Red Right Hands: Inside the music of ‘Peaky Blinders’

With Peaky Blinders set to return for a fifth season at the end of August, fanboy Andrew Trendell talks to Tommy Shelby himself Cillian Murphy, as well as director Anthony Byrne, writer Steven Knight and this series’ score creator Anna Calvi to find out how a punk spirit and female voices are going to shape the soundtrack this time around. 

Across four seasons, the music used in Peaky Blinders has become as essential a motif in telling the tale of the Shelby clan’s battles through war, love, loss, violence and revenge in 1920s Birmingham as the hand-built period sets. The story of a family of outlaws always fighting back from the brink, the show has seen the drama play out with the musical assistance from the likes of Arctic Monkeys, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Iggy Pop, Radiohead, Laura Marling, Foals, and of course, Nick Cave. But what’s the one thing they all have in common?

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’,” Cillian Murphy, who plays lead Tommy Shelby, tells NME. “The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream, shall we say?”

So what can be said of the artists selected for Peaky Blinders season five?

“This time? They’re rogues! There’s more of a punk feel this time.”

Picking up after the 1929 Wall Street crash, Peaky Blinders season five sees the family between Birmingham and London reeling from the money that they’ve lost. All the while, Tommy’s post-war PTSD takes hold as he strides through the corridors of power as a newly elected MP, they face the rise of fascism and the far right, and there’s the usual tightrope walk between legitimate business and doing things the Peaky way. More than ever, it’s a story driven by conflict.

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’. The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream” – Cillian Murphy

“We’re dealing more here with Tommy’s mental state,” Murphy tells us. “It has been looked at previously, but not in as great detail as this series does. He’s quite fragile when we meet him. Well, that’s an understatement. The threats before were always exterior threats from different gangs and personalities, but now it seems like he’s his own worst enemy.”

To really get inside Tommy’s mind, they asked the multi-Mercury-nominated Anna Calvi to pen an original score for series five after so many of her ‘commercial’ tracks had worked so well in other scenes.

Peaky Blinders
Director Anthony Byrne and Anna Calvi collaborate on the score for ‘Peaky Blinders’ season 5

“The way she plays the guitar is very unique, and her voice and the way she uses her breath has allowed us to access the interior world of Tommy’s headspace,” director Anthony Byrne told NME. “She has an innate instinct for those images, and has come up with something that I think is quite extraordinary.

“As always there’s a definite feminine voice there, but there are a lot of women in his life that are behind that – whether it’s his relationship with Lizzie or the spectre of Grace that’s hanging over him. We also touch upon the death of his mother, which we touch upon much more in this season. Anna is acting out whatever Tommy is projecting and brings this whole language to it.”

“There’s an element of violence to Anna Calvi’s work and it certainly sticks in your head” – Anthony Byrne, director

Bryne, who says that there will be the usual mix of contemporary music as heard on previous seasons, compared Calvi’s work on the soundtrack to what you’d expect from a David Lynch movie.

“She sounds a bit like Angelo Badalamenti and the stuff that he’s done for those Lynch films,” he continues. “There’s an element of violence to her work and it certainly sticks in your head. She’s managed to become part of the images as well. I think it would be difficult to separate.

“Apart from maybe Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, Peaky Blinders has no ‘Tommy’s Theme’. The likelihood now is that you could be humming an Anna Calvi cue from Peaky in a way that you wouldn’t have before, because you’d perhaps remember something by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey or Radiohead instead.”

He adds:  “She’s quiet as a doormouse in person, but she’s just got this onstage persona which is huge. She’s tiny but this extraordinary voice and maestro guitar style comes out of her. I’m in awe of what she does and I want more people to be aware of how incredible she is.”

Driven to go as far as she could into “the dark abyss” of Tommy’s mind, Calvi tells us that she felt the need to up her game in the way that she played – inspired by “the incredible way that Cillian Murphy can say so much with just one facial expression”.

“I see Peaky Blinders as a Western set in Birmingham” – Anna Calvi

“There’s an atmosphere in trying to explore something that has both a darkness and vulnerability,” Calvi told NME.  That’s what’s interesting about Peaky Blinders – not only does it have a brutality and violence to it, but there’s also a lot of love for the family. There’s a vulnerability that comes from being damaged from the war and how that affects your relationships, and there’s no much heart in there.”

As for where the new score takes her sound following what was explored on her acclaimed third album ‘Hunter‘, Calvi says: “The sense of beauty with brutality is something I’ve always been interested in exploring with my music. What was exciting to me was how to demonstrate that with the guitar. I took a lot of inspiration from Westerns, because I do see Peaky Blinders as a Western set in Birmingham.”

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders series five

In keeping with her work on ‘Hunter’, Calvi’s music and lyrics for Peaky plays with notions of gender and blurring the lines of identity. So much so, that she even felt herself becoming Tommy at times…

“I was interested in giving Tommy’s unconscious mind a feminine voice,” she reveals. “I think it actually makes it more frightening somehow. That female edge gives it a lot more depth and makes it a lot more intimidating than say, a brutish male voice.”

