Jan 09

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”

FT + Popular115 comments • 10,982 views

#482, 11th July 1981

When Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews picked “Ghost Town” for an unforgettable appearance in Father Ted, they apparently wanted the worst record imaginable to play at a disco. But there’s actually a lot of dancing in the song, which knots its competing jostle of ideas together with an incisive – and wholly struttable – mid-tempo groove. The reason you wouldn’t dance to “Ghost Town” is that the floor’s already full – of fighting, but also of spectres. The record is full of crescendos and horn vamps that beckon you to dance and then break off, plunging the song back into shadow. And when the dance does kick off you’d rather not be part of it – those horrible shrieking backing vocals are the sound of a danse macabre, a skeleton skank conducted by the sleeve’s bony pianist.

In the astonishing video these hellbound howls soundtrack a car crammed with Specials swerving and banking chaotically through a deserted, apocalyptic London. The car isn’t out of control, its driver spins the wheel with determined abandon, its lunatic progress catching the sense of awful, mocking liberation in those vocals.

The video also illuminates the song’s other great moment of malevolent jauntiness, Terry Hall’s brief reverie of the “Boom Town”. Hearing the track, you could almost mistake his doleful delivery for sincere regret, but when you see him sing it – head tilted, corpselit and simpering – it sounds rotten, as haunted and corrupted as anything else in the Ghost Town. What makes this single so amazing is the way its emotional tenor is constantly shifting and reshaping, evoking horror and collapse so well but also making them sound darkly attractive: the shiver that runs down the spine on “People gettin’ angry” is a thrill of anticipation as well as fear.

All of which is to say that even if the grim energy of “Ghost Town” hadn’t fitted the times so well, even if the song had remained simply a lament for a scene (and a band) in breakdown, it would still be a gothic masterpiece. The near-coincidence that made “Ghost Town” a legend – British cities erupting in riot while this sat at Number 1 – shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is an astonishing achievement anyway. It’s the culmination of Jerry Dammers’ obsession with easy listening and program music, the perfect patchwork of those influences and the Specials’ tight ska roots, the sound of a group getting it stunningly right (and promptly imploding: “Ghost Town” is as unfollowable as “Good Vibrations”). From the dust-laden fade-in to the faltering heartbeat drums on the fade, there’s not one single element in this song that doesn’t work beautifully.



1 2 3 4 All
  1. 91
    thefatgit on 6 Apr 2010 #

    That summer of 81, I felt strangely conflicted. I was approaching my 15th birthday. My mum and I visiting my gandparents in Southampton. The same weekend, the riots flared up all over. I felt detatched from all that anger, like I was in a bubble, yet at the same time, angry with everything. School wasn’t going at all well. Many times I was being lectured by my parents that I was “throwing away the best years of my life”. What the fuck did that mean? I was to find out later, but at the time everything seemed pointless. “Ghost Town” suted my mood perfectly. Even the brightest sunlight seemed washed out. I sensed decay in everything. Only the music could keep me engaged, as I spun all kinds of stuff endlessly. “Ghost Town”, however had that theatrically macabre feel about it, the “people gettin’ angry” growl that sunk deep into my skin. The horns that beckoned only to find bleak wasteland where the carnival should be. Spine-chilling.

    Back to Southampton, and the whole family had gone out for a meal in Town. A restaurant that belonged to some family friends was where we ate. I had steak iirc. That night, I had my first irish coffee. The evening had been fun, but the taxi ride home, we saw 70 or more rioters at the far end of the street we were supposed to go down. The taxi driver turned down a side street and took the road that ran parallel. We heard the sirens and the shouting. I caught glimpses of the riot in progress, as we passed 3 connecting side streets… cars got set fire to and people were running. The glimpses fuelled my imagination. After the school holiday, I wrote a composition, where all the youth of the nation had risen up to crush the establishment, and nothing worked properly and people began to starve. I called it “Ghost Town”.

  2. 92
    punctum on 27 Apr 2010 #

    Did anybody see this last week?

  3. 93
    Mark M on 27 Apr 2010 #

    Re 92, yep, enjoyed that. Dammers looks a right state, though.

  4. 94
    Billy Smart on 28 Apr 2010 #

    The voice of 2010 Jerry Damners can also be heard in this modest topical homage; http://www.youtube.com/user/teambeswickandpye

  5. 95
    Steve Mannion on 17 Jun 2011 #

    Seeing as it’s been a TTTT (top ten twitter trend) for much of today, bump.


  6. 96
    swanstep on 18 Jun 2011 #

    What an astounding record this is. Tom’s wonderful essay on Wuthering Heights ended by describing Bush as a kind of ghost pressed against the window of pop music urging everyone inside to be extraordinary. GT too feels like that kind of ghost: popsters, find something you really want to say, have no choice but to say; develop your chops so that you can musically embody that message perfectly when the moment comes; with luck, someone will hear you…

    Ghost Town peaked at #20 in New Zealand but did spend 13 weeks in the charts. The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela – not quite GT but v.v. good – had 3 weeks at #1 in 1984.

