The dark and gorgeous music of ‘Peaky Blinders’
What's singular about the Peaky Blinders' soundtrack is how all the songs work perfectly well, even if you're listening to them on a playlist without contextual references to the episodes in the series
In Season 4 of Peaky Blinders, the plot violently twists and turns till it reaches what might seem an incredibly over-the-top crescendo when, in the finale, the head of the Birmingham-based post-World War I gangster family that the British TV series is about, gets elected as a member of Parliament. That, incidentally, was after the fiercely violent gang’s boss had blackmailed the government and wrangled an OBE (order of the British empire) from the British monarch. But if you’ve been binge-watching Peaky Blinders as I have been, despite the over-cooked characters and sometimes-incongruous storyline, after the finale of Season 4, you could be left craving for more. Sadly, for more Peaky Blinders’ fare, including the Birmingham accent, egregious violence, and stellar acting, we’ll have to wait till 2019 when Season 5 is scheduled to debut. But till then, there is the gorgeous soundtrack of the series to help tide over the wait.
After I finished watching Season 4 in nearly one sitting, my go-to Peaky Blinders’ playlist has been the one curated by BBC Music: 53 songs that run for 3 hours and 36 minutes. Incidentally, that’s a fraction of the 147 songs that have featured on the series since it debuted in 2013; all curated by British band Pulp’s former bassist, Antony Genn. On the BBC list, the opener is Red Right Hand, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1994 song whose title is taken from John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost. Dark and sinister, the song is the title track of the series and is about a tall and handsome man with a catastrophic plan. It’s a perfect fit for lead character Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy). As Cave sings in his baritone, He’s a ghost, he’s a god/ He’s a man, he’s a guru/ You’re one microscopic cog/In His catastrophic plan/ Designed and directed by/ His red right hand, it’s as if the song was tailor-made to describe Shelby. Cave, an Australian who’s known as rock music’s Prince of Darkness, is somewhere between a spoken-word artist and a singer and his use of the narrative style has often led critics to suggest that he can’t really sing. But fans (disclaimer: I’m one of them) will hotly dispute that.
Red Right Hand is not the only Nick Cave song on the Peaky Blinders’ soundtrack. On the equally ominous The Mercy Seat, Cave tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair. On Breathless he is inspired by the myth of Orpheus and his love for Eurydice. There are other Cave songs on the album, including Love Bomb, a song by Grinderman, the Australian-British band that he formed with Warren Ellis. Love Bomb, is off Grinderman’s self-titled raw and uninhibited album, which has a cover that shows a monkey doing something that is definitely NSFW.
Cave’s songs form the core of the soundtrack and Red Right Hand reappears through the series not just as the title track but also in covers done by Iggy Pop and Jarvis Cocker who collaborate on a very innovative version, and Arctic Monkeys whose, pop version also manages at the same time to be surprisingly dark. But Peaky Blinders is studded with other gems: British folk singer Laura Marling’s exquisite cover of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Tom Waits’ trademark gravelly vocals on Soldier’s Things, presumably about a yard sale of a dead old soldier’s stuff; several songs by P.J. Harvey, including Long Snake Moan with transcendence and religion as a theme; and two Johnny Cash songs—Further Up On The Road (a version of Bruce Springsteen’s original) and Danny Boy.
But the soundtrack offers much more. There is music by familiar bands—tracks by Radiohead, David Bowie (Lazarus from his last album, Blackstar), and Jack White’s supergroup, The Dead Weather. Unfamiliar ones as well. Peaky Blinders introduced me to Yak, a new British band, whose anarchic noise rock takes a bit of time to get used to but once you cross that little hurdle, the brutal music keeps growing on you. I read that at their gigs, Yak like to chuck their instruments into the crowd. For me, that spells high potential. Then there is Royal Blood, another British duo, whose stoner rock has elements of metal. Their song on the soundtrack, Out Of The Black, has peaked on the British metal charts, and thanks to the BBC playlist, they’re now on mine.
The thing about the Peaky Blinders soundtrack is that the new bands such as Royal Blood and Yak, or Queen Kwong, a Los Angeles band founded by Carré Callaway who was discovered by Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor, fit seamlessly in with the older; established ones. Not many songs on the soundtrack deviate from the main ingredients in the theme of Peaky Blinders: violence; sinister plots; sex; and swagger. True, there is Marling’s version of Dylan’s Hard Rain, and Cash’s ballads but even they sit comfortably with the darker, noisier tunes. What’s singular about the Peaky Blinders’ soundtrack is how all the songs work perfectly well, even if you’re listening to them on a playlist without contextual references to the episodes in the series. And what binds them together is Cave’s Milton-esque Red Right Hand. What a song!
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from ‘Let Love In’
2. ‘Snake Oil’ by Foals from ‘What Went Down’
3. ‘Heart of A Dog’ by The Kills from ‘Ash & Ice’
4. ‘Alas Salvation’ by Yak from ‘Alas Salvation’
5. ‘Baby Did A Bad Thing’ by Queen Kwong from ‘Bad Lieutenant’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets @sanjoynarayan