Some songs can transcend time and place to the point where, without fuss or fanfare, they turn up nestling in the canon of the great popular songbook, having you believe they’ve always been there. Back To Black, the title track of Amy Winehouse’s second, final album is such a song.
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the song. I’m assuming it’s your kinda thing too.
Its measured, metronomic, minor to major and back again four chord progression is perfect. Bathed in pathos and regret, it harks back to the sound of those great girl groups of the sixties; spectral (and Spector-al) multi-tracked ooohs and aaahs, four to the floor tambourine percussion, gently sweeping strings, subtly stinging guitar, finger clicks, band drop-outs and a fantastic vocal around which everything loops and repeats. It’s the entire contents of the melodramatic songwriter’s handbook committed to tape, but clever rather than cliched.
Part of the cleverness lies in the lyrics delivered in the vocal. More than just a ‘can’t-live-with-him, can’t-live-without-him’ teen angst throwaway pop song, Back To Black is the sound of Amy Winehouse’s relationship with long-term beau Blake Fielder-Civil unravelling messily on record. He’s left her for an old girlfriend and a bitter but proud Amy – head high, tears dry – can’t cope.
Full of finger-pointing and philandering, it’s brutally honest; he’s getting more of what he needs with the ex while she’s a mess, developing an ever-increasing dependency on the stuff that would prove her undoing. Those words Back To Black might metaphorically suggest a return to dark days, but it’s no coincidence that black is also a street name for heroin. Boyfriend Blake is hardly a stranger to drugs either, the synonymical ‘you love blow and I love puff’ outlining exactly that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lyrics arrived quickly to Amy. What you hear is word for word what she wrote at the song’s conception, a love letter to the death of a relationship. In the video, she even went as far as having a funeral for it.
There was a great documentary on the making of the album on BBC4 last week, where a combination of old home movies of Amy in the sound-booth and clips of producer Mark Ronson playing early takes tracked the development of the song. He really managed to work it up from its jazz beginnings, where Amy’s phrasing of the vocals fluttered and flitted between the notes, the words elongated, rhythm and meter stretched like rubber bands to snapping point.
Roping in the Dap Kings was Ronson’s masterstroke. A modern-day take on the Stax house band, it was they who came up with the track’s definitive boom b’-boom chick finger clickin’ rhythm and helped the song’s metamorphosis from troubled torch ballad to Shangri-La shimmy.
God bless you, Amy. You left us with many good songs and a handful of great. Back To Back is your greatest of all.
Whatever happened to Bond themes? Save the fairly recent Adele effort, Skyfall (which at least attempted to recreate the 60’s heyday of lush orchestration, big vocals and bigger hair), pretty much every Bond theme since A-Ha’s The Living Daylights has been as sexy as yesterday’s Daily Mail.
Radiohead’s recent statement that the Bond franchise people had preferred Sam Smith’s idea of the Spectre theme to their own kinda sums it all up. It’s now lowest common denominator, appeal to the masses stuff, rather than edgy and out there. Perhaps this is a reflection, a metaphor for Bond himself. Once edgy and out there, he’s now lowest common denominator action hero, appealing to the masses with his suits, gadgets and beautiful women, just like yer Farrells, Damons and the rest of them.
Radiohead‘s theme is fantastic. Released for free on Christmas day without fanfare or prior warning, as is the Radiohead way, it’s edgy and paranoid, Thom Yorke’s falsetto surfing over the top of a heavily orchestrated backing track. “I’m lost, I’m a ghost. Dispossesed, taken host,” he wails, right eye no doubt twitching uncontrollably on the off beat.
Radiohead – Spectre
It fades in on a sweep of Bond-ish strings, not quite but almost playing that well-ingrained Barry motif. A piano holds the rhythm as a set of jazz drums straight outta the John Barry 7 skitter around the background. There’s the dramatic part in the middle when the strings soar and stab and jar until its brought back to earth with Yorke’s vocals about ‘bullet holes‘ and ‘mortal souls‘ and so on. Then, just as you’re getting the measure of it, it’s gone in a sudden brass stab and some wind tunnel effects. “The only truth that I can see is when you put your lips to these.” It’s by far the most Bondish of Bond themes in recent years and it was rejected.
