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Ghost Town by The Specials

ghost town the specials instruments used

Songfacts®:

  • The Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers wrote and recorded this in a Tottenham, London apartment. On the surface, it is about the decline of Coventry, where the band grew up, but the latent meaning is quite different. The song was written just as three band members - Neville Staples, Lynval Golding and Terry Hall - were leaving The Specials to form Fun Boy Three. According to Dammers, the song was inspired by the band's split. He said in 2008: "'Ghost Town' was about the breakup of the Specials. It just appeared hopeless. But I just didn't want to write about my state of mind so I tried to relate it to the country as a whole." Many in the UK could relate. Coventry was a thriving industrial town in 1960s, but fell on hard times in the 1980s. "Ghost Town" caught the mood of Summer 1981 as levels of civil unrest not seen in a generation hit the UK.
  • The song was influenced by scenes noted during the band's UK tour. Dammers recalled in an interview in the music magazine Mojo , "In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. In Glasgow there were little old ladies on the streets selling their household goods."
  • "Ghost Town" was the seventh UK Top 10 for The Specials and their second #1, following " Too Much Too Young ." The song wasn't even released as a single in America, where the band tried and failed to break through in 1980 with a tour and an appearance on Saturday Night Live . They learned that getting on the radio and placed in record stores there was nearly impossible because there was no classification for ska or two-tone, and they didn't fit under the aegis of pop, punk, reggae or rock. It wasn't until the '90s that America warmed to the sound they helped create.
  • Dammers took a year to write "Ghost Town" and "begged" his bandmates to record it to his specifications.
  • The lyric, "All the clubs have been closed down," refers to the Locarno in Coventry. The site is now the city library. (above two from Q magazine, March 2008)
  • This was featured in the 2000 Guy Ritchie-directed film Snatch .
  • More songs from The Specials
  • More songs inspired by places
  • More songs used in movies
  • More songs about band dynamics
  • More songs from 1981
  • Lyrics to Ghost Town
  • The Specials Artistfacts

Comments: 7

  • T J Laurence from Luton Uk This song epitomised everything that was going wrong in the UK at the time. Thatcher, Police suss laws, Mass unemployment especially for school leavers (put onto government schemes Y O P ), The rise of the far right recruiting youth from the football terraces & dance-halls. The start of the have / have not society (Yuppies), Civil unrest & riots is most towns & city's. As the song sat on the no:1 spot Britain was burning, the powerful plotted & made there plans for destroying the working classes, & as a 16 year old I was there & lived it.
  • Sarah from Uk This is a protest song about the consequences of Thatchers Britain. Later when a black member of the Specials was attacked, it also became an anti racist anthem. The song is still relevant today in both respects
  • Thomas from Coventry, England Have to say that while I'm too young to relate to the early 80s, the city is still quite empty, with LEVC being the largest employer other than the hospital I believe. The state of the town centre has only degraded, as now 'clubs' are just shisha bars full of 14-17 year olds. If it became a ghost town with everybody moving from the violence and lack of jobs, it's now a hideous Frankestein's monster of relics from a bygone age mixed with attempts at rejuvenation (masses of new houses).
  • Ross from Leicester, United Kingdom I think it was a bit more confusing than that. The Specials set out to appeal to a skinhead audience, as they recognised that skinheads weren't necessarily racist, but that the National Front were having an influence on the scene. There were racist and anti-racist skinheads, and some of the racist skinheads were into ska! This was on top of a very violent live music scene which included fighting between different subcultures (punks,mods,skins,teds,metalheads,etc) as well as local rivalries. This effected a lot of gigs, not just the Specials - as the song says "too much fighting on the dancefloor"!
  • Richard from London, United Kingdom I heard this song was about white racists adopting ska as part of their culture. This lead to fighting at gigs and clubs, and places being closed down and people not wanting to go out. I might be wrong. I also know John Collins who mixed and produced it. He told me he got a call out of the blue one day, he hadn't really done much work like this but took it on anyway. He said he didn't really fit in with the band. They were all smoking drugs and he wasn't into that. John went onto make the music for the 80's TV show 'Desmonds'. I've met quite a few people who have said this is their favourite ever record.
  • Kayla from N. Lauderdale, Fl Seriously, my favorite ska song ever. I vibe to it when I can. Btw, this song is even featured in the movie "Garage Days."
  • Gary from Chester, England This song epitomises mine (and 1,000's others) youth. Remember the riots, even had few here !!

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Classic tracks: the specials 'ghost town'.

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The haunting dub of 'Ghost Town' perfectly captured the mood of its time, and spent three weeks at the top of the British charts during the turbulent summer of 1981.

The Specials playing live at The Hope & Anchor, Islington.

On 2nd April, 1980, less than a year into Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, public anger about police racism and rising unemployment led to a riot in the St Paul's district of Bristol that resulted in 130 arrests and 25 people ending up in hospital. Then, in the Autumn of that same year, while Coventry-based ska band the Specials were in the middle of a UK tour, keyboardist Jerry Dammers was so appalled to see old women trying to make ends meet by selling household possessions on the streets of Glasgow that, with the Bristol riot and rising neo-Nazism serving as the backdrop, he began penning lyrics about a sense of impending disaster that surrounded such scenes of civil unrest and urban decay. These were the roots of 'Ghost Town', one of the most timely — and now evocative — singles to ever top the British charts.

