Don Letts on Amy Winehouse
Film director, DJ and musician Don Letts was born on January 10 1956. A long-time associate of The Clash, he was a founding member of Mick Jones‘s band Big Audio Dynamite. His film ’Westway to the World‘ won a Grammy in 2003. He recently directed the Franz Ferdinand tour documentary ’Rock It To Rio‘
I heard Amy Winehouse long before I met her, and the thing that struck me first was her vocal delivery. She has taken every style of black music and turned it into something which is completely unique to her. I heard her on the radio and went out and bought the CD – which is unusual for me because I tend to blag them these days – and I saw that she had this Fellini-esque form. She’s one of the few women who makes me wish I was half my age. With that debut album she came out both guns blazing, spoiling for a fight, and everybody and anybody was fair game. She was very vocal, very in-yer-face, which I really admired. Here we are now, a few years later, and she’s come back with another album that again embraces all these influences.
Until Amy Winehouse came along, British jazz was very polite. I think she’s given it a much-needed kick up the arse, because it had become this sort of coffee-table chic thing. People forget that that’s not how it started. Originally it was this dark, dangerous, threatening thing, and somehow it became this safe, unthreatening nonsense and you end up with people like Jamie Whatshisname [Cullum]. It feels like the spirit of punk is back in a new way for the twenty-first century. When she heckled Bono at some awards ceremony I was cheering inwardly because you know, all these pop stars who want to hob-nob with presidents and think they’re very important need to be taken down a peg or two.
Rock ’n’ roll generally has become so safe. Everybody used to have an opinion on things, but everybody’s scared to have an opinion these days because it might affect their sales, man. And I really admire people like Amy because, trust me, they’re few and far between. I have to work with these people, and most of them have become gutless products of the business.
People say, ‘How can a skinny white girl sound like a 40-year-old black woman from Brooklyn?’ and the answer is: effortlessly. The form, the medium, is very American, but she’s put a very English take on it through her choice of subject matter. She talks about life in London and that’s what really separates it from anything that could have come out of America. I describe her as a lyrical gangster– somewhere between Salt-N-Pepa and Sarah Vaughan. What I mean is that she explores themes that most people in that genre wouldn’t touch in a million years. Look at songs like, from the new album, ‘Me And Mr Jones’, subtitled ‘Fuckery’. We’ve had male singer-songwriters touch on those kinds of resonances but it’s really nice to see a woman dealing with sex in a way which is completely unabashed.
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