Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
|Also known as||UOGB,|
George Hinchliffe's Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
|Genres||Eclectic and wide range of Popular Music and Art Music genres, Music Comedy|
Peter Brooke Turner
|Past members||Kitty Lux (1985–2017)|
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) is an English musical ensemble founded in 1985 for a bit of fun by George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux. The orchestra consists entirely of ukuleles of various sizes and registers from soprano to bass. The UOGB is best known for performing covers from an eclectic and diverse range of musical genres, from classical to punk, via pop, rock, rhythm and blues, film and television sound tracks, plus a wide variety of other popular music styles. The songs are often performed with a reinterpretation, sometimes with a complete genre twist or are seamlessly woven together with several other well known songs from multiple genres. Musical comedy, juxtaposition and general humour long being a feature of the orchestra's act.
The members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (the orchestra) wear formal evening dress and sit in a semi circle behind music stands in a parody of a classical ensemble. All members of the Ukulele Orchestra take turns to take up the role of lead vocals. Along with Lux and Hinchcliffe, David Suich and Richie Williams are original members of the UOGB; Hester Goodman, Will Grove-White, Jonty Bankes, Peter Brooke Turner joined the orchestra through the early 1990s, Leisa Rea joined in 2003 and Ben Rouse joined in 2014. The UOGB membership has not changed since Kitty Lux's retirement due to chronic ill health in 2015 (and her death in 2017).
The Ukulele Orchestra has purposefully remained an independent music group, unsigned to any record label. Over the years the orchestra has released over 30 albums, but have spent most of their time touring the globe, in venues ranging from pubs and community halls to national classical concert halls to jazz clubs to folk and rock festivals, to private performances in front of royalty; with some years performing over 300 concerts. From the beginning the UOGB has received critical praise from the media for its concerts. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been called “not only a national institution, but also a world-wide phenomenon". The UOGB has also often been credited for being largely responsible for the current world-wide resurgence in popularity of the ukulele and ukulele groups.
The orchestra was formed in London in 1985 (as a bit of fun, but not as a joke), after George Hinchliffe (a multi instrumentalist and musicologist) gave his friend, and the co-founder of the orchestra, Kitty Lux a ukulele for her birthday (Lux was a post-punk singer who had expressed interest in learning more about musical harmony). The pair decided to obtain a few ukuleles for their friends (including David Suich and Richie Williams, who had previously challenged Hinchcliffe to get a tune out his son’s toy guitar) and invited them to join their new musical project, the Ukulele Orchestra. Williams recalled that his first ukulele cost “£17 with wholesale discount.” Hinchliffe invented the name "and suddenly we were the world’s first ukulele orchestra.” While the name was a deliberate oxymoron, Hinchcliffe told the The Independent that the original intention was not to be a comedy act, but to "create a liberating musical forum where any style of music could be played, from funk to rock-and-roll to classical", and the ukulele was selected for its musical versatility rather than its novelty value.
The orchestra members had all previously worked in various music genres but were tired by the pretentiousness within the music industry, of the music business conventions and genre stereotyping; so instead they decided to embrace the Ukulele 'precisely because in England or Britain it didn’t have a tradition' and was not limited by the conventions of classical or rock music. Hinchcliffe told the Houston Chronicle that the post punk "idea was for the orchestra to actually be the antidote to pomposity, egomania, cults of personality, rip-offs, music-business-standard-operational nonsense and prima donnas.” The humorous side of the UOGB came by accident during their first live session, when by accident they played in two keys at the same time and the orchestra was "messing around, with the sheet music falling everywhere." Hinchcliffe told the Independent "I thought we should go with it." Their first gig was at the Roebuck pub, just off Trinity Church Square in London, was intended to be a one-off, however it was a sell out, and after just one more performance the Orchestra was on national radio. For a while the orchestra had a regular monthly session in the back room at the Empress of Russia pub in Islington London (the pub has since closed down). Within three years the orchestra had a BBC Radio 1 session, appeared live on BBC One, invited by the poet musician John Hegley to play at his club night, made an album, received a call from CBS and played at WOMAD festival. The orchestra's membership evolved, gradually some members who weren’t full-time musicians and couldn’t always get time off work for the foreign trips departed, while new members began to join.
