Closer to Black – remembering Amy Winehouse’s finest moment
Updated: Jul 25, 2021
10 years ago today, Amy Winehouse joined the 27 Club – a group of artists who died at 27, including Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pete De Freitas, Kurt Cobain and Richey Edwards.
It was a tragic end to a career that was short but burnt brightly. Amy’s talent was obvious, her contralto voice epically gliding between soul, R’n’B, ska and of course, jazz. My friend Gill called me in 2003, saying she was going to buy me an album by a singer I had never heard of, but I had to tell her I had literally just bought it from the Casbah records stand at Greenwich market. That album was Frank – it’s great. And it leapt out of the speakers at Gill and me – immediate, different, funny, jazzy, a classic.
But I want to talk about her masterpiece – Back To Black and how much for me it has in common with Joy Division’s Closer. Ok, that’s going to be quite a leap for most people. One is a soul/jazz/r’n’b/girl group album, backed by the finest soul band of the 21st century, The Daptones. The other? Post-punk, electronic, funereal, even “goth”.
Although their musical styles were SO different, both shared some common interests – Ian listened to Frank Sinatra, as did Amy. Although the outcome might be spectacularly different, both were channelling Ol’ Blue Eyes, in their own idiosyncratic style.
Both albums have common themes – intensity, despair, heartbreak, betrayal, confusion, buried cries for help…Both are now difficult to listen to without hearing all the tragedy being played out for you in the lyrics – neither album presented fictitious stories for our entertainment. These are brutally autobiographical tales – two artists holding open their life for all to see.
Both are the second, and final albums, in their careers. Both preceded by albums that were “fuck you” (Unknown Pleasures and Frank). Back To Black and Closer are definitely more “I’m fucked”.
Both artists’ lyrics were informed by love lives that were complicated and destroying them, both had health problems that were exacerbated by being out on tour. Both lost themselves in performance, living the life they needed to live and consequently sacrificed everything to live that life.
They differ only in that Amy lived to see the success and rapturous response garnered by Back To Black. Curtis was dead before Closer was released. And Amy had to face the unbearable, unrelenting scrutiny of the British media as she fell apart. Thankfully, Curtis never had that burden.
Back To Black is a massive leap on from Frank. Mark Ronson, the producer, deserves huge credit for finding a way to evolve Amy’s sound and style – bringing in The Daptones was a stroke of genius. Similarly, Closer was a huge leap forward, building on its predecessor’s unique production to incorporate a wider range of styles and making use of new technology now available to them.
The music of Back To Black is evocative, upbeat, yet the lyrics are truly bleak. Ronson made a huge contribution, but this was Amy's show, her broken masterpiece.
Look at Wake Up Alone – “this ache in my chest, as my day is done now. The dark covers me and I cannot run now”.
Now compare to Joy Division’s 24 Hours – “now that I've realized how it's all gone wrong; gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long”. Both artists are telling us they are lost. But it feels like this is invisible to the listener, too focused on the tunes, on the musical leaps both artists had made. Both are cries for help, buried by (admittedly different) upbeat catchy music.
Rehab with its “no, no, no” refrain was funny, infectious as hell – we ignored what it was describing which was an ill young woman refusing the help she desperately needed. Similarly, Love Will Tear Us Apart (Closer’s accompanying single) is a joyous, soaring tune, yet its last lyric is “Just that something so good, just can’t function no more” – it’s grim, shouting how broken the singer is. This was a man unable to cope with the disintegration of his marriage and the damage caused by his affair.
It’s easy to criticise those around Amy and Ian for not doing more. In the 2007 documentary, Joy Division, members of the band discuss Ian Curtis’ lyrics. Terry Mason, their roadie/tour manager, ruminates that he never listened to the lyrics – none of them did. It was only when he read them in Ian’s widow’s book in 1995, Touching From A Distance, that he realised what he was writing – “it’s only years on when you see them wrote down when Debbie published them - oh my God….is that what he was singing?”.
Similarly, Amy’s family and friends have been caught in the aftermath and blame – the accusation that they could have done more. But who knows what they did do, and who knows how any of us would cope with someone so determined, so challenging, so broken…Reclaiming Amy on BBC this weekend certainly challenges that perception.
Listening back now, I feel it’s almost voyeuristic. We are listening to the end of two people’s lives. But I push back that guilt and try and enjoy the beauty of these songs born from tragedy.
Love Is A Losing Game is truly one of the most gorgeous, heartbreaking songs I have ever heard - "Over futile odds and laughed at by the gods. And now the final frame - love is a losing game". You know this is her and her husband, their dysfunctional relationship poured out for all to see. Similarly, Decades is sublime, ghostly, his distressed view of his own life, and the promise unfulfilled. The music is also the wayfinder for where the remaining members of Joy Division would go next, with the icy disco of New Order. It's a strange love song to the band in its own way.
My family are from Sligo, and its most famous son was WB Yeats – his poem Easter 1916 has a line that encapsulates both albums perfectly “a terrible beauty is born”.
But ultimately, beauty is the word. Both artists left two beautiful works – to quote Peter Saville, Joy Division’s designer, “There’s two works Unknown Pleasures and Closer and that’s it. Everything else is merchandising – merchandising of memory”. The same is true for Frank and Back To Black. Everything else is just clinging to memories.
So this weekend, I will listen to their finest moments, be thankful that they gave us such beautiful albums, and thank them for the terrible cost that these came with.