The Specials: How Ghost Town defined an era

 

The Specials perform Ghost Town on Top Of The Pops in 1981

Ghost Town by the Specials is 30 years old. How did this strange but unforgettable record capture a moment in history?

It starts with a siren and those woozy, lurching organ chords. Then comes the haunted, spectral woodwind, punctuated by blaring brass.

Over a sparse reggae bass line, a West Indian vocal mutters warnings of urban decay, unemployment and violence.

"No job to be found in this country," one voice cries out. "The people getting angry," booms another, ominously.

'It still sounds good'

Jerry Dammers

Jerry Dammers, composer of Ghost Town

"I think it couldn't have happened without Sex Pistols and punk rock - the door was open for lyrics about reality, about real lives. Pop music was a completely different thing then.

"We were touring the country and we could see what was going on. I remember driving through Liverpool and seeing the shops all boarded up.

"As we drove into Glasgow, going to the gig I remember looking across to these flats. There were people setting up stalls on the street selling their things out of desperation, which I'd never seen before.

"But it wasn't just about that. There was a lot of resentment towards me in the group. I wanted the Specials to be a progressive, creative band but some of them wanted to keep doing the first album.

"So it's a combination of the personal and the universal.

"It still sounds good as a piece of music. It's not just about that time, it's about what human beings do to the world. It's still relevant today."

Few songs evoke their era like the Specials' classic Ghost Town, a depiction of social breakdown that provided the soundtrack to an explosion of civil unrest.

Released on 20 June 1981 against a backdrop of rising unemployment, its blend of melancholy, unease and menace took on an entirely new meaning when Britain's streets erupted into rioting almost three weeks later - the day before Ghost Town reached number one in the charts.

The song's much-celebrated video - in which the band, crammed into a Vauxhall Cresta, patrol empty, crumbling streets - seems unlikely promotional material for a hit single.

And whatever similarities might exist between the tough economic environments of 1981 and 2011, the fact this odd, angular song could become such a massive hit might be astonishing to modern ears.

But, clearly, it expressed the mood of the early days of Thatcher's Britain for many. "It was clear that something was very, very, wrong," the song's writer, Jerry Dammers, has said.

If the band's ability to articulate the mood of the era can be traced anywhere, it is surely in Coventry, where they were based. The city's car industry had brought prosperity and attracted incomers from across the UK and the Commonwealth, meaning the future Specials grew up in the 1960s listening to a mixture of British and American pop and Jamaican ska.

But by 1981, industrial decline had left the city suffering badly. Unemployment was among the highest in the UK.

Start Quote

John Bradbury

Your economy is destroyed and, to me, that's what Ghost Town is about”

End Quote John Bradbury The Specials

"When I think about Ghost Town I think about Coventry," says Specials drummer John Bradbury, who grew up in the city.

"I saw it develop from a boom town, my family doing very well, through to the collapse of the industry and the bottom falling out of family life. Your economy is destroyed and, to me, that's what Ghost Town is about."

With a mix of black and white members, The Specials, too, encapsulated Britain's burgeoning multiculturalism. The band's 2 Tone record label gave its name to a genre which fused ska, reggae and new wave and, in turn, inspired a crisply attired youth movement.

But, as a consequence, Specials gigs began to attract the hostile presence of groups like the National Front and the British Movement. When vocalist Neville Staple sighed wearily on Ghost Town that there was "too much fighting on the dance floor", he sang from personal experience.

The violence came even closer to home when guitarist Lynval Golding was badly hurt in a brutal racist attack - an incident documented in Ghost Town's bewildered B-side, Why?

As their popularity grew, the band's tours of the UK took them around a country shaken by rising joblessness. Dammers has cited the sight of elderly women in Glasgow selling their household possessions on the street as the song's inspiration.

From Ghost Town

This town is coming like a ghost town

All the clubs have been closed down

This place is coming like a ghost town

Bands won't play no more

Too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?

We danced and sang and the music played in the boom town

But it was not only economic hardship, industrial dereliction and racial unrest that imbued Ghost Town with paranoia and tension. By the time it was recorded, The Specials were riven by acrimony and distrust. Following their appearance on Top of the Pops to promote the single, frontmen Terry Hall and Neville Staple walked out of the group along with Golding.

