IT'S HARD to believe that Jamaican ska, virtually extinct for over a decade and never very popular outside Jamaica, should suddenly be resurrected by a clique of trend-setting Britishers.
Jamaican musicians, originally inspired by the R&B sound of New Orleans, adapted it to their own familiar calypso rhythms and created a horn-based rhythmic pattern ("bloom-ska, boom-ska" ) with an accent on the upbeat (as opposed to R&B's downbeat). Ska, reggae and other styles are built on this foundation.
But the English revivalists, far from Jamaica, can only approximate the sound: They confuse style with substance. Madness' second album, "Absolutely" (Sire SRK 6094), and the Specials' follow-up, "More Specials" (Chrysalis CHR 1303), are prime examples -- concerned with rude-boy fashion that they never become absorbed in the musical rudiments of the genre they're reviving.
In '78, before the instant-ska craze, an English group called Police (appearing at the Warner this Wednesday) smoothly combined reggae and pop ("So Lonely," Roxanne"), and this early marriage shows no sign of failing. On their third album, "Zenyatta Mondatta" (A&M SP-4831), the Police prove that, unlike other English bands toying with Jamaican music, they're quite comfortable with the hybrid formula. Unfortunately, they have nothing to say.
The Police's synthesized rock merely redirects the political slam of authentic raggae toward a stoned sensibility. When the band tries (as on the anti-militaristic "Bombs Away" or the pro-proleterian "Canary in a Coalmine"), they tend to trivialize any coherent statement with loony vocals, banal guitar showmanship and unauthentic sound effects. The title of one song especially reveals the laid-back attitude -- "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around."
"Man in a Suitcase" and "Don't Stand So Close To Me" are well-constructed hits, "Driven To Tears" has the driving force of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac; and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da Da" is as silly and sleek as an ABBA candygram. Nevertheless, these songs are abrasive by their very charm. Only on "Voices Inside My Head" does the bank let loose -- Andy Summers' guitar riff kicking up a ruckus, Sting's bass hitting below the belt and Steward Copeland's drumming forcing the fervor into a corner. The most appealing and hypnotic cut on the album, it's practically an instrumental. Perhaps the Police should abandon reggae and learn surf music.
Like the Police, Englishman Joe Jackson was infatuated with the sharp edge of raggae's beat before it became so fashionable. Jackson is a consummate craftsman, a hardworking joe with a good head on his shoulders, and he has plenty to say -- but he lacks any real artistic vision. On his third and best album, "Beat Crazy" (A&M SP-4837), Jackson remains open to anything, but self-deprecation defeats him ("Why did we try?" he asks on the sleeves' notes).
Containing elements of dub (in which vocals are laid over a rhythm track) and other reggae forms, the album seems thrown together, more a creative product of assimilation than an inspired act of affection. The one exception is the title cut. Opening with a screech ("What do you want . . . blood?"), it's a hysterical counterattack against the new-wave audience that launched the careers of punk clones like Jackson only to ignore them when corporate success reared its greedy head.
To give him credit, Jackson is not a performer without principles. Too frequently he indulges in pure schmaltz ("One To One" on this album) -- but unlike Billy Joel, one gets the feeling that Jackson's sentimentality is sincere, not a calculated attempt to sell his heart for platinum.
Although it's difficult to tell whether he's a reactionary or a revolutionary, Jackson does care deeply about his society. This concern is usually articulated through vignettes (the paranoid seeking revenge via voodoo on "The Evil Eye") or through scathing lampoons of social issues (sexism on "Biology," cultural homogeneity on "Pretty Boys"). All this nobility, though, can get out of hand, and on "Battleground," it does just that. Here Jackson sets himself up as a spokesman for racial harmony, and the results are downright offensive.
Oddly enough, that song is dedicated to the poet laureate of reggae, Linton Kwesi Johnson, a native Jamaican now living in England. The Police and Joe Jackson should pay to hold his hat.
Johnson's new work, "Bass Culture" (Mango 9605), albeit not as forceful as last year's "Forces of Victory" (Nango 9566), still boils with chilling images of reality. Johnson's voice, never hoarse or strangled, seems soothingly to mimic the cadences of a minister resting on his pulpit and conversing with his congregation. The dup-like quality of the beat enhances Johnson's monotone, isolating his words into profound perceptions.
"Inglan Is a Bitch" and "Di Black Petty Booshwah" are stirring in their political convictions, but the album's most moving poetry is found on "Reggae Sounds," where Johnson describes the basic component of Jamaican music: "Rhythm of a tropical electrical storm cooled down to the bass of the struggle." Joe Jackson, the Police and the ska revivalists simply do not understand what the struggle implies.