Cover tunes are not tribute bands. The best covers don’t aim to be carbon copies. They expand our concept of the original with an unexpected element or fresh lens.
Would you believe me if I told you that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s take on David Bowie’s “Heroes”—the second most covered tune in the late rocker’s canon—is even sexier than the original?
Nothing ever will be.
It is, however, a compelling case for the power of multiple ukuleles.
Bowie may have referred to the tempo and rhythm as “plodding,” but co-writer Brian Eno’s description of the sound as something “grand and heroic” comes much closer to the mark.
Are eight ukes grand and heroic? Well, no. Not really.
And there is something undeniably humorous about a row of formally attired, seated, middle-aged men and women, wailing away in unison with their right hands, but it’s telling that the audience at New York’s multimedia art cabaret (le) Poisson Rouge isn’t laughing.
Admittedly, there were a few isolated chuckles in the beginning, a few notes in.
Probably been dragged there on blind dates with ukulele-enthusiasts.
To be charitable, there will always be those in need of convincing that the ukulele is a legitimate instrument.
Who better to convince them than the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, whose very name suggests that its members are in on the joke, and capable of turning it on its head?
The lyrics, as most Bowie fans can tell you, were inspired by real life, but not exactly Bowie’s. The tune was on solid footing, but the words were still slow to come, when Bowie glanced out the window of his Berlin recording studio to catch a back up singer and Visconti, married at the time, enjoying what they believed was a stolen kiss.
The rest, as they say is history, kept somewhat shrouded in mystery until relatively recently.
The Ukulele Orchestra singers wisely steer clear of Bowie’s howling, emotional delivery, which Visconti got on tape almost before the ink on those lyrics had time to dry.
Instead, they honor him, and the place this song has in so many people’s hearts, with their sincerity.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.