Idolatry is forbidden, but the power of the ukulele almost drove me to it

Pound for pound, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is the best musical entertainment in the country

Share
Related Topics

Queued the other night to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Not something I normally do, queue. But I make an exception for the ukulele. I'd have queued for George Formby, though the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain makes a point of not associating itself with him. Nothing prudish, I think. Not everyone enjoys songs such as "With My Little Ukulele in My Hand", which had to be withdrawn from sale in 1933 in deference to public decency, but the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain doesn't strike you as censorious.

Queued the other night to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Not something I normally do, queue. But I make an exception for the ukulele. I'd have queued for George Formby, though the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain makes a point of not associating itself with him. Nothing prudish, I think. Not everyone enjoys songs such as "With My Little Ukulele in My Hand", which had to be withdrawn from sale in 1933 in deference to public decency, but the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain doesn't strike you as censorious.

Its argument with George Formby is aesthetic, not moral. It seeks to demonstrate the virtuosity and grandeur of the little instrument, whereas I suppose you'd have to say that George Formby sought to make it smaller and samier even than it already was. Both acts of irony, but to different ends. And you probably have to come from Lancashire to see that there's irony in George Formby at all.

There I was, anyway, waiting on Oxford Street for the doors to open, which is something else I don't normally do. If they want you there they should let you in, is my motto. Detecting my impatience, a facetiously chthonic person in the sort of bird's nest beard and seaman's pigtail you don't expect to encounter outside of a jazz festival in Wales assured me the wait would be worth it. I thanked him. He told me he liked the cut of my jib, sir. I told him I was much indebted to him, squire. He replied that he was pleased to wait upon my pleasure, captain. Shame they finally let us in. What fun we could have had, cross-bantering the night away.

I didn't need his assurances as to the band. Pound for pound, and you can quote me on this, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is the best musical entertainment in the country. That I don't know what else is out there I freely admit, but what's that got to do with anything? Critics routinely declare something or other the best play or novel ever written, without their having seen or read - how could they? - all the others. Indeed, my lukewarmness in the matter of most contemporary musical outfits - excluding the Dresden Staatskapelle and the like - is itself proof of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's genius: they wouldn't otherwise have caught my ear.

There are five men and two women in the orchestra. One of the women is slinky, within the parameters of the ukulele, the other alternative. They are both sardonic in a way I can only describe as exciting. The men are all versions of my ideal self. One puckishly bohemian, one very tall, laconic and deep voiced, one hard yet still avuncular, one seemingly withdrawn until he unleashes a demoniacal parody of Otis Redding - "'cause mama I'm so hard to handle now" - worth travelling a thousand miles to hear, and one sublimely sleepy-eyed, with an air of debauch which I put the best years of my life into trying, unsuccessfully, to acquire. I don't know any of their names. I don't have any of their photographs above my bed. I am an admirer not a fan. I don't do fan. It is forbidden by my religion.

I try explaining this to a couple I meet at the bar in the interval. It's the same with queuing, I tell them. Being a fan and queuing are both species of idolatry. The only person you should ever queue to see is God. For a moment it looks as though the woman, who is very drunk, is going to ask me where God is next appearing. A reasonable enough question, and one she is by no means the first person to have been troubled by. But her boyfriend, who is also very drunk, gets in before her. "So what is your religion?" he wants to know. "Presbyterian?"

What I can't decide, when the second half of the programme begins, is whether idolatry is the problem after all. It seemed like idolatry in the queue. And it seems like idolatry when the whooping starts. No one whoops at the Dresden Staatskapelle. Or no one "should" whoop at the Dresden Staatskapelle. In fact I'm told that that's exactly what promenaders did do when the Dresden Staatskapelle performed Bruckner's Seventh Symphony at the Albert Hall this summer, but that just underlines what I'm concerned about - the democratisation of performance.

Can you have democratic idolatry? Something of that sort seems to be afoot tonight, anyway, the audience loving itself in the Ukulele Orchestra, clapping and cheering every song as though they have never heard music in their lives before, but at the same time extravagantly celebrating their own familiarity with it.

Is this the Mamma Mia! syndrome? You go to hear what you already know and to be delighted with yourself for knowing it. That what you're singing along to is unadulterated mush is part of the pleasure. It compounds knowingness with knowingness. I think about having a quiet word with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I want to put it to them that they must watch the insidious onward creep of the demos, that they are there to enthral us with their musicianship, and not just to rework for our indulgence, however brilliantly, that which is canonical. It is without doubt an awesome musical spectacle, punk pounded out on ukuleles. But so was Bach the last time I heard them. And there is no Bach tonight. Are they, God forbid, becoming a little too popular? It's an elitist joke, after all, the ukulele. It's not for everybody.

A "disgusting little ditty" was how Lord Reith described George Formby's "When I'm Cleaning Windows", before banning it from the airwaves. This should remind us that the ukulele has a proud, subversive, even underground tradition. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain deserves its success - knighthoods at the very least for what they do with "Wuthering Heights" alone - but, intellectually, I still feel I shouldn't have to queue to hear them.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lib Dem MPs have criticised David Cameron's decision to ask the retail tycoon Sir Philip Green (above) to lead a spending review when his Arcadia company is registered in the name of his Monaco-based wife  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat