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. 31
    SteveM on 16 Jan 2009 #

    What a great cover. I had failed to notice this until now.

    Love at first listen for me. As well as the memorable flute hook the mocking/deranged ‘laaaa la la la la”s helped there. Both they and the middle eight are terrific counters to the mood of the main hook and I love this kind of switching in a song (esp. where it’s denoting reflection to another time and place). Obvious but effective and compelling.

  2. 32
    Lex on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I just relistened, because I couldn’t remember how it went (from this morning! which says it all) – the trouble is I’m not hearing any of the violence and horror and derangement which you all say is key to it. I can hear where it’s meant to be but it just sounds limp and unexciting to me – the beat is like Casio-preset dub, thin and tinny, lacking the overwhelming cavernous feel that I tend to love in the genre, and nothing about the song gets me emotionally. It sort of plods along and goes nowhere exciting. The whole song is more pleasant than violent!

    I want Rosie to stay as well b/c I am looking forward to what you all have to say about the songs which I grew up with…though that’s still a decade off, sigh.

  3. 33
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #30 this is a very good point!

  4. 34
    Lex on 16 Jan 2009 #

    (Five minutes later and I have already forgotten how it goes AGAIN.)

  5. 35
    SteveM on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Funny, most other people don’t seem to have this problem (altho I suppose it is a blessing if you don’t actually rate the song)

  6. 36
    will on 16 Jan 2009 #

    No arguments from me – 10. Never again was the Number One single such an accurate barometer of national mood.

    The other thing that should be noted is that Ghost Town almost instantly attained ‘classic’ status. Everyone – from my 11 year old contemporaries to Radio 1 DJs to the inkies, even my 8 year old Shakin’ Stevens fan brother – thought it was brilliant.

  7. 37
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Never again was the Number One single such an accurate barometer of national mood.

    Sadly I can think of at least one glaring counter-example, which probably won’t be getting a 10.

  8. 38
    LondonLee on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Lex is objecting to the cheesy theatricality of the backing voices, the wind effects and Phantom of The Opera organ but I think that’s what makes it. Take all that away and it would be in danger of being a rather worthy dirge like ‘One In Ten’

  9. 39
    Conrad on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #30 – Yes! that may be right. But I also think the juxtaposition of the rioting with a certain wedding (and perhaps even the cricket) have helped give Summer ’81 – and by association, the riots themselves – a kind of iconic status.

  10. 40
    Mark M on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Well, I was a long, long way from the context – Mexico City, to be precise, although I was aware was happening back in the old country and knew that Brixton was pretty close to our family home. Also, we already loved The Specials because my brother had brought the first album with him from England. But anyway, I loved Ghost Town instantly then and I love it still.
    Good point about the ’81 riots being much more iconic than say Brixton 1985 (I saw the aftereffects of that one) and others since…

  11. 41
    lonepilgrim on 16 Jan 2009 #

    it’s refreshing to read the doubters and naysayers as it makes me think harder about what it is for me that makes this such a fantastic tune.
    I was in Newcastle at the time – which had been suffering from decline and neglect for a good few years but which, IIRC, did not have riots like London, Bristol or Liverpool. Nevertheless this did seem to sum up the mood of the time as the full effects of Thatcherism began to kick in.
    It partly reminds me of PiL’s ‘Careering’ from Metal Box in it’s use of a whining drone against the dubby rhythms – but this seems sourer in it’s appropriation of a end of the pier/icerink organ tone.
    Given the current economic climate you can imagine some enterprising artiste releasing a new version of this song.

    re# 28 I was astonished to discover that Barney Bubbles had directed the video. The new book on his work is a revelation to me as I’ve discovered that pretty much all the sleeve art I admired from that time was by BB. I even have an original copy of his poster for the ‘Lives’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery which I hadn’t realised was his work until now.

  12. 42
    Erithian on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Oh come on Tom (#37), give us a clue to the one you’re thinking of!

    I still have on tape an excerpt from the 1981 episode of “25 Years of Rock”, a Radio 1 precursor to “The Rock’n’Roll Years”. It splices “Ghost Town” with news reports from the time – the track fades in under a reporter saying “Parts of Brixton are burning tonight… a heavy orange pall lays across the scene, and graffiti by the burnt-out cars urges “Fight Back!” I don’t believe this is England”. Over the instrumental passages are women in Toxteth commentating on joyriders as you hear the screech of brakes in the background, and an account of a kick-off at a skinhead gig in Southall. It then segues to Darcus Howe talking about the New Cross Massacre (when 13 black youths were killed in an arson attack in January) and into another 1981 number one – bunny-bait, but it was two major acts collaborating on a song about “people on streets”. A fantastic piece of radio, would have made a great remix.

  13. 43
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 16 Jan 2009 #

    it isn’t just living through the riots and political turmoil, it’s growing up through the music of the era, as a sequence of changes and shifts — actually responding to records as “news reports from the collective consciousness”, in a very pressure-cooker sense

  14. 44
    SteveM on 16 Jan 2009 #

    bah #39 i agree with Tom in that ‘One In Ten’ is ace altho i probably prefer the 808 State remix slightly more. neither ultimately as good as Ghost Town tho.

  15. 45
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jan 2009 #

    The tacky theatricality is also part of the horror, like a puppet show with ugly wooden puppets with mad stary eyes, the horror in the execution underscores the horror in the the subject matter.

  16. 46
    Tom on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #44 I am not sure I still think One in Ten is ace, I will relisten!

    #42 “I feel like everyone else in this country today – utterly devastated…. We are today a nation, in Britain, in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us.”