  7. 97
    lonepilgrim on 9 Apr 2013 #

    this seems an appropriate place to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher – sadly I suspect that her ghost will continue to haunt us for a while to come

  8. 98
    Cumbrian on 9 Apr 2013 #

    There’s a chance we will get another opportunity to discuss her in the distant future, should something be forced to #1 this week in response to her death; assuming Tom is still doing it, of course.

  9. 99
    Auntie Beryl on 9 Apr 2013 #

    Something commemorative has risen to number 5 on iTunes this afternoon, but isn’t complimentary.

  10. 100
    Lazarus on 9 Apr 2013 #

    #97 I wasn’t sure whether to post something here, or on ‘the Chicken Song’ or even ‘Two Little boys.’ Would be good to see ‘Shipbuilding’ back as well. Anyone familiar with Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down?’

  11. 101
    Auntie Beryl on 9 Apr 2013 #

    #100 That’s currently number 82…

  12. 102
    mintness on 20 Apr 2013 #

    Remarkable song, of course, but I have to limit my score to a 9 for the simple (if irrational) reason that the transition from the “boom town” section back into the main riff reminds me of nothing other than neil’s “Hole In My Shoe”.

    “…and everyone was having a really good time! Except me…”

  13. 103
    hectorthebat on 11 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 930
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 50
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA)- The Songs That Shaped Rock (Additions 2011)
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 190
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 1098
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 54
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 489
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    John Peel (UK) – Peelenium: Four Tracks from Each Year of the Last Century (1999)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 61
    Mojo (UK) – The 50 Greatest British Tracks Ever (2006)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of NME’s Lifetime (2012) 8
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 5
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 21
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 53
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 32
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 461
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 10
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Q (UK) – Top 20 Singles from 1980-2004 (2004) 6
    Sean O’Hagan, The Observer (UK) – Fifty Years of Pop (2004)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 17
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Uncut (UK) – 100 Rock and Movie Icons (2005) 49
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 26
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 23
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 41
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 403
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 124
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Volume (France) – 200 Records that Changed the World, 2008 (38 songs)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 123
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year
    Melody Maker (UK) – Single of the Year 1
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 1
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 1

    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year

  14. 104
    swanstep on 11 Oct 2014 #

    @Hectorthebat. Wow, that must be one of the longest Critic Watch entries ever. A truly celebrated record.

  15. 105
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Oct 2014 #

    Is it an exhaustive list, I wonder? Are there any publications who passed on the record (that Hector considers of note)?

  16. 106
    hectorthebat on 12 Oct 2014 #

    Plenty – there are very few US lists – Village Voice didn’t even include it in their list of best singles of the year, Blender didn’t include it in their list of best songs since the 80s, and nothing from Rolling Stone, etc.

  17. 107
    mapman132 on 16 Oct 2014 #

    There’s certain songs highly praised on this website that it seems “you had to be there” to fully appreciate. But this isn’t one of them. Even though I was an 8-year-old with no knowledge of this song or the civil unrest across the ocean in 1981, it still strongly evokes in me the emotions of urban decay and hopelessness to the point where listening to it and watching the video feels like I was there after all. It could just as easily soundtrack a drive through the ruins of Detroit, an exploration of an abandoned shopping center, or even a sad look at the rubble of my former elementary school. Definitely agree with the 10’s given out here. Too bad it wasn’t a hit in America.

  18. 108
    Inanimate Carbon God on 25 Jan 2015 #

    It was around this time that new wave monster 8675-309 (Jenny) was released, Tommy Tutone (not very 2-Tone musically and sartorially) had one of those quite rare “glorious hits every American of a certain age will know [and in this case prank call the aforementioned number] but didn’t even chart in the UK.”

    I’m tempted to check out their other work, but I fear, for the same reasons I don’t know any, say, Boston beyond More than a Feeling, it’ll be a case of “this hit’s a 10/10 but everything else they ever recorded was dreadful AOR bollox.”

  19. 109
    andy606 on 6 Jun 2015 #

    Great website – and pleased to see ‘Ghost Town’ gains a 10. Just compiling my own top 100 music memories. Love the reggae beat, the instrumental work and the vocals in this single.

  20. 110

    rip rico rodriguez :(

  21. 111
    Tommy Mack on 5 Sep 2015 #

    Oh, that is very sad. I met him on the street by chance in Kensington about 13 years ago. He was carrying his trombone case and I thought ‘that looks like Rico Rodriguez’, then I noticed his name on a tag inside his coat which he was carrying over his arm. Seemed like a very nice man, a sad loss.

    Might put on Jazz Jamaica now, something a bit cheerier than The Specials!

  22. 112
    John R on 29 Jul 2016 #

    Best song ever, strangest an all.

  23. 113
    Saira Solanki on 9 Apr 2021 #

    An exquisite song, capturing the zeitgeist of 80s Britain. 9/10

  24. 114
    Gareth Parker on 23 May 2021 #

    Supremely atmospheric social commentary from the Coventry based 2-toners. 8/10 in my view.

  25. 115
    ForChew on 31 May 2021 #


1 2 3 4 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page