Reviews

'Peaky Blinders' Offers Violent Reminders of England's Forgotten Midland

Like Jimmy Darmody, his Boardwalk Empire counterpart, Tommy Shelby has grown up to find all Gods dead and all faiths in man shaken -- but not quite all wars fought.


Peaky Blinders

Distributor: 2entertain
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Iddo Goldberg
UK Release date: 2013-11-05
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"One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound."

-- Jane Austen

We can’t really blame Austen for the above sentiment. The city of Birmingham, the second largest in the United Kingdom, has a rather unfortunate reputation. Outside its midland region, it’s best known for the distinctive accent of its inhabitants, a rather dour set of inflections that compress vowels into a dull sing-song and render ‘years’ as “yuurrs” and “I’m” as “Oim”. Whenever surveys are taken to assess the desirability of each of the UK’s cacophony of accents, the Birmingham one, called, like its inhabitants, “Brummie”, invariably comes last.

Viewed kindly, Birmingham occupies a similar cultural space in the UK to Detroit in the US. Like that Michigan city, Birmingham and its environs has long been known as the location for much of the UK’s automotive business. Manchester which, with its textile businesses, drove much of the industrial revolution, was known as Cottonopolis. Birmingham, in which was located heavier industry, was the “workshop of the world”.

Like their Detroit cousins, Brummies drove their industrial surroundings into music. However, where Berry Gordy borrowed the hyper-efficient work methods of the GMC and Ford production lines, Birmingham bands, among them Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, imitated the driving, heavy sound of the factories to create heavy metal. It’s just another instance of bad luck that the city’s main contribution to culture is the least respected branch of popular music.

For the most part, Birmingham quietly gets on with things. It lacks the chippy swagger of Manchester, the fierce identity of Newcastle and is not even well regarded enough to be the butt of jokes (Liverpool’s scousers remain favorite for that). Culturally speaking, Birmingham is a city of a million people that all too often is simply not there.

It would be a sad reflection in any circumstances, but it's especially so given the importance of regionalism to the British, and especially the English, mindset. Despite its small size (roughly that of Louisiana), England’s history and culture have created a patchwork of strong regional cultures and localized identities either side of a heavy north/south axis. For Brummies, the axis is the problem. If your local cultures are primarily identified by their “northern-ness” or “southern-ness”, how are your midlanders to identify themselves?

It’s important to understand this backdrop to develop a full appreciation of Peaky Blinders. Creator Steven Knight was moved to develop the series with the express intention of remedying Birmingham’s “invisibility”. His, largely successful, method has been to place Birmingham’s own history within the skein of the social and political developments of the 20th century and to set it as the locus of several interconnecting strands of Britain’s national history. Several of these elements and their importance to the cast and crew, are outlined in an informative, though brief ‘making of’ available on the DVD.

Peaky Blinders begins in 1919, an age full of young men lucky enough to have returned from war but unlucky enough to have to contend with the peace that followed it. Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, a soldier recently returned to civilian life. Like Jimmy Darmody, his Boardwalk Empire counterpart across the Atlantic, Tommy is of that generation that may has grown up to find all Gods dead and all faiths in man shaken -- but not quite all wars fought. Drawn into the lucrative orbit of organized crime, Tommy becomes a kingpin of the Peaky Blinders, a violent gang who took their, admittedly odd, name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peaks of their caps and using them in fights. If the name still sounds too jocular know this: they would go for the eyes.

The term is an improbable one (the show’s title attracted mild derision on broadcast), but broadly accurate. It originated, with the same gruesome derivation, as a term for delinquent youth in Birmingham. The real Blinders were not quite a formal gang with an organized hierarchy; instead the term was used as a general descriptor of juvenile delinquents in the area. Easily identifiable, their chief recreations, including burglary, affray and assault, were carried out while wearing distinctively fashionable clothing.

The name also carried a regional connotation. Manchester had “Scuttlers”, London, “Hooligans”. The Peaky Blinders were uniquely Brummie. Regardless of how it sounds to modern ears, the title Peaky Blinders is a statement of intent. This is a show that is resolutely about Birmingham.

Knight is fortunate in his historical material. Fashionable or otherwise, Birmingham, and the activities of his characters, had a key position in the interwar years. The importance of heavy industry is presented through repeated background shots of shirtless men, coated in sweat and grime while working at furnaces and bellows. The images are left largely without comment, but the presentation is not merely ornamental, it’s a deliberate and effective attempt to show what the Midlands were contributing.

