Towards the end of 2003, I got involved in a few arguments with normally-sane people regarding Beyonce Knowles' "Crazy In Love". Universally acclaimed as the single of the year by the full spectrum of publications, it's a turgid joyless plod of a song showcasing much of the bling-focused worst of modern chart pop. (And that's not the voice of some indie guitar snob - Outkast's "Hey Ya", almost as widely praised in the annual round-ups, is a glittering jewel of pure pop genius.)

You've heard everything "Crazy In Love" has to offer in its first 20 seconds, after which it just loops its one semi-good idea (overlaying that ascending horn sting on a heavy floor-thud monobeat to inject a glimmer of human emotion into a machine-built generic dance number) over and over until it reaches the prescribed length and the studio engineers can go home. It's hard to imagine anything more cynically workmanlike - unless it's the tits-and-arse video, of course - or anything less deserving of having the word "joy" applied to it. So rather than just keep shouting at everyone about how wrong (and also stupid and fat) they were, I figured "Why not illustrate the point with a song about really being crazy in love, and show exactly how far short of the mark 'Crazy In Love' falls?"

Billy Ocean's "Red Light Spells Danger" is one of the most extraordinary pop records ever created. It's actually the dark twin of "Hey Ya", the polar opposite of that song's (on the surface) beaming, disarming paean to casual sex ("Don't want to meet your momma / Just want to make you come-a... I'm just being honest") in its startling depiction of the absolutely terrifying, all-consuming power of true love. It's the sound of a man dipping his toes into a gentle country stream for a quick paddle and being suddenly swept out into the Pacific Ocean, finding himself overwhelmed and drowning a thousand miles from land. The words are a desperate, urgent plea for rescue to an observer who's powerless to help, an SS Carpathian that's never going to reach the location of the disaster in time. All we can do is watch in horror as the scene unfolds.

It's recommended that the listener play the song as loudly as local
environmental regulations will allow while reading the following.

Red light spells danger
Can't hold out much longer
'Cos red light means warning
Can't hold out, I'm burning






Unusually, the song actually starts off with the chorus. The backing singers, without Billy, preview it in a low whisper over the bare bones of the song's pulsing three-note bass beat and simple keyboard chord signature. Even here, the tone of the lyrics and music seem to carry a dark portent - something terrible's about to happen, a great force is coming and the barricades are about to give way. Though they're singing the words in the first person, you can sense that the backing band are mere narrators, like the family of a man about to be executed watching helplessly through the bulletproof glass.


No, no, no...




Billy himself doesn't appear until the last moment of the intro, giving us a glimpse into his state of mind as the song proper seems to start almost against his will, as if he knows what's coming but is powerless to prevent it. After the "No, no, no..." he seems to get a grip of himself and enters the heart of the song.


You took my heart and turned me on
And now the danger sign is on
Never thought the day would come
When I would feel alone without you


Fear only just under control, voice trembling only slightly, Billy starts to explain to us how we've come to this position, what innocent beginnings led us to this sorry state of affairs. He was just looking for fun, that's all. Nothing serious.


And now I'm like a child again
Calling out his momma's name
You got me on a ball and chain
Doing things that I don't wanna



But like a heroin junkie who sees too late when he's crossed the line from recreation to dependency, the realisation dawns that the master has become the slave, that it's now the addiction that's dictating the actions. In that moment, the balance of power has changed forever.


I can't stop running to you
Feel love coming through you
Girl, with you beside me
Hold on, Heaven guide me



As the fact hits home and the music swoops upwards, Billy's fragile nerve cracks. Stammering out his predicament to the cause of his pain, the tension builds to a peak and we hit the full power of the chorus previewed to us a minute earlier.


Red light spells danger
Can't hold out much longer
'Cos red light means warning
Can't hold out, I'm burning






Now the earlier skeleton of the chorus is fleshed out, with Billy's anguish overlaid on the impassive backing, babbling broken fragments over and over like a desperate mantra in the gaps between the lines, as if somehow repeating the warnings will get him back to safety. It's just a brief outburst, though, and somewhere Billy finds the strength to bring the song back under control, because he hasn't finished telling the story yet. If he's going to save others from suffering his fate, there's more explaining to do. The backing singers buy Billy some time to recover his breath, and battling a last-minute surge of panic, we move on.


I had my fun, I played around
Without a love to tie me down
I always used to kiss and run
I never wanted love to catch me




In the song's second and final act, Billy urgently explains to the listener that he was once like us. He makes it clear that he was no reckless fool who wasn't aware of the risks, that he knew there was a danger, that love was out there waiting to pounce on his carefree soul like a patient leopard in the long grass of the hot savannah. But he could handle it. He knew when to kiss and when to run. He was the hunter, not the hunted.


I thought I had a heart of stone
But now I'm in the danger zone
I can feel the heat is on
Soon the flames are gonna catch me


But when you're hunting, it only takes a momentary lapse of concentration for the tables to turn. Suddenly you've blundered into a clearing, your cover is gone and hungry eyes are upon you. There's a brief moment of clarity and calm as your inescapable destiny becomes apparent. There's no way back. It's only a matter of time. You're a dead man walking.

I can't stop running to you
Feel love coming through you
Girl, with you beside me
Hold on, Heaven guide me!






"Red Light Spells Danger" (c) Les Charles, Ben Findon 1977, publ. EMI

The necessary information imparted, Billy's composure begins its final collapse. Facing up to his terrible situation, he underlines for us one last time what brought him to this deadly predicament before abandoning himself to his fate and the mercy of God. Compared to the previous verse, this time the entreaty of "Heaven guide me!" is on the edge of hysteria, and after it he plunges right over that edge. As the backing singers launch into their last rites of chorus, Billy gradually surrenders all control, hollering and begging and imploring the listener for help that he knows isn't going to come. We have to turn away before the end.

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