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.