The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Performs Great Covers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” & More

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ukulele Orches­tra Per­forms Ennio Morricone’s Icon­ic West­ern Theme Song, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” And It’s Pret­ty Bril­liant.

George Har­ri­son Explains Why Every­one Should Play the Ukulele, With Words and Music

Musi­cians Re-Imag­ine the Com­plete Song­book of the Bea­t­les on the Ukulele

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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