Much has been said of Winehouse’s vocal style, which at times resembles that of a black American soul singer almost to the point of parody, but whatever you think about her voice, Winehouse’s songs are superlative. Janis Joplin, for example, was another white woman with a ‘black’ voice – and another tortured soul who died young – but she wrote very few of her own songs, and certainly none to match Back To Black, Love Is A Losing Game or Tears Dry On Their Own.
Part of the brilliance of Winehouse’s lyrics lies in their use of everyday, North London lingo, much of which is bracingly foul-mouthed: the first few lines of Back To Black, for example, which I shan’t quote for fear of offending my more sensitive readers, or the verse in You Know I’m No Good where she describes spending the night with one man while thinking about another. On the face of it, this youthful, conversational style puts her in the same mould as Lily Allen or The Streets, but where those two artists have a kind of defiant cockiness about them, Winehouse’s lyrics are more likely to expose her vulnerability – you can’t get much more vulnerable, for example, than ‘I died a hundred times / You go back to her / And I go back to black’. Also, I doubt that anyone will pull off a better version of a Winehouse song than she managed with the originals, simply because they are sung from her own personal experience, much of it bitter.
In the musical sense, I think the key to such great songwriting lies in her debut album Frank, which is more parts jazz than it is soul or R&B. As a chin-stroking jazz muso myself, I listened to Frank over and over again, and not just because it’s awash with jazz guitar lines, many of them played by Winehouse herself (as far as I can tell she stopped playing guitar in her live shows quite early on, which is a shame). The thing about jazz songwriting – of which other artists would do well to take note – is that it utilises more than just the standard three chords. In the wrong hands, this can lead to tuneless nonsense – the kind of thing The Fast Show used to parody so hilariously in Jazz Club – but when harnessed to create a three-minute pop song, the results can be much more complex and rewarding than, say, Kylie singing ‘Na na na, na na na-na na / Na na na, na na na-na na’ or Queen singing ‘We will, we will rock you’.
Not that I’ve got anything against Kylie or Queen, and the simplest pop and rock songs are often the greatest ones, but if you listen to Love Is A Losing Game, which many consider to be Winehouse’s crowning achievement, the chord change that comes part way through the verse – between ‘self-professed, profound’ and ‘till the chips were down’ – is achingly beautiful, and it’s achingly beautiful because it isn’t just about majors and minors, but something much more subtle and transitive: a seventh, a ninth or a thirteenth, perhaps, or something diminished or augmented. Back To Black is another example of Winehouse’s expertise: on the face of it, it’s a simple, Motown-style pop song, but the middle eight (or to be strictly accurate, the middle twenty) re-jigs the same four chords that make up the verse, a device that subtly changes the mood of the song, and introduces the spooky, mantra-like repetition of the word ‘black’. (This, I should point out, isn’t something that I worked out for myself, but was explained by a music boffin on a TV programme about songwriting.)
Apart from Help Yourself, which comes across as a kind of Duke-Ellington-with-break-beats, my favourite track from Frank is Take The Box, which I’m convinced was ripped off by Beyoncé for her song Irreplaceable: both are written from the point of view of a girlfriend telling her ex-boyfriend to put his stuff in boxes before he moves out, although apparently Back To Black bears an uncanny resemblance to an old Diana Ross / Supremes track, so I suppose plagiarism is a two-way street. Like Me & Mr Jones from Back To Black, Help Yourself contains some wonderful harmonies (dare I say it, Winehouse was almost better as a backing singer than she was as a front-woman) and like the album’s title, refers, I assume, not just to Winehouse’s lyrical honesty, but to Frank Sinatra – I have no idea what he’s really like, but I can imagine Winehouse’s dad singing her Sinatra songs when she was growing up and fancying himself as a bit of a crooner. Much of Sinatra’s best work was recorded when his relationships were on the rocks, and where Take The Box is a great break-up song, Back To Black is a whole album of great break-up songs, which brings me on, inevitably, to Winehouse’s personal life.
Jaques Perretti of The Guardian made a documentary for Channel 4 a couple of years ago called Amy Winehouse: What Really Happened? in which Blake Fielder-Civil – Winehouse’s on-off boyfriend / husband of several years’ standing – came across as a particularly poor excuse for a human being, and someone who had pushed her into using drugs seemingly as a way of controlling her. Having watched the documentary, I remember thinking that if Winehouse were to die young – something that, sad to say, already seemed likely – Fielder-Civil would be the person to blame, but while she clearly had an addictive personality, Winehouse was, I believe, as much a victim of fame and fortune as she was of booze, drugs or bad taste in boyfriends.
There was a time about three or four years ago when you literally couldn’t open a newspaper or a magazine without reading a ‘story’ about Winehouse, and when she literally couldn’t go to the shops for a pint of milk without having to barge her way through several dozen paparazzi. Paparazzi are in a very close race with tabloid journalists to see who can have the most morally corrupt profession on the planet, and in the sense that she was hounded by both, Winehouse is a kind of Diana for our times: someone for whom fame simultaneously made her and broke her. I can’t help thinking of an early television appearance – possibly on Later With Jools Holland, although I haven’t managed to track it down on YouTube – when she was a fresh-faced girl in a polka-dot dress, still with some puppy fat and as yet without tattoos. Reading the tributes to Winehouse after her death (if you could bear to wade through the appalling English, that is – apparently Kelly Osbourne ‘couldn’t breath’ when she heard the news, and Salaam Remi put More Capital Letters In One Tweet than you Will Normally Find in an Entire Week Of Sun Headlines), a lot of people spoke of how she was just an ordinary girl who didn’t really fit into the world of showbiz, and while this may be a cliché, there has to be some truth in it – after all, we are all born ordinary, and it is a strong personality indeed that can cope with what stardom thrusts upon them.