U2 has never been shy about exploring genres other than rock. From the pseudo-rap of “Numb” to the club inspired music of “Mofo,” our boys are determined to break down barriers wherever they find them, and musical classifications are no exception. That brings us to what I consider to be the band’s first experiment with a genre outside of rock ‘n’ roll. While it is true that even at their most embryonic, U2 subtly changed categories from album to album–from the post-punk of Boy and October to a slightly harder-edge on War, the first time U2 tried something wholly different also came on the War album. I was just listening to War, and one track in particular struck me amidst that solid wall of rock as being influenced by rhythm and blues. I’m talking about “Red Light,” with guest artists Kid Creole and his Coconuts.
Now, before I go any further, I should state that the Coconuts were not an R&B group. They worked more in Latino flavored disco, but the addition of the female backing vocal in a song that contains sparse instrumentation other than Adam’s funky bass during the verses, and even some trumpet that comes later in the tune gives a whole new texture to the piece, elevating it from what would be a perfectly passable and enjoyable rock song to something a wee bit different and experimental for the young band. Of course, years later, U2 would dive full-body into the pool of R&B with songs like “A Man and A Woman,” instead of just sticking their toe in like they do on this effort.
Lyrically “Red Light” is a fairly uncomplicated love song. I don’t even think that it was overly inspired by Bono’s relationship with his muse, Ali, but I could be wrong about that. “Red Light” seems to be about a woman who needs saving, mostly from herself, and the man who wants to save her. When I say it like that, it sounds a bit juvenile, and not up to what we have come to expect from our favorite band. Maybe it is not as good as lyrics that would come later, but it’s still as good as or better than most of what you might catch on the radio. Someone thought highly enough of the song that it was included as a B-side on the Japanese single to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
“Red Light” has never been performed live by U2, not even as a snippet. Certainly, fans aren’t clamoring for it like they were for “Acrobat,” or even like they still do for “Drowning Man,” but I wouldn’t mind seeing U2 unearthing this buried gem. U2 fans seem to sometimes get caught up in expecting soul-inspiring, Earth-shaking thoughts and ideas from every song, and, consequently to discard songs that don’t live up to that standard. I say that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional song that does nothing but simply entertain. Certainly, we all know that U2 is capable of so much more than merely entertaining us, but I don’t feel that they need to prove it with every song that they perform. A whole concert of songs like “Red Light” wouldn’t be a good idea, but I definitely wouldn’t object to hearing it once or twice, just to mix up the set-list, which is something that we all like to see, I believe.
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