As Britain’s inner cities burst into flames in the middle of 1981, Coventry ska miscreants The Specials captured the mood of the country with the ominous sound of one 45 which turned out to be their swan song. An ’80s summertime special and a half, this is Ghost Town.
“Can’t go on no more… people getting angry” the lyrics despair. You could be forgiven for thinking we were describing the shameful state of the planet right here, right now, but no, it’s not 2021, or even the England Riots of 2011 but 1981. Some things never change.
One of the most notorious British summers of modern times kicked off in incendiary fashion that July. The summer of Antmania, Toyah, the Top Of The Pops revamp, rise of synthpop, New Romantic fashion and Brideshead Revisted was also marred by social unrest in many of the country’s major cities. And all this while millions at home and abroad tuned in to watch a royal wedding being played out from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral when Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, the Prince of Wales who, through monarchial malevolence “in the right of The Crown”, owns a considerable swathe of land that historically belonged to my family. I believe they call it stealing.
If you lived in the inner city pressure of one of Britain’s urban areas, you had, as the title of UB40’s song, a one in ten chance of being on the dole. Two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected, the Conservatives’ aggressive economic policy of increasing interest rates and taxes reduced inflation, but had a negative impact on the man on the street.
No less than a million people became newly unemployed in Britain between 1980 and 1981, taking the total number of those looking for someone to “gis’ a job” past a staggering 2.5 million for the first time, many of the disenfranchised immigrants and those from the African-Caribbean community. Not only their odds of landing a job were slim, but racial tensions and discriminatory police tactics threw them into a violent spiral out on the streets.
It hardly helped that many felt they were being dictated to by a government that lacked empathy or understanding. Even before she entered Downing Street, in 1978 Thatcher commented about immigration in an interview for Granada TV, despite being cautioned by her advisors not to.
“People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in”.
In April of 1981, things came to a head in Brixton in south London, birthplace of Clive Dunn, David Bowie and Sharon Osbourne among many others. After the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp (named after Thatcher’s phrase, disgustingly) ostensibly to “reduce crime”, violence erupted in the form of turned police cars and fires that lasted a few days and ended with 280 police officers injured and hundreds arrested.
That was only the beginning.
Just days after my 12th birthday, rioting reconvened in July and on the 8th daily disturbances spread to other London suburbs and over 20 cities across the UK, including Liverpool, Bristol, and many other urban conurbations.
What is now known as the 1981 Summer of Riots came to symbolise the disillusion of British youth with anything that smelled like authority. It also had a soundtrack in a perfectly timed and appropriately named single by The Specials at their creative peak – Ghost Town.
The lyrics and mantra-like chanting of those damning two words “ghost town” perfectly captured in real-time the essence of the times and the overall mood that descended across the country.
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry
No better band was positioned to epitomise these trying times in a single song. With a mix of black and white members, The Specials encapsulated Britain’s burgeoning multiculturalism. They were an integrated and socially-conscious group with deep respect and knowledge of ska, the music style that originated in 1950s Jamaica, a precursor to reggae. But ska alone was too tame a style for that moment in history.
The Specials blended in just the right ingredient with their nonchalant punk attitude, a style that came to be known as two-tone, which, as 2 Tone, just happened to be the name of the record label formed by band founder, keyboard player and main composer Jerry Dammers. 2 Tone skyrocketed between 1979 and 1981 with The Specials contributing more than their fair share of hits such as Gangsters, Too Much Too Young and A Message To You, Rudy.
Ghost Town is simultaneously The Specials’ creative peak and their last shining moment. During the recording the song the band was imploding. Problems started surfacing during atour of the US in 1980 supporting The Police. Money and the old cliché of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll had a corrupting effect on the lads who up to that point travelled up and down the UK in a beat-up van and were united by a single purpose of getting the music out there.
Matters hardly improved when it became clear during the work on the second album that Jerry Dammers wanted a change in direction while the rest of the band were happy to continue with the rough punk-ska style that they excelled at. Ghost Town is a result of the music experimentation that Dammers kept pushing the band towards. Alas, it would ultimately turn out to be the band’s swan song.
