Random Tracks: Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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Amy Winehouse- “Rehab”

PEAK: #9 on June 30, 2007

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (feat. Jay-Z)

Looking back at it now, Amy Winehouse was one of those artists that seemed destined to die young. Like a lot of music legends who died young, Winehouse was someone who had an undeniable talent and did great things with it while also engaging in an unhealthy lifestyle full of drugs and alcohol. No matter how much they tried to get clean, that lifestyle eventually claimed each of their lives leaving them dead in their prime with fans mourning and wondering what could have been. Oftentimes, their music takes on a deeper meaning with what we know now and the artist themselves become an almost God-like figure of worship that probably wouldn’t have happened had they not died the way they did.

When Amy Winehouse came on the scene in the mid-’00s, she stood far apart from the rest of the crowd. Her voice and music sounded like it could have come straight from the mid-20th Century eras of pop. But with those old styles, she brought a modern edge using her voice to convey feelings of heartbreak through lots of style and attitude that you didn’t hear a lot from other singers. People young and old recognized that about Amy Winehouse. There wasn’t a lot of precedent for someone like Winehouse to become a big-name crossover act. Perhaps that’s why she became a big name in the first place.

Her second and ultimately final album, Back to Black, is the work that Winehouse will be forever defined by. It became one of those instances where both the critics and the general public agreed that it was a classic and that Amy Winehouse was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. The album brought Winehouse success and acclaim as well as her only Top 10 hit in America which was essentially an autobiographical tale of her well-known tendency for heavy drinking, a behavior that would eventually kill her.

Winehouse grew up around London as the daughter of a taxi driver father and a pharmacist mother in a family that had music in its blood. (The #1 song in America on the day of Winehouse’s birth was Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”) Some of her relatives were jazz musicians and her grandmother was even a jazz singer. Through this, Winehouse inhibited a lot of jazz influences growing up and as a teen was also inspired by American R&B and hip-hop to where she formed a short-lived rap group Sweet & Sour. Soon she started playing guitar and performing around town when her friend and future UK pop singer Tyler James sent one of her demos to an A&R exec which led to a signing with Simon Fuller’s management company before getting a label deal with Island Records. 

The first album came not long after with 2003’s Frank, an album named after Frank Sinatra, one of Winehouse’s biggest influences. The album was first released in the UK and slowly got put out in the rest of the world, it wouldn’t be released in the US until 2007 after Winehouse’s breakthrough. Critics liked it and in her home country, Frank was a moderate hit peaking at #13 on the UK Album Charts (It would reach a new peak of #3 after Winehouse’s death.) but it helped give Winehouse early attention like getting nominated for a few Brit Awards and performing at various festivals. Now everyone was paying attention to what she would do next.

For her second album, Back to Black, Winehouse moved from straight jazz to ‘60s style pop music like Motown, Phil Spector, girl groups, and soul all while she found inspiration from her tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship with her boyfriend and future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. It was also during that time when she drank heavily and took drugs which proved to be another big inspiration for the album. For Back to Black, Winehouse hooked up with then-little-known producer Mark Ronson who proved to be just the person that could realize Winehouse’s musical vision melding old musical styles with a modern touch. (Mark Ronson will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s as a lead artist.)

When it came to writing the album’s big hit “Rehab,” the story began when Ronson and Winehouse were walking in New York one day and Winehouse was talking about how her dad tried to get her to go into rehab for her drinking problem immediately blurting out what would be the main hook of the song. Ronson upon hearing that line realized they had a song and got Winehouse to write the entire song and immediately went to the studio to work on it. As he explains in this Howard Stern interview, Winehouse’s initial idea for “Rehab” was to be a slower and bluesier style before he encouraged her to speed it up into a full-on soul jam. The official demo version shows a different take. Instead of blues or soul, “Rehab” is basically a clean jangly rocker with a lot of the rhythm already in place. It sounds good but probably wouldn’t have hit the same way.

As a producer, Mark Ronson knew what he was doing with “Rehab” and Back to Black in general. It’s been well known that the Brits for as much as they love American R&B aren’t exactly good at making their own credible versions of it that don’t come out as chintzy or fake sounding. Thankfully, none of that comes through on “Rehab.” For the song, Ronson recruited the American soul band The Dap-Kings best known for their work with the late Sharon Jones and they are great here. You can tell the authentic professionalism on display as the Dap-Kings play “Rehab” as a sweaty and intense soul burner. Everything in the music is sharp and on point from the way the horns play on the chorus, the catchy drum and handclaps, and how the music builds and swells up at certain moments right when it needs too. A song like “Rehab” already sounded dated by the mid-‘00s but probably because of that and how great it sounds, it rises a lot above the actual contemporary-sounding productions of the era. 14 years later, “Rehab” still sounds fresh and exciting than it did at the time.

Of course, the big reason “Rehab” and Amy Winehouse’s have remained popular is Winehouse herself. As a singer, Winehouse carries a husky tone that made her sound much older than her 20s carrying a weary and vulnerable vocal style found in soul and blues music. They make a great fit for each other on “Rehab,” a song where Winehouse sings about how she doesn’t want to go to rehab. The people around her want to get help but she continually declines saying she’d rather be at home listening to soul greats Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway. When she gets into rehab, the people ask her why she’s there to which she responds “I got no idea.” But Winehouse makes it clear that she’s not drinking because she wants to but that her depression causes it and rather than appear to be getting care it’s really a friend she needs to help her out. 

