Jan 09

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”

FT + Popular115 comments • 10,317 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.



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  1. 61
    SteveM on 16 Jan 2009 #

    #57 are you trying to paint Hall and Dammers as some kind of tyrannical control-freaks? Were Golding and Staple never content in their roles and afraid to challenge the setup? What was this force keeping them down in this particular situation?

  2. 62
    wichita lineman on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Re 56: Can’t quite see why it would be so hard for ‘the kids’ to relate to Ghost Town – unless your thinking of pre-pubescents, who probably wouldn’t have much to relate to on One Day In Your Life or Being With You either.

    I went to Coventry for a day, while unemployed (I got a lift, nothing better to do), in 1985 and couldn’t believe the streets of boarded up shops. The city was effectively derelict. I’m sure pop lovers living in Mexborough, Middlesbrough and Morecambe would have identified in 1981, whether they were NME readers or not. It wasn’t so recession-struck, but I never went near Croydon’s nite klubs – the pubs were rough enough.

    Re 57: I wonder who wrote the line “me don’t want pickney” for Lynval and Neville. I was rather surprised when checking the credits to find out how much of the Specials’ canon J Dammers DIDN’T write: eg the moantastic “I got one art O level, it did nuffing for me” which even to an academic thicko like me didn’t wring out any sympathy at the time.

    Re 61: Jerry Dammers sounds exactly like a tyrannical control freak when you read accounts of Specials sessions, notably In The Studio. Hence, everyone left him.

    Re 51: “I’m a middle-aged businessman with chronic heart disease” was a little odd too, wasn’t it? But I’ll always stick by The Earth Dies Screaming/Dream A Lie, if only for having the most Crass-like titles of any Top 10 hit.

  3. 63
    Doctor Casino on 17 Jan 2009 #

    Still a few months shy of my birth here and the current events in question are so remote and hazy to me that it sort of enhances the song – the actual injury and loss of property fall away into the myth of a decrepit and directionless society – the “no future” from the Sex Pistols actually feels like it’s come home to roost here. I’m reading up on the events on Wikipedia as we speak and I heard the song for the first time today – it’s got a great sound and some solid hooks. Doesn’t “sound” like a #1 to me. Great scene-painting and very very evocative though. “Spirit In The Sky” is maybe the best reference point oddly enough – just in terms of the amount of empty space and general dreariness, but I feel like I’m forgetting a much better comparison.

  4. 64
    Conrad on 17 Jan 2009 #

    #57 – Neville Staples in particular never struck me as particularly talented (“Stereotypes Part 2” where he gets centre stage is embarrassingly naff). Perhaps that had something to do with it. He was more of a presence on stage – kind of the Specials’ equivalent to Bez.

    You can accuse Dammers of many things – control freakery among them – but rascism? I don’t think so.

    As for Hall, well he doesn’t come across as the most likeable of people – certainly not in Horace’s autobiograhy. In fact, none of The Specials come across as the sort of people you’d want to spend much time with. They really didn’t seem to enjoy their success either – even as “Too Much Too Young” was going to Number 1 they were fighting and arguing on tour in the States.

    And now they’re reforming without Dammers…

    …agree with you about Ranking Roger though. He was a very charismatic performer, and a big part of The Beat’s success.

  5. 65
    Crimson Cheeked King on 17 Jan 2009 #

    #64 Q. What was Jerry Dammers’ last iTunes download? A. Can I Play With Madness?

    Racism is an accusation that’s too easily made, and my post at #57 was pretty ill-considered in that regard. But with The Specials routinely represented as a paragon of multicultural Britain at its best, I thought it was worth peering through a jaundiced eye, just for a second.

    #61 I’m not sure about the group functioned, but the records themselves too often see Lynval and Neville cast as dummies. It seems a bit shabby – two no. ones earlier we saw a Black guy – America’s greatest poet (not just a cliche) – singing a beautiful song, elegantly strolling round a luxurious beach house. Our people deserve nothing less!

  6. 66
    AndyPandy on 17 Jan 2009 #

    Wichita at 62 – yes i see your point but don’t ‘the kids’ usually prefer to be excited/cheered up in their pop hence that particular loathing for the Smiths I remember from various workplaces/pubs etc in the 80s.
    And yes the Mexboroughs, Morecambes, Barnsleys etc etc and especially North East were as prey to unemployment as any inner city but these were almost completely white areas and I should imagine if we’re talking about this record as a cipher for the 1981 riots the youth in those places would have looked on the disturbances as a black phenomenon and not something that had anything particularly to do with them.