International tours and success
Hester Goodman, Will Grove-White, Jonty Bankes, Peter Brooke Turner all joined the orchestra through the early 1990s. In 1995 the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britan performed at the 50th anniversary VE day celebrations in Hyde Park before an estimated audience of 170,000. Leisa Rea joined in 2003. In 2005 Orchestra planned to release Wuthering Heights one of their re-workings of classics which had received "rapturous response" in concerts as a single but they were prevented from doing so, instead they released a prohibition-era honky-tonk rendition of Dy-Na-Mi-Tee, a 2002 hip hop song by Ms. Dynamite, their cover reached No. 78 in the official UK pop charts. The orchestra continued to tour world wide playing in many international venues, including Glastonbury Festival (2005), New York's Carnegie Hall (2009, 2012), and the Sydney Opera House (2012). They have toured all round the world from Spitsbergen, Svalbard in the Arctic Circle to Chongqing Taindi Theatre in China, via the Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand among others on a "near permanent tour". They have performed in venues and events as diverse as local community village halls to Ronnie Scott's jazz club, Boomtown Jazz Festival, The Royal Festival Hall, Luxemburg Philharmonie, Hay Festival, Glastonbury Festival, Chicago Chamber Music Festival, The Big Chill (music festival), Cropredy, The UK Houses of Parliament, Cambridge Folk Festival and the Edinburgh Festival.
On Tuesday 18 August 2009 the UOGB performed a prom a concert as part of the BBC Proms 2009 Season at London's Royal Albert Hall, where they were the fastest selling late night prom in history. The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and received much critical acclaim. The concert included a version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy in which at least 1000 audience members participated with Ukuleles.[a] A DVD of the performance, Prom Night, was released the same year. They returned to the Albert Hall in 2012. Ben Rouse joined the UOGB in 2014. The British Council introduction of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain 2014 tour of China, stated the "orchestra is celebrated for its rapport with audiences, and eliciting a joyous feel-good reaction". In 2015 Kitty Lux retired from touring with the orchestra due to chronic ill health and passed away in 2017. In 2016 the UOGB entertained Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle at a private party to celebrate the queen's 90th birthday.
The Orchestra has appeared on television and radio both in the UK and internationally several times, include programmes such as Jools Holland's Hootenanny and Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway performing alongside Robbie Williams, BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms, Blue Peter, The Slammer, Richard & Judy, This Morning, Skins, a CNN report in 2012, featured on CBS This Morning in 2013 and featured in a BBC Radio 4 Documentary 'The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain' presented by Phil Jupitus in July 2008. Collaborations have included with David Bowie, Madness, Robbie Williams, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), the Kaiser Chiefs, the Ministry of Sound, the film music composer David Arnold and in 2013 they issued a special collaboration with a music group called Ibiza Air for their Cover of the Song "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" with Kitty on vocals. They released an EP with 4 Remixes in different styles like Tech house and Chill-out.
Online performances during the pandemic lockdowns
During the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, unable to tour the Orchestra's ensemble while in individual self isolation released weekly 13 tracks on YouTube, called the Ukulele Lockdown series (they were collected together and released as the virtual opening concert for the 2021 San Francisco Performances PIVOT Festival, plus 26 other video tutorials, documentaries and other ukulele inspired videos, followed by five weekly The Ukulele World Service online pay to view concerts. Laura Currie, who has previously covered for absent orchestra members and toured with the orchestra, edited the lockdown videos, she is the lead singer on Lovecats and appears in Wuthering Heights and also the orchestra's The Ukulele World Service online pay to view concerts. The band's rendition of Wuthering Heights also featured Doug Beveridge (the band's sound engineer) and Jodi Cartwright (the band's manager).
Line-up and Organisation
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain perform their gigs in a light-heartedly parody of a 'very prim and proper, staid sort-of orchestra', wearing traditional orchestra dress for performances, with the men in black tie (black suits and bow ties) and the women in smart evening wear, seated behind music stands. The orchestra consists of 'ukuleleators' playing instruments in various registers: sopranino, soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and one bass ukulele. From 2005 UOGB performed as eight (an octet (music)) or seven (a septet) "of all-singing, all-strumming ukulele players" all with of them with distinct stage personas.
- George Hinchliffe (joint founder)(music director)
- David Suich (Joined 1985).
- Richie Williams (Joined 1985, rejoined 2003)
- Hester Goodman (Joined 1990)
- Will Grove-White (Joined 1991)
- Jonty Bankes (bass ukulele) (Joined 1992)
- Peter Brooke Turner (Joined 1994)
- Leisa Rea (Joined 2003)
- Ben Rouse (Joined 2014)
- Kitty Lux (1957–2017).
