16
Jan 09

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”

FT + Popular112 comments • 8,940 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.

10

Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Footnotes:

    – I think this was a likely 10 from the moment I conceived the project, but I still wonder if I’d have reacted differently to this song had Popular progressed at its intended pace and I’d got to it in, say, Summer 2006 rather than January 2009

    – The third track on the EP, “Friday Night Saturday Morning”, is of course as unsentimental an account of nightlife inna de Boom Town as you’re likely to meet.

  2. 2
    peter goodlaws on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Slightly over-egged, if I may say so, Tom, but yes, this is one of the highlights of the year, a wonderful production. Interesting comparison with Saint-Saens’ masterpiece. I’ll have to dwell on that one.

    The riots were indeed kicking off, Bristol first, I think. Waldo copped the whole nine yards from his high-rise vantage point overlooking Brixton, the poor fucker. Not too much rioting in Eastbourne, although I do remember a couple of guinea pigs being hurt.

  3. 3
    Erithian on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Er… what he said.

    There’s not a lot I can add to that Tom, and for once your idea of a 10 coincides with mine. Atmospheric, chilling, brilliant – one of my top ten number ones of all time. Swings like a good ‘un, but when the vocal kicks in you realise it’s swinging like the hanging corpse of the town they’re talking about. The video may have been shot in London, but Coventry was suffering historically high unemployment at the time and there must have been an echo of this.

    It brings back really inappropriate memories for me, of the beauties of the Cornish coast. Not to pre-empt Billy’s TOTP Watch, but “Ghost Town” was number one on the 900th edition of TOTP, which I watched in a pub in Tintagel before heading back to the youth hostel which nestled beside the south-west peninsula coastal footpath. I’d been visiting friends in southern Cornwall and was about to hitch back to Manchester the following day, but Britain’s ghost towns and riots were a world away from the onshore breeze and sea views this song brings back to mind.

    Back home my dad was stopping off at a petrol station in Moss Side, and realised with horror that he was the only customer at the station putting petrol in his car, as opposed to stocking up for the action to come later that night. Luckily my lift the following day took me as far as Bolton, so I re-entered Manchester from the north instead of the south, which was one big tinder-box that week.

  4. 4
    Conrad on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Wholly struttable indeed Tom.

    I once DJ’d a party a few years back in an old warehouse (I don’t often do this sort of thing) and “Ghost Town” was the biggest floor filler of the night. Absolutely unstoppable – I was quite taken aback.

    I was 14 the Summer this came out and in July (right in the middle of the Edgebaston Test dammit) went to France for a 2 week exchange. A wonderful experience and I have very fond memories of being in a car tearing down country lanes in Brittany on the way to a party, packed full of French teenagers yelling along to “Ghost Town”. They all absolutely loved it.

    It’s an incredibly powerful recording, for which “More Specials” and the Ice Rink Strings had prepared us, but this was Jerry Dammer’s finest hour (and Terry Hall’s too – his laconic delivery never better suited).

    I think Peel described it as the best song to make Number 1.

    10.

  5. 5
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Incidentally, I loved this at the time too, for the scary spoken bits and the video and the general vibe – I was quite a studious boy and watched the news a lot and was aware that this (and UB40’s “One In Ten” which TBH I probably liked more!) were Serious in a way that other pop wasn’t, so I was a bit in awe of it too.

  6. 6
    Lex on 16 Jan 2009 #

    The first time I heard of this song was when ILM did a “best UK No 1s ever” poll a few years back, and it was the only song in the top 10 I wasn’t familiar with – I think it may have even come top? Anyway I went to listen to it and was hugely underwhelmed then, and still am now. It’s not awful or anything but I keep finding my attention drifting elsewhere by the first minute, it doesn’t stick with me at all and is actually just a drag by the end. The “hellbound howls” are ridiculously hammy and I can’t take them seriously at all, ditto the “spooky” wind machine effect, and I find the singer’s voice a rather pale, grey thing. I would give it 5, and am completely perplexed by the reverence being paid to it.

  7. 7
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jan 2009 #

    A 10 only coz this one doesn’t go to 11… Ace write-up too, bad times never sounded so good, I can’t imagine what it must have sounded like in the riot-scarred dystopia of 1981.