Radiohead weren’t the only ones to fall foul of the rejection slip. Tom Jones’ brassy hip-swingin’ theme to Thunderball was chosen over a clip-clopping Johnny Cash effort. Considering the era, the producers got this spot on. Bond. Brass. Swinging London. Or the Man In Black singing roll ’em, roll ’em, roll ’em rockabilly country?
Blondie felt the sting of rejection when they submitted their theme for For Your Eyes Only. Sheena Easton’s at times out of tune and none-more-80s syrupy wallow got the nod ahead of the Noo Yoikers’ twangingly pedestrian (and frankly forgettable) mid-paced clunker. You can find it if you wish on late-era Blondie LP ‘The Hunter‘. Again, you have to say the producers got this spot on. You’re probably singing Sheena Easton’s version to yourself right now. And that’s something I never thought I’d be typing on Plain Or Pan.
By the mid 90s, anyone popular in music seemed to be draped in the Union Jack and aligned to some establishment-friendly updated idea of Swinging London. All manner of bands were discovering trumpets and strings and enhancing their weedy indie with overblown orchestration. I’m fond of some of it – Blur’s To The End, for example, and the opening track to Mansun’s debut album, but much of it was totally irrelevant.
Masters of the era were Pulp and Saint Etienne, both acts steeped in pop culture and history, with subtle nods to the unfashionable corners of the 70s, eyebrows permanently arched. Both submitted tracks for consideration as the theme to Tomorrow Never Dies. Both were rejected. Pulp’s was retitled Tomorrow Never Lies and found its way onto the b-side of the Help The Aged single. It’s not a bad tune, but alongside the stellar catalogue of existing Bond themes, it’s weedy and thin and very mid 90s indie by comparison.
Pulp – Tomorrow Never Lies
Incidentally, Help The Aged‘s parent album This Is Hardcore featured the track Seductive Barry. Either it was a song in celebration of the great arranger’s soundtracking or it was about a brown ‘n beige bri-nylon clad 2 up/2 down boy about town. With Jarvis you never know.
Saint Etienne‘s effort is more in keeping with the idea of a Bond theme; sweeeping orchestration, some wah-wah, breathy vocals, tinkling keyboards. Unfortunately it also suffers from sounding very of its time. A Bond theme should be timeless, peerless and ageless. Saint Etienne’s track most certainly isn’t. In fact, it sounds like something Dubstar might’ve rejected on the grounds of being too flimsy and wishy washy. The track has made just the most fleeting of appearances, being included only on 1999 fan club compilation Built On Sand.
Saint Etienne – Tomorrow Never Dies
The band claim that Bond du jour Pierce Brosnan owns the master tape of the track, saying it’s “seven times better than Sheryl Crow“, who’s song went on to lead the film. Really?!? Pinch of salt, surely. I’d have thought the Bond people could’ve found someone better than Sheryl Crow at the time. David McCalmont perhaps, who certainly knew a thing or two about a Bassey-inflected vocal range.
The one that really did get away though was Amy Winehouse. She was in the middle of lurching from one personal crisis to another and was passed over in favour of Jack White & Alicia Keys, who were chosen to duet the lead for the Quantum Of Solace film. Had Amy got herself together, she’d have been perfect for such a job. Composer David Arnold had worked out a contemporary orchestrated sixties-influenced piece for her and Mark Ronson sat patiently in the producer’s chair, golden touch unused. Amy’s ongoing problems meant that track was never completed.
They should’ve used Amy’s Love Is A Losing Game instead. Richly orchestrated, full of clipped guitar and bathed in pathos and heartbreak, it was the Bond theme wot got away. Amy’s voice is superb throughout.
Amy Winehouse – Love Is A Losing Game
Imagine it playing as those famous images of the silhouetted naked girls float and swim across the silver screen, then ‘see’ the camera pan downwards at the final string flourish to reveal Bond in some far-off desert or window ledge or hotel bedroom, licensed to kill and licensed to thrill. The best of the Bond themes that never were.