As it happens, Dammers' doom-and-gloom mind set was probably inspired as much by the fact that, while the UK appeared to be coming apart at the seams, so was the group that he had formed some three years earlier as the Coventry Automatics with bassist Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman). After adding guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Byers (aka Roddy Radiation), drummer John Bradbury, singer Terry Hall and toasting virtuoso Neville Staple, Dammers had then launched the 2 Tone Records label. This was in 1979, at around the same time as the purposely multiracial band had changed its name from the Special AKA to the Specials and recorded an eponymous, Elvis Costello-produced debut LP. A string of ska- revival British Top 10 hits had followed but, by the time of the summer 1980 sessions for the More Specials album and similarly-titled autumn tour, personal tensions and musical differences had reared their ugly head.

While Byers smashed his guitar over Dammers' keyboard during one particularly memorable live gig, the latter's ongoing attempts to fuse Jamaican reggae with jazzy British sounds alienated several fellow band members, paving the way for the 1981 departures of Hall, Golding and Staple to form the New Wave pop trio Fun Boy Three. Beforehand, in March of that same year, after quitting the road due to escalating audience violence, the Specials commenced work on what would turn out to be the original line-up's final — and, ironically, most enduring — recording; one whose lyrical references to "Government leaving the youth on the shelf,” "The people getting angry,” and "Bands won't play no more, Too much fighting on the dance floor” pretty much summed up the then-current state of affairs. Little did anyone realise how prophetic these words would soon turn out to be.

Midnight Phone Call

In the meantime, when Jerry Dammers heard Victor Romero Evans' reggae/ambient lover's rock recording 'At The Club' getting the thumbs-up on BBC Radio One's Roundtable, he was intrigued. It boasted the same kind of haunting vibe that he wanted for his latest composition. So he contacted the record's producer, John Collins.

"It must have been one o'clock in the morning when the phone rang and got me out of bed,” recalls Collins, who had recorded the track in the front room of his home in Tottenham, North London. "A tired-sounding voice said, 'This is Jerry of the Specials here. I've heard your record. Will you produce us?' I thought it must be a joke. I said, 'Do you know what time it is?' So he apologised and said he'd call me back the next day, which he did.”

Prior to recording 'At The Club' John Collins had produced an album of reggae instrumentals and actually pitched a couple of the tracks — 'Robber Dub' and 'Working Dub' — to 2 Tone. No reply had been forthcoming, but when Jerry Dammers saw that Local Records had released the Victor Romero Evans record, he recognised the name and gave Collins a call.

"He'd subsequently want 'At The Club' on 2 Tone with 'Robber Dub' as the B-side,” Collins says. "Victor, however, wasn't keen because 2 Tone wasn't a proper reggae label, so we accepted an offer from Muff Winwood at Epic, who had just signed Aswad.”

Small Beginnings

John Collins had first familiarised himself with Jamaican records during the late 1960s, when he had a Saturday job at a Tottenham record store where a special section catered to West Indian customers. At around the same time, he acquired an Elizabethan LZ29 three-speed, four-track recorder and began taping and overdubbing himself playing the guitar.

Later, while he was studying for an electronics degree at London's University College, Collins upgraded to a Sony TC377 open-reel recorder, but the quantum leap came when he purchased a TEAC four-track in about 1978. This was the machine that he used to record Victor Romero Evans, after being introduced to the actor and other local West Indian musicians such as drummer Everton McCalla and singer Nat Augustin, when all three were members of Collins's wife's dance group.

Selling his front-room recordings of aspiring reggae/dance artists via London-based shops and distributors, Collins released them on his own, aptly-named Local Records label that was at the forefront of the post-punk indie boom. What's more, given his engineering prowess, he built a drum machine that he used, along with his contributions on guitar and organ, to supplement Victor Romero Evans's vocals — and the backing vocals of Evans's friend Barrington Levine — on 'At The Club'.

Jerry Dammers signing the cheque for the 'Ghost Town' sessions at Woodbine Street behind the studio's Soundcraft Series II mixing desk. Note the soldering iron in the background!

"While I was there, they ran through three tracks: 'Ghost Town', 'Why?' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning'. 'Ghost Town' was played to me as an instrumental and it had a good groove, but the intro and ending still hadn't been worked out. John Bradbury counted them in and off they went, while for the ending they kept looping around until they got fed up and just sort of petered out. So those were the two main things that I'd change in the mix: adding the ghostly wind sound effects at the start — created on a Transcendent 2000 kit synthesizer — as well as the dubby ending. I'd done the same sort of thing on 'Lift Off', the B-side of 'At The Club', which starts with the sound of a rocket taking off before the track fades up exactly like 'Ghost Town'. Joe Meek did something similar on 'Telstar' — I wasn't the first person to do it, but it just seemed like a good idea for dub; a good, moody start. As for the echoey ending, I did something like that on 'Working Dub', which has a factory siren disappearing via repeat echoes into infinity; a very trippy sort of Pink Floyd influence.

"Even without a proper intro and ending, when I first heard 'Ghost Town', with all of those snake-charming and Hammer-horror bits, it sounded great and I was very impressed with the Specials as a band. After playing together solidly for a few years, they had a clear identity and sounded just like they did on the radio. Afterwards, at the pub, Lynval and Neville said, 'We didn't expect you to be white. We were expecting someone like Lee Perry; a wild rasta smoking ganja.' Obviously, I didn't fit the stereotype of a reggae producer, but that didn't cause a problem. They were all very co-operative.

"Having received a frosty reception at a gig that they'd done in Birmingham with Steel Pulse, the Specials probably felt like they didn't have enough recognition in the proper reggae market and thought I might change that. Reggae was a completely different world to that of a pop band — I suppose they wanted both, and in a way that's what they got with me. 'Ghost Town' was a bit more rootsy than what they'd done before, so it worked out quite well really. What's more, their second album had been done in an expensive, hi-tech studio, took a long time and cost a lot of money. So Jerry liked the fact that I worked with really basic equipment and I was relatively cheap.”

Keeping It Simple

Producer John Collins, 1980.

Thus the decision was made to record 'Ghost Town', 'Why?' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' at the tiny, rudimentary, but solidly booked Woodbine Street studio in nearby Leamington Spa, owned by John Rivers, who had earned a good reputation working with, among others, the Selecter and Horace Panter, Felt and other John Peel favourites.

"Jerry Dammers had a nightmare recording the second LP on 24-track, and now had this crazy idea of taking away the choices,” explains Rivers, who engineered the Specials' tracks. "Imagine that back then he thought 24-track gave you too many choices! God knows how he'd manage now with digital and unlimited tracks.”

A self-styled 'audio geek' who started out as a touring musician, playing keyboards in a Northern Soul band during the mid-to-late '70s, John Rivers first indulged his love of engineering with a valve Sony stereo machine that he used for track-bouncing overdubs, as well as some old mics and a six-channel mixer that he converted to stereo. Housing these in the living room of his Woodbine Street home, he says he "started getting results that were as good as the local eight-track demo studio. So maybe I had a reasonable ear even then.”

Thereafter, Rivers invested in a TEAC four-track, as well as an MM mixer and, while converting his lounge into a control room, he also transformed the cellar directly below into a live area. Thus was born the Woodbine Street studio.

"The ceiling height of that cellar was ridiculous,” he says. "It was probably only six foot six, but I couldn't afford to do anything bonkers like taking the floor out and raising the head room. Still, the crazy thing was, that room sounded absolutely brilliant. Later, when I began studying acoustics as preparation for my early 1982 move to where my studio is based now, in St Mary's Crescent, I learned about the 'golden ratio' and it turned out that, purely by chance, the cellar had the golden ratio of height to width to length. It must have measured about six foot six by 12 feet by 10 feet — I can't believe anybody wanted to work there!

"Inside that cellar, I lined the brick walls with two-inch by one-inch blocks of wood and put fibre board on top, which was nearly one inch thick and very absorbent and non-resonant. While the floor was carpeted concrete, the ceiling was marine ply and I put dry sand on there to add soundproofing, as well as a dirty great RSJ across the centre to stop it all sagging. I also installed a false wall between the front of the studio and the road, as well as double doors to get the gear in and out.”

By the time the Specials loaded in their equipment, the control room housed a Soundcraft Magnetics eight-track machine, Tannoy Westminster monitors and a 24:8:2 Soundcraft Series II console which, John Rivers now asserts, "I so wish I still had. It was just bloody brilliant, with Sowter microphone transformers and discrete components — such a sweet sound; the same kind that people revere old Neve mic preamps for. It was all really old-school.”

For Collins, it was state-of-the-art. "Having been used to four-track, I thought eight-track was a luxury,” he says. "Whenever I said something that smacked of lo-fi, Jerry would laugh. He thought it was really funny when I told him I had been working with just one mic, but it was true and he loved that.”

Meanwhile, both Dammers and Collins loved the fact that Woodbine Street's outboard gear inventory consisted solely of a pair of ADR F760XRS compressors and tape machines being used for echo.

"Neither of us liked digital reverb,” Collins continues. "You'd hear these pop records where the snare would sound like a dustbin being whacked. I hated that, and I still do. I prefer the more natural acoustic reverb because it gives you more of a mental image. You don't get a mental image with digital reverb; it sounds like something, but you don't know what it looks like.”

Engineer John Rivers, 1982.

The 'Ghost Town' sessions commenced at Woodbine Street on Friday, 3rd April, 1981, and continued until the following Thursday, at which point everyone took a three-day break, before embarking on another three days of recording from the 15th through to the 17th — 10 days of work over the course of just under two weeks. "I can't believe I still have my 1981 diary,” John Rivers exclaims.

With separate composers for each of the tracks — Jerry Dammers for 'Ghost Town', Lynval Golding for 'Why?' and Terry Hall for 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' — each man had a vested interest in ensuring that his song was prioritised and accorded A-side status that would earn him more royalties. So, as soon as it became clear that, once again Dammers was driving this train, the existing tensions were magnified.

"Everybody was stood in different parts of this room with their equipment, no one talking,” Horace Panters told The Guardian in a March 2002 interview. "Jerry stormed out a couple of times virtually in tears and I went after him, 'Calm down, calm down.' It was hell to be around.”

"I remember the looks that Jerry got when he was trying to describe the vocal chant in the middle of 'Ghost Town',” John Rivers now says. "Everyone thought he'd finally gone mad. And then there was the day we spent with Roddy, recording his guitar, before scrapping it because he was off his head.”

When a frustrated Byers tried to kick his way through the control-room wall, Rivers decided enough was enough and threatened to throw the band out of his studio. Fortunately, things calmed down, everybody stayed and, after the initial rhythm tracks were laid down together — drums, bass, rhythm guitar and guide organ — individual parts were overdubbed.

"As we were recording eight-track, I did go with a track plan,” says Collins. "I wanted the drums in mono on one track, the bass in mono on another and the rhythm — that shuffle organ and Lynval's DI'd guitar — on another. They're the backbone of a reggae song. Then there was brass on another track, lead vocals on another, backing vocals on another, and various little bits and pieces dropped in — John Rivers was very good at sharing tracks with more than one part. With dub, you want to be able to mute things. So, had the bass and drums been recorded as a stereo pair we wouldn't be able to turn off the bass without doing the same to the drums. 'Ghost Town' is basically a mono record with stereo reverb and echo that I added in the mix.