Calvi admits: “It’s been really interesting to write as if I was Tommy and really believe in this character. I really got lost in that, as if he was real. When you’re writing a soundtrack, you’re watching something all day. I was dreaming about Peaky Blinders and got completely obsessed. That’s how it should be.”

“I was interested in giving Tommy’s unconscious mind a feminine voice. It actually makes it more frightening somehow” – Anna Calvi

Beyond Calvi’s touch, there will of course be the usual clash of modern music set to the drama of the bleak Midlands 1920s. “I think we’ve established that what it is to fit in with the show, is actually quite intangible” says Peaky Blinders’ sole writer Steven Knight. “It’s not a matter of musical genre, I think it’s the words that connect it. There’s always a beautiful poetry about the stuff that’s used.”

While the poetry remains, Anthony Byrne says that this time it will be matched by a “heavier, punkier sound”.

The Pearl Harts are a band I really like,” he said of one of his favourite selections for the soundtrack. “I saw them in Manchester and Leeds when we were filming. Their album ‘Glitter And Spit’ is just a banger and we were pretty determined to get them in. We’ve got them in the opening of episode three and it just landed in such a fantastic way. They’re two girls with this heavy punk sound and they play so well.

“Our biggest band in this series are Black Sabbath, which felt so obvious but they’re so essential as a voice from The Black Country. We use ‘Wizard’ and ‘War Pigs’. We also use two IDLES tracks ‘Scum’ and ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’. With bands like IDLES, we were looking at a lot of younger bands that people might not necessarily know. We thought it would be good to put them in a big cultural zeitgeist BBC One show and expose them to a huge audience.”

Byrne goes on: “SavagesJehnny Beth is someone that Cillian knew and has worked with, so we met and she sent over some demos and some stuff from her solo album. She’s very Peaky. I wanted to use Savages’ ‘Adore’ but I didn’t realise that we had before and I didn’t want to repeat ourselves.There’s also one Radiohead track which was nice to use for some continuity with previous series.”

“I gave David Bowie the hat that I wore in season one as a present for Christmas then a year or so later he said he’d love for some of ‘Blackstar’ to be used. It doesn’t get better than that really” – Cillian Murphy

Another throwback to the musical connection of previous series comes with Calvi’s cover of Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’. The late icon was such a huge fan of the show that he sent the team them a pre-release copy of his final album ‘Blackstar‘ before his death and requested that they use some of his music in season three. In return, Murphy sent the original Peaky hat that he wore in season one as a thank you (without the razor blades, we’d assume).

“I was working with him on something else, and then he said he was a fan of the show,” Murphy tells NME. “I gave him the hat that I wore in season one as a present for Christmas then a year or so later he said he’d love for some of ‘Blackstar’ to be used. It doesn’t get better than that really. He left us that record, and what a gift it is.”

David Bowie and Cillian Murphy in ‘Peaky Blinders’

Writer Steven Knight agrees: “It was unbelievable. I didn’t know that he was ill, but earlier in the year I heard that he was a huge fan. I suggested that we ask if he wanted to give us some music, then we got a message from his people saying ‘Yes, he’d love to’. Then nothing happened until his people got in touch again and said, ‘He really wants to do this’ – and it sounded quite urgent. His business manager came to my house between Christmas and New Year, which I thought was odd, and she played me the album and said, ‘Is there anything you’d like’.  I said, ‘Well, all of it’.

“Then the following Tuesday I turned on the radio and heard that he’d died.”

“Nick Cave’s music against a period drama just fucking unlocked everything” – Cillian Murphy

A strange twist of serendipity it may have been, but if you’re looking for a ‘Peaky’ artist then you’d struggle to find more of an “outsider” than David Bowie. However, all agree that the musical DNA of the show stems from Nick Cave. With the Bad Seeds, who knew that the “tall handsome man in a dusty black coat with a red right hand” they sung about back in 1994 would later be made flesh in the form Mr Thomas Shelby, MP?

“Nick Cave’s music has been there since the beginning and has defined the show sonically and atmospherically,” says Murphy. “Once Otto Bathurst, the director of the first three episodes, put Nick Cave’s music against a period drama it fucking unlocked everything. It just works so amazingly well.

“Don’t ask me what it is about Nick Cave because I don’t know, but he’s one of the greatest living artists that we have. Now everything has to fit within the palette of that Nick Cave has created.”

The original outlaw punk poet, Nick Cave is the nucleus with only one degree of separation from the outsider artists that have graced the Peaky Blinders soundtrack over the years. Tune in to hear what the gang do next.

Peaky Blinders season 5 will premiere on Sunday August 25 at 9pm on BBC One.

There will also be the first Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival taking place in Digbeth in Central Birmingham on September 14 and 15 with Slaves, Anna Calvi, Primal Scream, Mike Skinner and many more to be announced.