  8. 8
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Terry Hall always sounds like the last man you’d want to knock round with, even, no, especially when singing about fun – I think Tom alluded to this in his Too Much Too Young piece – even more malicious than Johnny Rotten, the man literally hasn’t got a good word to say for anyone or anything ‘I won’t dance in a club like this…I’m a parasite’ – thrillingly nasty stuff

  9. 9
    peter goodlaws on 16 Jan 2009 #

    The great thing I’ve learned from my short time on this project is how you will always get the odd dissenter thrashing away in a sea of tunnel-visioned enthusiasts. On this occasion, Lex has pitched in at number six and taken “Ghost Town” apart, whilst the rest of us have pretty much been playing with ourselves in its praise. Bravo, Lex! I don’t agree with you but it’s very refreshing when someone puts the brakes on. A mature democracy, I think it’s called.

    Talking of number six, he’s facking deed, is he not?!

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Perhaps the ‘tenniest’ ten out of ten that we’ll come across on Popular, for the extrordinary circumstances of so many great things coming together in one moment;

    The bold, innovative, incredibly evocative approach to arrangement and songwriting…

    The video as much more than a promo but as a striking short film in itself (the way that the appearance of the buildings and motion of the car cuts to the music!…

    All of the details of a band’s design and image working together to become something like a way of a life – far beyond a pose…

    A song that is patently about something that actually matters, and about life in 1981…

    And *for once*, the British public en masse gets all of this and puts it at number one for three weeks, at the height of the worst recession and most violent social unrest in (mainland) Britain for a generation.

    For all its murkiness and menace, ‘Ghost Town’ is also a shining beacon of all that pop music can be and can achieve.

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Best ‘Ghost Town’ experience in my life: Walking into a pretty rough bar in East Manhattan in 1999, it playing on the jukebox, and seeing some pretty tough-looking drinkers embrace each other and dance along to it. So far from its original context, and yet still something outlandishly remarkable.

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #2 Watch: 2 weeks of ‘Stars on 45 Part 2’. Medleymaina continues to sweep the nation.

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 16 Jan 2009 #

    what i remember about terry halls voice is how funny its deadpan always seemed — mordantly hilarious, and (ike eeyore) ever funnier with repetition, my sister and i (we shared a flat t the time) used each to yell to the other one whenever he came on TV so we could enjoy it together

    what i can’t now calculate — bearing lex’s response in mind — is how much of this effect was visual (TH has a clown’s stoneface demeanour, doubly so when still a whip-thin young man surrounded by people frantically jumping around) and how much was an effect of (and counter to) the times; a shared point for people living through an era as it unfolded, which (like a lot of punk for the younger; or indeed 50s rock’n’roll for ppl my age) seems somehow drained of the thing it’s being celebrated for by its celebrants

    my theory has always been: it’s the comedy that dates that was actually funny; the comedy that “stands the test of time” isn’t actually funny — it just sounds like it is

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    My eight-year old self really loved this, especially with the video, driving further and further away and ending up throwing stones into the river. The narrative of things getting worse resonated totally with me, making ‘Ghost Town’ one of the few singles of that time which I think I completely understood what it was about.

  15. 15
    rosie on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Hmm. Mark inflation has set in good and proper. I can’t hear anything in this but a whining dirge from a bunch of deadbeats who think the world owes them a living. How can this possibly be better than Grapevine, or Good Vibrations, or Jumping Jack Flash?

    4 at best from me.

    On reflection I think it may be as well for me to bow out of Popular quietly before I had planned. I don’t think I have anything to contribute from here on.

  16. 16
    Martin Skidmore on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I can’t go along with that last dating comment, but otherwise I agree – the implied comparison with Keaton is apt, I think.

    I loved this then and still do. It really connected with me: I had loved the band for years (since seeing them as the Coventry specials supporting Suicide and the Clash), and I was extremely aware of the circumstances of the Bristol (where I lived) riots in particular, aware of a lot of things that never seemed to reach the newspapers (like what actually kicked it all off, more info on offer – actually, I might just do an entry on my LJ about that (martinskidmore)). I still find it an exceptionally compelling and potently moody record.

