Day 131: The Beatles Get Lei’ed

originally published May 10, 2012

Every so often I come across a website that reminds me, “This is why the Internet exists.”

Having undertaken a ridiculous labor of love myself (this one), I feel a kinship with David Barratt. His site states that “if every citizen spent a little bit of time playing the ukulele, the world would be a better place.” To that end, he created The Beatles Complete On Ukulele, a project in which features the weekly release of a Beatles song, featuring David’s favorite instrument.

A few details elevate his site from kitchy to brilliant. First, he doesn’t record and sing every track himself. Listening to the same vocalist powering through all these songs would be redundant. Second, the songs are not all strummed and solo, like an Israel Kamakawiwo’ole tune. The styles stretch from folk to psychedelic, so each week’s release is a fresh interpretation.

So why the Beatles? Why the ukulele? And who is this guy? The first question is unnecessary (I mean come on… who else?), the second can be summed up by the unquestionably joyful sound of the instrument, and the third is surprisingly impressive.

David Barratt is not some schmuck from the corner of nowhere, trying to make a name for himself by doing something weird and new online. (by the way, I love it when I can pigeon-hole myself into inadequacy through my own writing)

Barratt is a London-born composer with actual credits on his resume. He has worked with Robert Plant and David Bowie, and has scored a slew of TV and radio spots for brands like Dr Pepper, Verizon, Sony, BMW, and a bunch  more. He created an audio sculpture that found its way into the UN’s General Assembly. He is the reason that aspiring musicians should want to be musicians – he has made a great living doing what he loves.

His project is intertwined with another artistic salad of ukuleletude and joy: the 10 Ukuleles project. Barratt had ten NYC artists decorate ten ukuleles to be presented to the ten most important people in the world. These folks include Vladimir Putin, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Paul McCartney (of course). No word yet on how this project turned out – I’m hoping Barratt will keep us updated.

On to the music.

Much like the project you now hold in your hands – assuming you’re holding your computer in your hands or reading this on a phone or tablet – the start and end dates were not chosen randomly. Songs are released every Tuesday, beginning January 20, 2009 (right after Obama’s inauguration) and ending on July 31, 2012 (the day before the London Olympics). He’s sticking to original Beatles’ compositions, though I notice a few songs haven’t made the cut, including “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”, and any of the three versions of “Revolution.” Still, it’s a pretty comprehensive list.

Here are some of the highlights:

#1 – John James: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The project opens up with a sweet rendering of one of George Harrison’s finest songs. James has a list of musical credits at least as long as Barratt’s, and he paints this one more in the colors of the acoustic version found on the Beatles’ Anthology III. Beautiful.

#70 – Ann Klein: “She Said She Said.” John’s psychedelic masterpiece is redone as a trip-folk number. A magnificent rendition, though I do take issue with the written blurb about the song citing its inspiration as a frequent type of argument between Lennon and his Aunt Mimi. I thought it was common knowledge that Peter Fonda slipped John the line, “I know what it’s like to be dead.”

#46 – Muammar Gaddafi: “Hey Jude.” Yes, that Gaddafi. The song features the ukulele (of course), and a Gaddafi speech auto-tuned to the song’s melody. You really have to hear this.

#124 – Morgan Visconti: “Think For Yourself.” This is partly a uke-heavy Phil Spector sound, with the rest falling into a frosted slab of tasty power-pop. Visconti is also the son of Mary Hopkin (an Apple Records recording artist whose early work was McCartney-produced and/or written).

#82 – Samantha Fox: “I Should Have Known Better.” That’s right, the 80s/90s model/singer totally sexes up track 2 from A Hard Day’s Night. If you loved “Touch Me” back in ’86, you’ll love this.

#120 – Dandelion Wine: “I’m Looking Through You.” The Australian duo takes a somewhat somber approach to this one. Well, as somber as one can be with prominent ukulele. The musicianship on this track makes it worth the listen. Still, it’s making me a little sad.

#12 – Cynthia Lennon: “In My Life.” That’s not a typo. John’s first wife doesn’t try to fake it as a singer (his second wife cornered the market on that), but instead she lets this track fall gently into your lap as a spoken word piece. Recorded on her 72nd birthday, this is a chill-inducing cover. Not an improvement on the original of course – the only way to improve on the original would be to listen to it while eating bacon.

#94 – Joy Askew: “Things We Said Today.” Knowing I couldn’t listen to every track in researching this article, I hopped to this gem, one of my favorites. Ms. Askew crafted this cover as a sort-of a capella, with a sprinkling of organ and (of course) ukulele. This song alone is worth a visit to this site.

#80 – Victor Spinetti: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” I can’t say this one of my favorites. But Spinetti acted in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour, and he was buds with the Beatles, so he’s a perfect get for this project. The track sounds like an old sailor, reciting the lyrics as a salty cautionary tale. Quirky.

#88 – Wang Chung: “Rain.” Okay, nothing can top the power-drumming Ringo executes in the original, but hey, it’s Wang Chung! Mellow, maraca-ed and marvellous.

#64 – Eric Nicolas: “A Day In The Life.” I have to finish off with my pick for the ultimate Beatles track. It took about three seconds for me to love this version. Old-timey (like a uke-based “Honey Pie”), and much more jaunty than the original. As a perfect touch of irony, the song kathunks into a similar tempo as the Beatles’ version for the middle section (which, in the original, is the peppy part). Clearly Mr. Nicolas is a fellow Beatles geek; he slipped in smatterings of nine other Beatles’ tracks into this one, including – and I thank him for this – “Revolution 9.”

I’d like to give major props (or whatever the white, Canadian, Jewish equivalent of ‘props’ would be) to David Barratt for perking up my day with this site. I’d hoped I could find a unique swizzle on the Beatles lore for an article in this project, one that would let me explore, rather than simply parrot a bunch of trivia I’d read decades ago. Having been impressed by almost every track I checked out, I strongly advise everyone to give these treats a listen. Apparently Deepak Chopra is slated for “Something,” the project’s penultimate release in July.

I think David’s right. A little ukulele can go a long way.

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