“You’ll see him in your head/On the TV screen/Hey buddy, I’m warning you/To turn it off”
That’s the refrain to “Red Right Hand,” a clanging, gloom-and-doom, six-minute-plus blues noir penned by Nick Cave and his fellow Bad Seeds, guitarist Mick Harvey and drummer Thomas Wydler, for the band’s 1994 album, “Let Love In,” originally released on Mute Records. Some 24 years later, the darkly foreboding track, reputedly a nod to the vengeful hand of God in John Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost,” has gained an unlikely second act as a sync magnet for a wide range of high-visibility movies, TV shows and ad campaigns.
Mute Song’s David McGinnis has been working with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for the past 18 years and helped engineer a variety of sync usages over that time. Mute Songs, the music publishing arm for Daniel Miller’s groundbreaking label, has published Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since the band was formed from the ashes of the Birthday Party in 1983 by Cave and Harvey.
“Sync use for ‘Red Right Hand’ is more about quality than quantity,” McGinnis says. “It’s not a song we can pitch very often. It’s not right for most day-to-day film and TV briefs. It’s not background music; it’s the main event. When it’s used, the dialogue stops and the film makes space for the song. It’s not right for everything, but when it’s right, it’s perfect and has a lasting impact.”
Perhaps the best-known use of the song is in the goth turn-of-the-century BBC series “Peaky Blinders,” now available on Netflix, where its spooky refrain, “He’s a man, he’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a guru,” is tied to star Cillian Murphy’s swaggering gang leader Tommy Shelby. The song is heard on various episodes being performed by Cave with versions by Iggy Pop, Laura Marling, PJ Harvey, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and L.A. alternative band Fidlar.
“The song has fairly humble beginnings,” co-writer Harvey told the New York Post in 2016. “Much of it came from a jam we were working on while writing songs for the ‘Let Love In’ album. It’s unknowable and spooky and has taken on a life of its own.”
“Peaky Blinders” producer Steve Knight said in a 2016 interview: “The music is peerless, the words magnificent. The lyrics conjure up our industrial landscape. The song adds so much poetry, magic and complexity to the series. There’s an outlaw quality that feels absolutely appropriate.”
The song has been a favorite of film and TV producers since its release, with three separate versions, including a DJ Spooky remix and a Cave re-recording in the first three installments of the ultra-successful “Scream” franchise and a plum spot on the 1996 compilation album, “Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files.” Producer Chris Carter says “Red Right Hand” was a direct inspiration for the anthology. The song was originally featured in a 1994 episode of “The X-Files,” “Ascension.”
“It was the only song on the album actually heard in the show itself,” says David Was, who produced the album.
Other uses include the 1994 Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels comedy “Dumb and Dumber,” a cover version by Pete Yorn for the soundtrack of Guillermo Del Toro’s 2004 “Hellboy” and in his trailer for “Crimson Peak,” a promo for the U.K. TV show “Hollyoaks” and the main theme song for the hit Australian TV program, “Jack Irish: Black Tide,” starring Guy Pearce, which is now gaining popularity in Europe. A 2011 remix of the song was used on an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” last October, while covers have been recorded by both Arctic Monkeys and Giant Sand.
Mushroom Group general manager Adrian Murray, Mute Songs’ representative for Cave’s home territory of Australia and New Zealand, says “Red Right Hand” and “The Ship Song” are probably the two most-synced songs in his catalog.
Perhaps the most high-profile use of the song there occurs in the South Australian Tourism Board’s three-year $6 million, TV campaign for the vinery-rich Barossa Valley, a stunning 90-second spot that juxtaposes the eerie “Red Right Hand” with lush scenes of the countryside.
“The visuals were quite unusual for a tourism-related commercial,” says Murray. “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.”
Michael Nobrega, marketing director for Kobalt Music Recordings, represents Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ master recordings in the U.S. for the band’s most recent album, “Skeleton Tree,” along with the DVD for its Grammy-nominated making-of documentary, “One More Time With Feeling.”
“We’re looking to expand his audience in the U.S. to where it is in the U.K. and around the world,” says Nobrega. “We think he should be seen on the same level as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Lou Reed — respected elder statesmen.” Not to mention three Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
Still, “Red Right Hand” is that anomaly in the Cave catalog, the rare track that isn’t exactly a hit single, but has worked its way into the public consciousness through sheer force of TV, film and commercial syncs.
With a multi-faceted career that includes screenwriting, acting and film composing with partner Warren Ellis (they recently collaborated on Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” and the National Geographic series, “Mars”), Cave isn’t reliant on a single source of income. Still, music publisher Veronica Gretton estimates the revenue from the song could equal up to $60,000-$75,000 per film use per year (split three ways between record label, publisher and artist), and Cave’s share alone since 1994 could be well over a quarter million dollars.
“These supervisors are usually major music nerds,” says Nobrega about the popularity of the catalog. “They all love Nick Cave. He’s 60 years old and still the hippest guy in the room.”