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Credit: Fionn Kidney

Why Amy Winehouse didn't want "any fucking strings" on 'Back to Black'

As far as new additions to the British popular music canon go, it’s hard to get any more influential than Amy Winehouse’s seminal second, and final, studio album, Back to Black. Opening the door for a new wave of soul-influenced singers to push through into the mainstream, the album’s huge initial success, both critically and commercially, would quickly give way to Best Album of the Year, then Best Album of the Decade, and now Best Album of All Time discussions.

As we get further and further away from its original release, and Winehouse’s startlingly young death less than five years later, Back to Black continues to be frozen in ember. A perfectly preserved piece of genreless heartbreak, the album still has all the same alluring power and hard-hitting grandeur that made it so unique when it was first released all the way back in 2006.

The arrangements on Back to Black are a major reason for this. Combining the Phil Spector produced sounds of 1960s girl groups with touches of modern-day R&B, the wide variety of instrumentation and styles explored on Back to Black keep the songs fresh, whether it’s the explosive live-band sound of ‘Rehab’, the Motown-referencing drive of ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’, the ska-fueled rollick of ‘Just Friends’, the breakbeat funk of ‘You Know I’m No Good’, or the stark jazz balladeer-adjacent lull of ‘Love Is a Losing Game’.

It’s strange, then, that Winehouse had one very specific request when it came to a certain addition that gives Back to Black much of its haunted drama: she didn’t want any strings on the album.

In an interview with album arranger Chris Elliot in the latest print edition of Uncut, the idea of bringing in an orchestra to add a distinctive sound to the album was never negotiable for Winehouse.

“Mark Ronson, Darcus [Beese, from Island Records] and Tom [Elmhirst] heard the mixes and felt there could be another colour in the tracks,” Elliott says. “They didn’t want it to come from the same sound world as Frank. Tom mentioned strings. Amy wasn’t really a fan of the idea of strings. In fact, she said very, very bluntly to Mark, ‘I don’t want any fucking strings on the record.'”

Winehouse had previously had a negative experience when sampled string parts were added to her song ‘Take the Box’ from Frank. In an interview with Dutch radio show Toazted in 2004, Winehouse explained: “I wouldn’t have any fake horns on my record. I think they put fake strings on ‘Take the Box’, but I wasn’t a part of that. I would never, ever have put strings on my record. Ever. And this guy doing the mix of this song, he just didn’t even think about it… I hate that guy who did that.”

Whether it was the influence of Ronson or producer Salaam Remi, who arranged and mixed parts of Frank along with half of Back to Black, Winehouse’s position on strings softened enough to allow their inclusion on her second album.

“I said, ‘We’ll keep it low and treme’,” Elliot continues. “So low as in pitch and treme as in tremolando, which is where the strings are almost shaking or shivering. It’s a spooky kind of sound.” You can hear that shaking string sound in the transitional bridges of ‘Love Is a Losing Game’ and the dramatic sweeping lines of ‘Back to Black’. Likely due to Winehouse’s aversion, horn arrangements take on a greater prominence on Back to Black than traditional string arrangements.

Ultimately, Elliot says that Ronson’s relaxed attitude during the addition of the string parts, as well as his decision not to inform Elliot of Winehouse’s distaste towards strings until after their completion, are how the arrangements eventually came to be. “I had no idea or expectation about Mark,” he says. “I threw down some quick ideas. Mark breezed in, really charming. We went through each song, twice. I had them in Logic and he just literally edited out a few notes. When Mark was leaving, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, before I forget – Amy really hates strings.’”

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