Today marks five years since we lost an astonishing voice, songwriter, and personality. Amy Winehouse was quite simply one of the greatest talents the United Kingdom has ever produced. And perhaps one of the saddest things about her life (and there were many) was that it took her death for us to truly realise that. When the news hit, the paparazzi fuelled noise and obsession with her lifestyle, addictions, and boyfriends dissipated; and tributes from all around the music world reflected on her staggering talent. With Amy gone five years now, Headliner discusses her great influence on music, and a brief look back on a short but remarkable life.
What would the music world look like in 2016 without Amy Winehouse, particularly for artists in the UK? Where better to start than with Adele, one of the best-selling artists in the world today. While fellow Londoner Adele is quite clearly an exceptional talent in her own right, many have questioned whether she could have sold more than 100 million records had Amy not passed her the baton, particularly in terms of trans-Atlantic success. Adele said so much herself in a 2011 tribute:
“Amy paved the way for artists like me, and made people excited about British music again. I don’t think she ever realised just how brilliant she was, and how important she is.”
One of the most original artists of recent decades, Lana Del Ray, has expressed her admiration for Amy’s strong sense of authenticity. She put it beautifully when she said: “I believe she was who she was, and in that way she got it right.”
Florence Welch, of Florence And The Machine, has stated that seeing one of Amy’s early Glastonbury performances was a big moment of inspiration for her: “Seeing her up there made me think, wow, there is a place for female singer-songwriters in this world," she said, in 2011.
Pop singer, Ellie Goulding, like Adele, has gone on record to say she owes a debt to Amy Winehouse for being able to reach American audiences as quickly as she did; and Sam Smith and Paloma Faith - both also from London - are very similar musically (Faith also notably has hairstyles and outfits not dissimilar to those worn by Winehouse), and it is difficult to imagine their soul pop reaching such wide audiences had Amy not come before them.
Quirk-pop sensation, Lady Gaga, has also praised the iconic songstress, putting forward her belief that she made the music scene a much less banal place, and made it easier for eccentric artists to break through. And frequent collaborator and producer, Mark Ronson, described her death as “losing a musical soulmate.”
Last year saw the release of Amy, the universally acclaimed documentary about her life. Directed by Asif Kapadia, the film was groundbreaking in its use of unseen archived footage alongside all the interviews and performances. Kapadia really couldn’t have done a better job of articulating the life of Amy Winehouse, and showed audiences the root causes of her problems. It is a difficult watch, but it demands to be watched. The film opens with footage her friends filmed of her when she was just 14, and you immediately realise what a sweet and innocent young woman she was, hitherto difficult to imagine due to the demonic way the tabloid press presented her.
Speaking of the tabloids, the film does a harrowing job of helping us ordinary types imagine what it’s like to be mobbed by 30-plus paparazzi when you step out your front door – the claustrophobia and the panic that sets in when the flurry of flashes remorselessly start. Director Kapadia deliberately interjects the film with many of these moments to show the extent to which the paparazzi made her life hell, even when she was in the throes of addiction.
In terms of timeline, we see her as a youngster singing with the National Jazz Youth Orchestra (with a spellbinding rendition of Henry Mancini’s Moon River), and her strong bonds with her school friends. And while she did enjoy a drink and a bit of weed, there was no sign that she would inevitably go off the rails later on. Then there’s a horribly prophetic moment in which Amy says she never wants to become famous, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Among the obvious turning points are her meeting Blake Fielder-Civil, a bohemian character whose tempestuous marriage with Amy was a huge selling point for the tabloids. The film discusses him introducing his wife to crack cocaine and heroin, and he even talks about how the two of them would self harm together.
The film also shows how her irregular family life left her psychologically damaged – very early on, her friends mention that she was upset to not have both her parents around during her childhood. There’s a particularly maddening moment in which Amy is on holiday to briefly escape from the intense spotlight, and then her father turns up with a film crew, who are making a programme about what it’s like to be Amy Winehouse’s Dad. While much has been said about Mitch and Janis Winehouse, the pair have certainly done a lot of great work with the Amy Winehouse foundation, which they set up to raise money for and spread awareness about the disease of addiction.
It is all too easy to let these things overrun discourse on Amy Winehouse, when it was her incredible voice, music, and larger-than-life personality that got her recognised in the first place. Her first album, Frank, won many plaudits, and she followed this up with the seminal Back to Black, a true modern classic. Recorded with Mark Ronson in 2006, it effortlessly fuses motown, soul, and blues; the perfect showcase for her heavyweight vocals. And while the palette of sounds may be retro, every second of this record sounds astonishingly fresh and contemporary, if not more so today.
Amy’s final recording was, sadly, and yet fittingly, at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios with jazz legend, Tony Bennett. In Amy, we witness her endearing and yet outrageous modesty as she tells Bennett she fears she is wasting his time, and doesn’t deserve to be collaborating with such an icon. The pair’s unbelievable rendition of Body and Soul (recorded in studio three) is deservedly among Abbey Road Studio’s best works, and we’re talking about a legendary recording studio where the likes of the Beatles produced some of their best work. Singer Bennett later said of Winehouse: “She was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’, because she was a great jazz-pop singer.”
Amy Winehouse is immortalised in a statue in her beloved Camden Town, and also in wonderful street art tributes around the capital. With musicians like her, it is easy to focus too much on ‘what could have been’ thoughts, especially when considering how one of the most famous singers of modern times only released two albums. But it is a testament to how phenomenal those two albums are. After her death, record labels actively sought singers who were British, female, and had a fierce sense of independence. Amy Winehouse bemoaned the quality of the music industry in her early years, and she left it a vastly better place than when she found it. For that reason, songs such as Back to Black and Love Is a Losing Game will endure forever.
Words Adam Protz