Demystifying Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand,” and How It Was Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost

Youtu­ber Poly­phon­ic has done a good job of look­ing at some hoary old clas­sics of ‘60s rock, but he doesn’t always dip his toe in tak­ing on con­tem­po­rary music, or even con­sid­er­ing a mod­ern canon. Pro­nounc­ing what is essen­tial lis­ten­ing of the last few decades is a mine­field, espe­cial­ly among the ranks of Com­men­tus YouTubus.

So their choice to explore Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” is a deft one. It’s not Cave’s most well-known song—-that would be “The Mer­cy Seat”—-but it’s one that many non-Cave fans know regard­less. Though released in 1994, it’s now best known as the theme song from Peaky Blind­ers, though it also showed up in all three of the first Scream films. It’s been used to sell tequi­la and tourism as well.

Poly­phon­ic first delves into the source of the title—the “Red Right Hand”—as com­ing from Milton’s Par­adise Lost, spo­ken by fall­en angel Belial:

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

This is the hand of God, and a venge­ful, Old Tes­ta­ment one at that. But that will only get you so far into the lyrics of this creepy song. As Poly­phon­ic peels back the lay­ers of Cave’s vers­es, the man with the red right hand could be God, could be the Dev­il, could be a man, could be a ghost. He could offer you a Faus­t­ian pact, or they could take every­thing away imme­di­ate­ly. It could be gov­ern­ment, or cap­i­tal­ism, or the media, or mate­ri­al­ism.

Cave, to the song’s cred­it, leaves every­thing in a lim­i­nal space (as Poly­phon­ic illus­trates with the kind of cross­roads blues play­ers love to sing about). What’s left is a warn­ing, a sense of unease, a feel­ing that maybe it’s already too late. Maybe we real­ly are just all fall­en angels with no idea how to get back home to par­adise.

That’s why Cave includes it in most of his live sets. He can impro­vise on the lines, adding, as he has been doing, ref­er­ences to Twit­ter and social media. Cave might have left his reli­gious upbring­ing in his youth, but he knows that the best way to express the unease of the mod­ern con­di­tion is to get bib­li­cal. And part of that is mys­tery. Even fel­low Bad Seed Mick Har­vey knows not to go look­ing for answers from his friend about this par­tic­u­lar song.

“I still find it mys­te­ri­ous,” he told the New York Post. “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.”

As a bonus, here’s Snoop Dogg’s quizzi­cal cov­er ver­sion where he push­es and is pulled between his own style and Cave’s.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nick Cave’s Online Store: Pen­cils Adorned with Lyrics, Mugs, Polaroids & More

Nick Cave Answers the Hot­ly Debat­ed Ques­tion: Will Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

Ani­mat­ed Sto­ries Writ­ten by Tom Waits, Nick Cave & Oth­er Artists, Read by Dan­ny Devi­to, Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis & More

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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  • Brian says:

    What­ev­er the inspi­ra­tion for the lyrics, the tune is a clear lift from Tom Waits’ 1987 song “Way Down in the Hole,” famil­iar to many as the theme song for the TV show The Wire.

    Waits and Cave had col­lab­o­rat­ed on projects pri­or to 1994, so my guess it is more along the lines of a trib­ute than pla­gia­rism, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties are there for all to hear.

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