With what we know now about Any Winehouse, there’s a tinge of sadness to “Rehab” with this talented yet troubled singer singing defiantly about not getting help for a problem that would kill her. And yet “Rehab” still holds up. Like the rest of Back to Black, it’s an artist taking their personal troubles and presenting it as incredibly catchy and well-made pop music. More importantly, a big reason why “Rehab” still resonates is how it gets at the larger emotional issue at play for people who go through addiction. The third verse about needing a friend tells us a lot about Winehouse and people in her situation. After all, for people like Winehouse drinking is in many ways the only way of coping emotionally when life gets difficult and lots of times going to rehab, a place meant to provide help, can only do so much. What people like her really need is love and support from those closest to them.

For the video, director Phil Griffin films Winehouse in various settings where at one point she’s walking around a house throwing water in her face and sitting in a psychiatrist’s chair. At other points, she’s singing with her band who are all scattered throughout. Considering the song’s subject matter, the video could have gone bigger in portraying it which would have been interesting but as it stands it’s a fine enough visual.

When “Rehab” had its chart peak, it didn’t sound much like what was popular in the summer of 2007. It wasn’t the futuristic-sounding pop/R&B of Timbaland, the AutoTune heavy hip-hop of T-Pain, the numbing virality of ringtone rap, the theatrical bombast of pop-punk, or the sedate adult contemporary. Perhaps it’s that not really fitting into any obvious trend is why it only managed to get to #9 in the summer when “Umbrella” dominated. But not long after, singers like Winehouse would become the norm. Her success immediately led to a wave of young big-voiced female British singers crossing over. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Adele reaching the blockbuster superstar status she’s attained without Winehouse paving the way first to which Adele herself has acknowledged. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan put it, “Maybe as a sort of counterpoint to the plastic-hedonistic dance-pop that was dominating the charts at the time, the world just really wanted to hear some white British ladies howling out some full-force emotional exorcisms.”

When Back to Black was released in the fall of 2006, it was an instant hit going to #1 on the UK charts in January 2007 after debuting at #3. It eventually became the biggest selling album in the UK in 2007. Today, it’s the second best-selling UK album of the 21st Century behind Adele’s 21 and is in the Top 20 for the best-selling UK albums of all time. In the US, Back to Black wasn’t as big but it still made an impact debuting and initially peaking at #7 but got its biggest boost from the Grammys. 

At the 2008 awards, Winehouse, performing from London after being denied visa entry into the US, was the big darling of the night winning three of the four major awards with “Rehab” winning Record of the Year and Song of the Year and Winehouse winning Best New Artist. Back to Black would have most definitely won Album of the Year had it not been for the upset that was Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. Thanks to the attention from the awards ceremony, Back to Black shot to a new peak of #2 from its previous placement at #24 stuck behind Jack Johnson’s Sleep Through The Static and selling 3 million copies. 

Outside of “Rehab,” the only other song from Back to Black to chart was the hard soulful “You Know I’m No Good” and that only peaked at #77. For the rest of her life, Winehouse wouldn’t record any new music for herself outside of some guest recordings. One of those guest recordings was with Tony Bennett, another one of Winehouse’s idols, on his 2011 all-star duets album Duets II where they sang the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” Despite sounding far from what was charting at the time, their take of “Body and Soul” got enough juice to debut and peak at #87 in October 2011. (Tony Bennett has had multiple pre-Hot 100 hits including three #1s but his biggest Hot 100 hit, 1963’s “I Wanna Be Around,” peaked at #14.)

Unfortunately, by the time the duet was out Winehouse wasn’t around to celebrate it. “Body and Soul” wound up being the last song Amy Winehouse ever recorded. The alcohol dependency she sang about on “Rehab” continued to dominate her life with her addictions and relationships taking up much of the public attention over her music after Back to Black. She’d continue to perform but her addictions led to many erratic performances that would lead to booing from the audience. Her last performance came in Belgrade, Serbia in June 2011 as the kickoff to a short European tour but that concert was such a disaster that she wound up canceling the tour. A month later on July 23rd, Winehouse was found unresponsive by her bodyguard in her London home. She would soon be declared dead of accidental alcohol poisoning.

With her death, Amy Winehouse joined other tragic legends who’ve died at 27 like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain as part of the 27 Club forever defined by her great talent and a life cut way too short. In the decade since Winehouse’s death, there have been many remembrances like her parents setting up the Amy Winehouse Foundation helping people struggling with substance abuse. There have also been documentaries most notably 2015’s highly acclaimed Amy which won an Oscar as well as more documentaries coming out now marking the 10 year anniversary of her death.

Like those other legends I mentioned, Amy Winehouse had a short life and career but used it to create some great music that still resonates.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gucci Mane quoting from “Rehab” on his 2009 Bun B, Devin the Dude, and E-40 collab “Kush Is My Cologne:”

(Gucci Mane’s two highest-charting singles as a lead artist, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars and Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. But as a guest rapper, Gucci Mane will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s. Bun B hasn’t had a Hot 100 hit as a lead artist but as a guest peaked at #29 with the 2005 Webbie collab “Give Me That.” E-40’s highest-charting single as a lead artist, 2006’s T-Pain and Kandi Girl collab “U And Dat,” peaked at #13. As guests, they peaked at #7 with the 2006 Lil Jon and YoungBloodz collab “Snap Yo Fingers.” It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Charles Hamilton rapping over a sample of “Rehab” on his 2011 track of the same name:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the smoldering instrumental lounge cover of “Rehab” that French jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson released in 2012:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui lip-syncing to “Rehab” while dressed in her best Amy Winehouse outfit on a 2018 episode of Lip Sync Battle:

(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 1.)

There’s also a scene in a 2018 episode of the great Netflix drama Ozark where “Rehab” plays at a bar and during a bathroom sex scene with one character saying “People think this song’s played out but I say fuck em” but unfortunately a clip isn’t available online. For any of you who have Netflix, you can watch the episode here.

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