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: The edition of the 9th of July 1981 is an important one for The Specials as it was the last time that the full line up appeared together – Terry, Lynval and Neville walking out to form the Fun Boy 3. It was also the 900th edition of Top of the Pops.

    Also in the studio that week were; Kirsty MacColl, Randy Crawford and Imagination, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Wordy Rappinghood’. The hosts were Pete Murray, Jimmy Saville, Alan Freeman and Adam Ant.

  18. 18
    Glue Factory on 16 Jan 2009 #

    An honourable mention must go to the 12″ version of this, in which most of the track strips away leaving just the drums and bass and Rico’s gorgeously haunting trombone to carry on.

    And although its historical circumstances no doubt add weight to the record, it would surely still be a 10 without them.

  19. 19
    Jack Fear on 16 Jan 2009 #

    This is one where cultural context is vitally important, I think.

    Interesting point about the overproduction, Peter—and one that relates, I think, to my initial experience of the song as a listener here in the States. This video was a staple of early MTV; most young-teen viewers, though, had no social context for the song, or indeed for ska in general. For a number of reasons—some having to do with signifiers alien to American pop at the time (the suits, the squawky horns), some to do with the relative overexposure of Madness over here—there was a half-formed idea that two-tone was a novelty music, somehow inherently comical. (Something Mark kinda touches on, too.)

    And in that light, “Ghost Town” does sound like a novelty record: the theatricality of the bass voice, the sound effects and horror-movie keyboards, the wailing vocals. Fourteen-year old me assumed it had to be a joke of some kind, albeit (and this is crucial) a joke that I wasn’t in on.

    I’ve come around, of course—in retrospect it’s plain that even Madness weren’t entirely about the laffs, and the jarring production elements of “Ghost Town” sound like what they are—an Expressionist groping towards any available means for creating the necessary emotional atmosphere.

    It’s simultaneously goofy and brilliant, right up there with the motorcycle SFX in “Leader of the Pack” or the crazed knob-twiddling of Joe Meek; and if it took me a while to recognize how good it truly is, it’s partly a result of my own ongoing musical education and partly due to shifts in the landscape of pop. A document of its time, yes, but hugely forward-looking in its conception and execution. A well-deserved 10.

  20. 20
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Rosie – my advice is to pay attention to the discussion not the marks, which have always been a gimmick anyway :)

    I can easily imagine times when I’d prefer to hear any of the excellent records you mentioned to “Ghost Town”, even though, yes, I do think “Ghost Town” is the best.

    Jack Fear – great post! I think this is the answer to Lex’s complaints too: yes they’re hammy, they’re theatre, like gunshot sounds on a hip-hop or dancehall track are hammy. I think they’re incredibly effective, though – the violence of the screaming cutting in suddenly works really well.

    Pink S – Yes, Terry Hall is very funny: “Saturday Night” being a prime example.

  21. 21
    Erithian on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Rosie, in the words of KC and the Sunshine Band, please don’t go. Just because you’re the dissenting voice on something everyone else is raving about (and you’re not alone) you needn’t think your views are in any way irrelevant or unwelcome. I can see a few occasions coming up when I’ll be the grumpy one!

    The day “Ghost Town” chalked up its third week at number one (and I’m talking about the Tuesday the chart was announced, not the following Saturday which is the “official” date Tom is using) was 21 July 1981. A landmark day in English sporting history, the day Bob Willis’ 8 for 43, following Ian Botham’s 149 not out, skittled the Aussies to win what is probably the most famous Test match ever. Like a fine wine, you don’t need to say anything more than “Headingley ‘81” to bring it all back!

    It was either a lucky coincidence or a prescient release which saw this record at the top during the riots – but it was a trick Jerry Dammers was to pull off again, albeit with a record you were unlikely to hear on the radio. The following winter “The Boiler” by Rhoda and the Special AKA, a harrowing tale of date rape, was in the top 40 during what was dubbed “National Rape Week”, the week when an early docusoap about Thames Valley Police highlighted the sensitive approach the police of the day took towards rape victims – an officer hears a sobbing girl pour out her tale before sitting back and declaring, “That’s the biggest load of bollocks I’ve ever heard.”

