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ALBUM REWIND: AMY WINEHOUSE – BACK TO BLACK

You could state that ‘love songs’ have always been common. Superficially this is true. Yet someone who pours it out like Winehouse is rare. Circa 2006 there is a wide spectrum in female music. On one end is your Beyonce’s ,and the other Avril Lavinge’s. Both darlings to the music industry, writing love songs alongside co writers. Then somewhere in between is the out of place Amy Winehouse. Beehived, vulgar mouthed and frankly candour, yet also sensitive. Inside are 11 diary enteries that anyone else would be afraid of sharing. Those going past the surface of heartbreak, and moving into the depths of its causes. Topics of self hatred, abusive relationships, self destructiveness and substance abuse fill this compact 35 minute record. Something that took time, after Winehouse very almost sold out, recording tracks like ‘Do Me Good’. One she later resented her label for ever releasing. Live instrumentation from The Dap Kings propel her music, making it sound like northern soul from 1967. When I was at the mere age of 7, I bought this album (on behalf of that. Not mentioning her ace Glastonbury set) in the local woolworths for a fiver, alongside a blown up poster of it for my bedroom wall. I remember coming out and my mum frowning, talking about the papers. I didn’t understand any of the lyrics for a good number of years, but when it clicked in my teens, it clicked hard. And I can’t stress how important that moment was. When instrumentals and lyrics on an album are just as prolific, it is a goldmine. It’s sad to think that people remember Winehouse for being only ‘a drunken mess’ , with ‘that Rehab song’. But let me reassure you. That isn’t the case. ‘Back To Black‘ is to me, the finest penned female album of the 21st century, and also happened to impact a generation. To many, to an unknowing extent.

Straight from ‘Rehab’, Winehouse’s brutal honesty is in the face. A very interesting, hotheaded perspective on alcoholism, and the chidlike refusal to change her ways. Fascinating when her Motown influences were a factory of puppets being told what to do. Although polarizing, the track was inescapable, and for good reason. Instrumentally it was a breath of fresh air and still is to this day. The interchangeable drum fills in the choruses are riveting, the layered brass work has a pleasing breathy resonance, the melancholic tubular bells are like those of funeral bells. These components, alongside the lyrics set her apart from her contemporaries, who later followed suit. Following a number one single, and a number of newspaper headlines about the song, a huge scene of Winehouse wannabes invaded the UK charts. Look at Duffy, Paloma Faith, Lana Del Rey, Sam Smith, and biggest of all Adele, who claimed ‘I owe 90 percent of my career to her’ . Maybe explaining why she wrote her latest heartbreak album in a happy relationship. I haven’t mentioned Mark Ronson spiralling off the success and working on ‘retro’ hits for Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. All becoming a trend, even when it made the ears bleed. I’m looking at you Meghan Trainor.

Winehouse transposes the ethos of Motown on other tracks. On ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ , Salaam Remi heavily samples Marvin Gaye’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. A song about a supportive relationship that will never end. Here it is morbidly transposed into one of being walked over, yet still having the urge to come back. This being one facet of her complicated relationship with Blake Fielder Civil, as he comes to her for hookups while in another relationship. Similarly with the blunt, ‘Just Friends’, where Winehouse delivers some gutwrenchingly honest, but empowering lines: ‘No, I’m not ashamed, but the guilt will kill you, if she don’t first.’  It’s heartbreaking watching her contradict this empowering self on other album cuts, showing a realistic human reaction. ‘You Know I’m No Good’ being a perfect example. Complete with eastenders-esque details about her ex not being as good in bed as Fielder, so why not go back.

Looking past relationships, it might be the substance abuse and drug songs that hit hardest. ‘Wake Up Alone’ is the pinnacle addiction song, and a personal favorite. A cut where the dramatic piano and guitar arpeggios shadow doo wop ballads by The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las. Winehouse lyrically takes us through her day, procastinating in activities such as cleaning the house and pacing the room, before sinking into the routine of drinking until she blacks out. Something that is hauntingly prophetic to her premature passing. She evokes images of liquids while describing the control the drink has on her life. In the space of a verse she uses ‘floods’, ‘soaked’, ‘swims’, ‘pour’ and ‘spilling’ in description. Instrumentally each verse builds up hopefully, just to conclude in a frowning minor downfall. A genius moment of production.

