From the moment Cillian Murphy first rode a black horse through the misty streets of 1919 Birmingham to the strains of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ on 12th September 2013, Peaky Blinders set a new bar for British TV drama soundtracks to aspire to. Over the course of four series, Steven Knight’s Brummie gangster saga made innovative use of suitably dark and dirty contemporary songs to chart the inner turmoil of its protagonists, especially screwed up anti-hero Tommy Shelby, a traumatised World War One veteran turned gang leader. Old favourites mingled with similarly styled lesser knowns, bespoke instrumentals and celebrity guests Radiohead and David Bowie to create a new kind of audio visual mixtape.
Series Five offered a slight change in direction when Anna Calvi, who’s own work has always possessed its own brooding, cinematic quality, was commissioned to curate the soundtrack. And yet, much like the series itself, I found it a little disappointing. Maybe it was the switch to a peak time BBC One slot, but the multiplying plotlines involving notorious Fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley, would-be usurper Michael and his new wife Gina, the unlikely resurrection of Tom Hardy’s loveable rogue Alfie Solomons and almost too many enemies to count (the Chinese, the Italians, the Billy Boys, the Titanic gang, the UVF, Special Branch, British Intelligence, Section D, the Angels of Retribution!) certainly clouded my judgement on episodes choc-a-block with intense dialogue yet desperately short of action. As exhilarating as ever but for once strangely unsatisfying. God knows what newcomers made of it!
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Red Right Hand (Let Love In LP April 1994)
There really is nothing more to be said about old Nicks loping, malevolent classic. Used more sparingly in Series Five, nonetheless the songs association with Peaky Blinders is carved in stone for time immemorial.
Cabbage / Uber Capitalist Death Trade (Uber Capitalist Death Trade EP September 2016)
Musically primitive yet effective in the same way as The Fall or the Fat White Family, ‘Uber Capitalist Death Trade’ reminded me of a young Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedy’s brand of scattergun punk. As such it’s a welcome addition to the oeuvre.
Nadine Shah / Evil (Holiday Destination LP August 2017)
By Series Four the Peaky Blinders soundtrack had moved on from the early days of Jack White and PJ Harvey’s primitive punk blues. Series Five heralded a return to past glories, not with the old stalwarts, but in the shape of relatively unknown female exponents like Nadine Shah and The Pearl Harts.
Anna Calvi / Lady Grinning Soul (Strange Weather EP July 2014)
The best of Anna Calvi’s contributions to her own soundtrack was a curious cover reimagining Bowies early seventies, Aladdin Sane original with chilling and devastating effect as Arthur rearranged the face of the kindly Mormon sheltering the estranged Linda.
Hotel Lux / The Last Hangman (Download November 2017)
Selected from a tide of pre-existing albums and releases, a Peaky Blinders soundtrack rarely if ever bears any relevance to the intricate plotlines and their tales of existential angst. ‘The Last Hangman’ was more relevant than most in so much as it focused on Albert Pierrepoint, the Northern executioner responsible for hanging more than four hundred convicted killers between 1932 and 1955. I guess it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that our Tom may get to meet the man himself in the final episode of the as yet unwritten final series.
Radiohead / Climbing Up The Walls (OK Computer LP June 1997)
In the literal sense ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is exactly what the fucked up Tommy spent most of his time doing for the duration of Series Five. Terrifying in a way only Radiohead could be, the song is the perfect example of how amazing they once were at creating unsettling music that was both strange and beautiful.
Idles / Divide & Conquer (Brutalism LP February 2018)
This is more like it. A group I’d never taken any interest in if only because of their heard-it-all-before, Killing Joke, early eighties post punk influence, Idles were all over episodes five and six, ‘Divide & Conquer’ a thundering tale about the dismantlement of the NHS.
Joy Division / Atmosphere (Single A Side March 1980)
The oldest and best known song here, despite the fact that the ghost of Ian Curtis proved something of a distraction as Tommy shadowed the funeral procession of the ten year old bystander killed by the bomb that wiped out sister Ada’s paramour, army intelligence officer Ben Younger.
Richard Hawley / Ballad of a Thin Man (Download September 2019)
My decorator’s name is Derek. Derek doesn’t like Peaky Blinders but he does love Richard Hawley’s retro, bequiffed, Radio Two schick. Not surprisingly I don’t. Furthermore, so American is he, no Dylan tune should ever feature in a British drama. And yet, within the fictional world of the good, the bad and the Brummie, I can’t deny that both the professional Sheffielder and one of Robert Zimmerman’s most acclaimed songs were imbued with a modicum of associated cool.
Idles / Never Fight A Man With A Perm (Joy as an Act of Resistance LP August 2018)
Hands down my favourite new song from Series Five, Peaky Blinders new musical messiahs soundtracked the black shirted Oswald Mosley’s march onto the Bingley Hall stage with the ridiculous yet mighty ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’, a hair style rarely seen in 1920’s Birmingham.