Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011 | New music reviews, news & interviews
Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011
The greatest, in just two albums, mourned by theartsdesk's writers
Amy Winehouse, who was found dead at her London home this afternoon, was the greatest female pop singer of her time, in the way that Billie Holiday was of hers, says Peter Culshaw, the first of theartsdesk's writers who tell below what she signified to music and to them. More tributes come from Joe Muggs, Thomas H Green, David Nice and Matilda Battersby.
In just two albums, Amy Winehouse proved she had a rare ability to inhabit her songs, and her sultry contralto voice was unique. It will be noted she is a tragic member of the "27 Club" - the brilliant fireworks who burned out at that age include Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake and Brian Jones. Of course, as far as her legacy is concerned, her death will only add to the myth. The pain she sang about, as with Drake and Cobain, will be seen as all too genuine and her songs more poignant and authentic. Her songs from "Rehab" to "Love is a Losing Game" will now be heard in a different, more tragic context.
Both Lady Gaga and Adele have commented that Winehouse's success made the path of unconventional female singers easier. She has a massive fan base throughout the world. “There will be many people weeping tonight,” as Paul Gambaccini just said on the news.
Her last concert was in Serbia this year, supposed to be the start of a triumphant comeback. She was completely intoxicated, and tried a few numbers, forgetting the words and mumbling way out of tune. The crowd cruelly booed her off, chanting for Moby who was on next, and the rest of the projected tour was cancelled.
Her death, while not exactly a surprise, is nevertheless a huge shock. Many of us Winehouse fans hoped against hope she could turn it around and were looking forward to her third album which was supposed to be recorded in Jamaica and other places – the record company was reportedly spending £10,000 a day there and getting nowhere. Whether they have anything in the can worth releasing we no doubt will find out.
Remember her this way - watch her sing "Love is a Losing Game" live at the 2007 Mercury Awards
Winehouse’s first album, Frank, was a hit initially in the jazz charts before crossing over, but it was only with the Mark Ronson-produced Back to Black that she really hit the mainstream - in a huge way, globally. That album swept the Grammy Awards, and as a result Frank took off mightily as well.
But she had a personality that wasn’t comfortable with stardom, and like Billie Holiday was wilfully self-destructive and drawn to doomed and torrid relationships.
She is rare in that she had the impact she had with only two albums recorded. She had enough talent that she could have recorded 20 and they could all have been tremendous.
I only met her once - hardly that, just to say "hi" backstage at Glastonbury in 2007. Already the curvy girl with bright eyes and mouthy comebacks who first emerged on the scene was now emaciated and wobbly, and the atmosphere around her was dark and sad. Yet then, at least, she produced a memorable live performance.
Even amidst the horrific news coming from Norway today, the news of Amy Winehouse's death has made me feel sick. Really, physically sick with the grim inevitability of it. I think that something about her confessional lyrics and seeming complete inability to separate private and public made her listeners feel close to her, and thus to feel her death more keenly. But it feels too that there's a sense of collective guilt, of realising we all got caught up in ogling the slow-motion car crash of her recent life, thus maybe enabling her decline.
It's even worse given the sense of potential that she had. She was already a truly mighty performer and personality, but just that one more album, that one more step towards maturity, and she could have had the world on a plate. I would have loved to hear her opening the Olympic Games, singing for presidents, recording huge movie themes - in fact I never understood why "Love is a Losing Game", with all its metaphors of gambling and death, wasn't used when the Bond franchise was relaunched with Casino Royale. This remix in particular sounds so huge and cinematic, and shows, despite her retro-soul tendencies, just how modern she could sound.
Listen to the dubstep remix of "Love is a Losing game"
But then what good is speculation? She clearly didn't have the thick skin such success requires of a person, nor the ability to save herself from the people and substances that would drag her down. Or from herself, for what was Back to Black but one of the great documents of the kind of self-loathing that drives people back and back and back to destructive relationships and practices?
Last year I wrote this piece for The Guardian about rock stars and rehab, and much in it still holds true. Our fascination with chaos and tawdriness in other people's lives so often leads to the obliteration of what made us care about those people in the first place.
So, yes, although I am remembering Amy Winehouse first for her music and once sparkling personality, trawling right now through YouTube for those genuinely spine-tingling performances, I still feel guilty and sick, whether rational or not, about being a voyeur as that inexorable destruction took place.
THOMAS H GREEN
It always seemed that, at some level, Amy Winehouse could never believe her success, her luck, if we can still call it that. The thing was, though, it wasn't luck that took her to the top, but her mighty singing voice, her red-blooded songs and her outrageous attitude.
When I first heard her, singing about "Fuck Me Pumps", I thought it just wonderful that there existed a jazzy soul singer who cackled and talked like she was down the boozer. She sounded like someone you could shoot a round of pool with - she was - but she sang like a gospel belter lighting up the Harlem Apollo 40 years ago. Brilliant!
The world of R'n'B had long grown full of tepid micro-managed divas who, even when their music was fabulous, adopted a public persona that was, at best, intriguingly opaque, and at worst, dull as wilted lettuce. Winehouse was different, a north-London Jewish girl with a character as big as her voice. For that first album, Frank, she was gorgeous too, bubbly, delicious and girl-next-door sexy. It seemed a star was in the making, but little did we know how big a star.
