|Amy Winehouse's second, and final, studio album Back to Black was released on October 27, 2006.|
“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” – John UpdikeBefore long, the brilliant album Amy Winehouse released ten years ago this past October will have lived longer that she herself did. Back to Black (Island Records, 2006) was then and still is now a singular achievement with few sonic peers in the realm of pop music. This is especially ironic because it was never intended to be a pop record at all and instead merged jazz, blues, R&B, funk, ska, soul, hip hop, "Wall of Sound" 60’s girl groups and something else without a name into an amazing witch’s brew with many imitators but few equals.
Having just completed a book on this album, its historical roots, brilliant producers and back-up band, I am amazed by the record now as I was when I first heard it a decade ago. Almost as strange is the fact that she passed away nearly a half a decade ago this year, and took with her one of the most oddly gifted and mesmerizing torch song talents to come along since Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day and Sharon Jones.
If the final name is not quite a household word, it’s only because Jones’ superb back-up band, The Dap-Kings, were the lesser-known revivalist soul masters whose sound was borrowed by the brilliant young d.j./producer Mark Ronson to help create the brand we identify today with Winehouse. Old-school analog devotees in every sense, they recorded for Daptone Records, founded by the great Gabriel Roth almost 20 years ago, and their warm direct-to-tape style lent the authentic soul spice to Winehouse’s only masterpiece. Roth, who won a Grammy Award for sound engineering her hit, can often be as blunt as Winehouse could: “Show me a computer that sounds as good as a tape machine and I’ll use it!”
Ronson has often expressed how thunderstruck he was on that spring day when, while Winehouse was visiting from England with friends, she came to his studio on Mercer and Canal in downtown New York. As he explained to Billboard, they hung out and talked about music. “She was so magnetic, and just her energy – I just instantly liked her and I wanted to impress her, basically. I wanted to have a piece of music that would make her be like, wow, I want to work with this guy.” He convinced her famously.
“When she did this ‘talk to the hand thing’," Ronson remembered, “I said that was really hooky. We didn’t give it much thought.” After his initial reaction and suggestion that she go write a song based on talking to the hand, she played him what she’d come up with, he responded with his typically laconic cool, recommended putting some hand-claps here and there and perhaps a minor chord in the verse to make it a bit jangly, and, according to Ronson, “That was it.” After Winehouse went away for the night, Ronson worked up the arrangement and she returned to sing over it the next day. He had added his own drums, guitar and keyboards and enhanced "Back to Black"'s now classic groove, while “Winehouse’s vocal hit the hook with a vengeance.”
|Mark Ronson performing with Amy Winehouse at the Brit Awards in London in 2008 (Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico)|
The strange magic of her talent and the creative genius of the amazing instrumentation, arrangement, orchestration, record production and band performance support was largely lost in the alarming soap opera that enveloped the shy and insecure star. Equally missing in action was any hope of understanding why so personal and idiosyncratic a style of delivery as hers managed to garner listeners from absolutely every corner of the music buying public.
We fell for her, pop hook, line and heavy sinker – all the way. And one thing can be said for the no-no-girl: she did it her way, in the true spirit of that legendary sultry crooner who first inspired her to sing as a Cockney kid.
Most importantly, when we consider the many historical musical roots that nourished her (among them, The Crystals, The Chiffons, The Shangri-Las, The Supremes, The Dixie Cups, The Shirelles, The Marvelettes, The Secrets, The Rag Dolls, The Angels, The Orlons, The Exciters, and most crucially, The Ronettes), she and Back to Black – her grand Phil Spector homage by producer Ronson – didn’t just pay a deferential debt to the past. What they did, in fact, was strip down the branches of popular music to draw from its muscular trunk, pruning the past to grow an unheard of future.
Meanwhile Ronson, who shared her love of the 60’s girl groups’ maximal ethos and their hugely echoing Spector wall of sound technique, spent an incredibly brief few days with her in New York during which he encouraged her to record the vocals of the masterful but heartbreaking ditties such as “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good,” “Love is a Losing Game,” “Wake Up Alone” and, of course, the madly majestic title track, “Back to Black,” for which he literally wrote the music overnight.
Perhaps most historically and emphatically, he made his sonic mark indelible by taking these raw vocals and creating arrangements, band instrumentations, and orchestration charts. Maybe most fatefully, he decided to visit the Brooklyn analog studios of Daptone Records and use the actual Dap-Kings soul band to envelope these vocals live in the studio rather than trying to sample their old-school style digitally and make a false simulation of their authentically snappy 70’s direct-to-tape tone. It was also authentic-sounding black funk and soul music, something that some listeners and critics had occasionally faulted her for borrowing so brilliantly, but also blatantly, from their cultural archive.
She didn’t even meet or play with her magical back-up band until after the CD had already been released. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that, like most 21st-century singer-songwriters seeking the street cred of rough rap textures, the singer refused his suggestion to put orchestrated strings on the record, even when he offered to pay for them personally himself. So while she was away he added them secretly and when she heard the results, especially on the blissfully sad “Love is a Losing Game,” the result was a weeping and appreciative Winehouse. And a classic torch song album.
To her credit, and to the credit of the producer who decided to use the analog majesty of The Dap-Kings as the record’s back-up studio and concert band, she definitely cashed the check that those girl groups wrote back then, and she cashed it big time. The perplexing beauty of her stylistic inheritance and the perfectly fused hybrid of her genre-bending technique is also more than ample evidence that Back to Black transcended all the many origins it borrowed from.
It also paid back the loan in dividends for all concerned, since it basically elevated all the earlier sensibilities it stirred together and became what we have to call quintessential pop music: music for global ears belonging to drastically eclectic and diverse listening audiences. Ronson, of course, is pleasantly humble by nature, something rare in the music industry, and he has also been smart enough to frequently state that “I didn’t make her career, she made mine.”