"To my ears, teenage music was too hyperactive and it wasn't rootsy. I thought the Specials should sound more like Sly & Robbie, so I brought a Sly & Robbie track with me — the 12-inch of Gregory Isaacs' 'What a Feeling' — and if you listen to that, the drumming sounds a bit like 'Ghost Town'. No frills; with less drums for Brad to hit and less mics, it had a cleaner sound. The same applied to the brass: John put one mic in the middle of the room, placed Dick and Rico in diagonal corners, and when we listened in the control room it sounded great. Recording simply in mono really helped the instruments balance themselves and John is such a good engineer that everything was recorded spot-on, creating an intimate sound in that confined space.”

"It's a terrifying thought, isn't it, working with only eight tracks,” John Rivers adds. "How the hell did I do it? Remember, instead of the Specials being recorded as a live band, everything was painstakingly assembled. It really was insane and should never have worked.”

For Bradbury's kit, Rivers miked the bass drum with an AKG D12, the snare with a Beyer M67 and the hi-hat with a Calrec 1051. With the addition of a pop shield, the 1051 was also used for Terry Hall's lead vocal. "I only had 20-odd mics back then,” says Rivers. "It was all a big bluff, and it came off!”

The song's central rhythm — a pumping organ sound that tied in with Lynval Golding's guitar chops for the basic reggae shuffle — was suggested by John Collins and played by Jerry Dammers on the Hammond up in the control room.

"That was quite a sticky moment,” Collins remembers. "Jerry found the part difficult to perform, he felt that the track was slowing down and John saved the day by saying, 'I'll get a stopwatch'. He was very meticulous like that, but Jerry wasn't happy and I thought the session was going to stop until John checked the tempo and said it was solid. At that point, Jerry came back in and, thanks to John, finished it off.”

"I have to say, Jerry is a really good keyboard player,” Rivers adds. "Very skilful and extremely versatile.”

Dammers played his Yamaha keyboard down in the studio for the snake-charm-type clarinet lead lines that doubled with a keyboard flute. This was in addition to a real flute.

"The guy who played the flute was a member of the [Coventry-based New Wave] band King and we recorded him in the hallway with a microphone at the top of the stairs to get the natural reverb from the stairwell,” Rivers recalls. "However, overdubbing the flute nearly killed me because it was not on a free track. [Flugel horn player] Dick Cuthell and [trombonist] Rico Rodriguez had already gone back to London, and I had to record that flute by actually dropping in. Originally, the lead part was done on Jerry's guide organ before the flute was dropped in on the brass track. Well, I had to put a piece of tissue under my chin because sweat was dripping off my face due to it being so scary — one mistake and that would have been it!”

More Wailing

While the recording was going on, Jerry Dammers was still completing the 'Ghost Town' lyrics... and getting heckled by John Collins into the bargain.

"I'd say, 'Come on Mr Songsmith, let's get these words done so we can record them,'” Collins recalls. "He'd sit there with his exercise book, working them out, including all of Neville's parts — 'This town is coming like a ghost town.' However, when it came to the backing vocals, Jerry had in mind one or two spots where they should go, and I thought the guys should sing them wherever they fit. That way, they'd be less likely to make mistakes, and when you're doing dub it's also quite nice to know that when you unmute a track something will be there. So I had them sing all the way through like a mantra, every two bars, and that worked out well for the ending. Suffice it to say, they did more backing vocals than they'd planned and some of them were used in places where they didn't expect them to be.”

Collins did some tape editing and took care of the mix at his home in Tottenham, where he used a borrowed Tascam DA88 eight-track. "Since that was a half-inch machine and John had a Soundcraft one-inch, I didn't take the tape,” he says. "I took my tape recorder to Woodbine Street and we copied the multitrack across to the half-inch. I had Dbx noise reduction on my machine and he had Bell noise reduction on his. At the same time, I also borrowed a TEAC Model III eight-track mixer to go with the tape, joined it to my six-track Model II and mixed down to my TEAC A3300SX. Then I had a MicMix Master Room XL305 spring reverb, a DeltaLab DL4 mono echo, a stereo EQ circuit that I built myself, a Dbx 165 that I borrowed, an Eventide Harmonizer that we hired for stereo echo and B&W DM4 speakers for monitoring.

"I mixed down to the two-track, mixing each section and editing the tape as I went along. Then, after a week or two of doing this, Terry Hall had this idea to do a toast. Jerry, who went along with this, also wanted more voices added to the wailing section and said a harmony was missing from the line 'Bands won't play no more'. I thought, 'Oh shit, I don't want to start again.' So, as I'd previously done with Victor [Romero Evans]'s stuff, I put the two-track on my four-track TEAC A3340S and just recorded on the two inner tracks.

At that point, I had the sub-master, and then Terry came to my place on his own and tried doing his toasting on one of the other tracks. After that, Jerry, Lynval and Neville also came round and, after Neville did some vocal overdubs, all three of them did more wailing on another track to thicken it out. In Jerry's words, he wanted it "more over the top”.

"Once they'd gone away, all I had to do was play back that sub-master and balance in some extra bits, including the sound effects at the start and end. This was after Jerry had deferred to me and I'd made the slightly difficult decision to not use Terry's toasting — it was too busy, it broke the mood and it basically didn't fit. If Terry wasn't happy about this, I'd have to take the blame, but what the hell? I took it upon myself to edit out certain other parts that also didn't fit and at that point I didn't even know if Chrysalis would actually release the record.”

