Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Right: Red Right Hand

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand
[purchase the album]
[purchase Seasons 1-3 of Peaky Blinders]

Sometimes, a song seems to have been written for a specific event, but it turns out to be a coincidence. I remember just after 9/11, at least three songs were being played on the radio that appeared to relate to the attack—Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” with its references to tall buildings shaking, skyscrapers scraping together and smoke, Afro-Celt Sound System and Peter Gabriel’s “When You’re Falling,” with its references to falling off of buildings through smoke and clouds, and Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York,” which sounds like a love song to the devastated city. But each of these songs was written before the attack and have nothing to do with it (the Ryan Adams song is actually a love song to a city resident, and the video was shot 4 days before, and includes shots of the World Trade Center).

Which is a long way around saying that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song, “Red Right Hand,” sounds like it was written specifically to be the theme song for the BBC TV show, Peaky Blinders, but, in fact, was written two decades earlier.

For those of you who are living under a rock, or under an outdated belief that television sucks, it is currently the age of “Peak TV,” where there is just so much great stuff available to watch, on streaming platforms, cable, and even on broadcast TV, that it is literally impossible to see everything good. A few years ago, my friend Tom suggested that I watch Peaky Blinders, a show about a Romani/Irish gang run by the Shelby family in Birmingham, England, after World War I, and I decided to give it a try. The Peaky Blinders gang, which actually existed, supposedly derived their name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps to use as weapons, but that story may be apocryphal.

I was hooked, immediately. The central character, Tommy Shelby, a damaged, decorated veteran, is ambitious, ruthless and apparently fearless. His goal appears to be to consolidate the family power, then to expand their influence to London, and maybe further. As is common in such stories, such as The Godfather, or Boardwalk Empire (to which it is often compared), there is a plan to begin to move toward engaging in legitimate business, which turns out to never be as easy as it seems. They are opposed not only by other criminal gangs, but also by the authorities, who want to both use the Blinders for their own agenda, while ultimately bringing them down. This ambiguity includes an uneasy relationship with Winston Churchill.

The show is, often, over the top, with choreographed and hyper-dramatic scenes of violence and mayhem, but it is also a family drama, as Tommy needs to deal with his brothers and other gang members, a headstrong sister who ran off with a Marxist, and his aunt, who ran the gang while the men were off at war, and still wields substantial power. There are, of course, love interests and interactions with Downton Abbey-esque nobility, Italian and Jewish gangsters, and IRA fighters.

In any event, Tommy Shelby, as played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is one scary motherfucker. And “Red Right Hand,” describes

A tall handsome man 
In a dusty black coat with 
A red right hand 

The rest of the lyrics describe this man as terrifying, mysterious and dangerous:

You'll see him in your nightmares 
You'll see him in your dreams 
He'll appear out of nowhere but 
He ain't what he seems 

Not to mention the fact that the music, as is typical for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, is eerie and filled with foreboding. It sets a perfect tone for the show, and the song, and other Cave songs, are used throughout the series to great effect. There have been three seasons, so far, with two more promised.

But, as I said, the song was released in 1994, when Cillian Murphy was playing in rock bands, two years before he got his first acting gig. Prior to Peaky Blinders, the song was used in a number of films, including Dumb and Dumber, and the Scream franchise, and in an episode of The X-Files. It has even been used by the South Australian Tourist Board for a commercial campaign.

I have to admit that before watching the show, I was no fan of Cave. And I still don’t love all of his music—some of it is just too dark and strange for me. But Peaky Blinders turned me on to “Red Right Hand,” and other songs of his that I’ve grown to love.

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