The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’

In 1981 The Specials went to number one in the UK mainstream charts with Ghost Town. It’s a bit out of the ordinary to have a bona fide hit single as a 50thirdand3rd Record of the Day, but Ghost Town is no ordinary hit single. It’s an unerringly accurate, razor sharp commentary on the state of a nation when the nation was in a shitty state. Really, it’s as bleak as February, yet it’s so catchy, the whole family can enjoy it, proven by the fact that my son chose this for me as today’s tune.

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Coventry is mainly famous for four things; Lady Godiva’s naked horse ride, being bombed to smithereens during World War II, an unlikely FA Cup win in 1987 and The Specials.

The city destroyed by the Luftwaffe was rebuilt using several million tons of drab concrete. Its car industry exploded in the fifties and sixties attracting many thousands of Asian and Caribbean immigrants. For a few years, Coventry was a prosperous, multi-cultural success story.

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown

By the time The Specials released their self-titled debut album in 1979, the British motor industry was in serious decline, hitting Coventry particularly hard and leading to mass unemployment and high crime rates in the city. All that was left was the concrete.

By the time The Specials recorded Ghost Town, things had got worse. British industry was being decimated by the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government, unemployment was skyrocketing and riots were erupting all over the country. The Specials had seen plenty of violence first hand with guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding seriously injured in a racist attack in South London and skinheads and other thugs regularly interrupting their gigs.

This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
Too much fighting on the dance floor

Ghost Town had been an obsession of songwriter Jerry Dammers for at least a year before the band recorded it. He’d conceived a complete vision and was clear what he needed from all of his bandmates in the studio. But at that point, unknown to the rest of the world, the band was on the verge of collapse. There would be furious arguments with his colleagues as they refused to play his unorthodox composition in the way he’d imagined. Dammers remembers:

“The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom. There were weird, diminished chords: certain members of the band resented the song and wanted the simple chords they were used to playing on the first album.”

Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

Miraculously, Dammers did manage to get his vision onto wax. And, even more miraculously, it spent three weeks at the top of the pop charts – ensuring that Ghost Town and its eerie, paranoid video entered the collective consciousness of the whole, bruised and battered nation.

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Nick Perry

Nick writes fact, fiction and opinion in various places including
his music blog noisecrumbs.com. His musical tastes cover indie, grunge, golden-era hip hop, punk, funk, psychedelia and a big portion of distortion. You can and should follow him on Twitter @NoiseCrumbs.

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