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Music

The 17th Century origin of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Red Right Hand’

@TomTaylorFO

On the surface, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ gnarly anthem ‘Red Right Hand’ explores the outskirts of the urban world presided over by some trading estate villain. However, there is a lot of mystique in the welter and the tale stretches way beyond the fable of some metropolitan Freddie Kruger flogging knock-off cologne and ‘genuine fakes’. 

In fact, ‘Red Right Hand’ begins in 1608 with the birth of a certain literary revolutionary by the name of John Milton. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ timeless anthem borrows a motif that is scattered throughout history since Milton first wove the wherefores of his bold worldview in the epic poem Paradise Lost pitting the forces of heaven and hell in a roving battle. 

Like the song itself, the symbolism it leans on is able to be transmuted to fit wherever it is needed, whether that be the gangsters of post-war Birmingham in the series Peaky Blinders or the grand God and Devil dogfight that originated it. The Paradise Lost verse reads: “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?” 

Milton’s epic was not only revolutionary in the prelapsarian tale that it told, but it is also credited as the text that reimagined Satan as a charismatic seducer as opposed to some wicked creature from the underworld. In truth, Cave’s epic anthem remains equally obscure and layered when the story of the crimson fisted protagonist is poured over and perhaps that is fitting of the odious position he found himself in at the time it was written. As Cave once said himself: “A good song has the ability to continue to reveal itself to you long after you’ve actually written it. This one’s pretty good (for that).”

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Cave was struggling with his drug use, but in a move that he describes as “totally mad” he would sit through a church service in the morning before visiting his dealer in the afternoon, as if to say, “I’ve done a little bit of good, and a little bit of this, ‘What’s problem?’” This book-balancing notion of morality and the strange characters that such a lifestyle welcomed into his life are all woven into the atmospheric song. Seeing as though Milton’s epic tries to justify the ways of God to man, the song and its relationship to Cave’s own experiences at the time are right in line. 

While these sketchy characters are everywhere, Cave was colouring his tale with something specific. As he wrote the lyrics he filled an entire notebook with an imagined habitat for his red-handed protagonist “including maps and sketches of prominent buildings, virtually none of which made it into the lyrics.” As Mick Harvey said, this protagonist in question was “a shadowy, alluring, and manipulative figure, stalking the land and striking a combination of fear and awe everywhere he goes” who is “seemingly part deity, part demon”.

In fact, Milton’s poem happens to be somewhat of a touchstone for a lot of Cave’s work. As he reveals in the lyrics to ‘Song of Joy’ when he croaks: “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 ‘his red right hand’. / That, I’m told, is from Paradise Lost.” The darkness, light, inherent allure and relation of God to the everyday in Milton’s poem is something Cave has always bottled up himself.