The sad death of Amy Winehouse leaves a lot of ”Ëwhat ifs’ and not enough songs.
It’s a measure of just how remarkable her second and last ”ËBack To Black’ album was that it has made such an impact. Most singers need an extensive catalogue, Amy Winehouse leaves hardly anything recorded, but will be remembered as one of the key performers of these times.
Never in the history of pop can someone have recorded so little and made so much impact. A whole raft of singers have got big careers on the back of Amy Winehouse who somehow found the knack of making the past sound like the future – taking the pre-pop era Sinatra and jazz standards, and pushing them into the pop mainstream. She was updating the style of those huge songs; full of emotion and raw nerve jangling beauty and making them resonate in far more cynical times.
Born in September 1983 in Southgate into a Jewish family who had a love of jazz, music was very much part of her background. She was the youngest child of Mitch Winehouse, a taxi driver, and Janis a pharmacist. She got her love of Sinatra from her father and from an early age she was singing constantly – driving her teachers mad.
She went to one of those weird showbiz schools, Susi Earnshaw Theatre School and then onto the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but coolly was kicked out for piercing her nose, but not before appearing on the BBC’s Fast Show in a crowd shot
She had one of those voices. A rare voice that cut through all the bullshit and cut through all the genres. It didn’t matter what style of music you liked – once you heard her sing you knew it was the real deal.
Dark, husky, emotionally powerful and yet vulnerable, this was a voice like no other. Her first album ‘Frank’ came out in 2003 and saw her positioned in the jazz scene; almost pushed to the side in a sub genre, the songs were good and her voice already had that power but it was with the follow up 2006’s ‘Back To Black’ that she really made her impact.
Marrying her amazing vocals to pure pop songs that she wrote herself and perfectly produced by Mark Ronson, this was a pop moment. Replacing the jazz flavour of her earlier work with the timeless genius of the girl groups and their deep and powerful songs of love and longing of emotional vulnerability with strident she-power she reinvented them for a new era.
Carefully balancing her underground smoky jazz cred with a mainstream pop and powerfully raw confessional lyrics of sex, love, longing, drugs and drinking that didn’t compromise either genre. My personal favourite ‘You Know I’m No Good’ seemed to capture everything that the album was aiming at in a dark slice of pop perfection and the album’s lead off track, ‘Rehab’ was ironically a defiant stance against drugs treatment. The album went on to sell ten million copies worldwide and catapulted a new type of pop star into the mainstream.
Amy Winehouse was an interviewers dream; the feisty North London, funny as fuck, gobshite with a cutting quip about all the mediocre talent that surrounded her – she could be cruel but funny/cruel and she was right as well l- she was gifted and they were rubbish.
She also morphed into a star – her hair piled up into a huge beehive and those tattoos on her already too skinny arms – she had the look, the suss and the dangerous aura that made her a perfect star. She looked amazing; a post grunge torch singer for the digital generation. More than just another pop chancer armed with auto-tune and ambition, this was someone who could genuinely sing and let her voice flow with an emotion that few others in the mainstream could even get close to.
The problem is that she also had the drink and the drugs – the baggage that seems to come with instant celebrity; perhaps starting out as fun or perhaps masking those emotional frailties. Her then husband and the love of her life Blake Fielder-Civil seemed to be leading her into darker waters and the five years since the album’s release were littered with, ironically, rehab- especially after the defiant song of the same name that was lead off track from the album. There were comebacks and attempts to record the third album, stops and starts and false promises.
Tapes of the third exist and no doubt it will get released- all who have worked on it claim that it isn’t the greatest work but maybe the context will add something to it.
The past half decade since her international stardom saw her become the butt of a tabloid joke- headlines about her drinking and drugs and cartoons of her falling about everywhere- strange that when a male rocker behaves like this it’s cool but if a woman singer goes doollaly it’s a joke. She clearly needed help but became a joke figure trapped and forlorn in the fallout of the dark side of celebrity. The curse of drink and drugs had got her and she could find no way out.
Her last gig in Belgrade looked a mess, fuck knows why she was attempting a comeback at such a big gig, maybe she should have retired or got clean but drugs are a sickness and a sickness with no clear-cut cure. They are messy and a deep and dark trough that is initially attractive and eventually full of despair. They are certainly not a place where tabloid cackling and getting the rough looking shot is the cure.
The only upside is that she left a small but amazing body of work that will be ultimately what she will be remembered for and maybe a chance to be more understanding of the problems face by people with drink and drug problems.