Lux, band member and co-founder with George Hinchliffe, died on 16 July 2017, aged 59, after suffering from various chronic health problems. Lux recovered from a kidney transplant only days before the Proms concert. She retired from public performances with the Ukulele Orchestra after suffering a stroke in 2015. In memory of Kitty, who always wore some article of clothing decorated with polka dots while performing, a number of current band members display a small red and white polka dot bow-tie either affixed to their clothing or to their ukulele.
The group has a small number of individuals who regularly serve as substitutes and extras, these include:
- David Bowie (was a founding member)
- Ewan Wardrop
- Nick Browning
- Laura Currie
UOGB has deliberately not signed to a record label. Hinchcliffe told the Sydney Morning Herald "we made a couple of records by ourselves, and then received phone calls from CBS and Sony to appear on their labels but we wanted to make the albums under our own steam." Hinchcliffe explained to the Yorkshire Post the idea of the UOGB was to have bit of fun "where we’re not having the agents and the managers and the record companies dictating terms.” Hinchcliffe described the orchestra to the New Statesman"we are a tinpot outfit really. But we are also a very successful business. We are serious about the music, but we don't take ourselves too seriously." The orchestra's manager is Jodi Cartwright. They earn most of their income from touring (the British Council noted in 2014 that over the previous 29 years the UOGB had performed in excess of 9,000 concerts) and from the 30 albums which they sell directly from their own web site.
Repertoire and artistic style
Due to the Ukulele's adaptability the orchestra is able to roam freely across a wide range of musical styles, according to the New York Times a typical UOGB concert is a "genre bending array" of musical covers ranging from for example, the Sex Pistols, The Who, Otis Redding, Blur, Hawkwind, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Nirvana to Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns’ "Danse macabre", to Ennio Morricone's theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the theme tune from Shaft, with the UOGB (according to the Chicago Tribune) "happy to pillage anything from the rich pageant of Western music".
The Ukulele Orchestra is known for reworking classics of rock 'n' roll, pop, punk, jazz and classical music, sometimes changing these so that the expectations of the audience are subverted. For example Kate Bush's classic avant-garde pop song "Wuthering Heights" is reworked as a swinging jazz number - complete with a Cab Calloway-style "Heathcliffe!" call and response, The power pop "Pinball Wizard" turns into a harmonized a cappella with a vaudevillian lead vocal by Hinchliffe, while the Sex Pistol's "Anarchy in the UK" is performed in the style of a Simon & Garfunkel cosy campfire sing-along folk song were the audience is encouraged to join in. The group originally shied away from featuring the music of George Formby (Britain's most famous ukulele musician), they have covered his 1937 song "Leaning on a Lamppost", but it becomes "Lenin On A Lamppost" performed in a Russian Cossack style.
The Kansas City Star considered the UOGB's medleys as "perhaps their most impressive feats, layering lyrics from disparate sources over a chord progression." Several songs from different genres are combined in one "soup of contrasts" – for example, David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" is melded seamlessly with "My Way", "For Once in My Life", "Born Free", "Substitute", and more. In another piece after a mock argument about what to play next Hinchliffe plays a solo Handel's "G Minor Suite No.7 for the Harpsichord," while all the other members sing in turn different songs on top the Handel base "Fly Me To The Moon", “Love Story (Where Do I Begin),” "Autumn Leaves", "Killing Me Softly with His Song", "Hotel California" and "I Will Survive", ending with all genre variations performed simultaneously in harmony together. As the British Council quotes UOGB "You may never think about music in the same way once you've been exposed to the ukes' depraved musicology".
During a concert every member of the orchestra has a song were they are the lead vocalist. In 2013 Hinchcliffe began to describe to the Los Angeles Times the range of vocals, “If Peter sings a song, it becomes this over-the-top Mario Lanza thing. If Dave sings it, it is a sort of proto-punk thing and if Kitty sings it, the song is a dark Bertold Brecht/Hans Eisler kind of thing." While many of the songs (even with genre twists) are played straight like Wheatus' pop rock Teenage Dirtbag which is performed with what the Australian Stage.com called the "same delicacy and finesse as Ludwig's 9th, giving it a whole new complexion" or the "jaw-dropping rendition of Ennio Morricone's immortal The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" Orchestra, which Classic FM also called a "sprightly" and "delightfully delicate rendition" that remained true to the epic composition. However nothing is spoof-proof. The UOGB often light-heartedly mock the "ludicrousness and pretentiousness" of songs and musical pieces with deadpan humour and pun-filled banter between songs; Hinchcliffe said "We try to have light hearted introductions to the songs and sometimes corny jokes and sometimes stories". Other times physical comedy is incorporated with the musicianship, for instance when up to five members bunch together to play a single ukulele. Reviewers often find this group of comedian harmonists' quintessential old fashioned British dry self-deprecating eccentric comedy (aided by the orchestra's impeccable timing and their close chemistry), genuinely funny.