At first glance, the unusual, disjointed arrangement of Ghost Town makes it an unlikely chart topper. The extensive use of the diminished chord at the beginning of the song and before the line “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” plus the foreboding sound of those woozy, lurching organ chords followed by haunted, spectral woodwind punctuated by blaring brass. It was not exactly the usual fare for your typical Radio 1 listener, put it that way.
Then again maybe that was exactly what was needed during that summer of ’81. Influenced by Joe Meek’s electronic experiments on The Tornados’ 1962 hit Telstar, producer John Collins made use of the windy sound effects that announce the track, played on Transcendent 2000 synthesizer beloved of Joy Division and Thomas Dolby.
It was all set to deeply unsettling, doom-laden music: a loping reggae beat topped with eerie, jazz chords, stabbing horns influenced by James Bond soundtrack composer John Barry.
Making Ghost Town even more unusual is the clarinet-like synth part played by Jerry Dammers on a Yamaha keyboard, a vaguely middle-eastern riff that at first seems incongruous yet somehow combined with the doom-laden bass and the portentous, nightmarish vocal chant makes the sum of its parts an irresistible combination. For aficionados the full length 12″ version includes a beautiful trombone solo by Rico Rodriguez and additional Hammond organ parts, both omitted from the single edit.
At this juncture it’s easy to take Ghost Town out of context and remember it as some sort of a semi-novelty hit, especially with that almost comical Tarzan-meets-pack-of-hyanas wailing in what passes for a chorus. But with the depressed social situation of 1981 as its backdrop the utter bleakness of the record is stark and startling.
And it follows that in Ghost Town’s promotional video — aired on the 18 June episode of Top Of The Pops as a new entry at No.21 — the Coventry crew cram into a 20-year old Vauxhall Cresta and cruise some of the three “Ds” of London: the derelict, the dilapidated and the deserted corners of the capital; once industrial now gentrified locales that are probably worth an absolute fortune now.
The band marked the song’s performance debut in the Top Of The Pops studio two weeks later, on 2 July. It was a suitably downbeat episode with only Bad Manners, the more lighthearted side of the ska revival coin, in camp carnival mode doing the Can Can in a dress to counteract the doom and gloom. Ghost Town had zipped up to No.2 and was on its way to the top, although “Smiling” Terry Hall’s decision to amble around the stage supported by a walking cane remains baffling. “The nation is sick”, perhaps? No doubt it was a statement of some kind he wasn’t spelling out. Either way, The Specials were in no mood to celebrate — the band was imploding, and matters would come to a head the following week.
Just days later, on Tuesday 7 July, Ghost Town went to No.1 in the singles chart, a matter of hours after police used CS gas on rioters in Toxeth that sparked nine solid days of rioting in the deprived Liverpool neighbourhood. They had, irony of ironies, deposed an old song by a black artist at the top, Michael Jackson’s syrupy One Day In Your Life.
Following the chart countup from 10 to 2, he pauses for a brief interview with Adam Ant, the dandy highwayman in, let’s be honest, a see-through shirt. The insect warrior confirms that he “might have” seen the first TOTP before introducing the No.1-crowning performance of The Specials. The band are all together in the studio for the very last time, having just acrimoniously broken up in the dressing room when Hall, Staples and Golding announced they were leaving the band.
Whether this happened before or after the show is unclear, but for once even Terry Hall is having trouble keeping a straight face which suggests that the deed has already been done and a weight has been lifted off the collective shoulders of those who would soon splinter into the Fun Boy Three and the Special AKA. There have been reformations and recriminations of varying degrees of seriousness since but Ghost Town remains the last time Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall worked together, before the lunatics took over the asylum, you might say.
That in 2020 The Guardian voted Ghost Town the second greatest UK No.1 ever tells you all you need to know. Too much fighting on the dance floor? Well, it was pipped by the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls after all.