History Repeating Itself

Well, on 12th June, 1981, Chrysalis did release the record. Two months earlier, amid soaring unemployment among ethnic minorities and the introduction of a racially-based stop-and-search policy by the local police, a full-scale uprising on the streets of Brixton, South London, had resulted in the injury of 280 police officers and 45 rioters, the burning of more than a hundred vehicles and the vandalising of some 150 buildings. Now, as 'Ghost Town' began its climb up the UK singles charts, major riots erupted all over Britain. An eight-day stretch starting on 3rd July saw violence and mayhem in cities that included Southampton, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh.

On 10th July, 'Ghost Town' began its three-week stint at number one. Never has a record's timing been more appropriate. And in 2011, just as it was celebrating its 30th anniversary, riots broke out all over again. Three decades had passed, but the situation and, accordingly, the sentiments, remained the same.

"Imagine me sitting in my Tottenham studio while fires were blazing just up the road,” John Collins muses. "Unbelievable.”

"There's something about that song and the way the guys performed it,” concludes John Rivers. "The stripped-down sound is so appropriate. It's very honest, very in-your-face, and the overall effect is haunting and timeless. ”

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The Music Aficionado

Quality articles about the golden age of music.

June 1, 2017 • 10

Ghost Town, by The Specials

If you were a young man in the summer of 1981 and you lived in one of Britain’s urban areas, you had, as the title of UB40’s song, a one in ten chance of being on the dole. Two years after the conservative party won the election with Margaret Thatcher at the helm, the aggressive economic policy of increasing interest rates and taxes reduced the inflation, but had a negative impact on the man on the street. No less than one million people became unemployed between 1980 and 1981, bringing the total folks looking for a job to a staggering 2.5 million, the highest in UK recorded history at that point. Hit the hardest were people from the African-Caribbean community, as not only their odds of landing a job were slim, but racial tensions and discriminatory police tactics threw them into a violent spiral in the streets. What is now known as the 1981 Summer of Riots came to symbolize the disillusion of British youth with anything that smelled like government and authority. It also had a soundtrack in a perfectly timed and appropriately named number 1 hit by the Specials, their creative peak – Ghost Town.

People's March For Jobs 1981

Peoples March for Jobs 1981

The discontent of the minor communities in the UK started way before 1981. Back in 1978 and before she won the election, Thatcher commented about immigration in an interview for Granada TV: “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in”. Thatcher continued disregard to folks at the lower range of the economic scale, many of them immigrants, did not help matters after she took office. Things came to a head in the spring of 1981 at Brixton in south London. Under the surface tensions were brewing for a while, as half of the black men were jobless and being on the street they were subjected to harsh police treatment. Police officers were encouraged by the sus (short for suspected) laws that authorized policemen to stop and search anyone to their discretion. After the police began Operation Swamp (named after Thatcher’s phrase) in the beginning of April to reduce crime, violence erupted in the form of turned police cars and fires that lasted a few days and ended with 280 police officers injured and hundreds arrested.

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Toxteth Riots 1981

Toxteth Riots 1981

That was only the beginning. In July riots started again and on the 8th of the month expanded to other London suburbs and over 20 cities across the UK. On the evening of July the 10th the Specials song Ghost Town went to number 1 in the singles chart. The mantra-like chanting of the phrase ghost town and the lyrics perfectly captured in real-time the essence of the times and the overall mood that descended the country.: Government leaving the youth on the shelf This place, is coming like a ghost town No job to be found in this country Can’t go on no more The people getting angry

Britain in Turmoil July 11

No better band in the UK was positioned to epitomize these times in a single song. The specials were an integrated and socially-conscious group with deep respect and knowledge of Ska, the music style that originated in 1950s Jamaica, a precursor to Reggae. But Ska alone was too tame a style for that moment in history. The Specials blended in just the right ingredient with their punk attitude, a style that came to be known as 2Tone, the name of the record label formed by band founder, keyboard player and main composer Jerry Dammers. 2Tone skyrocketed between 1979 and 1981 with The Specials contributing most of the hits. Gangsters was the first single for the label and the band continued with A Message To You Rudy and the number 1 Too Much Too Young . Other big hist for 2Tone included The Selecter’s On the Radio  and the first hit by Madness, The Prince .

A Message To You Rudy Single

Adding to the credibility of The Specials’ brew of Ska was the addition of horn players Rico Rodriguez on Trombone and Dick Cuthell on Flugelhorn. Rodriguez, known simply as Rico, was born in Kingston Jamaica and moved to the UK in the early 60s. A look at his discography is a tour into the the world of Reggae in the 60s and 70s, He played on the original version of A Message To You Rudy by Dandy Livingston in 1967. In the 70s he worked with some of the genre’s top bands including Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear and Steel Pulse. Fifteen years younger, Dick Cuthell has a more updated discography that finds him featured as session musician on albums by XTC, Joan Armatrading, and the fantastic Rum, Sodomy & The Lash album by the Pogues. The band not only sounded great, they also were quite a sight on stage, courtesy of Neville Staple, a ball of energy who was in charge of toasting, an old Jamaican tradition of talking over beats long before hip hop came on the scene.

Rico Rodriguez in 1980 with Jerry Dammers

Rico Rodriguez with Jerry Dammers, 1980

Ghost Town is at once The Specials’ creative peak and their last shining moment. As they were recording the song the band was coming apart. Problems started surfacing during the band’s tour of the US in 1980 as an opening act for the Police. Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll plus all kinds of luxuries and money had a corrupting effect on the lads who up to that point traveled the UK in a beat-up van and were united by a single purpose of getting the music out there. Matters did not improve when it became clear during the work on the second album that Jerry Dammers wanted a change in direction while the rest of the band were happy to continue with the rough punk-ska style that they excelled at. Ghost Town is a result of the music experimentation that Dammers kept pushing the band into, but it was also the band’s swan song.