Then she started her rampage. At first, newly tattooed, drunk and brassy, it looked as if she was just revelling in taunting the hypocritical media who bleated endlessly in disapproval. There is so much cant talked about rock'n'roll hedonism when frankly most pop stars don't even give it a shot these days, happy to do what's expected of them efficiently with good grace, then go to the gym or eat salad.
Not Winehouse. She seemed to be having a ball, and she probably was to start with, returning with a single, "Rehab", that stuck up the ultimate two fingers, mocking the whole circus. It was, sadly, an all too brief sojourn in rowdy ebullience.
Watch the official video for "Rehab"
The druggy road that Winehouse chose is territory where survival and happiness is all down to the ability of the individual to manage her or himself. She couldn't. She chose the wrong drugs, met the wrong people and was soon isolated by her own success.
Her Back to Black album was a monster, totally massive. Mark Ronson, with help from The Dap Kings, injected her sound with retro-soul sass. Released in autumn 2006, Back to Black became one of the 20 top-selling albums of all time in the UK and did massive business everywhere, even that holy grail of British pop, the USA.
It was good, too, really good in places - "You Know I'm No Good" is a song I will return to forever. However, it slowly became clear in its wake that Winehouse didn't know what to do with herself. She was one of those who couldn't say no but she should have - one who needed someone to pull her out of the whirlwind.
Gradually, she was no longer a mad pop queen sticking her tongue out at paparazzi squalor and public prurience, she was an ill person who needed help. It was a horrible slide to see. For a while it looked as if, with her family behind her, she was making her way back but, clearly, it wasn't to be. No one could watch the dismal footage of her performing in Belgrade earlier this summer and not think that there was something terribly, terribly wrong. The reaction on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc, was, rightly, to wonder why this woman was in the public eye and not in care.
How sad that she went and joined "that stupid club", as Kurt Cobain's mum once put it. Amy Winehouse was a wild one - and God knows we need those - but what a bloody shame it had to end like this.
You knew it the minute you heard it: this was one of the great voices right across the board. And like any of the handful of truly world-class singers, she used tone colour and unusual emphasis to bring those distinctive, lopsided songs of hers to life.
I know partly why I've taken this so personally - coming as it does on a day when violence annihilated youth, in this case violence towards self - but there's also the fact that Winehouse couldn't help but occupy a place in your imagination if you warmed to her singular style. For once in the pop world, this was someone who sounded even more extraordinary, for want of a better word, than she looked.
Growing up in North London not far from Southgate where Amy lived, and being almost exactly the same age, we inevitably had friends in common. I used to hear tell of the uproarious parties she would hold in the flat she moved into aged 16 while the rest of us were all still stuck with our parents. There was often a whisper, which never turned into reality, that she was due to attend so-and-so’s house party, but I never actually met her. She became something of a celebrity among us before her fame went truly global. As teenagers we were in awe of her talent but the early peak of her success was anathema to those of us focussed on A-levels and university.
That somebody our age could have achieved so much was alienating. At that point she was not the booze-swigging freak show that the media portrayed her as when the grip of her addictions became inescapable. She was just a relatively normal girl with a lot of talent whose tremendous vocal chords were intimidating. The booze and the beehive came later.
I met her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil when he was dating a mate of mine some time during the early on-and-off phase of their famously tumultuous relationship. Friends told me tales - many of which have been elaborated out of all proportion in the press, and many of which I’m certain are true - about the extent of the hedonistic lifestyle they embarked on together. I didn’t like him particularly: he seemed very arrogant and aware of the image he was projecting. When I was having a drink with him in a pub, he kept removing and replacing the now infamous pork-pie hat and checking his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
Hearing about Amy’s death on Saturday was shocking. But it was a shock, not a surprise. The terrifying train wreck of her life had been hurtling publicly towards its conclusion for years. Her family was able only to look on in horror as she stumbled into the audience at Glastonbury and swiped at a fan, repeatedly checked into rehab, or was papped during a public brawl, or a row with her husband. The press and public seemed to take pleasure when images of her increasing instability popped up. Videos of her (now chillingly portentous) performance in Belgrade last month have accrued over a million hits on YouTube.
It is sad that a fame which was founded on her incredible singing and songwriting descended so quickly into a fame which relied on excess, a persona-rather-than-a-person fuelled by drink and drugs. She is a great loss. I sincerely hope the singer, whose name has so often been prefixed with the word "troubled", has found some peace now.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
It's music you've heard before, but it never sounded like this
Noisy Americans produce a feral blues masterpiece
Album number three from hip hop's controversial pop empress
A festive launch for our regular vinyl reviews
The album of the year was released TODAY? Better believe it...
John Grant’s past catches up with him
Amongst a plethora of whip-smart releases Nick Mulvey's debut wins out
Retro-futurist nostalgia proves a festive treat with the Human League
An open Swedish mind and well-tuned ear creates a Christmas soundtrack of sumptuous eclecticism
Jolly festive folk concert from Fairport Convention's annually recurring spin-off
What does Christmas with the funk legends sound like? Any other day…
Exclusive images from the Sing Blue Silver tour 30 years ago