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Nick Cave shares thoughts on ‘Delilah’ censorship row

The Welsh Rugby Union has asked fans to not to sing Tom Jones' murder ballad

By Joe Goggins

Nick Cave at Roskilde Festival, Denmark, 2018
(Photo: Henry W. Laurisch/Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Cave has shared his views on censorship as the row over Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ rumbles on.

In the latest edition of his The Red Hand Files email newsletter, in which he responds to queries from fans, he was asked by two of his followers what he made of the furore over Jones’ 1967 signature song, which has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Welsh Rugby Union asked that fans refrain from singing the track at the ongoing Six Nations tournament.

It had previously been a favourite of the Welsh faithful for decades, but had come under increasing scrutiny in recent years for its depiction of misogynistic violence. Both of the fans who asked Cave how he felt about the situation cited the fact that the Australian had previously released an entire album of similarly themed songs, the 1996 LP Murder Ballads.

In response, he began by making clear his disdain for ‘Delilah’. “I just went online and found a Welsh male choir singing their rendition of ‘Delilah’,” wrote Cave, “and I’m sorry to report that listening to this version of the song did make me feel like murdering someone, primarily the Welsh male choir. Or maybe it wasn’t the choir, but the song itself that disturbed me. I just don’t like it.” 

“I mean, I like Tom Jones,” Cave went on. “I sang a duet with him (‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ – a far superior murder ballad) at a charity event a few years ago, and I like his version of ‘Weeping Annaleah’ which the Bad Seeds recorded on our Kicking Against the Pricks album, and his blistering version of ‘Venus’ which was playing at a party during my first teenage kiss, and his almighty scream in the middle of the na-na-na-na bit at the end of The Beatles‘ song, ‘Hey Jude’ – all this is good stuff, but ‘Delilah’, despite the fact that it was awarded the Ivor Novello in 1968, just sort of sucks.”

Acknowledging the questioners’ reference to his own oeuvre of such tracks, Cave continued: As someone who knows a thing or two about murder ballads, for my taste, it’s all too waltzy and strident and hammy and mariachi and triumphant. And the words are ugly – “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.” Really? Most damning of all, even The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time, couldn’t do anything with it, although there is a wonderfully perverse attempt on the Old Grey Whistle Test. The inimitable Australian comic, Norman Gunston, lest we forget, also did a very funny parody of it back in the late seventies, which at the very least made you laugh.”  

“So, I don’t know, Tom, I can’t get too animated by the fact that ‘Delilah’ has been banned,” he concluded. “I understand there is a principle here, but on some level I like the fact that some songs are controversial enough to be outlawed. It fills me with a kind of professional pride to be a part of the sometimes contentious business of songwriting. It’s cool. I like it. I just wish it was a more worthy song to be awarded that greatest of honours, indeed that supreme privilege, of being banned.”

It is not the first time that Cave has used The Red Hand Files to wade in on the thorny issue of censorship; he has previously denounced the removal by the BBC of a homophobic slur from The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fairytale of New York’, calling it a “[mutilation of] an artefact of immense cultural value.”