In fact, the less one focuses on the soap opera that swirled inside and around her, and the less one recalls the sheer media feeding frenzy that erupted in her public meltdowns, the better it is for a deep appreciation of the album’s timeless quality. Now, ten years later, when we return to the brief tsunami that was Winehouse, the true grandeur and stature of the record itself can come to the foreground, as can the magical way it transmuted the torch-song tradition from one era to another so seamlessly.
That tradition has always been founded on the simplest of emotional ingredients without any special effects: 1. Lover come back, 2. I cried a river over you, 3. I love you more than you’ll ever know, and 4. This is your song. The torch tradition doesn’t need any special effects, elaborate sets or wild costume changes, simply because its stage set is the broken human heart and the only props required are its emotional pleas.
Was Amy Winehouse a pop genius? Probably, but not of the garden variety, especially since she would have balked even more if she knew that it was really a pop gem she was releasing (that ironic part happened almost in spite of herself) instead of an edgy record filled with existential raps and hip street cred. It’s just that the jazz blues and girl-group sentiments were all so perfectly crafted by Ronson, Remi and The Dap-Kings that it didn’t seem at all nostalgic or retro. In fact, it didn’t even seem revivalist, which is that soul-funk band’s Daptone-drenched specialty. It was the future past, and it sure was tense.
|Amy Winehouse in 2009. (Photo: Shaun Curry)|
Earthy and somewhat naïve, Winehouse was also an untutored and totally natural anti-movie star, weaving the paradoxical power of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf and Diana Ross together into an utterly unique carpet only she could stand on. She was Dusty Springfield drenched in darkness and Petula Clark from hell, and instead of chirpily taking us all downtown, she took us all down there.
Weirdly enough, her original “discoverer” and promoter was Simon Fuller, the crafty mogul who made The Spice Girls a household name, for better or worse. But Winehouse rebelled, declared that she ain’t ‘gonna work on Fuller’s Farm no more', and launched her own melancholy space-girl into orbit.
If the pop song evolved into the personal and public soundtrack for the last century, as it so clearly seems to have done, what does that tell us about the emotional movie we all live in?
In essence, her torch songs soon became living home movies. Before she left us, though, in October 2006, we were given the gift of her remarkable music in a personal, brave and intimate way seldom seen or heard before, or since.
Born September 14, 1983 and died July 23, 2011. That’s her brief biography, plain and simple. Her own actualized autobiography, however, is mostly embedded in her two record releases while still alive and strutting, her debutante surprise and her surprisingly veteran masterpiece Back To Black; and that musical autobiography is considerably more complicated and entertaining than her tangible personal history.
It’s not that she invented something totally new, just that she reinvented something old and extended its tradition in a way that was totally now. After all, the opening notes of The Supremes’ classic “Baby Love” decorate the dark shadows of the title track song “Back to Black” itself; the triumphant melody of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” provides the foundation tune for “Tears Dry On Their Own”; both “Wake Up Alone” and “Some Unholy War” contain actual sonic elements of The Shangri-Las in general, and “Leader of The Pack” and “(Remember) Walkin’ in the Sand” in particular. Amy Winehouse didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It only seemed that way.
Incredibly enough, it’s been ten years since she released her only masterpiece Back to Black, and even more startling, it’s been another half a decade since she passed away. Like the ratio of dog years to human years, in the shimmering world of pop music a decade feels like an eternity. Now is perhaps an ideal time to listen again, probably to cry again, and most importantly, perhaps, to remember just how huge a creative shadow her brief presence has cast across our popular culture.
Why is the Back to Black album so important? Why does it deserve to be called her only masterpiece and cherished? So far there are more than 20 million reasons worldwide. Each one represents a human being from a diverse culture who owns a copy and for whom it has some special meaning. It therefore has over 20 million meanings, each one being the true and correct meaning.
After the ten years since it was dropped from the sky by a strange and exotic bird flying high overhead, for each listener Back to Black has come to symbolize a heartfelt message about the human condition composed especially for him or her, a message that transcends cultural boundaries and is recognized as that rare and unique work of art which is destined to withstand the test of time. In other words, it is a pop classic.
She may well have been a savant, only time would have told, and time, as jazz giant Artie Shaw once astutely remarked, is all we’ve got. But even if she was a freakish bolt of lightning hitting us only once, the exotic light she shed and the exquisite darkness she illuminated is still well worth our acclaiming.
The actual acclaim she did receive from the music industry was also most telling indeed. Sometimes, on rare occasions, a legacy seems to take shape while you’re still alive.
Once something so personal transcends the private realm and breaks through to the universal realm, it gets to be regarded as a classic. A classic is any work of art – whether it is a painting, a building, a book, a film or a musical composition – that instantly makes the viewer, reader or listener feel that the work in question was painted, designed, written or composed for him or her personally, and it remains permanently situated in the present moment, no matter how much time passes since our initial encounter in the cultural arena.
A classic piece of music is not necessarily one that is classical but rather one that transcends the time in which it was produced, influences everything that follows it and has a shared meaning long afterwards. But in the end, the more compelling reasons for Back to Black’s privileged position in pop music history are these even more basic ones: how it was composed, how it was produced, how it was recorded, how it was performed live, and perhaps most importantly for us, how it sounds today.
Ten years later it still sounds like a predestined marriage between heaven and hell, a combined technical production achievement and poetic musical accomplishment that remains uniquely aloof and untouchable. In a strangely alluring way, there’s everyone else in pop music, and then there’s her.
– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008. His latest work in progress is a new book on the soul music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings.