of 80s tunes from my youth that I post on these pages. The songs that I post have always been influenced by the music that I’m listening to at any point of time, and – in no small part thanks to Decade, a wonderful event that happens not for from me that plays alternative music from 77-87 – I’ve been listening to a lot of music from that era, both songs that I’m familiar with, as well as tunes and artists that passed me by at the time.

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So this is a stone-cold classic from that era. Felt could be considered the quintessential 80s indie band. Essentially the platform for the artistic vision of the enigmatic Lawrence (no surname was ever used), Felt’s original jangle style was influenced by the likes of Television, but taken in a more fragile and luminescent direction. Early albums were resolutely low-fi and contained as many instrumentals as vocal songs, but through the 80s the Felt project grew and evolved, adding a bright and bubbling organ to the mix, branching off into lounge-style mini-instrumentals and kitsch-jazz before concluding (after 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years – all part of the masterplan) in 1989 with the vastly underrated, almost professional sounding Me and a Monkey on the Moon.

Top of the pile of all those songs, for me, is the swooningly gorgeous Primitive Painters, a duet with Cocteau Twin’s Liz Fraser (one of the few records I’ve ever brought on-spec after one hearing in a record shop). But that doesn’t translate too well to ukulele! So instead here is a song that scales pretty close to those dizzy heights, the 1984 single Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow. With a title like that how could a song fail (I’d love Felt just for their song and album titles, even without hearing the music – Rain of Crystal Spires, The World is as Soft as Lace, Evergreen Dazed, Sapphire Mansions, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun – the list is endless!). A resolutely up-beat sounding song that would appear to be a somewhat stinging observation of a friend, with the pretentiousness meter turned up high (the single and album versions differently reference a poem by Rimbaud or an Egyptian funerary text), the song is soaked in gorgeous shimmering and chiming guitars courtesy of Maurice Deebank, who was instrumental (literally) in the bands sounds for the first half of their career.

So translate this gloriousness to ukulele? Well, clearly its not going to sound *quite* like the original. But underneath all those wonderful sounds is a great song, and so I think it works. I’ve transcribed the ringing intro, solo and outro sections as well – Maurice Deebank never went in for guitar gymnatics, so these are definitely playable. It’s a great song, one that deserves more exposure. Enjoy!


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More Than This – Roxy Music

For many people Roxy Music were on a downhill trajectory from start. Understandable in some ways, because that debut album, and the hit single that sat alongside it (Virginia Plain) are such extraordinary records, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

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And in those people’s eyes, Avalon, Roxy’s swansong, became the epitome of everything that they had lost – smooth, bland, featureless, a triumph of style over substance. Well, I’m not one of those people, and I see it quite differently. Yes, Bryan Ferry would appear to have spent much of the rest of his career circling around and repeating that Avalon sound, but there are worse things to repeat. And that record, Avalon, is in my mind a classic, a subtle, sophisticated record that is a world away from songs like Editions of You and All I Want Is You, and yet retains much of the mysterious DNA that marked those early records out from the crowd.

More Than This was the lead single from Avalon, and landed at a time (Spring, 1982) when Roxy’s influence over other artists had never been stronger. Both musically and aesthetically, the sounds of the early 80s were indebted to the path that Roxy had pioneered, with groups like Duran Duran, Associates, Spandau Ballet and many others from that post-punk / new romantic era openly citing Roxy as a prime influence. That the rich, sophisticated sound that Avalon inspired may have resulted in some of the more vacuous, hollow, style-first content that followed later in the decade is hardly Roxy’s fault. This was a record that was taken to the heart (and bedroom!) of many that heard it, and to my ears is one of the bands masterpieces.

So here’s the songsheet. I’m aware that there are other ukulele versions floating about out there. But they didn’t quite cut it for me. Chords are relatively straightforward, the structure is pretty standard. I’ve included the opening riff as well, which definitely enhances the song. Not much more to say, really, other than 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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I’m Free – The Rolling Stones / The Soup Dragons

Lets be honest, this one is here because of The Soup Dragons cover, not because of The Rolling Stones original. That’s not to say that I have any kind of aversion to the sixties original, its just that it had never entered my consciousness before the Madchester-inspired cover.

<Rolling Stones songsheet> <Soup Dragons songsheet>

“I’m Free” is a relatively early Jagger/Richard composition from 1965 that first appeared as the closing track on the band’s Out Of Our Heads album, and the b-side of Get Off My Cloud. Ranked number 78 in Rolling Stone magazines top 100 Rolling Stones songs, I’m Free shuffles along with echoes of The Byrds jangley folk-rock sound.

