13 Songs for Halloween: "Red Right Hand" + "Song of Joy" by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Features
10/30/2019
Janice Headley
photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

🚨WARNING: For Halloween, KEXP is exploring the horrifying true stories behind some of the creepiest songs we play. Please note, this post contains highly disturbing and graphic content. Please continue at your own risk. 🚨


On a gathering storm comes
 a tall handsome man
In a dusty black coat with 
a red right hand

There's no shortage of bone-chilling songs in the discography of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. The man has an album titled Murder Ballads, for crying out loud! But his single "Red Right Hand" (off the 1994 album Let Love In) has become shorthand for "creepy mood" in television and film, making it the most well-known song of his catalog. The track was used effectively in the first three films in the Scream movie franchise, in an episode of The X-Files, and, well, in the movie Dumb & Dumber, which is scary in a different way. (Founding and former Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey told the NY Post“That happened quite by accident... I’m not sure we would have wanted it in a film like that, but there you go!”) Most recently, the song has been the opening theme to the BBC crime show Peaky Blinders, resulting in a slew of covers, like the one by Cave's former girlfriend PJ Harvey that will appear on the 2LP Peaky Blinders soundtrack, out November 15th. 

Unfortunately, Nick Cave is not exactly one to divulge what his songs are about. In fact, he apparently didn't even plan this one out, admitting to Rolling Stone magazine in 1994 that he ad-libbed the lyrics in the studio:

That’s quite true. One of my great talents is ad-libbing, I have to say. I had the title, and basically I knew what I wanted to sing about, and it was a matter of just going in and putting it down. There’s certain lines in there, obviously, that aren’t off the top of my head, but there’s ones in there that definitely are. Aren’t I incredible?

And modest, too! In another 1994 interview with German magazine Spex, he dances around the idea of the devil:

Spex: But here you're clearly talking about the devil.

Nick: I'm really not sure what about I'm talking there, to be really honest with you. I have to sing a few verses with the music that we have written together. I sang how it was in my head. So this is a somewhat mysterious song for me. I suppose, "Red Right Hand" is a hand, plunged in blood, you know? It is the Evil. It is about someone, who pretends to be the saviour, but he isn't.

Spex: Consequently the Devil.

Nick: You can say that's the Devil. But it is only a song about... it is only that, what it is.

They never caught the man
He’s still on the loose
It seems he has done many many more
Quotes John Milton on the walls in the victim’s blood
The police are investigating at tremendous cost
In my house he wrote, “red right hand”
That, I’m told is from Paradise Lost

— "Song of Joy", Murder Ballads, 1996

Cave grew up the son of a librarian and an English professor, so it's no surprise that he's inspired by literature. And while I can't find a direct quote from Cave to confirm it, it's treated as common knowledge across the internet that "Red Right Hand" was inspired by "Paradise Lost" by 17th century English poet John Milton, an epic poem with over ten thousand lines of verse on the Biblical story of Adam & Eve. The closest we get to a confirmation is "Song of Joy," a song he described to Swedish magazine Pop in 1994 as "the pre-eminently most nasty, most implacable song" on his following album Murder Ballads. And in an essay on an old version of the Nick Cave website, Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos reveals:

Toward the end of Bad Seed (Ian Johnston’s autobiography of Nick Cave), a fleeting clue is dropped about a new song Cave was in the process of writing at the time. With the working title of “Red Right Hand II” [emphasis ours], it relates the tale of a father of three that murders his entire family — the very same scenario laid out in “Song of Joy”, the opening track of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 1996 album Murder Ballads. The references to “his red right hand” and other Miltonian citations sprinkled throughout link the two songs; but the gory details in “Song of Joy” make it clear that Cave had left behind the baleful romantic brooding of Let Love In, and this was to be a more bloodthirsty successor.

It's interesting that Nick Cave carried the idea of the "red right hand" to the next album, an album that sees the demise of 65 (fictional) victims (yes, someone counted!). So, maybe "Red Right Hand" isn't about the "devil" himself, but about the devil that lurks within, that compells a man to murder his entire family. Or maybe, it's divine wrath, as referred to in Milton's original poem: 

What if the breath that kindled those grim fires
Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us into flames; or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us?

— "Paradise Lost" by John Milton

For Peaky Blinders, the song has taken on several meanings. The show's creator Steven Knight told the NY Post (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT):

The lyrics conjure up our industrial landscape and the ‘tall handsome man’ could, of course, be Tommy Shelby. Over the series we’ve played with what the ‘Red Right Hand’ could be. The words have played over communists shaking hands, and over the reveal that Sam Neill’s Chester Campbell has connections to the fighters from Ulster.

Perhaps the weirdest interpretation of "Red Right Hand" comes from the South Australian Tourism Board who launched a $6 million television campaign for the vinery-rich Barossa Valley. Adrian Murray, Mute Songs’ representative for Cave’s home territory of Australia and New Zealand, told Variety last year, “The visuals were quite unusual for a tourism-related commercial. And probably an unusual song to link to tourism as well, but it’s a superb match. It was originally licensed for a 12-month term, but the campaign was so well-received, they extended it another two years.”

And it's possible Milton wasn't the only poet to influence "Red Right Hand." Kim Beissel, who produced the compilations Original Seeds: Songs that inspired Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, claims Cave was also inspired by the 1987 Tom Waits song "Way Down in the Hole" off Franks Wild Years. Again, I can't find solid confirmation to back this, but Cave invited Beissel to DJ the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he curated in 2009, so I guess he ain't mad.

Ultimately, we may never know exactly what inspired Nick Cave to write "Red Right Hand," and maybe that's OK. In Harvey's 2016 interview with the NY Posthe concludes:  

“I still find it all mysterious. I don’t want to know the details, and I’d never ask Nick. Sometimes it’s better to think ‘what the hell’s that all about?’ It’s better that it’s unknowable and spooky. The song has its own life, now.”

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