“It’s good having this somewhat poxy instrument that can’t do much because there aren’t limitless options, and it forces you to think imaginatively about how to create sounds and rhythms,” Grove-White observed. According to the BBC the UOGB has rhythm, bass, baritone, tenor, soprano and lead Ukulele players, creating 'a rich palate of orchestration possibilities and registers'. Hinchcliffe told the Independent that in the orchestra every member plays something very simple, but sticks to it..."Somebody could play the chords in an offbeat, someone else could play them on the beat, and someone else could play the tune". "Stripping popular music down to its ukulele bones can move an audience in unexpected ways as they hear the music and lyrics anew." All members generate ideas for new pieces and all play around with ways the piece work. The Ukulele Orchestra also adapts its programme to match the location of the venue or the occasion, musical numbers with a regional flavour are often included especially when touring overseas. The orchestra often run Ukulele workshops prior to their concerts, and also gives advance notice of an audience participation tune so that those that wish to participate can bring along their own ukulele and play along with the orchestra.
Critical reception and legacy
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has received praise from press for its concerts. The Financial Times Laura Battle applauded the orchestra members’ “consummate skill” and said that the “sophisticated sound they make both percussive and melodic is at once hilarious and heartfelt.” The Kansas City Star considered the orchestra had "taken the comic aspects and musical capabilities of the ukulele and molded them into a well-honed act, delivered with marvelous nonchalance and impressive versatility." Howard Jacobson in the The Independent wrote "The best musical entertainment in the country ... worth travelling a thousand miles to hear." While an editorial in praise of the orchestra in The Guardian stated that "Time and again, their deadpan delivery of egotistical lyrics demolishes the pretensions of the pop industry with flourish." Gigwise said of the UOGB that they had "the balloon popping ability to prick pomposity of <a> song and bring levity to the glum." BBC Radio 4 mentions their their "subversive and high-quality ukulele playing and arrangements", while according to the Canadian Now (newspaper) "they’re virtuosic players and intentionally punk rock singers", and Egypt Today points out that UOGB had infused and popularized the ukulele with a "mischievous punk spirit". The Press (York) wrote that the UOGB represented "a collision of post-punk performance, rock’n’roll obituary and melodious oldies". ..."the Ukulele Orchestra uses the limitations of the instrument to create a musical freedom that reveals unsuspected musical insights".Manchester Evening News said of the orchestra that it had "a beautiful chemistry that represents fun, innocence, daftness and a genuinely enjoyable showcase of unique talent." UOGB shows are a "funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll featuring the bonsai guitar". Another Guardian article identified the Ukulele Orchestra as "a cultish British institution", while a separate Guardian review said the UOGB had "grown into a much-loved institution, their grand name and penguin suits signalling both irony and seriousness." The Daily Telegraph described the orchestra as having “international cult status", while the New Statesman described the UOGB as a "worldwide phenomenon". The UOGB, according to many sources including the Independent, is “often blamed for the current ukulele revival which is sweeping the globe”, with other ukulele orchestras and groups, following UOGB's lead, have "spawned" over the years in most major cities around the world. Asked by the Sydney Morning Heraldto explain the success of his orchestra, Hinchcliffe replied "the world has gone ukulele mad".
In 2008, the group performed Dreamspiel, a ukulele opera, composed by George Hinchliffe and Michelle Carter for the Grimeborn Festival at London's Arcola Theatre. They have also, in 2010 and 2011, performed Ukulelescope where they played music to accompany silent movies from the British Film Institute archives. In 2012, Waly Waly on the Ukulele reworked arrangements of Cecil Sharp's collected folk tunes for performances at the Birmingham Town Hall and Cecil Sharp House in London. (Recordings from these shows were released in 2016 as the CD The Keeper.) In 2014, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War, the orchestra presented When This Lousy War is Over which reflected a range of attitudes from the time; patriotic, pacifist and feminist, and drew from gipsy music, music hall, soldiers' songs and even a song from the then radical avante-garde Cabaret Voltaire in neutral Switzerland.