    After all the riots were confined to inner city areas with a large Afro-Caribbean population – not just Brixton and various other areas of London, Toxteth, Moss Side, Handsworth etc but even Reading and High Wycombe in the supposedly thriving south east. That there were riots in such places but not anywhere in the unemployment stricken north/midlands outside 2 or 3 inner cities surely shows it was more racial tension/policing than mass unemployment that were the trigger. Anyway I’m making this a bit socio-economic and a long way from the pop charts so I’d bette stop there…

  7. 67
    wichita lineman on 17 Jan 2009 #

    Re 66: Well, I was talking about the song itself (obv. written and recorded before the riots) which CAN be read in its immediate social context, but doesn’t necessarily have any racial element.

    Riots in Crowborough, Sussex, (which is pretty white) tend to be forgotten. Is High Wycombe that multi-cultural? Don’t want to sound nit pickety but “the people getting angry” was true across the board, black and white – the government was getting some of the worst poll ratings ever at this point. Two Million Voices by the Angelic Upstarts was another contemporary comment 45 and, like One In Ten, not in the same league as Ghost Town.

    Re 64: Stereotypes Pt 2. Not very good, is it?

  8. 68
    Ken on 18 Jan 2009 #

    I think this is the first time Tom has awarded a 10 to a tune I actually like. Not being British, I have a hard time understanding how this song even got to the top of any chart; it’s defiantly unpop.

  9. 69
    peter goodlaws on 18 Jan 2009 #

    # 67 – Yeah, riots in Crowborough there were indeed. Astonishing, really, as the town was then (and still is) one of the most well-healed in the UK. Principal amongst the unrest involved lots of Amandas and Imogens riding their ponies at a quick trot down the wrong side of the road, thus causing several tea rooms and antique shops to boarder themselves up. Fucking terrifying.

  10. 70
    LondonLee on 18 Jan 2009 #

    Re #66 None of my non-art school friends liked the Smiths, actively hated them in fact. “Get this depressing crap off and put on some Level 42” was the usual response.

  11. 71
    AndyPandy on 18 Jan 2009 #

    Although I come from Slough I was living in Wycombe for a few years in the later eighties (ie not in 1981).So I know quite a lot about the place. I went to a couple of blues parties (mid-late 80 as all that ‘Under Mi Sensi’ digital reggae was being played) on the Micklefield estate there.

    High Wycombe is home to about 15,000 people of either Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean descent – proportionally one of the higher figures in the country. More people from St Vincent in wycombe than anywhere in the world outside St Vincent! First stop outside London on the train I remember a documentary mentioned as being a reason for its attraction.
    Also one of the oldest post-Windrush West indian populations – a lot of immigrants arriving in the early 50s to work in the paper mills and furniture factories.They even named a road on a council estate Windrush Drive which back in the 60s/70s when the flats there were built was quite forward thinking for Wycombe!

    The nearness to London and the multicultural feel on certain estates may be the reason why it became quite significant on the early dance/rave scene. What was arguably the first ever jungle record ‘Johnny Jungle’ came out of Wycombe as did the hardcore classic ‘Dub Wars’ by Dance Conspiracy and big drum and bass figures like DJ Pulse, Wax Doctor, Pascal, Rude Boy Monty all come from Wycombe as did rappers Caveman and Judy Boucher the reggae singer. She served me on the housing benefit desk at the Council there a few years after her No 2 hit “Can’t be with you tonight” after she went back to working there.

    Yes its amazing what you can read on Popular even a mini history of High Wycombe’s contribution to music!

    Aand I thought students were all Smiths fans Lee at 66! I mentioned them as I don’t remember a band so actively detested by most of my workmates/contemporaries as the Smiths – most ‘alternative/indie’ type bands might as well have existed in an alternative univese but the Smiths probably because of the way they seemed to sum up everything they didnt like about that kind of music did seem to register in their consciousness and never failed to get an abusive comment if they ever came up – all that “heaven knows I’m miserable now” type stuff…

  12. 72
    AndyPandy on 18 Jan 2009 #

    Lee at 66 I see I completely misread your comment and what you’ve said it exactly the point I was trying to make!my eyes are going must be my age…

  13. 73
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jan 2009 #

    Re: 62, isn’t “me don’t no more pickney” a quote from an old reggae tune? A sort of early human sample?

  14. 74
    Erithian on 19 Jan 2009 #

    Yes it is – “Birth Control” by Lloyd Charmer; the “Gimme de birth control, me no want a pickney” line was borrowed for “Too Much Too Young”.

