Back To Black -Amy Winehouse (Island 2006)
UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position – 2
Before the release of this album, I was aware of Amy Winehouse but, probably like most people hadn’t really listened to her a great deal. I knew that her debut album “Frank” (2003) had been very well received but hadn’t really sought it out (I did later). I knew that it had a jazz vibe about it but wasn’t sure whether it was for me.
There was quite a buzz about this follow-up album before its release. I’d read a couple of reviews which had seen it as a modern take on the 60s girl group pop of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las. I think I had seen the video of the lead single “Rehab” on what used to be a Saturday morning staple “The Chart Show” and all of this was enough to convince me to buy this album on the day it was released. A lot of people did the same as its first week sales were enough for it to enter the UK album charts at number 3 (“Frank” had stalled at 13). The following week it dropped seven places but word of mouth was so strong that it wasn’t long before it was heading for the top spot which it achieved on its 11th week on the chart.
According to a recent BBC 4 “Classic Albums” documentary it went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide and was a chart-topper in virtually every country in Europe. In the US it did not reach the very summit but Amy became the first British woman to win 5 Grammys including “Record Of The Year”. Amy’s music and look soon ensured she was a household name everywhere. Fame, was of course, a double-edged sword. She had never contemplated anything like that level of success for her music and found the trappings of fame very difficult to cope with and the temptations that a healthy bank balance can bring too much to bear. There was never another studio album and Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27.
Because of what ended up happening to Amy it’s not as easy to listen to this album as it was when she was going strong. There is an added level of pathos which is impossible to escape. As a live performer I had always found her difficult to watch, you were never quite sure what you were going to get and that unpredictability even at the height of her fame would always make me feel quite tense. Her stage presence could veer from lioness to little girl lost and the live appearances became patchier as time went on until the point that she was trying the patience of her most loyal fans. For me, the greatness of Amy Winehouse is summed up by listening to these 11 tracks, which ended up both making and breaking her.
Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi
And the music here is great. It is one of the best studio albums by a British artist. Her record company sent her to the US to record and six of the tracks were produced by then hot DJ and producer Mark Ronson in New York and five by Salaam Remi in Miami. Remi had worked with Amy on “Frank”. The Ronson tracks established the feel of the album, incorporating that pain and heartbreak of the 60’s girl groups, Remi’s were going in a slightly different direction building on the jazz credentials of her debut but as soon as the Miami team heard the New York tracks they were able to tweak what they are doing to provide the cohesive sound of this work. In the BBC 4 documentary Ronson claims he was aiming for “heartbreak on a giant scale” in recreating a mid 60’s teen angst sound. He acknowledges that it was in the mixing by Tom Elmhirst that a more contemporary sound was added, making it more relevant and less explicitly retro. This is actually part of what makes “Back To Black” so good. It takes its influences from over 40 years of great pop, R&B, Reggae and Soul music and turns it into a package which sounded fresh in 2006 when it was released. Amy had herself largely synthesized these influences and when she came to record knew what she was doing. Mark Ronson said that these tracks were recorded faster than anything he had done before. This was also helped by him bringing in the Dap-Kings as musicians, who through their work with Sharon Jones, brought with them their highly professional Daptone sound which recreated the sound of 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk. Everyone knew what they were doing here and the results are evident.
The CD kicks off with “Rehab”, which is perhaps the liveliest, most novelty like of the tracks on display but which set out Amy’s store brilliantly. Her singles from the previous album had only been minor hits but “Rehab” sounded like a big hit from the first hearing. It reached number 7 in the UK and 9 Stateside. The President of Island Records could not really believe what he was hearing. He knew the song was autobiographical and related to a real event but couldn’t imagine that this could be turned into a hit song. It was, he said on the “Classic Albums” documentary “something that has a dark underbelly, (with which) she could actually make people smile.” It is true that the defiance which seemed endearing on first listens now give pause to thought. If only she had said “yes, yes, yes” instead of “no, no, no” the Winehouse story might have had a different outcome. That sounds crass but it is a relevant point to how we hear her music today.
