After a period when it was widely regarded as a joke instrument suitable only for George Formby imitators, the ukulele has enjoyed something of a revival in the present century. Numerous groups have been formed and sales have rocketed. Much of the credit for this belongs to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which has performed at home and abroad with its slogan “a world tour with only hand luggage” and may be the only ensemble to have played both at the BBC Proms and the Glastonbury festival. Highlights of the 2009 Proms concert were Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, with 1,000 audience members playing along, and a rendition of Jerusalem by the orchestra’s co-founder Kitty Lux, who has died aged 59 after suffering from chronic health problems.
She was born Marian Lux in London, daughter of Dan Lux, a showbusiness accountant who became an oil company executive, and his wife, Jean, a district nurse. As a child, Marian won a prize for her poetry and had a book published. She attended Mary Datchelor school in Camberwell, south-east London, before studying fine art at Leeds University, where her tutors included the former situationist TJ Clark and the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, whose teaching honed her radical and subversive instincts. Her research included a project on a Leeds strip club where, by now known as Kitty, she worked briefly as a topless waitress.
After graduation she was offered an advertising job with Ogilvy & Mather in New York, but turned it down to stay in Leeds, where she was already part of a loose network of post-punk musicians that included members of the Mekons and the Gang of Four. She composed songs for, and sang with, such shortlived bands as Sheeny and the Goys (whose Ever Such Pretty Girls is regarded as a minor punk classic), the Sirens and Really, a compilation CD of whose recordings was issued in 2015. Lux also appeared in a naked version of Hamlet staged by the Impact Theatre Company.
After Lux and George Hinchliffe, a fellow musician and former Leeds Polytechnic art student, moved to London, she recalled that “George bought me a ukulele for my birthday. He taught me how to play it, and then some friends came round and said, ‘Ooh, they look good,’ and that made four of us. George invented the name and suddenly we were the world’s first ukulele orchestra.” The size of the group varied but eventually became eight-strong, with instruments varying in pitch from soprano to baritone and bass.
To their surprise and delight, the unexpected juxtaposition of contemporary pop songs and archaic strumming drew increasing numbers to London club nights and in 1985 the duo formally launched the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: the name was a deliberate oxymoron, “akin to the Sahara Desert Sub-Aqua Club”, in Hinchliffe’s words. Within three years, the orchestra had made its first TV appearance, issued its first album and played its first festival, Womad. Since then, there have been between 100 and 200 shows each year, plus collaborations with Madness, Robbie Williams, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), the Kaiser Chiefs and the film music composer David Arnold. The orchestra’s music has been widely used in commercials, plays and films. A recent highlight was a private show for the Queen on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
The orchestra inspired the formation of many amateur groups, as well as a “UK Ukulele Orchestra” whose opportunistic German manager was found guilty of passing off in 2015 in a high court case brought by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
The orchestra has issued more than a dozen CDs on its own record label. Many of these incorporate arrangements of songs by David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, Nirvana and many others, described by one reviewer as “at once hilarious and heartfelt”. Lux’s contribution included versions of Satellite of Love by Lou Reed and MacArthur Park, the Jimmy Webb song first recorded by Richard Harris. The ensemble repertoire also includes Lousy War, a first world war concept show and classical pieces, notably Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. In addition, the orchestra has recorded original material by Hinchliffe and Lux such as Anything Is Beautiful Which …, whose electronically treated vocals quote fragments of aesthetic philosophy. The track inspired one critic to declare that this was “a moment when the ukulele has at last found its avant garde”.
Alongside her work with the orchestra, Lux had day jobs with the charity services company Angal, which patented tamper-proof collection boxes, and as a partner in Max Fordham’s architectural, engineering and building practice. She also helped to edit the papers of Fordham’s father, the Jungian analyst Michael Fordham.
Lux was forced to leave that job because of her health problems, having recovered from a kidney transplant only days before the Proms concert. She retired from public performance with the Ukulele Orchestra after suffering a stroke in 2015.
She is survived by her partner, Deryk Surman, her father and her brother, Howard.
Kitty (Marian) Lux, musician, born 28 October 1957; died 16 July 2017