Amy Winehouse Back To Black album coverBryget Chrisfield explores a favourite record which spelled the lift-off to cultural stardom for an important act. This month: Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black (2006). 

Have you ever fallen asleep while binge-watching a TV series only to wake up, startled, once the DVD finishes and a looped snippet of the show’s theme song blasts from the speakers? Recently, a mate loaned me Secret Diary Of A Call Girl (thoroughly recommended, BTW) and after nodding off in the wee hours I was roused by the sound of irresistibly ebullient brass, strutting like a RuPaul-calibre diva owning the catwalk.

I couldn’t quite place the song – kinda like Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love, but not – and, rather than resorting to Google, chose to embrace this name-that- tune challenge. Then, bingo! It’s You Know I’m No Good by the incomparable Amy Winehouse! (FYI: A remix of You Know I’m No Good feat. Ghostface Killah appears on The Wu-Tang Clan member’s More Fish album – wrap your ears around that, stat!)

After sulking for ages over the fact that Amy’s no longer with us, I revisited her multiple-award-winning Back To Black LP and, wowee! Although this record only runs for 35 minutes, Winehouse certainly demonstrates a level of artistry, songwriting chops and phrasing nous way beyond her years. And this was only her second record, ferchrissakes!

Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson’s production oozes lustre throughout Back To Black. Of working with Remi – who co-wrote and produced the lion’s share of the tracks on Winehouse’s less accessible, more jazz-inflected debut album, Frank – Amy enthused, “He has that unique skill of not only having the most appropriate beat but also drawing the artistry out.” Remi rhapsodised: “She had the stylings of a 65-year-old jazz singer who knew the ropes up and down.”

Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse

During an early Back To Black songwriting session at Remi’s house in Miami, Amy explained: “I write songs because I’m f-cked up in the head and I need to put it on paper and then write a song to it and just feel better about it – have something good out of something bad.”

It’s no secret that Amy’s tempestuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil inspired this entire body of work, and she fittingly had his first name tattooed – like a monogram over a pocket flap – directly over her heart. “When I started writing the first song about Blake, the other songs just wrote themselves; I really was on a roll, ‘cause I had these feelings – I had these words – floatin’ around in me,” Winehouse revealed. “When you write a song you have to remember how you felt; you’re gonna have to remember what the weather was like, you’re gonna have to remember what his neck smelt like, you have to remember all of it.” (Um, pretty sure Blake’s neck would’ve smelt like old sweat, but moving right along…)

Ronson achieved legend status when he recruited The Dap-Kings (Sharon Jones’ band) – who slathered their special brand of swag and texture all over Back To Black, and also became Winehouse’s backing band for her Stateside tour – but he insists it’s actually Tom Elmhirst’s mixing that “defines” Winehouse’s landmark album (even though Ronson admits he initially hated these mixes). Elmhirst reckons that Winehouse’s raw vocals contained frequencies he needed to “manage” so he added some reverb and, voila! Nostalgia has never sounded so authentic.

Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil

Blake Fielder-Civil and Amy Winehouse

During an interview with Jeff Mao, Ronson reflects, “Amy’s voice always brought out the best in me as a producer and arranger. Her vocals and her material gave me license to create a sound that I never would have found without her. The spring day that she came to my little studio on Mercer Street in Manhattan changed my life forever, and I will probably never again be able to create something as singularly magical as the stuff we made on Back To Black.”

On that spring day when Ronson asked Amy what kind of record she wanted to make, she played him songs by ‘60s girl groups such as The Shangri-Las and The Crystals, which Ronson describes as “jukebox pop music… selling heartbreak on this giant scale.” Feeling inspired, Ronson composed the piano idea for Back To Black before adding a simple drum beat and applying plenty of reverb to the tambourine. Amy loved what she heard and immediately scrawled down some accompanying words. When she showed these to Ronson, he questioned the fact that the chorus lyrics didn’t rhyme. Winehouse looked at him, dumbfounded: “I just sit down and just let it come out, ya know wha’ I mean?”

Footage of this particular recording session shows Amy minus that trademark Ronnie Spector-inspired beehive, which seemed to grow bigger and more OTT as her star rose – and as her frame shrunk, due to a pernicious eating disorder – over the years. With exaggerated black winged eyeliner in place, Amy occasionally glances down to check lyrics in a notebook while singing. Amy’s left arm is draped casually over the back of a high stool, her right hand placed inside the pocket of those dangerously low-slung denim shorts. After nailing the vocal take, Amy looks visibly shaken by the power of her own sombre, repeated “bla-a-ack”s at song’s close. “Oh, it’s a bit upsettin’ at the end, innit?” she acknowledges. Ronson’s voice is heard from the control booth: “Yes, Amy!” Whistling a happy tune while she removes the headphones and picks up her notebook, Amy then enters the control booth where Ronson is waiting, extending his arm out for a low-five.

