Peaky Blinders Review: Why Doesn’t Grace Get Walk-up Music?
One of the things that sets Peaky Blinders apart is its use of contemporary music in an historical drama. As Steven Knight tells Vodzilla:
We’d all completely decided on it [using contemporary music] before we even began shooting, I think, that we couldn’t go with a contemporary soundtrack. It’s just another barrier between the audience and the story. The music, the way it’s written, the way it’s acted – it’s all to make you feel these are modern people. They do the things we would do, they just happen to live in a different time. There’s not meant to be anything different about these characters and I think the music reinforces that fact. You take music that’s evocative and emotional and apply it to a story about common people and that’s what brings it alive.
“Evocative and emotional.” Keep those words in mind.
Nick Cave and the White Stripes establish in a subliminal way that these are contemporary emotions. We kept the music to a very limited number of artists because otherwise your soundtrack starts to sound like a juke box.
So Peaky Blinders uses relatively few artists to keep the attention on the story, not the music.
My discussion will focus on Series 1. Specifically, I’m interested in exploring why the music associated with Grace is different from that of the other (mostly male) characters.
Obviously, the music in Peaky Blinders provides thematic reinforcement for the on-screen action. This is something Larry Bartlett describes in his NME article “10 Perfect Choices on the Peaky Blinders Soundtrack” — for examples, he cites Jack White’s cover of “Love Is Blindness” and The Raconteurs’ “Broken Boy Soldiers.”
I would argue, however, that often the music on Peaky Blinders sets the mood and provides “evocative and emotional” insight into the characters’ mental space — in that sense, it’s not unlike walk-up music used in Major League Baseball. The music sets the mood and often makes a statement about the player, his values, his culture, and his musical preferences. His choice of walk-up music is a carefully made “evocative and emotional” decision that sends a message about who he is — or at least how he wants to be seen.
In Peaky Blinders, sometimes the relationship between scene and music is clear — like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Bring It on” at the end of 1.5 or Jack White’s “Love Is Blindness” in 1.6. The lyrics overtly comment on the action. But it’s more common for the music to set a mood rather than to explicitly comment on the plot. Take, for example The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button” which plays while the Peaky Blinders are leading Small Heath in burning the King’s photographs. The lyrics have nothing to do with the action, but the music shows the defiant euphoria that Tommy is igniting to get the upper hand on Chief Inspector Campbell. Talk about “evocative and emotional!”
Or consider The White Stripes’ “I Fought Piranhas” in 1.4 as Tommy and Johnny Dogs approach the Lees. The connection is in the timbre of the music, its sense of resignation as Tommy takes on a difficult task, more than in the relationship of the lyrics to the plot. In other words, it’s about mood.
And the fact is that the best mood music is often associated with male characters — “Your Blue Veins” while the Peaky Blinders fight the Lees; “St. James Infirmary Blues” as Arthur and two women go to the pictures; “Clap Hands” as Tommy shows the betting license to the shop. Given that the focus of Peaky Blinders is an exploration of masculinity, as Knight has admitted, this makes sense.
But what about Grace?
Grace occupies an isolated space in Peaky Blinders. She is, after all, not who she appears to be, a woman, under cover, on a mission to bring down the Peaky Blinders. She also hides her own trauma. But Grace doesn’t get rowdy walk-up music — well, there’s Mearle’s“Creases,” but that doesn’t really compare to The White Stripes. Instead, she is associated with traditional ballads: “I Wish I Was in Carrickfergus,” “The Boy I Love Is up in the Gallery,” “Black Velvet Band,” and “I am Stretched on Your Grave.”
Although the male characters get backing bands, Grace provides her own music. After all, her singing gets her the job at The Garrison, and it provides an opportunity for her to defy Tommy’s orders that there will be no music in the pub. Everyone else stops singing “The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery” when Tommy enters; Grace continues on alone. Consider the dialogue in that scene.
Harry says, “We haven’t had singing in here since the war.” Tommy replies, “Why do you think that is, Harry?” And yet Grace brings music back into The Garrison in the same way that she brings love back into Tommy’s life. Similarly, her singing “Black Velvet Band” soothes Tommy and helps him sleep, and we know that in the past, he has used opium to address his insomnia. Grace’s singing is essential in establishing her relationship with Tommy. John says one of my favorite lines while the crowd is singing at The Garrison: “Jesus Christ, Tommy, what the hell made you let them sing? They sound like they’re strangling cats out there.” Tommy, Arthur, and John laugh, but the truth is deeper: Tommy’s decision shows that he’s allowed Grace into his life.
Why this musical discrepancy?
One one hand, it’s a practical decision. Grace can hardly break into a Sinead O’Connor song. To do so would be a self-indulgent distraction that destroys the mood of the scene. Moreover, she sings traditional music, a marker of history and culture. But Grace’s character isn’t like everyone else’s — as Annabelle Wallis told Interview, ” I liked how she was equal to the men: she was fearless, she was brave beyond common sense. “
The fact that she sings her own songs and relies on ballads reinforces that difference and the fact that she is as strong as the men, except in a very different way. In the end, even though Grace’s music lacks electric guitars, it is equally powerful, just as Grace’s quiet presence disrupts Tommy’s life forever.
In Series 2, Grace gets her own walk-up music — P.J. Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” — and it is perfect in every way. But Series 1 is different, and Grace’s music is essential to establishing her place in Tommy’s lonely life.