It’s often noted, by the city’s inhabitants at least, that Birmingham contains more miles of canal than Venice. There are far fewer gondolas however; these are industrial canals, cut to provide the means of transporting the product of all this hammering and drilling.

The canals feature in Blinders, as does the BSA factory, to which characters refer both as employer and location of industrial discord. BSA, or the Birmingham Small Arms company, was based in the northern part of the city and produced weaponry, which is great business in war time, rather less so in peace. An expansion into bicycle and motorcycle manufacturing helped to slow a decline in the company’s fortunes and would, in a large way, help make the transition to the automotive business that would make the city’s name in the middle part of the twentieth century.

That’s not to say that post-war industrial relations were without strife. These difficulties are set out largely through the character of Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), whose experience of the war years made him an ardent communist agitator. “They” says Freddie of the factory bosses, “use same whistles they used to blow to send us over the top they now blow to break us up.” It’s an explicit connection with the rigid class hierarchy that obtained in the trenches and another reminder of the regionalist, even localist, viewpoint of early 20th century Britain. The units that were conscripted to fight in European mud were assembled regionally. They called them “Pals Battalions”, in which men from the same streets would serve alongside one another, and, in a fair number of cases, die alongside one another, too.

The dead were perhaps the lucky ones. Tommy and his pals were together in France and brought a little of it back with them. One friend, Danny Owen, is prone to violent hallucinations and sudden outbursts of terror. We’d call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he and his friends call it “the Flanders Blues”. Those same mates refer to him as “Danny Whizz-Bang” after the troops’ nickname for German artillery. Facing a likely death, his concern is that his children don’t suffer as he had done. “Make sure they get apprenticeships” he begs Tommy “in the BSA factory or something”. It’s a pathetic plea. The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, talked of rebuilding Britain as “country fit for heroes”, Peaky Blinders offers the case for his failure.

It’s little wonder that Tommy, by some distance the smartest character in the show, looks elsewhere for his living. His primary source of income is from rigging gambling, particularly of horse racing. This is another nugget of historical truth from the mine of hidden Birmingham, as gangs from the city were heavily involved in such enterprise. The racket, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, was a significant moneyspinner for British gangs between the wars and rivalry for control of race tracks was the catalyst for their brutality.

Tommy’s cozy world is threatened when he comes into possession of the season’s McGuffin, a cache of stolen guns. This deadly haul brings the Peaky Blinders to the attention of several outside forces, and focuses attention on activities in Birmingham. The value of the cache is intensified by the troubles of the day, whether communist agitation or the growing threat of violence from Ireland, which was then in the middle of the Civil War. Winston Churchill, then Minister for War, has a particular paranoia for external threats (Bolsheviks more than Irishmen) and calls in Ulsterman CI Campbell, a determined Inspector played with a glowering menace by Sam Neill.

Campbell’s proximate problem is, of course, the guns but he has a general one too, namely Birmingham itself. He arrives to find an urban environment in thrall to local and international interests, communists, Italian and Chinese gangs, Irish insurgents and, somewhere in the middle of it all, the Peaky Blinders. Their sway over the territory is explained by the laxity of the local police force and it is here that Campbell lays his most severe accusation of blame. “You are worse than them”, he tells an assembly of bewildered bobbies, his voice heavy with fire and brimstone “you who have taken their bribes, who have looked the other way. God damn you for soiling your uniforms.” The cops briefly interrupt their games of snooker and poker to hear him.

As a drama, Peaky Blinders is a solid, serviceable piece. Its central characters are performed well, with Neill as the stand-out. There is, however, a problem with the accents. Very few of the performers are Birmingham natives and effective impersonations have beaten them. Murphy makes a solid stab, but lacks consistency while Helen McCrory, playing his Aunt Polly, sounds as though she’s from Liverpool. The best of the bunch is the New Zealander Neill, the son of a Northern Irishman, who delivers a note-perfect Northern Irish accent as a fierce growl. It’s unfortunate that the best accent is the one not native to the environment under consideration.

It may seem unnecessarily pedantic to focus on accents, which would be unnoticeably especially to an international audience, but it is important. As an attempt to rehabilitate Birmingham, the derided accent is crucial and as valuable a part of this great city as all the industry, politics and vice in the world. They becomes especially problematic when the effort to recreate the old Birmingham and, by extension, create a new idea of the city in which it can express a pride equal to that of its regional rivals, no matter how they speak.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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