Ronson reflects: “It was just one of those serendipitous things, like I just caught her at that magic moment, you know, and she was just ready to get it going. And that’s why I couldn’t understand what everyone was saying about this procrastinating, troubled artist.” Confirming that both the album’s title track and Rehab came together within three days, Ronson marvels that this speedy turnaround was “probably the quickest out of any record that [he’s] ever worked on.”

On the genesis of Rehab – which became Amy’s signature song and, remarkably, her only Top 10 hit in the US – Winehouse told Jools Holland that she just randomly sang the song’s chorus hook while walking down a New York street with Ronson. He laughed and asked, “Who’s that?” She replied, “I just made it up.” After Ronson validated her song idea, Amy suggested, “Let’s go into the studio and knock it out now.” Simples! Rehab’s chorus boasts such a catchy, timeless melody that even teetotalling grannies are powerless before its sing-along appeal.

Over this album’s entirety, Amy’s soaring contralto drips with sass, while her potty-mouth colours lyricism (e.g., the third line of Me & Mr Jones: “What kind of f-ckery is this?”). The modern lingo and 21st Century references littered throughout Back To Black sound anachronistic popping out of these Stax/Motown-inspired arrangements – classic Winehouse. “Even though some of it is personal in a sad way,” Winehouse shared, “I’d never let it just be that; I’ll always put a punchline in the song just to try and be different with my lyrics.”

Testament to Winehouse’s masterful songwriting, Ronnie Spector chose to include a cover of Back To Black within The Ronettes’ hits during his shows, and Prince also regularly covered Love Is A Losing Game.

Winehouse was nominated in six categories at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards off the back of Back To Black, and was invited to perform live at the ceremony, but she was unable to attend after her initial request for a visa was denied (American officials eventually reversed this decision, by which time it was too late for her to make the trip). On the night, Amy staged a concert for friends, family and label peeps at London’s Riverside studio, and two songs – You Know I’m No Good and Rehab – were beamed live to the Grammys via satellite. Record Of The Year – just one of the five Grammys Winehouse collected that year – was presented by Winehouse’s idol Tony Bennett. “I was in shock, not ‘cause I’d won the Grammy, but because Tony Bennett had said my name!” Amy gushed afterwards.

Amy Winehouse and Tony BennettWinehouse’s final recording was a duet with Bennett – Body And Soul, a jazz standard, which was the lead single from his Duets II album. Prior to her death, Amy had been in touch with fellow jazz aficionado Questlove, and the pair were planning to recruit Mos Def and Raphael Saadiq to record an album. Of the late icon, Questlove lamented: “I really miss not having her here to school me on jazz; I thought I was a music snob, and I thought I had my doctorate in jazz, but no… She’s a teacher.”

Following Winehouse’s death, Bennett confessed: “I regretted that I wasn’t able to tell her to slow down… She was one of the truest jazz singers I ever heard. To me, she should be treated like Ella Fitzgerald, like Billie Holiday. She had the complete gift. If she had lived I would’ve said, ‘Slow down, you’re too important.’ Life teaches you, really, how to live it, if you can live long enough’.”

Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett

Although all of Amy’s songs are autobiographical, it’s particularly painful to listen to Rehab in light of the circumstances of her death. Had Winehouse said, “Yes, yes, yes,” back then instead of, “No, no, no,” there’s a chance she might still be here crooning cuss words, schooling wannabes, and expanding her elegantly ravaged legacy.

WINEHOUSE WHEELHOUSE

Adele

Adele on Amy: “I used to see her on TV or in magazine shoots with a pink electric guitar, and I used to think she was the coolest motherf-cker on the face of the Earth… Because of her, I picked up a guitar, and because of her, I write my own songs… I owe 90% of my career to her.”

Lady Gaga

Ronson produced Gaga’s 2016 album Joanne and also co-wrote Shallow (for A Star Is Born). Gaga released an entire album of collaborations with Tony Bennett (Cheek To Cheek) as well. During a 2009 interview, Lady Gaga commented, “Because of Amy, very strange girls like me go to prom with very good-looking guys.”

Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars admitted to being extremely jealous of Black To Black: “It felt like everything I’ve been saying, everything I wanted to do, she did it. It was one of those things like, ‘Damn it! Damn it!’ It was perfect.” Ronson co-wrote and produced many tracks on Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox album and then Ronson tapped Mars (plus The Dap-Kings horn section) for his monster hit Uptown Funk. Mars and his all-dancing band also performed Valerie as part of the 2011 VMAs Amy Winehouse tribute.

Discover Back To Black at JB Hi-Fi.