By Elizabeth Robson / From the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele Magazine
For many people, the cheery ukulele might seem the antithesis of punk rock’s loud, angry attitude, but to a growing number of punkers in the United Kingdom, the diminutive four-string instrument is proving to be the perfect fit. “Like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, who were reacting against the overblown pomposity and instrumental virtuosity of [prog-rock] bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I like to think that playing punk classics these days on the ukulele is taking it a stage further,” says Angus “Gus” McIntyre, half of the Glaswegian punk-ukulele duo Gus & Fin.
Though they’d played electric guitars in rock and ska bands together since they were kids, McIntyre and Fin, who goes by the last name Raucous, made the migration to ukes years later. It was 2006 when a friend introduced McIntyre to the ukulele, and shortly thereafter, he bought a Mahalo uke for $20. When he showed it to his childhood friend, McIntyre recalls that Raucous was quite perplexed and asked, “Why did you get one of these?” But soon both men were busy transposing Ramones songs such as “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Cretin Hop” for their newfound instruments. “Once you realize it’s the same as a small guitar with two broken strings, it’s pretty easy,” McIntyre says.
One of the first groups to punkify the ukulele, Gus & Fin have—unlike many punk acts—enjoyed viral success. Their YouTube channel, GUGUG, has 11,000 subscribers and has racked up more than five-million views. Covering classic songs by Devo, the Ramones, the Rezillos, and the Clash in the comfort of their homes, the outsized response to their videos quickly showed that there was a hunger for uke punk. But perhaps the biggest thrill for the duo thus far came in 2011 when the musicians were asked to open a show in London for their longtime heroes, the Stranglers. Not only did Gus & Fin cover the band’s songs during their set, the Stranglers themselves watched the riotous proceedings from the balcony. “That was pretty good fun, having hundreds of Stranglers fans, and the Stranglers themselves, scrutinizing us. We’re big fans, and it was such a memorable night,” McIntyre says.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Given that few places on earth have embraced the ukulele more than the UK, it’s perhaps no surprise that the instrument has found its way into the hands of punk rockers. There are hundreds of ukulele clubs in Great Britain, and according to independent music retailers, the humble instrument is in the midst of one of the largest retail sales spikes on record. Having replaced the recorder in public schools as the first instrument most kids learn, the ukulele is now found in a higher percentage of households than when George Formby helped kick off Britain’s first ukulele wave in the late 1930s and early ’40s. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in recent years, the uke—and variations such as the baritone and tenor ukes and the banjolele—has become one of the coolest instruments to master.
For Clara Wiseman, the former bass player of the legendary punk group UK Subs, the transition to the ukulele was, in part, therapeutic. “I was laid up for a long time after an operation in 2010 and decided I’d use my recovery time to learn a new instrument,” Wiseman says. “I knew that ukes were cheap, easy to learn, and light to hold. When I was better, I joined a ukulele society in Norwich because I wanted to play with other people, but really I wanted to play punk rock, so I nagged some friends into getting ukuleles.
“That’s how the Pukes started.”
A raucous, all-female, 18-piece, London-based, ukulele punk band, the Pukes epitomize the communal, seize-the-day spirit of the punk-uke movement. “At our first rehearsal we worked on four songs. Two weeks later we had a gig!” says Wiseman. The band formed in 2011, Wiseman says, intending to provide “just a bit of fun with friends once a month.” Before long, however, their datebook was overflowing with club gigs and festival appearances.
Still, not everyone was initially convinced that mixing punk and the ukulele was a good idea.
“My first uke was a Tanglewood, but it met a sorry end when my ex-husband smashed it over his head,” Wiseman says. “He hates ukuleles!”
Fortunately, Arts Council England is not among the haters. In 2013, the government agency paid the Pukes to run a series of popular uke workshops for beginners at a number of events and festivals. “We had a blast teaching groups of kids and adults how you can easily learn to play songs with just a few chords and a simple strum,” Wiseman says. “There’s a real spirit of sharing and nurturing in the uke world. I like that.”
Pukes bandmate Cil Wong agrees that the workshops were an amazing experience. She recalls trying to find her missing uke that a drunken guy had been messing around with. She finally spotted him on stage swaying to the music, uke in hand. “He said that in all the years he’d been going to festivals, he never dreamt he would be on stage,” Wong says. “He was so happy, and it felt awesome to have given him the opportunity.”
In another nod to the effects of alcohol, the Pukes parodied the title of a Dead Kennedys single when naming their own debut album, Too Drunk to Pluck. Produced by Pat Collier, the former bass player for the Vibrators, the album contains covers of songs by the DKs, Peter and the Test Tube Babies, and Cock Sparrer, but on those tunes as well as on a few catchy originals, the vibe is decidedly less menacing and more sing-along.
