It starts startlingly simply, with just a piano and a drum, thumping blissfully into that tune you’ve heard perhaps hundreds of times before. In it, you can hear the strains of Baby Love by The Supremes, but it is also a total one-off. A masterpiece of modern pop, Back to Black is astonishingly sad, overwhelming the listener with its haunting lyrics and melody.
Amy Winehouse was undoubtedly talented; funny, smart and expressive too. Her vocals were unrivalled by her peers, but it was her songwriting that put her head and shoulders above the crowd as a musician. Her playful and agonising poetry put her heart on her sleeve for the world to see. Fans found they could put their own meaning onto her words, creating a deeply personal relationship with this ultimately tragic hero.
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Back to Black was released as a single in April 2007, after first appearing on her second album of the same name. While it didn’t enjoy the huge success of Rehab, it still reached number eight in the UK charts, went platinum in the UK in 2017, and became an emotional touchstone for many.
Inspired by the girl groups of the 1950s and ’60s “she devoted herself to trying to make people happy, by her being sorrowful, melancholy, sad,” Donald Brackett tells BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music. Brackett, the author of Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece explains that having to continue to perform this song – and album – was to relive the trauma of her break-up.
Written just after the breakdown of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse tumbles straight into the song and the break-up's messy aftermath:
Me and my head high
And my tears dry
Get on without my guy
Fans of Winehouse’s anguished ballad relive their own heartaches – from teenage first loves to the drawn-out end of a long, intense affair. But the song is more than that. In it, you can hear someone articulate your feelings with such veracity that it legitimises them. It’s like having that wonderful best friend who doesn't tell you to stop crying, but to keep crying – because it meant so much. For so many, that was who Winehouse was – a best friend whose light guided you through the sadness.
When I heard Amy Winehouse, I felt like I was hearing a voice that was singing from inside of this pain that I knew my own version of – Lesley Jamison
Back to Black was a torch song for Lesley Jamison. Born just months apart from Winehouse, Jamison was an alcoholic who stopped drinking in 2011 – the year that Winehouse died at the age of 27. “More than anything else, I loved her willingness to live inside the pain of that break-up, rather than asking it to immediately resolve into something that felt better or something that she was getting over,” Jamison tells BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music. “When I heard Amy Winehouse, I felt like I was hearing a voice that was singing from inside of this pain that I knew my own version of.”
When author and journalist Daisy Buchanan moved to London in 2007 after graduating from university she was drawn to Winehouse’s music. Unhappy in her job and in a destructive relationship: “I felt as though my heart was aching. I felt as though I had some undiagnosed emotional ailment. And when Amy sang, she was the only person in the whole world that knew what it was,” Buchanan tells Soul Music.
Buchanan tells BBC Culture that Back to Black was released at a time in her life when she was feeling very lost: “It seemed as though everybody else around me was getting it right, and I was getting it wrong.”
A personal melody
Back to Black has its own personal significance for me. Ten years ago I had a freak accident: I slipped over running for a bus and landed on my back, resulting in a crush fracture of two of my vertebrae. At 15 years old, I was kept off school for a month, and effectively just had to lie down. There was no magic wand that would make me feel better overnight, no matter how much I wanted one. There’s no good time in your life to be relegated to a sofa, in constant pain; but to be suddenly away from the vibrant action of school was incredibly isolating. I developed depression and anxiety during this period of my life, which still affects me now.
Winehouse was just able to articulate my pain in a way that I couldn’t then – or now
To pass the time, I’d watch the family collection of DVDs, whatever was on daytime TV and listen to music – I could barely concentrate on reading a book or doing schoolwork for the pain. One of the albums I’d loaded on to my iPod was Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and it was this song that helped me to understand the way I was feeling.
Winehouse was just able to articulate my pain in a way that I couldn’t then – or now. The tolling of the church bells as she morosely sings black… black… black… feels funereal, the visceral lyric And life is like a pipe /And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside epitomised my sudden feeling of a total loss of control at a time when I had been vying for more and more independence. But for a long time, I wasn’t aware of how this song had affected me. It first came when Amy Winehouse died. I was stunned. It was the first time one of my heroes had died, and I felt empty, grieving for someone who I’d never met, and yet who had had such an important influence on my life.
It's a feeling shared by Winehouse's fans – and for many, Back to Black is the ultimate song about heartbreak. “This is the millennial I Will Survive, this is our cautionary tale,” Buchanan tells Soul Music. “Only now can I listen to it and really feel it, and feel so happy, and grateful, and thankful that I got out, and I wish to hell that she had too – she didn't. But she’s left this legacy where she’s helped more women than then she’ll ever know by helping them to understand how love can be so difficult and addictive and dangerous.”
You can hear more stories of how Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black affected people’s lives on BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music.
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