    Ranking Roger – at the height of the riots, The Beat performed “Doors Of Your Heart” on Saturday morning kids’ TV – I think it was still Swap Shop – and Ranking Roger looked especially impassioned as he toasted: “Stick ‘im in the living room and turn out the light / Bet you wouldn’t know if ‘im was black or white … so what’s the use in fighting / warrrrrr – alright!” Such an underrated band.

  15. 75
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jan 2009 #

    The Beat are playing Hootenany in Brixton soon – well worth a look!

  16. 76
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jan 2009 #

    29th May! http://www.thebeatofficial.com/tour.html

  17. 77
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jan 2009 #

    Has anyone heard this incarnation of The Beat play live? They don’t seem to have too many original members but I’d like to see them if they’re any good

  18. 78
    Lena on 19 Jan 2009 #

    The other day I applied for my NI number (in Upper Tooting) and while that went swimmingly, I could not but help think of a certain day that led to my being here in the first place: July 10, 1981. That is the day I arrived in Canada (again), back to Oakville, and from there I discovered CFNY and current British music that was totally unknown to me in Berkeley. I am convinced that if I never heard that station, I literally would not be in London now, nor would I have visited London in the first place in ’88.

    The day before we flew out of San Francisco, my mom and I were staying in a hotel. It was the first time I’d seen the tv news in a while, as our tv had been packed up for weeks. A big hotel tv with the news of rioting all over England, and then the huge face of Thatcher intoning this or that. It had gone on for…days? Weeks? All over the place. And this song, which I would argue goes to a place where numbers (crucial as they are) don’t really matter much any more, was already number one, though I wouldn’t hear it until the fall when it hypnotized me and shocked me (and yet sounded oddly familiar too, going back to U.S. jazz songs of the Depression)…little did I know that the man who was eventually going to become my husband was going through his own life-changing summer as well – ghosts for both of us, moments of the past, there and yet not there.

  19. 79
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jan 2009 #

    Re: 77. Not seen ’em, but if you’re anywhere near Brixton, you should go – I imagine it’ll be about a fiver to get in and it’s a good pub!

  20. 80
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jan 2009 #

    think the scale of 1981 was pretty unique. After Bristol the previous year, and Brixton in April, July 1981 saw ‘riots’ in Southall, Liverpool, Manchester, Brixton again, Woolwich, Lewisham, Stoke Newington, Balham, Fulham, Reading, Ellesmere Port, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Hull, Preston, Slough, Birmingham, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds, Cirencester, Blackpool, Blackburn, Southampton, Portsmouth, Luton, Derby, Leicester, Battersea Park (‘a crowd of rollerskaters attacked and injured 3 policemen’), High Wycombe, Birkenhead, Aldershot, Gloucester. (‘Uprising – the police the people and the riots in Britain’s cities’, M.Kettle & L.Hodge, 1982 which ends as follows: “In 1981 the frequently voiced fears that young people – above all, young black people- would rise up against the police and lay claim to a respect which had been denied them became a dramatic reality. The subsequent response of British society has not eradicated the likelihood that it will happen again.”)

  21. 81
    Erithian on 20 Jan 2009 #

    So, for what made the summer of ’81 iconic, we’ve got the riots, the royal wedding, the Ashes series, Shergar’s Derby and McEnroe’s first Wimbledon. I’ll add another – Coe and Ovett breaking each other’s world records every week. Any more?

  22. 82
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 20 Jan 2009 #

    it was the year “the great muppet caper” was released

  23. 83
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2009 #

    that was the muppets for ya, always on top of the zeitgeist

  24. 84
    Caledonianne on 25 Jan 2009 #

    I would just second what AndyPandy said re High Wycombe (which I pass through on the train every working day). Its racial tensions are thoroughly discussed in “Presumed Guilty” by favourite meeja lawyer, Michael Mansfield QC.

    At the time we in Scotland (thankfully) were rather disengaged from the riots (tho if I remember rightly some acolytes of a recent CBB evictee tried to foment some 1980s bother, but got no takers). I’ve always thought of this as being a better record than a song, and I appreciate it rather more now than I did at the time. I can see why it’s a 10 as a means of capturing a moment of time, but don’t rate it that highly as a musical offering.

    For me, this is the week I graduated, and that Harry Chapin was killed. That, to me, was much more important than what was happening in cities that seemed to me then as alien as LA or New Orleans.

  25. 85
    DV on 26 Jan 2009 #

    I remember this record almost frightening me with its sense of the looming apocalypse. Good job everything is going well in the world now.