The welcoming attitude appealed to bandmate Esme Tearle, who first saw the Pukes perform a guerrilla set outside a festival and resolved to join this “bunch of unhinged, ukulele-wielding punk women.” She bought a uke, and a month later turned up at one of their rehearsals. Now, Tearle revels in the buzz derived from teaching people a couple of chords. “You see the spark in their eyes once they’ve got a few chords down and go off with a new obsession,” Tearle says. “I’ve had women run up to me after a show saying that they love seeing a bunch of ladies, all over 30, having such a laugh. They want to form their own punk bands. Ukulele seems to be popping up in the punk scene more and more.
“It’s brilliant that this little instrument is starting to be acknowledged!”
With a Pinch of Ska & Reggae
While seeing a live performance inspires some former punks to rekindle their passion using the ukulele, Northern England’s Paul Davies, aka the Ukulele Punk, found his inspiration in 2008 after stumbling upon a Danielle Ate the Sandwich video on YouTube. “I bought a ukulele that day,” Davies says. “Not very rock ’n’ roll, I know.”
Davies writes originals inspired by the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and Discharge, but also likes to mix things up with ska and reggae songs. After his early solo beginnings and gigs with Ireland’s Stiff Little Fingers and others, Davies joined with a bass player and percussionist to get a fuller sound. “We did a live session on the Kerrang Radio punk show a couple of years back,” Davies says. “It was quite nerve-racking playing to a million faceless people. Driving home we felt like rock stars.”
Not simply content being a punk-uke hero, Davies also teaches uke to hundreds of elementary school children in the town of Ramsbottom in Lancashire, and hopes they will take the passion with them throughout their lives. “I like to think some of them will keep it up as they grow older,” Davies says. “If it was up to me, the ukulele would be compulsory in schools. Why do we bog our kids down with music theory and dull instruments at such a young age?”
Carrying the Punk Torch
Like Davies, Tearle, Wiseman, and McIntyre, Cambridge punk Edward Dickinson found the ukulele as an adult. Now a member of the ska-punk, four-piece Inter City Crazy Train, Dickinson says he was drawn to the instrument for the same reason so many others are. “When I first started messing around on the uke, I found it relatively simple to get the hang of—having fun and just making stuff up,” Dickinson says. “The first song I learned to play, much to my roommate’s chagrin, was, of all things, ‘A Little Respect’ by Erasure. It was after I heard it on the TV show Scrubs and thought it would be quite straightforward to play. The vocals however, are another matter!
“Before I learned how to play, I remember a guy I knew from a local band who had a song or two that he played on the uke. I asked if it was like playing guitar, and he scoffed and very rudely said it was nothing like guitar, and I wouldn’t understand it. If he had said well, playing ukulele is like putting a capo at the fifth fret on a guitar and playing the thinnest four strings, I would have understood. That’s how I explain it to other musicians who ask about playing the uke.”
Dickinson got heavily into punk and ska as a teenager, and cites an eclectic range of influences—from such two-tone acts as Selecter and Madness to metal, hardcore, and hip hop—that steer his current band. Above all, however, his goal is to progress steadily and always have fun. “The GCEA tuning and pitch lends itself really well to the playing styles of ska and reggae—and I enjoy playing that style on ukulele the most. I’ve started using a wah-wah pedal, and it’s worked out really well. Ska is almost always upbeat and happy—I think the uke sound is really complementary.”
Ironically, the Hawaiian folk instrument turns out to spark a whole lot of punk creativity even farther north. Nipa Nyman, the lead singer and founder of the Finnish thrash band Lines of Leaving, has taken up the ukulele as a way to further his musical experimentation with a new group, Dr. Napalm Explosion. “I was on my way to meet some friends in Derby from London and had an impromptu idea to buy a souvenir ukulele, just to have something to keep me amused during the bus ride,” Nyman explains. “I learned to play a few of my songs with it on the road, and actually ended up playing them live in an open-stage, punk club the following day!”
That night, he says, was probably one of his most memorable gigs. “I was under very suspicious eyes of mostly punk rockers, but the audience loved it.”
Describing his new project as “neo-folk-beat-box-punk,” Dr. Napalm Explosion’s lineup consists of Nyman on vocals and uke, He-na Hyena on electric violin, and Chatchai on human beat box. At gigs in Tampere, Finland, Nyman uses two soprano Mahalos, which he has customized to fully accentuate his unique sound. “One them is fitted with a Finnish electret film mic called a B-Band, but the real magic comes from the lo-fi-vintage guitar effects that I’ve hooked up to them, with lots of octavers, distortion, and old-school ’verbs and modulators,” Nyman says.
Yes, to be sure, punk rock is alive and well, even if the people playing it may be a bit older, and their instruments may be a bit less grating on the ears than the ones used in the past. The abiding ethos of the uke-punk movement, however, continues to center around changing social and political attitudes while still having fun. With ukuleles at their disposal, it’s hard to see how these punks can fail.