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Peaky Blinders: tracks that transcend the screen

Aug 23, 2019
By order of the… you know what’s coming next. Peaky Blinders. Those four words are all it takes to ignite that flicker of recognition. It’s not like there hasn’t been wildly popular TV shows before. Friends defined a generation, and remains one of Netflix’s most watched shows, but you’re hardly likely to bump into a group of Chandler Bings on your next night out. Tommy Shelby, though, you can bet your last sixpence you’ll find at least one imitator propping up the bar. And it’s growing in popularity across the Atlantic too, even if some US viewers are having to watch with subtitles to fully understand the unique Brummie dialect. So with the announcement of a Peaky Blinders festival on the way, quickly followed by the latest season, it’s time to examine the most important part of the show… the music.
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It’s hard to pin down a ‘Peaky Blinders’ song, you just know it when you hear it. The tracks are dark and brooding, intertwining the misery of Memphis blues with the violence of outlaw culture. That could mean heavy guitars or a haunting organ, but they’re always coupled with dark lyrics, sometimes spat, sometimes crooned. Regular contributors include Nick Cave, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, The Kills and PJ Harvey – very anachronistic choices for a show that’s set in 1920s Small Heath. Everything says that it shouldn’t work but it does. So much so that an unofficial playlist featuring songs from each season has more than 277,000 followers on Spotify.

Music has always played a key part in TV and narrative, but where most shows use it to heighten drama and guide its viewers, Peaky Blinders does something different. Its soundtrack acts as an internal monologue for Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby. He is the ‘ghost’, ‘man’, ‘god’, and ‘guru’ from the show’s iconic opener ‘Red Right Hand’, and each song that follows those beginning credits give us an insight into the mind of a gangster traumatised by horrors in his past.

That’s why it’s so effective. Instead of subtly telling the viewer how they should feel, the music chosen paints the world around its characters and adds yet another layer into the narrative. It may seem strange to hear heavily distorted electric guitars in a show set almost 40 years before the effect was popularised, but the slum terraces and smoke-filled factories create a high energy environment that’s constantly on the edge, always carrying the threat of violence – and for this, the music is perfect.
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More than just playlists though, Peaky Blinders has now inspired an official music and culture festival, which is set to take place in its native Birmingham this September. There’s been many similar unofficial events held in recent years, with varying degrees of success, but for a show that’s so considered about the music it uses and the associations that brings, it was probably always an inevitability that they’d wrangle back control. Anna Calvi is set to appear, following confirmation she has written the score for the much-anticipated season 5, as well as Primal Scream, soundtrack favourites Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes and other special guests. It’s yet to be seen how successful this new venture will be, but with the creator promising to stick to the Peaky Blinders’ roots, you wouldn’t bet against it.

There’s no doubt that the soundtrack has played a key role in the success of Peaky Blinders. It’s proven that music, when care and consideration is taken, has the power to elevate and help a brand crossover into popular culture. But this isn’t something limited to TV shows about Birmingham gangsters. When businesses apply that same consideration into how their brand sounds, they can elevate their own profile to a whole new level.