  22. 22
    David Belbin on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Agree with Glue Factory @18. the 12″ was what the fans bought in those days and is the true masterpiece. I’m looking forward to hearing how they do this on stage at the reunion gigs later this year. My strongest recollection of the riots when this was number one is of a terrrified house-mate who works as a waitress coming back from Nottingham’s Ben Bowers restaurant, where rioters had smashed their way in while customers hid in the basement, but she was one of the last to go down and had a brief (non-violent) confrontation with one of the looters. I was all for heading out on my bicycle and checking out the action but the other people in my house wouldn’t let me go. Probably a good thing, a mate of mine who did the voyeur bit got arrested. Mind you, I was unemployed for most of that period, so maybe I should have been rioting.

  23. 23
    Erithian on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Number 7 Watch – during Ghost Town’s reign Abba’s “Lay All Your Love On Me” peaked at 7, their smallest hit for several years, which was a shock. One place below the Motorhead Live EP…

    My link to Terry Hall btw – in 1984 my girlfriend’s dad had a singing telegram on his birthday. A few months later we saw The Colourfield doing the sublime “Thinking Of You” on TOTP and recognised singer Katrina Phillips as the girl who’d done the singing telegram!

  24. 24
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Wasn’t that ABBA record only available on 12″?

  25. 25
    pink champale on 16 Jan 2009 #

    a ten from me too, probably the second greatest of all the number ones. though i can’t add much to the great comments so far. like tom says, even as a seven year old it was obvious that there was someting about this that went beyond what was normally in the charts (even during that golden period) and that it somehow encapsulated what was a pretty terrible time. (not that seven year old me was having a terrible time, but it didn’t take much to see that lots of people were). now i like the fact that you know for an absolute fact that when maggies’ “where there is dischord may we bring harmony” appears on tv the next shot will be petrol bombs on railton road with ghost town playing over the top.

    i’m intrigued by rosie’s ‘think the world owes them a living’ comment – how do you get that? not that whines from oiks who think the world owes them a living are a bad thing – ‘statisfaction’ for a start

    yes, friday night/saturday morning is fantastic too – bleak clubbing songs are always good – see the streets, soft cell, smiths, iggy, whigfield, etc – but there’s not much that matches terry’s doleful ‘wish i had lipstick on my shirt/instead of piss stains on my shoes’ for bringing a shudder of recognition.

  26. 26
    rosie on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Erithian @ 21: K C & the Sunshine Band? Surely you mean Big Joe Williams? Or better still, Them featuring the nascent Van Morrison (now there was a shoo-in 10 double-A side – with Gloria – had it hit the top!)

    I’ve had a peek at what’s to come and I realise that I can’t go yet as there are things coming up I need to say things about (whether good or bad you’ll have to wait and see but it includes something that I’ve tended to rate 1 on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.) So I’m not going down to Noo Orleens just yet!

  27. 27
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #27 SURELY he means K – *strangled by Rave Bunny*

  28. 28
    LondonLee on 16 Jan 2009 #

    The video was directed by the ace graphic designer Barney Bubbles whose work has been lauded here before (the sleeve of ‘Rhythm Stick’ for one), it was filmed in the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

    Tense times indeed, you really did expect it to kick off anywhere at any moment. I vividly remember a breathless newsflash! on the telly about a riot down the road from us in North End Road in Fulham, turns out it was just some kids having a fight outside the McDonald’s but it just shows how the nation’s nerves were on a knife’s edge at the time.

    Perfectly suited for the echoey strangeness of Dub, you can almost see the empty burger wrappers blowing across the desolate street.

  29. 29
    definitely not Kat at all oh no on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I think this might be the song I’ve heard discussed in documentaries the most. I do like it a lot, but as other people have mentioned, historical context is pretty important here and I was still just a collection of cells in a uterus at this point. I prefer Too Much Too Young.

    The Father Ted disco sketch was fvcking brilliant though.

  30. 30
    pink champale on 16 Jan 2009 #

    thinking about it, in terms of their hold on the public imagination, i wonder whether the 1981 riots don’t benefit from the ghost town association as much as the other way round? the riots later in the eighties – where people actually died – don’t have such a readymade representation and so get a bit overlooked. and the huge riots in blackburn (or was it bradford? i can’t even remember) in the early 00s are already all but forgotten.

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