To the very end of his life, no less an authority on good musical vibes than George Harrison praised and played the ukulele, interpreting many classic tunes on the instrument, penning an enthusiastic endorsement, and supposedly buying ukes in bulk to give away at his home in Hawaii. As Harrison recognized, there is something special about the role of the ukulele in western pop, and that has been true since Hawaiian music exploded onto the mainland in the early 20th century.
So there’s no reason why the ukulele shouldn’t be a serious interpreter of modern hits from Nirvana, Talking Heads, The Who, David Bowie, etc. And also no reason those interpretations shouldn’t be played on stages like the Royal Albert Hall by men and women in formal wear, befitting the seriousness with which they take the cheerful-sounding instrument. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is so serious, in fact, that they filed and won a lawsuit last year against an alleged copycat group in Germany, claiming their “reputation as performers” and “international and celebrity fan base" were at stake.
Indeed, the UOGB isn’t shy about self-promotion, describing themselves as “a national institution.” But despite their thoroughgoing professionalism, their act is still in good fun. (They also, with humor, note they “are often blamed for the current Ukulele revival which is sweeping the globe.”) And the orchestra’s reputation is more than well-earned. Their site features quotes from luminaries like Bowie and Brian Eno, and endorsements from NME and the Financial Times, who aptly describe them as “both hilarious and heartfelt.” Their winning stage banter gives way to stunning renditions of popular songs that all of the members—including at times a double bass player who goes by the name “David Bowie”—sing in harmony. (They perform their take on “Pinball Wizard,” below, entirely acapella.)
In performances of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” at the top,” “Psycho Killer,” further down, and, just below, “Life on Mars” the orchestra not only demonstrates how much great musical comedy depends upon great musicianship, they also show the incredible range of the diminutive Polynesian instrument. That’s especially the case in their act of Bowie “plagiarism,” in which six uke players pick out delicate, classical guitar-like arpeggios in the verses, then strum reggae-like percussive attacks under the complex vocal harmonies in the chorus.
The seventh member on stage plays an acoustic bass guitar---the only concession to an additional rhythm instrument, but even in these four anthemic rock songs, you won’t bemoan the lack of drums. As The New York Times remarks, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain “extracts more than seems humanly possible from so small and so modest an instrument.” See them play a version of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly theme at our previous post, and see many more videos and live performances at the orchestra’s YouTube channel.