Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series “Spooktober Edition,”where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore tunes from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip! 🎃
“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.
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” 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.