Back to black

For the anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is rather like a football journalist pontificating on ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe. Here’s You know I’m no good, live from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2007:

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good

—a song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. Rather as Billie isn’t considered a blues singer (astounding exception here!), Amy isn’t necessarily associated with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. Listening to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs: *

Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe). The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists and friends, with Amy always a moving presence.

For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,

Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”

She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd.

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015). A programme in the Soul music series on Radio 4 also shows how much she moved people.

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her seriously hot backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.


“The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, and Niña de los Peines. Do also listen to my playlist here.

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