Uke can’t be serious
Oh, but it can. With indie stars from Patrick Wolf to Conor Oberst singing its praises, Colin Irwin finds that the ‘bonsai guitar’ is a laughing stock no longer
For those of a certain age, mention of the ukulele usually inspires an alarming outbreak of manic expressions, painful high-pitched voices and the cod Wigan accents that are required by law to accompany impersonations of music hall star George Form-by singing "I’m leaning on a lamppost on the corner of the street in case a certain little lady comes by... oh meeee oh myyyyyy."
Yet, far from being the laughing stock he’s usually portrayed as, ol’ George had his head screwed on. He was the highest-paid British entertainer of his time, made dozens of films, was voted second (to Stalin) in a Russian popularity poll, and defied personal threats in 1946 to play to black audiences in South Africa, where one of the architects of apartheid, National Party leader Daniel François Malan, tried to get him thrown out of the country.
Formby, though, will always be indelibly associated with the ukulele (although he actually used a mongrel breed called the banjolele). The four-string instrument has long been rooted by popular perception in a bygone age, destined to slumber in antique shops surrounded by war decorations and crumbling spoils of the empire.
Yet the humble ukulele has risen again. Far from dying out with George Formby in 1961, it has become an unlikely badge of honour for many young musicians. At Glastonbury in June, while the tents sank in the mud, the sound of newly purchased ukes valiantly kept spirits high. YouTube might aptly be renamed UkeTube, so infected has it become by uke mania. Unlikely heroes have sprung up because of the site, from acknowledged Hawaiian masters like Ohta-san and Jake Shimabukuro to two guys in a bedroom belting out bizarre interpretations of new wave classics like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “Are Friends Electric?” A bloke with a tea cosy on his head called Seeso has had more than 28,000 viewings of his uked-up take on “I Shot the Sheriff ”. The whole thing has become such a cult that manufacturers can’t keep up with demand and there’s actually a uke shortage.
“I’m in love with this instrument,” says Patrick Wolf, the 24-year-old rock maverick who is currently winning plaudits for his album The Magic Position. Wolf decided that a baritone ukulele was essential to his career after discovering that one of his heroines, Joni Mitchell, wrote most of her early material one before she could afford a guitar. “It’s so bittersweet,” Wolf says of the ukulele. “It’s ecstatic, yet really sorrowful.”
Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes plays ukulele on “Cleanse Song”, a track on his latest album Cassadaga, while Bill Drummond, the anti-hero of KLF, says he’s so in love with his uke that he takes it to bed with him. The new ukulele brotherhood also apparently includes Pete Doherty, one of an unlikely trail of stars who frequent Duke of Uke, Britain’s only dedicated ukulele shop, which does a roaring business in London’s Spitalfields.
“It has a unique sound and it lends itself to indie music,” says Matthew Reynolds, who opened Duke of Uke 18 months ago. “It has a comedic side, but I was always keen to see bands use it as an instrument in its own right and not just as a kitsch accessory. There’s a punkish air to it with the old three-chord trick, and a lot of youngsters are getting into through Patrick Wolf and Larrikin Love. I know that many people are writing songs on the ukulele now.”
One of them is Brit folk music’s favourite daughter, Eliza Carthy, who turned to the uke in frustration at her inability to master guitar. “I took it up because it’s tiny and I can shove it in my bag. I took to it straight away. I bought one of those ‘How to Play Uke’ books and ended up playing ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’ in the back of the van for six months.”
Britain’s most celebrated uke exponents, though, are the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, an eight-piece band who, in 20 years of committed uke-dom, have graduated from the back room of a London pub to Glastonbury, on the strength of their highly individual takes on the hits of Otis Redding, Kate Bush, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Miss Dynamite and Tchaikovsky.
“A bullshit detector,” is how the Ukulele Orchestra’s Dave Suish describes the instrument: he says the litmus test of a song’s quality is how good it sounds on a uke. “How we see the instrument – and this is something you also get from George Formby movies – is the empowerment of the little man,” says Suish. “It’s a fun instrument which is the antithesis of huge sound rigs.”
Originating in Hawaii (where its name translates as “jumping flea”), the ukulele’s first exposure to American audiences was at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The uke caught American imaginations, paving the way for vaudeville superstars like Roy Smeck and Cliff Edwards. The leading American guitar companies Martin, Gibson and Harmony went flat out to keep up with demand.
Yet the uke never fully escaped its image as a gimmick. The New Yorker May Singhi Breen, “The Ukulele Lady”, worked hard through the subsequent barren years to leave behind its reputation as a lightweight toy, and wrote “Rhapsody for Uke” to demonstrate its serious credentials. She was still refused a union card by the American Federation of Musicians on the basis that the uke wasn’t a “real” musical instrument.
But the cheeky allure of the “bonsai” guitar never fully receded. Marilyn Monroe brandished one to seductive effect in Some Like it Hot in 1959, and the deeply strange, uke-toting Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips out of Greenwich Village to improbable success in the mid-Sixties, culminating in a triumphant appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival.
Uke enthusiasts now furnish you with chapter and verse on closet ukulele obsessives. It was Syd Barrett’s first instrument. David Byrne busked on the streets with his uke. Surf singer Jack Johnson can’t put his down. Eddie Vedder played one with Pearl Jam. More extreme outfits include Uke Til U Puke (“the seminal speed metal ukulele pioneers”) and female duo the Hazzards (formerly the Ukes of Hazzard, until the lawyers got involved), who even had a minor hit with their uke arrangement of “Gay Boyfriend”.
The most celebrated ukulele devotee, however, is George Harrison. The late Beatle was said to carry two ukuleles at all times, just in case he bumped into someone he could jam with. Sir Paul McCartney includes a uke item in his stage act in tribute to Harrison. “To this day if I ever meet grown-ups who play ukulele, I love ’em,” says Sir Paul.