How do you describe this extraordinary outfit, what do you say about them and their music? In truth, there’s no easy answer to either of these questions. It’s best just to listen to their simply inspired madness, rich music with astonishing surprises at every turn and a truly bold grasp and fearless disregard for normal musical limitation, form and shape.
The UOGB – as they’re affectionately and, thankfully, abbreviatedly – known is a mostly seven-piece band (numbers at live gigs can sometimes vary) that genuinely goes where others fear to tread, boldly redrawing the musical map at times with unexpected delights tucked up their collective sleeves ready to explode onto the stage and into the ears like old magician trickery. For this is breathtaking, laugh-out-loud stuff with a vengeance.
First off, there’s the wonderful paradox at the very heart of the band – they dress in formal evening wear and play ukuleles, yet roar through tracks like ‘Born To Be Wild’ ; ‘Hot Tamales’; punk classics ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Sex and Drugs and Rockn’roll’ then switch with ease to film themes from ‘Thunderball,’ ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ followed by ‘Shaft’ then possibly a touch of Bach and a splash of Bowie or Chuck Berry.
Impossible to second-guess, they are superbly talented musicians who treat the ukulele as a serious instrument and produce performances, both live and recorded, that more than echo and support this near-outlandish belief. Try their surreal take on Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and their stimulating, original version of the old George Formby banjo-ukulele classic ‘Leaning On A Lamppost,’ given a decidedly minor-key Russian twist; track them down on YouTube, try their albums and DVDs. For over twenty years I’ve been loving their wildly eclectic bravery and sheer hell-raising musical fun with this most unlikely of explosive, subversive instruments.
Sitting down to chat to them about their musical influences and thoughts is always fun, great crack, interesting, arrestingly different and guaranteed to bring a smile. Having made a near-seismic shift in venues from small village halls and folk clubs to playing Sydney Opera House, the UK’s leading festival, Glastonbury, filling London’s Royal Albert Hall, and a private, Royal-family party for the Queen’s birthday a few years ago, how do they view the changes?
Mouthpiece and centrepiece, George Hinchliffe, explains: ‘I think it was a slow burn effect over almost thirty years. We started out with four members in 1985, went to seven, up to twelve at one point, then back to seven. We became settled at that and have been fully professional for about 15 years now.’
He describes playing Glastonbury Festival as being ‘amazing’: ‘We played the ‘”acoustic stage.” When we turned up there were 11,000 people crammed in there,’ he laughs in recall.
Given the extraordinary eclecticism of the band, I ask how they approach choosing numbers to cover – though they do also write their own material at times. ‘We choose music that sits easily with people’s own cultures. Music they’re likely to be familiar with, be it good or bad. It’s music maybe they knew as teenagers, much of it pop music. When we first played in the US, we thought maybe we could find a different regional theme for each gig but that proved too difficult. So I suggested an old TV theme song from “The Beverley Hillbillies”, we had that on TV in the UK when I was young. It worked wonderfully. The Americans all knew the words and joined in!’
Hinchliffe confirms the band has played Australia a fair few times, though they have played New Zealand on more frequently: ‘Australia is great. We’ve played much of the East coast then over as far as Perth. Everywhere is different but good. We’ve played Womadelaide a couple of times too and had a great time. We caught a band called “the Pigram Brothers” there, they come from a North West town called Broome, are native Australians, genuine brothers and very good musically, really interesting. I like them a lot.’
With such a varied repertoire – who else has tried The Who’s classic “Pinball Wizard” contorted into unique shape as a traditional sea-shanty? – Hinchliffe confirms that influences come from almost everything and anything musical: Bowie, Sinatra, even French rock God, Johnny Halliday, Sydney Bechet and Serge Gainsbourg. All are fair game to the band’s genius and interpretation: ‘We try to keep close to the original, we don’t generally mess around with the lyrics but we try to put our own different interpretation on it,’ he jokes, confirming an obvious element in the band’s growing output and success.
Currently working on a new album, the band – with a substantial back-catalogue available of both CDs and DVDs – hope to get the latest offering out later this year.