A month or so ago, I wrote a not short piece about music what one inevitably ‘reads’ differently because of the cultural and emotional residue circling the, say, TV show it has become associated with, mainly as a way of introducing a single question I ended up putting in CAPS to show just how important it was to me: WHY THE FUCK HAS NICK CAVE ALLOWED FUCKING HOLLYOAKS TO USE ‘RED RIGHT HAND’ IN A FUCKING TRAILER FOR ITS FIERY LATE NIGHT HALLOWEEN SPECIAL THING?
And so imagine my bemusement upon discovering that, throughout an invented scene in the middle of the atmospheric but underwhelming new Harry Potter film, a Cave song called O Children – an unreleased album track from the second CD of the Bad Seeds’ grandiose 2004 double-header Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, I should say – foregrounds proceedings in a way no other individual song has throughout the entire, primarily orchestra-accompanied franchise. Mental. And surely, at a time when Nick’s relationship with popular culture, civilised society and so on is beginning to look a little too comfortable for comfort, the worst Step Too Far yet…
Well yes and no. Firstly, the scene doesn’t work, doesn’t work at all, the dancing – like everything hairy little Radcliffe and Hermione’s world-of-their-own eyebrows do, indeed – is weird and embarrassing. Not to mention ambiguous, but not in a good way, because you get the feeling the two wee multi-millionaires have been told to act companionship and mutual reliance with just a hint at the potential for something more in order to make sense of (the now stacked) Ronald’s Lord of the Rings-esque paranoia a few scenes later – but that it’s a direction way too sophisticated for their no-longer-adorable (in)capabilities to handle. Then there's the way the song, with little if not nothing in common with the rest of the score remember, sorta bursts out of the radio to take centre-stage – it's too stylistically jolting for the emotional manipulation of its chord structure and gospel sentimentalism to take effect, basically.
And what of the actual specific choice of song? Here’s what director David Yates has to say on the subject, according to the Brisbane Times (and fair play to the Brisbane Times for actually pursuing this story):
Yates says his music adviser Matt Biffa sent him about 300 songs to consider for the sequence. ‘Every one was wrong,’ he says. ‘And then I came across that
piece. There is just something about it that is really poignant and melancholic and yet incredibly uplifting. There are very few pieces of music that can deliver that odd dynamic – that can make you feel very soulful and a bit lost, and yet have this wonderful undertow that can also lift you up. It had to be Nick, basically.’ Nick Cave
The producers duly sought Cave’s permission to use it. ‘And he was so cool about it. I never spoke to him personally, but I understand he was pretty happy.’ What Yates would love, he says, is to work with Cave scoring a smaller-scale film than a Harry Potter spectacular. ‘He seems to be able to create music that never ever feels like the same mathematical pattern but yet hits the same emotional spots. I think he’s really smashing.’
To be fair to the guy, I actually think a lot of what he says here is true, if a little bit this is how the music makes me FEEL rudimentary. What it doesn’t explain, though, is the specific choice. His comments mainly refer to Cave’s work as a whole – rather than a song with a connection to the Potter kids that kinda makes sense the first time you hear it, all O CHILDREN, LIFT UP YOUR VOICE, but after a bit of careful listening comes bearing some pretty inappropriate connotations. A case in point is the third verse:
Forgive us now for what we’ve done
It started out as a bit of fun
It started out as a bit of fun
…so far, so okay, but what’s this I see, immediately after…
Here, take these before we run away
The keys to the gulag
The keys to the gulag
THE KEYS TO THE GULAG?! Suddenly all that rather crowbarred-in ethnic purity imagery and propaganda and soviet-style leadership stuff in the later books begins to dominate in a way that it, well, shouldn't. I mean, how many people read Harry Potter for the political allegory, really? But I don’t reckon Yates really listened that hard anyway, I get the feeling he just liked how the song made him feel all happy and melancholy at the same time, heard the word ‘children’ a couple times and thought GENTLEMEN, WE HAVE OURSELVES A WINNER. Without asking himself, wait a minute, this piece of music is meant to inspire Harry and Hermione to dance inside their magic tent as though the world outside isn’t ending etc; but who in their right mind hears an album-closing Nick Cave ballad and goes, fuck this, I MUST DANCE?
It is, to cut a long story short, a decision that makes shit all sense; an interesting enough stylistic choice obviously made in isolation and clung to, regardless of the fact it makes shit all sense in its wider context. And it's a choice that also reflects a common misconception about Cave’s recent work, which is that its increasing melodic accessibility makes it an appropriate accompaniment to any number of banal situations – an assumption that belies utterly the if-anything-increasing musical and lyrical sophistication that exists within the pretty tunes. It’s just a bit less confrontational than it was back in the day y'see, that’s the only difference.
And yet. And yet I remain bemused, rather than pissed off in the way that I was about the Hollyoaks farce. Indeed, I came out of the film curious about Yates’ and MATT BIFFA’s (what a name) little experiment – curious generally, in fact, rather than bored or infuriated, as I had been after previous HP movies. About, say, whether the little Beedle the Bard animation sequence worked (I think it did). About why the kidz didn’t cast spells at the eyelinered men what caught them and took them to Bonham Carter, as they had done with every other enemy. And so on.
And I’ve decided this curiousness reflects well on the film, because at least it gave me the opportunity to have a little think etc., rather than just wishing I was a wizard etc. My little think took in many things, including potential reasons why the coming together of Potter and Cave might be considered a good – or at the very least, coherent – thing. Some of them were quite convincing. So I wrote a couple down.
One, the Harry Potter films should be regarded as an entertaining record of British performance talent, our beautiful locations, our ability to trump Hollywood production values etc. rather than works of cinematic art. With this in mind, featuring the work of one of our most important musical/literary imports is only right – he joins, remember, National Treasures Jarvis Cocker and Jonny Greenwood after their extraordinary cameo in The Goblet of Fire. All together now, Get it on like an angry spectre, who’s definitely out to get ya. Sounds like a Grinderman song.
Two, we’re not talking about Red Right Hand here, we’re talking about a relatively obscure and, to be honest, not particularly excellent album track that few people are going to have much of an existing relationship with and, more importantly, even fewer people were likely to foster a relationship with before the new Harry Potter came around. Ergo, the film isn’t going to spoil the song for a bunch of people, and neither is an association with HP doing it that much of a disservice, because it wasn’t that good in the first place. A victimless musical crime, in other words.
Three, an old and rather uninspiring debate here but it should be broached: like Shrek before it with People Ain’t No Good and some Tom Waits stuff, HP has the potential to introduce the work of Nick Cave to a whole new audience – something it’d be vulgar to criticise, however vulgar the new audience. There’s a load of Nick Cave-related chatter on various Potter messageboards, which is a remarkable thing. Here’s a graph of the extra views that some Italian dude’s blog, featuring a translation of O Children’s lyrics, has got in the past week or so:
Pretty telling, especially insofar as it suggests Potterheads are actually giving enough of a shit about this MYSTERIOUS SONG to work out what it's saying, as well as what it's accompanying – which is great.
Four, some girl I met at a festival told me that her favourite song for accompanying the act of physical intimacy is the Bad Seeds’ bouncing, scary-fairground cover of Tom Jones' Sleeping Annaleah. It’s not unlikely she was taking the piss but if not, heavens above! It seems making statements about what is and what isn't an appropriate use for a Nick Cave song is the proverbial fool's game. So I'll give it a rest.