Uke punks unite

· Music

It seems that I’m not the only one out there who sees the ukulele as the perfect punk rock instrument.
This article, Punk Uke: The four-string Underdog rudely rocks by Christopher Arnott from last year describes an eerily similar path to my own:

[Y]ou can wake this restless monster up gently with a quaint strum, then by the second verse start slamming the strings with more abandon, until by the end of the song you’re scraping and scratching the barest and brashest notes out of the instrument like a demented Dashboard Confessional car crash.

Now that punk itself is the province of hit-making conglomerates and prefab teen sensations, where can we turn for some gutsy, unadulterated chords that don’t remind us of the crap on the radio? I say it’s the ukulele, and I’m not alone. A new breed of punks has brought revolution, raw roots and cultural controversy to the uke community.

The ukulele’s Hawaiian origins as an ornate small guitar to accompany beautiful island warblings was long ago warped by the American and British desire to use it to play drinking songs. The riot-uke or uke-punk contingent is the next obvious step in a dishonorable but highly entertaining tradition.

Adapting rock and punk songs to the ukulele is not so much a deconstruction as it is wanton destruction. Feeling those tough nylon strings sproing and churn under the savage swipes of fingernails, holding on while the hollow reverberations shake that vulnerable little wooden body, hearing the chords bend out of tune and into their own realm of acoustic feedback.

Filtered through the four twangy strings of a ukulele, every song becomes a brittle shell of its former self, knocked down to its barest punk essentials. There’s a perversity to this, but also a divine purity. Folk, bluegrass and blues influences come to the forefront. So does a chirpy, silly glee.

The first song I learned from the gleefully bizarre songbook Jumpin’ Jim’s ’60s Uke-In, one of many useful uke guides prepared by the hyper-enthused uke evangelist Jim Beloff, was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Beloff’s arrangement of this deeply moving soul classic transforms the song into a travesty of its former self. And how could it not? You’re playing a doom-laden, world-weary Motown-tinged lament on a jolly little instrument best suited to pep songs like “The Varsity Rag.” It’s impossible not to add cheery “do-be-do-be-do”s to “Dock of the Bay” when you’re playing it on ukulele.

I raided guitar-tab Web sites for the chords to the most unlikely uke fodder I could think of[.]

Stripped of its echoing drums and rampaging vocals, Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” reveals its hidden kinship with “I’m Henry VIII I Am.”

A little more quotage and some good links below the fold (but read the whole thing, you’ll want to get every drop).

Though I’m strictly a closet uke player, it didn’t take long for me to find kindred uke-punk spirits on the Internet. Madison, Wisconsin’s Ukulele Freedom Front resolves that “six string domination of the music industry must end!” Their Web site, riotukes.org, provides a forum for closet ukulele experimentalists. You can also get chord charts for “I Will Survive” and “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

From the more demure but nonetheless nervy alligatorboogaloo.com you can snag uke arrangements of Groucho’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Louis Prima’s Jungle Book rave-up “I Wanna Be Like You,” the Popeye theme song, Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”….