Lead singer Terry Hall remembers the experience of recording the song: “When we started recording and we had to be in the same room that’s when it became really difficult. ‘Ghost Town’ took months and months to record. All separately; we didn’t actually do it in a room together. I remember I did my vocals in a living room in Tottenham looking out over a bus stop.”

Ghost-Town-cover

In its arrangement the song is an unlikely chart topper. The extensive use of the diminished chord at the beginning of the song and before the “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” part plus the eerie organ and strange wailing chorus are not the usual fare for a typical radio listener. Then again maybe this is exactly what was needed during that summer of 1981. The song was produced by John Collins who was the mastermind behind the use of the wind sound effects that kick off the song, played on Transcendent 2000 synthesizer. That synth was used by Joy Division on their debut album “Unknown Pleasures” and by Thomas Dolby. One influence for that opening is Joe Meek’s similar opening of the Tornados’ 1962 hit Telstar .

John Collins 1980

Making the song even more unusual is the Clarinet-like synth part played by Jerry Dammers on a Yamaha synth, a middle-eastern riff that first seems out of place but then you realize it is perfect for the song. Somehow all these parts, the horns and the Reggae rhythm section all come together, and the repeated chant of ghost town makes the whole thing an irresistible song. I selected to feature the 12″ version of the song, as it includes a beautiful trombone solo by Rico Rodriguez and additional organ parts by Jerry Dammers, both omitted from the single version.

To close, this is what Terry Hall said about the legacy of Ghost Town in an interview by ITV in 2021:

“Over the years when I’ve watched programs about society, the moment I see Margaret Thatcher’s face I’m waiting for Ghost Town and it always comes on because it’s that sort of song and always will be used as a soundtrack for that. It was a worthy No 1 record. It was at the right time, in the right place and by the right people, even though we were just kids. I’m very proud of it.”

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like reading about another social commentary on British life, going back to post-war veterans:

Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, by Richard Thompson

This town, is coming like a ghost town All the clubs have been closed down This place, is coming like a ghost town Bands won’t play no more Too much fighting on the dance floor

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

This town, is coming like a ghost town Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving the youth on the shelf This place, is coming like a ghost town No job to be found in this country Can’t go on no more The people getting angry

This town, is coming like a ghost town This town, is coming like a ghost town This town, is coming like a ghost town This town, is coming like a ghost town

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Categories: Song

Tagged as: 80s , Pop , ska

10 replies »

I am leaving this comment here to inform you that in my Media Studies class we are analysing Ghost Town as our close study product and I am bored as hell with this song no matter the history behind it.

guess you just had to be there its just out of context for you

not so woke then huh

DIS TOWN IS COMIN LIKE A GHOST TOWN

hello media students make sure u follow the chocolate boys all the way to grand champion on RL

hahahahahahhahahahaha flip reset

We all regret taking media then huh

Oh no rip Terry, just passed. An absolute legend. The song was brilliant and unique

Incredible single, an actual classic. It was a great pity the Specials broke up. RIP Terry Hall.

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Why The Specials recorded Ghost Town

20 December 2022, 11:22 | Updated: 20 December 2022, 11:38

Terry Hall of The Specials performing at the Rock Against Racism show, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 4 July 1981.

With the late, great Terry Hall on vocals, The Specials summed up the mood of the nation in the early 1980s... but what were the events that inspired this classic song?

Radio X

The death of Terry Hall on 19th December 2022, aged 63 has sent shock through the music world, but has prompted many to recall the musician's talent. Hall was singer in ska legends The Specials and the follow-up project Fun Boy Three , plus the projects The Colourfield, Terry, Blair & Anouchka and the supergroup with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, Vegas. Hall also wrote Our Lips Are Sealed, which became a huge hit for the US band The Go-Go's.

But it's Hall's marshalling of Coventry's Specials that will go down in history. The ska revivalists were the brainchild of Jerry Dammers, but it was Hall's dour persona - contrasting with the frenetic moves of fellow singer Neville Staple that made them one of the best live bands of the late 70s and early 80s.

It's Hall's mournful lead vocal that forms the backbone to the band's most memorable hit, Ghost Town.

ghost town the specials instruments used

The Specials - Ghost Town (Official Music Video)

"This town is coming like a ghost town / All the clubs have been closed down"

An eerie flute, a set of mournful voices and a beat that wouldn't be out of place at a funeral march... The Specials ' Ghost Town hit the top of the UK charts in the summer of 1981, marking the collapse of a country under strain and flagging frustrations and injustices that burn on to this day.

The song was born out of an attempt to encapsulate the life of a young person living in inner city Britain, and particularly the experiences of the black community, who were frustrated at the lack of opportunities afforded to them. Could music hold up a mirror to what society had become?

The Specials in 1978: Jerry Dammers, Horace Panter, Neville Staple, Terry Hall, Roddy Byers, Lynval Golding and John Bradbury

The Specials had formed in Coventry 1977 as the perfect mult-racial band: founder and keyboardist Jerry Dammers , singer Terry Hall , bassist Horace Panter , guitarist Roddy Byers and drummer John Bradbury were white; guitarist Lynval Golding and vocalist Neville Staple were both Jamaican born and part of the Windrush generation that moved to the UK when they were children.