  26. 86
    lonepilgrim on 9 Feb 2009 #

    there’s a fun use of this in episode 3 of the BBCs series ‘Being Human’ (still on iPlayer for a few days): – being listened to by a GHOST on his walkman as he mooches around TOWN – plus a whole lot of other miserabalist 80s toons as well

  27. 87
    Mark M on 10 Feb 2009 #

    Re 86: I thought the 80s miserablist ghost was pretty spot-on, as these things go.

  28. 88
    Erithian on 10 Feb 2009 #

    I’m loving “Being Human”, not my usual TV genre but very well put together. I thought people on here would like the Marc and the Mambas references!

    Just remembered that on my tape of Piccadilly Radio’s end-of-81 rundown, the howls at the end of “Ghost Town” segue beautifully with the howls at the start of “Prince Charming”, to the extent that I can’t hear the former without imagining the latter fading in.

  29. 89
    punctum on 18 Sep 2009 #

    I had left school and was three months away from beginning my life as a student in Oxford. The Glasgow of the summer of 1981 remained a two-dimensional winter; collapsing old buildings, huge derelict tracts of wasteland, muttered curses, switchblades, the HOME RULE graffiti on the side of the soon-to-close steelworks in Parkhead, unemployment, gloom, the European City of Collateral.

    It’s hard to determine whether home life was that different in nature; my father felt more settled in his final months, yet there were still the outbursts, the unnecessary stress, everything pointing to a premature end. Perhaps he could have completed his journey towards happiness in another year or two, but in most senses it was already too late. In any case the end came on the morning of Tuesday 14 July, when he suffered a coronary thrombosis and was taken to the local hospital; although he had rallied round to a degree that afternoon, he declined suddenly on the Wednesday morning (the hospital rang us at 7:40 am) and by the time we got there he had gone, eleven days after his fiftieth birthday. His was the first dead body I had seen; he looked asleep and felt unutterably cold. The open mouth was really the factor which shook me.

    There was an unusually black and low-level mass of clouds in the Airdrie and Coatbridge sky that morning on our way back home; my mother made a great play of being inconsolable, but really – and shamefully? – we were relieved, as though released from a huge weight which had been slowly crushing us over the previous decade. Is it inhuman and unforgiving for me still to be feeling this, a quarter of a century later, despite the fact that it was my father’s love and passion for music and art and cinema and literature (oh, what he would have made of Blue Velvet!) which pretty much formed the person whose words you are reading now? Is anything worthwhile in life anything less than complicated?

    It was many, many years later that I discovered that Jerry Dammers had written “Ghost Town” specifically with Glasgow in mind; the Specials toured there in late 1980, and took especial note of the decay (though their native Coventry could tell a similar story, as could most British inner cities). It is the slow terminus of everything which had previously manifested itself as life, and I do not say this simply because it was the last number one record which my father lived to see; its intent is implicit in its title, and its atmosphere, with harmonies partly drawn from Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Oo” (my dad spotted that very quickly), was that of an abandoned vaudeville palace from a century before; the Dickensian cackles of the wordless backing vocals, the immense, vast, dark deserts of spaces between anything being played or said, partly ascribable to dub but bearing a huge debt to the spaces inside Joe Meek’s head, and the song’s two hopeless twin peaks – that heartbreaking moment when the sun shines and Dick Cuthell’s cornet celebrates in curlicues as Terry Hall sings “Do you remember the good old days?” and its polar opposite on the full-length 12-inch version, with Rico’s mournfully eloquent, Roswell Rudd-esque trombone elegy, drum crashes around him thundering like bulldozers or closing down on him like a gigantic sarcophagus lid.

    Equally it is difficult to imagine trip hop or even grime and/or dubstep having gone on their particular aesthetic autobahns without the example of “Ghost Town,” and Dammers’ experiments with avant-muzak on 1980’s More Specials album, to inspire them. For me, at my age, in that context, in those circumstances, “Ghost Town” felt like my life closing down, and the principal imperative for me to begin another one. The winds howl over the tenements of Easterhouse and Castlemilk at its conclusion just as they did over John Leyton’s moors twenty years previously; as a record it is unparalleled and unequalled, as a number one it is still scarcely believable – did I dream that a record sounding like this and saying what it says went to number one? Did I dream the riots in Southall and Toxteth and Brixton which erupted during its stay at number one? – but, as with “God Save The Queen,” it is a cold gauntlet (wanting so much to be warm) thrown down at the rest of pop; as with “Telstar” it is utterly sui generis; as with these two number ones, it is one of the greatest.

  30. 90
    n on 4 Apr 2010 #

    well, i was boarding the plane,to find a job in arabian gulf.!! left england for good, now its 28 yrs..!!!

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