Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. When I say this phrase, a few of you might recognize it while others won’t. But if I say Red Right Hand, I know you’re immediately thinking of Peaky Blinders and Thomas Shelby. Nick Cave was the one who wrote and released the song in 1994 as part of his band, the Bad Seeds.
While Red Right Hand has become a pop culture reference associated with Peaky Blinders, there’s a deeper meaning to this song that traces back its origins to almost three centuries ago in the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton.
The Red Right Hand song resembles Thomas Shelby as an antihero who has become shrewd after his horrifying experience in World War I. It also represents the Birmingham setting and Thomas’ encounters with fascists, rebels, communits, government officials, etc.
Before I unravel the mystery and enigma behind the song Red Right Hand, here’s a small disclaimer.
I’m going to try and draw parallels between three things—the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton (Original Reference), Red Right Hand song, and of course Peaky Blinders. So, hang in there as I try to untangle the different verses, threads, and character traits that are right now stuck in this yarn of symbolism.
Peaky Blinders’ theme song Red Right Hand is a derivative piece from one of the most significant biblical poems of all time, Paradise Lost. It was written by John Milton, who essentially depicts the story of Lucifer or Satan, who defied the laws of God, became the fallen angel, and decided to seek vengeance.
The song Red Right Hand, written by Nick Cave in 1994, is inspired by this poem. It brings a certain amount of cultural context of the 90s.
In Paradise Lost, the Red Right Hand is a phrase spoken by a fallen angel, and he refers to God who had outcasted Lucifer and the others who followed his path. However, in the song, the lyrics go something like ‘…he’s a ghost, he’s a god. He’s a man, he’s a guru…’ This sort of has a certain amount of ambiguity if this person is God or Satan. Furthermore, even if he is God, he is not depicted in the most divine or good way.
The phrase ‘… He ain’t what he seems…’ is an indication of that. In the song, we also hear how this so-called Tall Handsome Man gives people everything they want, but they’ll never be in control. While this can either mean it is Satan offering people things and feeding into their sins, it can also show God in a poor light because he’s the one in control at the end of the day, and you are not.
This song portrays God in a grey way because even in Paradise Lost, John Milton represented Lucifer with a lot of sympathy, trying to tell his side of the story. Numerous poets have considered Lucifer the true hero.
So while we might not know the exact figure, it still talks about anyone who has power because they can do anything to you—both good and bad.
Now that you have all the context, it’s time to get into the actual meat for which you are here. How are Thomas Shelby and Peaky Blinders related to all this?
The creator Steven Knight in an interview with Wired said that the song’s lyrics are pretty representative of Thomas Shelby as a person, where he comes from, and the people he meets in his journey.
While there’s always room for numerous interpretations and speculations, here are a few rather obvious parallels I’ve noticed.
- Thomas Shelby is the Red Right Hand in the show. He is an antihero who is pretty vengeful against those who intend to do wrong against him. In fact, he’s never spared anyone other than Alfie Solomons. The entire thought behind him being portrayed as this powerful figure who will come for you if you stand in his way is depicted in the song.
- The song also talks about the setting of the place, and it is quite similar to Birmingham in terms of the feel. Like how it is dusty considering the coal factories, it is this almost dark place at the edge of which the Tall Handsome Man, Thomas Shelby, lives.
While the first two are fairly popular opinions, I just have a few more thoughts on the lyrics:
- The entire part in the song where the Red Right Hand can give anyone anything they want seems a lot like Thomas Shelby. He knows what it’s like to have nothing, and hence he does give people things they want in return for their support and backing to fight the villains of the show—Campbell, Changretta, and so on. It’s almost similar to selling your allegiance instead of the soul to Thomas for what people want. In this sense, he seems like the Devil.
- I also think Tommy is the fallen angel who decides to defy the norm and the laws of the ones in power. When he returned from war, he was broken, and he realized that the world is filled with people where every man is for himself. As a result, he makes his own rules to live by and doesn’t follow the norm created by the likes of Inspector Campbell.
- If you speculate even more, you’ll also see the ambiguity within the song is sort of the ambiguity we’ve seen in Tommy throughout Peaky Blinders, barring, of course, Grace. Grace was literally the only thing that could have saved his soul, and with her gone, Tommy has become more obscure in that sense. On one hand, he wants to overthrow people, expand his businesses, etc., and on the other hand, he just wants to do some good so that people worse than himself don’t hurt the people who lack power.
Overall, these were some of the parallels I saw between Red Right Hand and Peaky Blinders. However, I feel a lot of it is also speculation, and Season 6 perhaps might shed more light on Tommy’s character arc and what he resembles in the song.
About Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders is a British period crime drama television series created by Steven Knight. Set in Birmingham, England, the series follows the exploits of the Shelby crime family and their leader Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) in the direct aftermath of the First World War.
The fictional family is loosely based on a real urban youth gang of the same name, active in the city from the 1890s to the early 20th century. It stars Cillian Murphy, Sam Claflin, Aidan Gillen, Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Finn Cole, and Tom Hardy
Peaky Blinders season 6, which is also its last, will premiere on February 27 on BBC One.