Immigration into the UK had increased throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, due to the independence of many former British colonies. The Empire Windrush was one ship that stopped off in Jamaica, allowing many residents to take advantage of their newly acquired British citizenship and re-settle in the UK. The same thing happened across Commonwealth countries in Asia and Africa - all of whom were invited to Britain to contribute to the post-war economy.

However, the increase in immigration saw the rise of the National Front, the right-wing party that opposed the influx of people from the Commonwealth. In 1977, the NF saw gains in the Greater London Council elections, causing protests and violent clashes. The Rock Against Racism campaign was founded in 1976 as a reaction to the increasing support for right wing causes and held their first gig in London's Victoria Park in April 1978.

The Specials in New York City, 1980

Into this came The Specials. Jerry Dammers formed the group with the express intention of bringing together the black and white communities that lived in his hometown of Coventry. He told The Guardian in 2008: "It was all part of the same thing and for me it was no good being anti-racist if you didn't involve black people, so what The Specials tried to do was create something that was more integrated."

The Specials embraced ska: the Jamaican dancehall music of the 50s and 60s was mixed with the energy of punk and created a stylish, positive sound, light years away from the nihilism of the Sex Pistols. Even the label Dammers set up to release his music hinted at the integration he was aiming for - it was to be called Two Tone .

While The Specials hit the ground running with a number of hits - Gangsters and A Message To You Rudy were Top 10 and Too Much Too Young hit the top spot in January 1980 - by the making of their second album, More Specials , tensions were beginning to form within the band. The tour to support the record was blighted by violence among the crowds.

The Specials on their

As The Specials made their way around the UK in October 1980, Jerry Dammers could see the cracks beginning to appear both within the group and within the country. "You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible," he told The Guardian in 2002 . "The country was falling apart. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. Margaret Thatcher had apparently gone mad, she was closing down all the industries, throwing millions of people on the dole. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. It was clear that something was very, very wrong."

Police dog handlers on Atlantic Road on the second day of riots in Brixton, South London, 13th April 1981. (

The animosity in the air worked its way into a song. Dammers had been working on what would become Ghost Town for the best part of a year, "trying out every conceivable chord".

The recording of what was to become one of the most memorable songs of the 1980s was not smooth sailing. "Everybody was stood in different parts of this huge room with their equipment, no one talking," Horace Panter remembered of the studio session . "I can remember walking out of a rehearsal in total despair because Neville would not try the ideas," recalled Dammers. When guitarist Roddy Byers started kicking a hole in the studio wall, the engineer threatened to throw them out. Dammers panicked, crying: "No! No! This is the greatest record that's ever been made in the history of anything! You can't stop now!"

The song Dammers had written encapsulated the despair within the band and within Britain. The "ghost town" of the title could have been anywhere in the country as unemployment rose to over 2 million and industry collapsed.

Toxteth Riot 6th July 1981 Police officers in riot gear outside a burning looted shop in Park Road.

"Bands won't play no more..." the vocals chime. "Too much fighting on the dancelfoor".

After a disastrous show in Cambridge that saw singers Terry Hall and Neville Staple arrested for "inciting a riot" - they were actually trying to stop one - The Specials decided to quit touring.

As 1981 ground on, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's new "stop and search" policy meant police were targeting black youths more than ever. In April, disturbances began in Brixton over the police's heavy-handed tactics - but that was only the beginning.

Ghost Town was released on 12 June 1981 just as a series of riots began around the UK: Brixton and other parts of London, Liverpool's Toxteth area, Moss Side in Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds. Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Hull were all among the towns that experienced disturbances.

As Ghost Town climbed the charts, the protests increased. The single made Number One in the UK on 7 July, just as the unrest reached its peak. The Specials had summed up the angry mood of the nation.

Jerry Dammers felt vindicated: "It's hard to explain how powerful it sounded. We had almost been written off and then Ghost Town'came out of the blue."

After The Specials, Golding, Staple and Hall formed Fun Boy Three - pictured filming the video for Summertime in July 1982.

However, his triumph was to be short-lived. Backstage at the BBC's Top Of The Pops show as The Specials were recording a performance of Ghost Town, Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding broke the news to the rest of the band that they were leaving. The trio went on to have pop success in the early 1980s as Fun Boy Three. Dammers continued with a band known as Special AKA with their memorable protest song Free Nelson Mandela. Various line-ups continued to record under the name throughout the 1980s. The Specials reformed in 2008 for a show at Bestival, although without Dammers who claimed he'd been forced out. In 2019, the eighth Specials album, Encore, was released, attracting good reviews.

Terry Hall: 1959-2022

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Ghost Town (The Specials song)

The specials song / from wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, dear wikiwand ai, let's keep it short by simply answering these key questions:.

Can you list the top facts and stats about Ghost Town (The Specials song)?

Summarize this article for a 10 year old

" Ghost Town " is a song by the British two-tone band the Specials , released on 12 June 1981. [2] The song spent three weeks at number one and 11 weeks in total in the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart .

Evoking themes of urban decay , deindustrialisation , unemployment and violence in inner cities , the song is remembered for being a hit at the same time as riots were occurring in British cities. Internal tensions within the band were also coming to a head when the single was being recorded, resulting in the song being the last single recorded by the original seven members of the group before splitting up. However, the song was hailed by the contemporary UK music press as a major piece of popular social commentary , [3] [4] and all three of the major UK music magazines of the time awarded "Ghost Town" the accolade of "Single of the Year" for 1981. [5] [6] [7] It was the 12th-best-selling single in the UK in 1981. [8]

Oops something went wrong:

Terry Hall

The radical, anti-racist history of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

In honour of terry hall’s passing, we delve into the history of the ska band’s best-known single – a prophetic portrait of a nation in crisis.