However, all that is to ignore what an absolutely stonking start to the CD this track provides. That chunky drumstick and handclap rhythm, R&B and Ska influences over Amy’s voice works a treat. It is also hard not to be drawn into the story behind the song and the earworm of the chorus ensured its success. This was to be the only US single hit from the album and in the UK it also become the highest charting song. Here it was followed up by the lovely “You Know I’m No Good” one of the greatest songs concerning infidelity and low self-esteem. It has a sleazy, sunshiny feel with great brass work. It also has the obscure “Roger Moore” reference which has always fascinated me although I don’t know what it refers to. This has made me recently check the lyric sheet. I’ve always thought Amy sang “you’re ten men down/like Roger Moore” and have always thought it was a reference to a depleted football team in one of his movies. On that recent BBC4 documentary I had the subtitles on, and I know I should know better than wholly trust BBC subtitling but they printed the “Roger Moore” bit as “I want you more.” Had I been singing along to this song wrongly for years mistakenly thinking it was Amy’s nod towards the former James Bond? But, thankfully the lyric sheet does reinstate him to former glories, although the correct line is “you tear men down/like Roger Moore” but I’m glad he’s there and not a entry into the pantheon of misheard lyrics. “You Know I’m No Good” reached number 18 in the UK Charts.
Single-wise, this was followed up by the title track, one of the highlights of the album. Despite it not being released a single in the US this tended to perform better than “Rehab” internationally, as Amy became much better known. Although in the UK it stalled one place lower at number 8, it was a Top 3 hit in Austria (where “Rehab” had got to #19) and became a Top 20 hit in, amongst other territories, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Switzerland, where “You Know I’m No Good” had also been a Top 10 hit). “Back To Black” ladles on the drama and was helped by a moody, black and white promotional video which was Amy at her best. The song itself is the one that best encapsulates that whole 60’s girl group things with that chilling empty bit in the middle reminiscent of a twenty-first century take on The Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In The Sand)”. It’s a moody, doom-laden piece of the end of a relationship which is a cross between a deep-soul ballad and a Phil Spector production with contemporary drug and sex references. It is a track of genius and is still striking 12 years on.
Another highspot comes with “Tears Dry On Their Own” which uses the musical track of Motown and a “chick-a-chick” rhythm similar to what had worked so well on “Rehab”. Here, it is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s monumental ballad “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which is synthesized into this very modern song of defiance after bad treatment in a relationship. This became a number 16 single in the UK.
There was still enough enthusiasm for the album for a 4th UK single release and for this the label chose the aching ballad “Love Is A Losing Game”. On the “Classic Albums” documentary it was said that Amy was adamant that she did not want strings on this track as it would have made it cheesy. Mark Ronson persisted despite Amy’s protestations and when she heard the finished track loved it. This is a beautifully written and produced song that show’s Amy’s huge potential to become a great lyricist. It revels in its own simplicity. Releasing a 4th track as a single might have been pushing it a bit as this stalled at a lowly #33 in the UK, which is certainly no reflection on its quality.
Outside of the singles we get the slick R&B of “Me and Mr Jones” with its nod to the great Billy Paul song here transferred to a less than satisfactory relationship. “What kind of fuckery are we/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me)”. I’ve never got to grips with swearing on music tracks, but on this album, Amy just gets away with it as far as I am concerned and here it actually puts a smile on my face. It is the Ska feel which is more explicit on “Just Friends”, a good, solid album track with some a lovely little brass refrain. “Wake Up Alone” sounds like a mid 60’s soul ballad. Perhaps my least favourite track is “Some Unholy War” although there’s nothing wrong with it other than in this wealth of riches it does not shine out. Amy puts in a great vocal performance, it may just because it seems to have its influence in neo-Soul rather than the retro feel of much of the rest of the album. I also feel this a little bit about “He Can Only Hold Her” written alongside Richard and Robert Poindexter but its ska influenced brass refrains brings this back into the feel of the album.
The album closes with the fifth of the Salaam Remi produced “Addicted”, a love song to drug use, which has a great feel but is another of those tracks where the poignancy of the tragedy of Winehouse dims the response. This was always one of the tracks I listened the most to before Amy’s early demise, nowadays, much less so. It’s odd that the two lyrically most charged songs “Rehab” and “Addicted” are musically the most light-hearted, bordering on novelty. Despite this one being catchy as hell, it was unlikely to get played daytime on Radio 2.
Amy Winehouse was original, defiant, rebellious and was like a breath of fresh air onto the music scene of the mid-noughties. She could not, however, cope with fame and there is no doubt that the combined talents that put together this album both made and broke her. There were no more studio albums after this so it is impossible to know where she would have gone next. The tracks that were produced after this did not have the opportunity to be formed into something of a coherent whole and this is where this album is so good in that it stands as a complete piece, a testament of lost loves from an inspired and thrilling artist.
Back To Black is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £5.97 new,0.09 used and £8.99 as a download. In the US it is available new from $8.70 and used from $1.51. It is available to stream in the UK from Spotify.