"Ghost Town was a rough time for the band members," recalls Bradbury. "We were more or less at each other's throats. It was very intense. That definitely makes you play in a certain way."

While it may have sounded chaotic, the song had been carefully plotted by Dammers for over a year. Once it became public property, however, Ghost Town took on an entirely new meaning.

By mid-1981, the UK was already tense following April's riots in Brixton, which an official report later found were fuelled by indiscriminate use of stop-and-search powers by the police against the local black population. The murder of a Coventry teenager called Satnam Singh Gill in a racist attack prompted The Specials to announce a gig promoting racial unity in their city on the day of Ghost Town's release; the National Front announced a march in the area on the same day.

Brixton riot, 1981 The UK was shaken by rioting as Ghost Town climbed the charts

Then, as the single climbed up the charts, Britain's streets ignited. Between 3 and 11 July, serious rioting broke out across the country at Handsworth in Birmingham, Toxteth in Liverpool, Southall in London, and Moss Side in Manchester, while Bedford, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Halifax, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton and Wolverhampton all witnessed unrest.

By the evening of 10 July, Ghost Town was a number one single.

From a 21st Century perspective, the song's nightmarish chanting, portentous lyrics and doom-laden bass all sound remarkably avant garde for a hit song.

Start Quote

There's something frenzied and mad about that record”

End Quote Alexis Petridis The Guardian

But according to the Guardian's chief pop and rock critic, Alexis Petridis, the momentum of The Specials' growing fan base and the uneasy mood of the general music-buying public combined were enough to propel it to the summit of the charts.

"There's something frenzied and mad about that record," he says. "It has such a kaleidoscope of influences - jazz, (film score composer) John Barry, Middle Eastern music, a solid reggae undertone and stuff that sounds like nothing else.

"But you don't listen to Ghost Town and think it's weird. I was 11 when it was released and I don't remember going, 'What's this?' At the time there were a lot of political songs in the charts. But if a record like that got to number one today you'd go, 'Wow, that's bizarre.'"

Nonetheless, while it may describe a very specific moment in British history, Ghost Town's popularity has barely dimmed. A re-formed Specials, minus Dammers, are due to tour later in 2011, with the song as the centrepiece of their set.

The parallels between the Britain of 1981 and 2011 might be up for debate. But Les Back, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has studied the 2 Tone phenomenon, is not surprised that the track has endured, regardless of the political context.

"It sums up how it felt to be young at the time," he says. "But at the same time it's timelessly resonant.

"There are a handful of tunes that do that and Ghost Town is one of them."

 

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  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 89.

    A simple but carefully crafted pop song, which incorporates both hard hitting lyrics and differing musical influences. Crucially it keeps a strong rhythm which makes it very danceable. Specials were a striking, non-manufactured mix of: dance music, strong lyrics, street smart fashion, and muticulturalism. That they came 'from nothing' and became so popular is almost difficult to understand today.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 73.

    I remember buying this as a double vinyl single? I'm sure the sleeve opened up like a book. The picture on this inside cover had been taken from the video mentioned above. I wish I still had my original copy. I was into the whole Two-Tone thing, and I tried to live up to the idea of respecting other people's race and colour. I owned both Special AKA albums, and many other of the Two-Tone artists.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 56.

    Can we not celebrate how brilliant the Specials are without degenerating into this "music's not as good as it was when I were a lad" nonsense? Every generation finds it's own new music and the one before hates it. it just means you're old.

    I saw the Specials a couple of yeard ago at Bestival and they were excellent, must catch them on tour.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 48.

    I was still at school when Ghost Town came out and I remember a teacher saying, such was the way the country was going, at least some of us may never know what it was like to have a job. Ghost Town may not have defined an era but it did give voice to the hopelessness many of us felt on hearing her words. It also crossed musical divides. There was no one in my peer group who didn't love that song.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 39.

    I was at school, and I wasn't much of a Two-Tone fan but I loved Ghost Town. It was the incidental lyrics asking questions like "Why must the youth fight against themselves" which swung it for me as well as living in a town similar to Coventry.

    One of the best songs of the post-punk era.

 

Comments 5 of 9

 

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