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I’d argue that the 1981 wave of riots probably are the most historically significant in postwar mainland Britain because of the combination of a racial catalyst (the Special Police Group’s Search Under Suspicion policy serving to antagonise many law-abiding black city dwellers), the social deprivation of much of Britain of 1981 – the height of the worst recession since the thirties, and the sheer geographic scale and sweep of events, many cities over several weeks.

  18. 48
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 16 Jan 2009 #

    one in ten is better if you sing “i have a one-inch head”

    (this is an old danny baker joke but it’s funny because it’s true)

  19. 49
    Erithian on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Tom #46 – oh of course, as glaring as that!!

  20. 50
    Pete Baran on 16 Jan 2009 #

    I’s have thought the 1958 Notting Hill riots had more of an effect on government policy and British cultural life than any since. It changed immigration policy, certainly served as a catalyst to Enoch Powell’s change in political views on immigration which almost destroyed the Tories. It was also the catalyst for the Notting Hill Carnival.

  21. 51
    LondonLee on 16 Jan 2009 #

    ‘One In Ten’ is alright but lines like “I’m another teenage suicide on a street that has no trees” are a bit iffy, the treeless street image feels like laughable piling on. We have to make teenage suicide sound even worse!

  22. 52
    Matthew on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Reading Popular in two directions at once as I am, I’ve been treated to “Israelites” and now this at almost exactly the same time. It can’t really get any better than that, can it?

  23. 53
    lonepilgrim on 16 Jan 2009 #

    re#52: it’s fortuitous that you should make the link Matthew – the fruit of your diligent trawl through past popular entries – as the two songs make an interesting comparison.
    I mentioned a sourness about ‘Ghost Town’ in my earlier entry which in some ways is refreshing to find in a number one single – particularly after the two previous entries. However, it could seem a bit petulant a response to loss and suffering when compared to Desmond Dekker’s more resolute approach – for all it’s anger it’s questionable whether the singer(s) of Ghost Town are actually going to fight what’s happening or just grumble about it

  24. 54
    dickvandyke on 16 Jan 2009 #

    To add to the miserable context of ’81, in Leeds and surrounding northern towns, we had the Yorkshire Ripper at large.

  25. 55
    lonepilgrim on 16 Jan 2009 #

    re 54 – he was arrested in January 1981 – but there was more than enough misery to go round wherever you were that year – unless you were part of the Tory revolution

  26. 56
    AndyPandy on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Well produced and ok tune but terrible vocals (probably a 5 or 6 to me) but aren’t the 10s here etc at least partly because we’re generally educated people on here who see it as being wonderfully in context (the NME wet dream sort of briefly becoming reality etc)rather than that much to do with the music which surely this should really be about. But of course the idea that the majority of people who bought this were even sympathetic to the rioters is probably very open to debate. I’d hazard a guess that as with most pop music the vast majority just hear a nice tune/sound and don’t really invest too much in any message/meaning.
    To me this is far too redolent of those embarrassingly po-faced and worthy early eighties yoof programmes that BBC2 and early Channel 4 used to put on about unemployment etc and which you just knew the real unemployed youth wouldnt have watched if they were the last programmes on earth… I suppose Channel 4 researchers and students made up their miniscule audinces
    And to get into pedantic mood The Specials (with the exception of the ethnic minority members and possibly Terry Hall) were hardly the representatives of the disenfranchised unemployed masses (or “oiks” thinking they were “owed a living” as someone said)that would make the rock writers wet dream complete. Jerry Dammers was the son of quite a senior clergyman and according to Horace’s autobiography the others were all pretty middle class and met at college.
    Give me Madness anyday – I’m sure one line of their ‘Baggy Trousers’ (now those words really did speak to “the kids”)said far more to the average early 80s working-class teenager than this ever did…

  27. 57
    Crimson Cheeked King on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Um, hello. I’ve been invited to lob in my anti-Specials pub argument.

    Here goes – throughout their hits, the White guy gets the clever sardonic lines, leaving the Black guys get to make monkey noises or chant gibberish like “This town is coming like a ghost town.” It’s like having Noel Coward on the Black and White Minstrel Show. (Admittedly, Too Much Too Young is worse than Ghost Town on this score and Lynval and Neville didn’t get much more to do in the Fun Boy Three.)

    With Ranking Roger in The Beat, the guy sounded sharp, and the group were a foot-tappin’ amalgamation of different types of music. The Specials were a lead-footed moany drag in comparison. Girls – slags, lager – piss. Right on!

  28. 58
    LondonLee on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Dammers did seem to have a puritanical streak about, shall we say, working class pleasures. He was usually very funny about it though, until he left his sense of humour in his other suit and produced ‘Racist Friend’

  29. 59
    rosie on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Trouble is, I can’t hear the name “Terry Hall” without thinking instantly of Lenny the Lion (whom I’d met six months earlier, did I ever mention that?)

  30. 60
    SteveM on 16 Jan 2009 #

    re #56 I loved ‘Baggy Trousers’ but I’m not sure I’d like ‘the average early 80s working class teenager’ much (altho not cos of their social status).

    Looking at the top 40 during ‘Ghost Town’ reign I wonder if Bad Manners were somehow running off or reaping some benefits off the back of GT’s “lalalas” with ‘Can Can’, if not vice versa. Summer of ’81 a good time for an inane but fun sing-song? Then again, when isn’t..?

    Also sounding good that week: ‘Wordy Rappinghood’, ‘You Might Need Somebody’, ‘Sat In Your Lap’, ‘Chant No. 1’ and a sliding ‘Me No Pop I’ to name but a few. Oh and one week later Squeeze’s ‘Tempted’ – still shocked by how low they chart-peaked.

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