SOMETHING FUNNY happens to pop music as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The social context of the music gets left behind like untagged luggage, and the songs arrive empty-handed. When young musicians try to imitate the foreign songs, they usually get it wrong and come up with something wonderfully new.

The most famous example occurred when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones heard American rhythm & blues without the context of American segregation. The young Englishmen heard only the joyful lust of the songs and translated it into a universal adolescent setting. A similarly fruitful misreading occurred when the Sex Pistols and the Clash applied the Ramones' comic nihilism to the desperation of young Britons on the dole.

Well, it's happening again, in the opposite direction. North Carolina's dBs have taken the bright pop-rock of the Beatles and Kinks they listened to as kids and filled it with the corrosive irony of America in the '80s. Similarly, New Orleans' Red Rockers and Atlanta's Swimming Pool Q's have taken the earnest neo-folk-rock of U2, Big Country and the Alarm and filled it with nagging doubts.

If you ever want to build a devastating case against the American record industry, start with the dBs. This Winston-Salem quartet, transplanted to Manhattan, made two of the best albums of the present decade: 1980's "Stands for Decibels" and 1981's "Repercussion." They couldn't get any American record company to release them, though, and the discs only came out on a small British label, Albion.

You might assume from this history that the dBs were esoteric experimentalists, but in fact they were irresistible melody-makers who wrapped their three-minute pop songs in ringing harmonies. They even had a Lennon-McCartney team of songwriters in Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. Unfortunately, Stamey departed in the lean years without an American deal, and the dBs are now Holsapple's band.

That's why their first American album, "Like This" (Bearsville 25146-1), as good as it is, doesn't quite match the two imports. The alternating dialogue between Stamey and Holsapple is sorely missed. Nonetheless this is quite an impressive bit of work. Producer Chris Butler (founder and ex-leader of the Waitresses) gives the dBs' 1960s-pop-sound a harder, more modern edge. Holsapple serves up tasty melody hooks that could have come off a 1965 top-10 chart but matches them with knowing ironies that could only have come from 1984.

"Love Is for Lovers" sounds like a Buddy Holly tune played by the Cars -- who can argue this doesn't belong on the radio? Yet when Holsapple cries out, "Do you believe this is love?," it's not clear what the right answer is. "When I try to reach conclusions," he sings in "She's Got Soul," "my hands flip, my tongue trips." The unshakeable R&B chorus of that song is backed by soaring Yardbirds harmonies.

Holsapple plunders the riches of rock's past for bits and pieces that he assembles into very personal confessions of the frustrations of seeking elusive romance. "Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)" wraps fatalism in a wistful McCartneyesque sigh. "White Train" rides the rails of the Byrds' country-rock on Holsapple's imagined, unattainable ride to Paradise.

The dBs recorded "Like This" as a trio, but Gene Holder has moved to lead guitar and Rick Wagner has joined on bass for their live shows. They open for R.E.M. at George Washington University's Smith Center Wednesday.

The Swimming Pool Q's open for Lou Reed at Constitution Hall Monday. The Q's released their first album, 1981's "The Deep End," themselves. Their first major label album is "The Swimming Pool Q's" (A&M SP-5015). It is a spectacular coming-out; the Q's take the Celtic folk-rock anthems of U2 and Big Country and transform them into something peculiarly American. They recognize that the road to glory is a very long one, lined with cheap motels, rusted-out wrecks and construction detours.

"Some New Highway," taken from a Eudora Welty epigram, is launched with ringing folk-rock guitars. Anne Richmond Boston, sounding like a transplanted Annie Lennox, sings Jeff Calder's lyrics: "Birds soar in sweet asymmetry; these facts get old but they stay the facts." As the melody weaves its hypnotic spell, Boston warns that leaving town can't solve your problems. By the soaring climax, Boston is wailing the dream of a new highway while Calder counters with the realism of "I don't think there'll be a new road soon."

"The Bells Ring" is set in a rundown Trailways station; Boston sings of waiting for the bus to start, but she keeps hearing bells from the town she wants to leave. Bob Elsey's lyrical lead guitar makes those bells seem very haunting indeed. "Just Property" is a lament for a homeland lost to recession ("Windmills churn the tongueless dust.") "Celestion," by contrast, tells of the redemption of a "backwater town" by an act of love ("She takes my old world and makes it new").

Produced by former Beach Boys associate David Anderle, all 10 tunes on "The Swimming Pool Q's" boast strong melodies, echoing guitars and captivating male-female vocal harmonies that recall the Tourists and the early Jefferson Airplane. Though Calder's lyrics are sometimes indulgently esoteric, the best songs are an inspiring mix of verbal and musical imagery.

The Red Rockers' first album, 1981's "Condition Red," was leftist punk in the Clash vein. They made a sharp turn toward neo-folk-rock on "Good As Gold," which was one of last year's most underrated albums. They have refined that sound on this year's "Schizophrenic Circus" (Columbia/415 BFC 39281), produced by Rick Shertoff (who worked wonders for Cyndi Lauper). The first single is a remake of P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction," Barry McGuire's No. 1 hit of 1965. Played faster and harder, the Red Rockers' version updates and improves this warning of nuclear brinkmanship.

An even better apocalyptic song is "Shades of '45." The verses refer to Hiroshima; over echoing guitars, John Griffith cries out the anthemic chorus: "When I close my eyes, I see the restless skies painted shades of '45." A bagpipe solo overcharging drums and guitars adds just the right touch of melancholy danger.

The Red Rockers make a bow to their Louisiana roots by adding a spry cajun fiddle to "Blood From a Stone," a warning that you can only squeeze the poor so much. "Freedom Row" is a fast, rousing tribute to IRA hunger-strike martyr Thomas Reilley, the brother of the Red Rockers' drummer Jim Reilley who once played with Ireland's Stiff Little Fingers. Despite the political emphasis, the Red Rockers can also turn out a catchy, convincing love song, as "Just Like You" and "Good Thing I Know Her" prove.