In 2009, Erwin Clausen, a German producer, approached the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain wanting to franchise the band in Germany. The UOGB said no the franchise, however Clausen (director of Yellow Promotions) then set up the United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra (UKUO), which performed in a very similar style of music and comedy to the UOGB. UKUO, though based in Germany, was similar to the UOGB in that it was an octet of British musicians (composed of two women and six men) who wore formal evening dress and just like the UOGB the UKUO act consisted of the band sitting in a line behind music stands, whilst performing a similar range of cover versions of popular music and musical comedy. Judge Richard Hacon, sitting at the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court initially declined to issue an injunction to stop UKUO touring England in 2014 as proceedings had been issued too late. Ultimately, the Court found that the German-based ukulele troop was in fact causing confusion and so the claim of passing off succeeded. The Judge ruled Clausen and Yellow Promotions "acted outside honest practices" when they set up their band. The Court was satisfied that, based on the evidence, there was indeed a likelihood of confusion between the two orchestra names. The Judge ruled that United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra "misrepresents to a substantial proportion of the public in this country who recognise The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain as the trade name of a particular musical act, that the that the two orchestras UOGB and UKUO are either the same group, or otherwise commercially connected." The Court found that this had caused damage to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's goodwill, especially by way of the UOGB's loss of control over their reputation as artists. However though similarities in the name amounted to passing off, the judge ruled that Clausen and the UKUO were not guilty of copyright or trademark infringement as far as the style of the performance.
- Miss Dy-na-mi-tee – 2005, Longman Records (CD)
- The Ukulele Variations – 1988, Disque Ethnique (LP); CBS/Sony Records (CD)
- Hearts of Oak – 1990, CBS/Sony Records (CD)
- A Fist Full of Ukuleles – 1994, Sony Records (CD)
- Pluck – 1998, Tachyon Records (CD)
- Songs for Plucking Lovers – 2000, UOGB(CD)
- Anarchy in the Ukulele – 2000, UOGB(CD)
- Eine Kleine Ukemusik – 2000, UOGB(CD)
- The Secret of Life – 2004, Longman Records (CD)
- Miss Dy-na-mi-tee – 2005, Longman Records (CD single)
- Precious Little – 2007, UOGB (CD)
- Christmas with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – 2008, UOGB (CD)
- (Ever Such) Pretty Girls – 2015, UOGB (CD)
- Lousy War 2016, UOGB (CD)
- The Originals 2016, UOGB ((CD)
- By Request (Songs From The Set List) 2018, UOGB(CD)
- The Only Album by the Ukulele Orchestra You Will Ever Need Volume Three – 2019, UOGB (CD)
- The Only Album By The Ukulele Orchestra You Will Ever Need, Vol. 9 – 2020, UOGB (CD)
- Never Mind The Reindeer – 2020, UOGB (CD)
- Anarchy in the Ukulele – 2005 (CD)
- Live in London #1 – 2008, UOGB (CD)
- Live in London #2 – 2009, UOGB (CD)
- Still Live – 2011, UOGB (CD)
- Uke-Werk – 2013, UOGB (CD)
- The Keeper – 2016, UOGB (CD)
- Top Notch – 2001, UOGB (CD)
- Bang Bang(My Baby Shot Me Down) EP – The Ukulele Orchestra Vs Ibiza Air – 2013, UOGB (CD)
- Anarchy in the Ukulele – 2005, UOGB (DVD)
- Prom Night – Live at the Royal Albert Hall – BBC Proms 2009 – 2009, UOGB (DVD)
- The Ukes Down Under – 2012, Litmus Films (DVD)
- The Ukes in America – 2013, Litmus Films (DVD)
- The detailed set list for the 2009 Royal Albert Hall Proms performance can be found at this BBC link 
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is the manager of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, an internationally renowned ensemble that regularly perform in some of the most prestigious venues and festivals across the UK, Europe, North America and Asia.
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- Gavin Pretor-Pinney; Tom Hodgkinson (1 January 2013). The Ukulele Handbook. A&C Black. pp. 61–. ISBN 978-1-4088-3629-3.
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- Official website
- Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain official YouTube channel
- The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain discography at MusicBrainz
- The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain discography at Discogs