Yes, of course they can: UB40, Madness, the Specials, Massive Attack, Costello, the Clash etc. Not a roll-call that can be augmented without some memory work, but a respectable enough showing. But was that the right question? Britain has a history of cross-fertilisation with Caribbean music, from Calypso onwards, so perhaps one has to be, if not West Indian, then British to get that roots sound. On the face of it, a stronger proposition – for which supportive evidence may be found in the laboured plod of Carly Simon’s Why or the clunky embarrassment that is Steely Dan’s Haitian Divorce; Blondie’s The Tide is High, say, or the anaemic Euro-froth of Ace of Bass; even the sainted Stevie Wonder’s Marley tribute, Jamming, is – let’s face it – a bit of a turkey.
But this argument too falls apart in considering the horrors perpetrated by certain Brits who should know better: McCartney’s C-Moon, or middle eight of Live and Let Die; Elton’s coda from Lucy in the Sky; the Police’s Regatta da Blanc in its entirety. The Stones’ take on Cherry Oh Baby. (And don’t get me started on 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday…)
No, methinks the problem lies with ‘serious’ rock acts – ‘proper’ musicians or session men etc. who never actually listen to reggae, know eff-all about it, but mistakenly regard the form as ‘simple’, and whose own efforts are accordingly crass and simplistic. Like the upturned noses of symphony musicians playing a nursery rhyme: ‘rockists’ think that all you gotta do is make a collective noise that goes approximately ‘boom-chukka-boom-chukka-boom’. The result is overwrought and top-heavy: clank-bang-thud drumming, over-busy bass and ‘clever’ guitar licks (think Andy whatsittwat in the Police). Even the mighty Led Zep on D’ya Make Her – whether in tribute or piss-take – fall into the usual traps; Bonzo’s gonzoid, frontloaded drum-work plus Page’s unsubtle guitar move with the nuance and grace of a twenty-foot robot in chains.
Listen, you twerps, the first rule of parody or pastiche is to at least be able to perform the mimicked art-form at a level comparable with the original. Try locking yourselves in a cellar for a week with a pound of ganja, with Toots and the Maytals or Sly ‘n’ Robbie on the ghetto-blaster and rejoice in the subtlety and space that gives great reggae its irresistible je ne sais croisant: the cymbal-driven percussion with snares and toms used sparingly and judiciously, the ‘less-is-more’ bass lines, always minimal yet infectious…
Oh yeah, and attend to the lyrics. Which of the following sixteen-bar stanzas would you say is the best pop formulation:
(a) Babs and clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher’s face turned red
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night… (Steely Dan)
(b) One Love, One Heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (One Love)
Hear the children crying (One Heart)
Sayin’ give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right (Bob Marley)
(c) Wonderful world, beautiful people.
You and your girl, things could be pretty.
But underneath this there is a secret.
That nobody can repeat. (Jimmy Cliff)
From a silent reading, you might reasonably answer (a): it is economical, interesting, sketches a narrative, Tom Waits-style (and there is no higher praise). But as a reggae tune it sucks, with its four-square rhythm that defies syncopation, its mannered cleverness, its lack of emotional presence. Your body and soul can’t groove to the thing if the lyrics themselves don’t dance.
By contrast, (b) and (c) are both reggae masterpieces – at least as ‘pop’ records go – whatever you feel about their yucky sentiments; they connect physically and emotionally.
And if you need further explanation, I’ve probably been wasting my time.