Steve McQueen’s set of television films Small Axe will stand as a landmark in British arts. A cycle of exquisitely shot, perfectly filmed, emphatically well-acted dramas, the self-contained storylines were able to hone in on key moments from life in London’s West Indian communities in the 70s and early 80s.
Lyrical in every sense, Small Axe was dominated by its incredible soundtrack – from dub to lover’s rock, from chart hits to cult sound system favourites, Steve McQueen’s production was anchored in the key role music has in the day to day lives of the communities he was portraying.
The soundtrack to Small Axe has just been given the vinyl treatment, a perfect encapsulation of the cultural tributaries that criss-cross across the film series, while adding some newly recorded material from contemporary artists such as Michael Kiwanuka.
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Chatting to Clash over Zoom, Steve McQueen gets direct and to the point. He grew up around music – much of his own life is there on screen, if you look closely – and it’s something he cares deeply about.
“Music is the soundtrack to Black people's lives,” he says. “I mean, it's the reason why you get up in the morning, the reason why you go to work. Often, the environment we’re in isn't particularly welcoming, but the fact that you have this heartbeat, this rhythm, this persistence of soundtracking in one's mind is extremely helpful. Music saves lives. And also, music can be a weapon.”
He’s at pains to point out, though, that he doesn’t listen to music when he actually writes. “It's too much of a distraction!” he exclaims. “But it seeps into the DNA of the of the of the script, for sure.”
Recruiting Ed Bailie as Music Supervisor, the two worked closely on the score. It was important for every detail to be exact – from the carefully sourced vintage knitwear, down to the songs on the soundtrack. Take a blast of East London Mod icons the Small Faces – “something my mum played when I was growing up!” – to unexpected traces of country icon Jim Reeves.
“West Indian people and country ‘n’ western have a deep, deep history!” he laughs. “My parents are from Grenada, and Jim Reeves was huge there. Huge!”
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Some songs chose themselves, but others required a little digging. Take the key role taken by ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’; an almighty system shaker whose eerie introduction and emphatically muscular bassline caused a ruckus during the daring, moving, sensational episode Lover’s Rock. Set at an illicit house-bound blues party, it seems to capture the joy and danger of the Black British experience as the 70s turned into the 80s.
“I knew I needed something special,” he says, “and when I heard ‘Kunta Kinte’ it was like a dog whistle going off in my head!”
Gaining wheel-up after wheel-up, ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ feels like an explosion in real-time, the energy levels almost screaming from every single person on-screen. Whether they’re smashing down the floor, tearing off their clothes, or pounding on the walls, it seems to infect the cast on a molecular level.
“For many Black people on set – whether that’s actors or camera people or the director – it’s unusual to be in an environment where you can truly be yourself. It’s like Martin Scorsese casting from Italian-Americans – what happens is that there’s an authenticity to it. And also people are feeding off each other and bouncing off each other… but also there's a discipline because they have to remain within the confines of the setting.”
There’s also a huge level of freedom for the actors to interpret what’s going on around them. “The script is a guide, that's all,” he insists. “You’ve got to have the bravery to throw it away at points because the film itself takes over. It’s just a starting point. It's about creating an atmosphere and seeing where the atmosphere takes you.”
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One of the more emotive elements of Lover’s Rock is when the system turns down low, and the crowd – many of whom are young men and women, tied up in each other’s arms – begin singing Janet Jack’s crossover hit ‘Silly Games’. It was a choice with deep personal relevance for Steve McQueen, who vividly recalls the impact it made.
“I remember when that was on Top Of The Pops. Every Black household was ringing someone because often we wouldn't see a Black person on TV - particularly seen in a positive light. So that was definitely an iconic tune for Black people, West Indian people at that time, for sure.”
“It was very much an anthem,” he continues. “And it was beautiful to have it in a film, because people can actually sing it. I just like love the voices, because it's almost like a congregation.”
“Those blues parties, they were sort of church, for those young people. I certainly do think that if those parties didn't exist, because Black people were not particularly welcome into clubs, then we would have went into some deep psychosis. The fact that people can be themselves… there's some kind of baptism going on. Oh, the absolute joy in those moments!”
There’s darkness, too. Aggression from white kids outside, a subdued but menacing police presence, and an attempted sexual assault on one young woman by a party-goer. “There’s all kinds of things going on,” says the director. “There’s police intimidation, and other sorts of things going on outside the party. You want to show humanity as it is – there’s an immediate threat from outside, but also a threat from inside, with sexism.”
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Raw and unflinching, Lovers Rock taps into some essential part of the Black British experience, and in turn illuminates much of what was to follow. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Top 40 right now would look very different if those blues parties hadn’t taken place – everything from jungle to grime would simply cease to exist.
“Those blues parties were the direct descendants of warehouse parties in the 80s, and then the big Acid House parties. But people just talk about Britpop!” he exclaims, with palpable disgust in his voice. “And what the hell was that? Some retro thing, that they could package… something your weird uncle liked! The progression of our music has not been given its rightful place in the development of British youth culture. It’s interesting to see how those histories don’t get recognised.”
“There was people in the 90s that really didn't want to recognise things like jungle,” he continues. “They didn’t give it any space. It was all about Britpop. There was a definite pushing back against Black forms of British music, for sure.”
Broadcast during those long, strange weeks and months of 2020, it’s impossible to explore Small Axe without looking at the cultural energies that surrounded it. Black Lives Matter marches took place across the globe, with the death of George Floyd becoming a touchstone. For Steve McQueen, it was the year “that the local could become global”.
“I mean, I'm just happy I made it. I’m happy that people saw and people responded it to the way that they did. Often we think that our lives are so specific, and only kind of interesting for people who are in the know. But actually… no, the local can be global. And that's been proven by the response to the series.”
A project seen by millions – from ordinary British households, to the Obamas, even – Small Axe retains an intensely personal relevance for its maker. Looking back on those blues parties, he seems to sum up his films with crisp, precise language. “There was a freedom in it. That was it. Freedom… and a whole range of possibilities. And you don’t get that any more.”
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'Small Axe soundtrack' is out now - order it HERE.
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