Darker still, ‘Some Unholy War’ might be the most honest moment on the album. One that touches on Fielder’s issues with cocaine addiction, and his suicidal thoughts. At the heaviest moment, she claims she’d also commit suicide, because Fielder is her main source of happiness.

On the other side of the record, Winehouse takes bizarre angles in her lyrics that make her stand out. Look at ‘Me and Mr Jones’. A track concerning her frustration with Fielder getting in the way of her plans to go and see a Slick Rick concert. She claims she won’t let him get in her way for the Brixton Nas gig. Cleverly she takes a spin on Billy Paul’s soul classic ‘Me and Mrs Jones’. The track however has darker undertones. Fielders presence stops her from doing the things she enjoys outside of the relationship. Something that could suggest he has control issues; On ‘He Can Only Hold Her’ she sings in third person rather than first, observing herself from afar. A unique writing style and one of acceptance of the past. 

She follows with the album closer, ‘Addicted’. An almost novelty song about marijuwana, but it reeks in genius. She claims in jest that the drug ‘does more than any dick did‘, as if the previous 10 diary entries don’t matter. In form of acceptance the album ends. But, it seems only to be brief, seeing the turbulance that followed. There were no mockups. Black was the drink and she sadly passed from the poisoning of it. Sometimes I wonder if Winehouse would have made another record if she’d beaten the addiction. I imagine her living a life in solitude, frowning at the charts, and bringing up a few kids. One will never know.

Some time a few years ago I visited Winehouse’s old Camden home to see the tributes. There was a girl sat with mascara down her cheeks. She had been sobbing to Winehouse’s music, which was playing from her phone. This was the one record in which she could console in. Even with the brand new break up albums hitting the airwaves. An interview Winehouse did with The Fader puts the record into perspective. She quotes “I wrote songs about relationships that almost ended me. when you write about stuff that’s so personal you don’t have to dig that deep”.

FURTHER LISTENING:

The Ronettes – Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes (1963) :

The sole album from The Ronettes. Filled with luscious, wall of sound production from Phil Spector. Its sonic imprint had a massive influence on Winehouse, Ronson and Remi. Just listen to the piano arpeggios in ‘So Young’ and compare them to ‘Wake Up Alone’. Ronson paid $200 on an original vinyl pressing.

Carole King – Tapestry (1971):


Without knowing Carole King you’d be surprised at her familiarity. Ghostwriter for a ton of 60s songs (Chrystals, Shirelles, Aretha Franklin ect), King is no stranger to the songwriting world. This record (her solo debut) was played religiously around the house through Winehouse’s youth. Her mum Janis was a fan. In her memoir she said that she believes King “inspired Amy to learn her (songwriting) craft”. A goldmine songwriter.

Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings – Dap Dippin With The Dap Kings (2002):

Pure Funk. A band that caught Ronson and Remi’s ears when looking for a vintage sound. They remain present in newer Ronson offerings (look at Uptown Funk) for good reason. This is vital to those who enjoy the instrumentation the record offers.

Donny Hathaway – Extension Of A Man (1973) :

‘I Love You More Than I’ll Ever Know’ was a staple of many Winehouse live sets come this point in her career. Along with the name drop on ‘Rehab’. There is no doubt this was on heavy rotation while writing the record. There are some gospel esque hidden gems on this project too. Hathaways ‘I love the lord, he heard me cry (parts 1 and 2)’ and ‘Lord, Lord, Lord’ are unmissable. 

Nell Dunn – Poor Cow (Novel, 1967):

Not a record, but a kitchen sink novella. Joy lives in 1960s London. She has a habit of falling for petty criminals, whom end up in Jail before they have time to settle down together. Through this novel Joy brings up a child finding solace in having someone to care for. Her reputation is similar to that of Winehouse’s, especially when she has an obsession with the records of the time. The film adaptation is highly recommended too.

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