In a similar way, The Soup Dragons 1990 cover was inspired by a popular rock sound of the day, this time the Madchester/Baggy rock/dance hybrid sound that was everywhere at the time through the music of The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and others. This version definitely grooves more than the original version, fleshes out with liberal doses of wah-wah, takes a few liberties with the lyrics and throws in a rap courtesy of  Jamaican reggae and dancehall star Junior Reid – whether that adds or subtracts from the record depends on your preference for that sort of thing. The song gave the band their only sizeable hit, one that has become a staple of compilation albums of that period.

So here’s the songsheets. I’ve done two versions, one for The Rolling Stones version (in C), and one for The Soup Dragons version (in E). However, they’re not just the same sheet with different chords, I’ve tried to reflect the arrangements, lyrics, etc. of the two different versions. Even down to the rap in The Soup Dragons version – try it if you dare!  Enjoy!

<Rolling Stones songsheet> <Soup Dragons songsheet>


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On My Way – Martyn Joseph

Sometimes I worry that the songs I post on here are too obvious. And sometimes I think the opposite. Today’s post definitely falls into the latter category. But this is *my* blog. So I’ll post what I want!

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Martyn Joseph’s music has been part of my life for nearly 30 years. I first came across him in 1989 when he played a stripped back set at the Greenbelt festival, a set that formed the basis the live album “An Aching and a Longing”. Since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen him in concert, often at The Brook in Southampton (a favourite venue for Martyn, to the extent that he released a live album and DVD recorded exclusively at that venue), but also in a variety of incarnations with Show of Hand’s Steve Knightley, and as a trio with Steve and Tom Robinson under the moniker of Faith, Folk and Anarchy.

For those who haven’t encountered Martyn Joseph, he is a Welsh singer-songwriter and guitarist, with shades of the Bruces Springsteen and Cockburn, whose songs have a strong social, community and spiritual conscience. A hard-working troubadour, almost constantly touring the UK, Europe and North America, releasing over 20 albums through his career, he is a performer who gives his all. His concerts are always full of passion, spirit and compassion, truly life-affirming and uplifting events despite what might seem to be gloomy themes and materials, something that he often references in a self-deprecating manner during those gigs.

On My Way is a song that was almost designed as a community sing-along, something reinforced by his starting to perform the song before it was even finished, and something which any audience will get drawn into whenever the song is performed. Taken from his 2010 album, Under Lemonade Skies, Martyn was quoted at the time of its release as saying that he was trying to write songs that are companions for people on the road, songs that make you feel that you are not alone. On My Way does that in spades, an encouragement to pick yourself up and carry on the journey despite what life my thrown at you, doing so in the knowledge that you are not alone, that there are others “running, loving, stumbling” along similar paths.

So here’s the songsheet. I’ve included two versions – one in the same key as the original (E), and one in F, which makes it easier to play. It’s designed for strumming rather than picking as on the originals, and so may lose a little in the translation. But only a little, as it’s a great song whose spirit shines through. Note that the video above is a live version with Steve Knightley – if you want to here the original studio recording it’s here. Enjoy!


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The Only One I Know – The Charlatans

The house / rave / dance music scene that emerged in the late 1980s passed me by, I’m afraid. I’m guessing that it all made much more sense in a throbbing night club, probably enhanced by various substances, but it wasn’t for me.

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Some of the more mainstream crossover tracks I did like (808 States’s Pacific State I love, and I was quite partial to The Beloved), but as much as I like a groove I do also like a good tune, and that wasn’t really what the dance culture was all about. However, what did float by boat much more was the so-called Madchester scene – effectively an alternative rock sound merged with the culture of rave, creating a brace of classic indie-dance tracks. Artists such as Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and James all had a life before Madchester, but gradually came to represent the so-called “baggy” scene, even if that was a media and record-company hyped one.

Whilst getting lumped under the Madchester label, The Charlatans actually hailed from Birmingham. The Only One I Know was only the band’s second single, but at the height of the baggy phenomenon gave them a top 10 success, something they were unable to repeat until the height of Britpop in the mid-90s. Underpinned by the classic funky shuffling beat, propelled by an insistent bass riff, wah-wah guitars and overlaid with that distinctive organ sound, this song is a classic of its time – of any time – guaranteed to fill the floor at the Indie disco.

So baggy on the ukuele? Well why not (SUJ are currently working on Primal Scream’s Moving On Up, another classic of the time, and I think it will work). This is a song that definitely needs you to get into that groove – it’s all about the rhythm – and that’s best done by playing along to the original (above) – the song sheet is in the same key. Other than that there’s not a lot to say. Just enjoy!