Once thought of only in terms of ”ËCleanin’ Windaz’, the ukulele has seen a major punk resurgence in recent years. Louder Than War writer Elisabeth Robson finds out how the humble ukulele crawled out of your granddad’ s loft to became the 21st century’s ultimate badass instrument.
Have you trawled through YouTube lately to listen to your favourite punk songs? If so, you may have stumbled upon covers of many punk tunes uploaded by young (and some of a certain vintage) ukulele enthusiasts DIY-ing their favourites for the world to see. What was once considered geeky and rather old fashioned, has become one of the coolest instruments to master. Ranging from fun to funky, young and old have seemingly acquired a cheap ukulele and given it a go, and no musical genre is exempt from ukulisation ”â it’s portable, affordable and relatively simple to learn. This is punk ethos pure and simple.
The most notable and prolific YouTubers in the UK are the remarkable Scottish duo Gus & Fin. Covering hits from The Ramones to Devo, these high priests of pluck’s YouTube channel, Gugug, has over 4.5 million views and 10,000 subscribers. They cover punk classics which are performed so brilliantly and with such fun and energy, that they are almost entirely different songs from the original versions ”â hang on a minute ”â they’re happy. There is no doubt that the uke spreads happiness and dare I say joy? One thing is for certain, you can’t listen to a ukulele song without cracking a wry smile.
Gus & Fin have been playing music for years, sometimes together, sometimes not. Gus introduced Fin to the ukulele and together they began playing Ramones covers. Gus comments:
“I come from the punk generation which was happening when I was at school, and the idea of 3 chords and anyone can start a band still appeals to me. Like the Sex Pistols and the Clash who were reacting against the overblown pomposity and instrumental virtuosity of bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, I like to think that playing those punk classics on the humble uke is taking it a stage further”Â.
Gus & Fin are so well regarded in the punk community that they were invited to play alongside The Stranglers at their exclusive ”ËMeninblack’ weekend event last November. “That was pretty good fun having 100s of die-hard Stranglers fans scrutinising us and The Stranglers themselves watching from the balcony”Â, “Considering we are BIG Stranglers fans – that was a bit of a boost”Â. What is clear is that the good old punk tune has now been taken to an entirely different level. It may still all be about anger, but most punk ”Ëukeists’ are in their 30’s and 40’s ”â they still love the music, play the music and ”Ëfeel the rage’ ”â just not as loudly.
It’s somehow not surprising that the phenomenon of the online ukulele video star is in no way diminishing. On the contrary, the humble ukulele has gone big, badass and global. From local London punk ensembles The pUKEs and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to Uke Punk in the north of England, Uke Til U Puke in the USA and Max The Ukulele Punk in Japan. All have a consummate passion for showcasing the ukulele in the punk genre as an instrument of credibility and all have a rapidly increasing fan base.
Photo of The pUKEs ÃÂ© Diana More
The pUKEs, a 21 strong punk uke outfit based in London are known for their massive stage presence and raucous live shows. Forming in early 2011, the group that intended to be ”Ëjust a bit of fun with friends once a month’ have blossomed into a fully operating band. The pUkes popularity soon spread like wildfire and their diary is now bursting with gigs and festival dates. “When we got together we worked on 4 songs at our first rehearsal ”â 2 weeks later we had a gig!”Â. There is no doubt that the ukulele is a good medium for punk in particular ”â “it’s versatile, easy to learn and it brings people together”Â. “Because the uke is a strumming instrument, and punk songs tend to have only 3 or 4 chords, it makes the uke ideal”Â. The band has also recently developed a calendar of iconic punk album covers replacing the original artists with The pUKEs various members. This is an inspired and fun collection and scarily accurate to the finest detail. They are also showcasing their own brand of uke thrashing at our own John Robb’s 4 day Punk spectacular Rebellion Festival in Blackpool this coming August.
Here in the UK, and indeed world wide, there are many local neighbourhood ukulele groups promoting good clean fun and a mutual love of the instrument. So much so that the 2009 documentary film Mighty Uke has lovingly showcased the popularity of the world ukulele movement declaring “There is a uke revolution happening, and it is inspiring a new generation to play”Â. And speaking of revolution, the unassuming uke is singlehandedly responsible for literally turning lives around for the street children of Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesian punk band Marjinal have been helping thousands of kids in their home town by teaching them to play the ukulele to enable them to make a living by busking. This provides the kids with sufficient money to allow them to survive in a city where the corrupt elite minority take little or no notice of the thousands of poor and disenfranchised. Marjinal stand for the freedom of thought and actions, and through their actions help many that would otherwise not stand a chance.
In Indonesia, the punk movement means so much more than simply music and fashion. The punks of Indonesia are fighting a corrupt government who they say are responsible for keeping and holding ordinary people well below the poverty line without a hope of prospect or betterment. Marjinal help the ”Ëmarginalised’ by teaching them skills, feeding them and allowing them to keep a roof over their heads in the band’s commune. The uke is ultimately giving people a future.
From the streets of South East Asia to the hallowed halls of the Royal Albert Hall, the ukulele is standing firm. While more and more people of all ages are trying it out, the punks are doing it the way they’ve always done ”â for themselves and for the people. Just as fun, with just the same meaning, but with a subtle sustain.
Gus & Fin’s Youtube Channelis here.
The pUKEs website (check here for upcoming shows) is here and their facebook page is here.
The Ukele Punk’s Facebook page is here.
Uke Til U Puke’s website is here.
Ukukeke Groups (London): here.
Mighty Uke ”â The Movie: here.
Marjinal’s facebook page is here.