Terry Hall, lead singer of ska band The Specials, died yesterday (December 19) at 63. 

The Specials are without a doubt one of the most significant and influential bands of the 1980s. The record label which they founded can be credited with creating a whole new genre: 2-Tone, a raucous blend of punk, New Wave, reggae and ska. Almost as important as the music was the attendant aesthetic, defined by Fred Perry shirts, mohair suits, slip-on loafers, and pork-pie hats. While this look was heavily indebted to Black culture, Hall – who once sang “ fashion is my only culture ” – can be considered a style icon in his own right.

From their first album onwards, The Specials dealt in bleak, kitchen-sink social commentary, a quality which was sometimes at odds with their boisterous music. The band was formed in Coventry, a city which – having been a car industry boom town for decades – was hit particularly hard by deindustrialisation in the 80s, by which point it had one of the worst unemployment rates in the UK. Thanks to Windrush-era immigration, it was also a multicultural place with a rich tradition of Black and white musicians playing alongside one another. As a multi-racial group, The Specials embodied this tradition and became were well-known for their explicitly anti-racist politics. These disparate elements came together most famously in “Ghost Town”, a 1981 single which sat at the top of the charts for three weeks, and remains one of the most iconic artifacts of British popular culture. 

“Ghost Town” is a snapshot of the UK at a point of extreme tension. It is associated with a series of riots that exploded across the nation at the exact time of its release. The song – written the previous year – prophesied rather than commented on these events. Built around organs, brass and a sinuous, eerie woodwind refrain, it evoked a feeling of impending doom and uneasy anticipation; the sense that things were about to explode.

As a comment on the effects of deindustrialisation, the lyrics could not be more explicit: “There are no jobs in this country… the government is leaving the youth on the shelf.” The desultory present is contrasted with “the good old days”, when the economy and nightlife were still thriving, before everything shut down and no one had any money to spend. As lyricist Jerry Dammers told the Guardian in 2002: “You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down... We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience.”

Racism is depicted more subtly in “Ghost Town”. Without being named directly, it’s something unpleasant lurking in the background. As both Hall and co-vocalist Neville Staple sing, “ Bands won’t play no more, there’s too much fighting on the dancefloor .” These lyrics were drawn from personal experience, as a number of their gigs had recently been disrupted by the National Front and other neo-Nazi groups. Not long before “Ghost Town” was released, guitarist Lynval Golding had been the victim of a brutal racist assault, which inspired a song released on the same EP. What’s more, the riots which the song seemed to predict were sparked by police violence against young Black men, including indiscriminate and widespread use of stop and search. The Specials may have addressed the theme more explicitly elsewhere, but racism is an integral part of the song’s vision of Britain as somewhere sick, fractured and rapidly unravelling.

While it’s typically thought of as a snapshot of early Thatcherism, the song has continued to resonate over the years, which is depressing in its own way. Far-right violence, racist policing, economic stagnation, clubs shutting down… you’d struggle to argue that any of these themes are less relevant now than they were in 1981. We still live in the world that “Ghost Town” depicts, and the sense of doom it evokes isn’t leaving us any time soon

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Song Meanings and Facts

Song Meanings and Facts

  • The Specials

“Ghost Town” by The Specials

by Amanda London · Published October 2, 2020 · Updated October 2, 2020

“Ghost Town” is focused on the unstable status of Britain’s economy, particularly in 1981, the period in which it was written. The main issues it addresses are economic instability, unemployment and violence.

According to the singers, the said town which was previously noted for its industrial activities is being abandoned as majority of its people relocated to other places in search of employment. In the first seven lines, the narrator recalls how the town was initially filled with joy and people entertained themselves with music and dance. In doing so, he juxtaposes it to the current situation of the town which is dry, unprofitable and unstable. As a result, most of the businesses, particularly clubs and places of entertainment had been shut down.

The song further discusses the racial violence that was prevalent at the time especially among the youth. It also recalls how there were several protests and riots against Margaret Thatcher’s government due to the high unemployment rates.

Jerry Dammer talks about the Inspiration behind “Ghost Town”

Jerry Dammers, speaking about the song, mentioned to  Radio X  that it was inspired by the frustration, tension and anger felt by people living in Britain at the time. And these were brought on by the negative effects of Margaret Thatcher’s government policies.

“Ghost Town” Facts

  • Primary Artist(s): The Specials
  • Writing : Jerry Dammers
  • Production : John Collins
  • Year of Release : 1981
  • Album/EP: “Ghost Town”

Purely a reggae song. Also considered to belong to the two-tone genre that originated from Britain.

Chart Performance

Atop Britain’s official singles chart it remained for 3 weeks until Shakin’ Stevens’ “ Green Door ” overthrew it.

Some notable singers that have produced different versions of the song include:

  • The Prodigy (2002)
  • Sammy Buzz (2012)
  • Melody Maker ‘s “Single of the Year” (1981)
  • Named “Single of the Year” in 1981 by Sounds Magazine

Was “Ghost Town” a single?

Indeed. The song was recorded and released before the breakup of the group. It is one of the singles from the band’s album which had the same name.

Other singles from the aforementioned album include the following:

  • “Friday Night, Saturday Morning”

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Too Much Too Young

October 2, 2020

 by SMF · Published October 2, 2020

The Specials

Song Meanings & Facts

  • Terms and Conditions

The Meaning Behind The Song: Ghost Town (Live) by The Specials

As a dedicated music enthusiast, there are certain songs that have left a lasting impact on me. One such song is “Ghost Town (Live)” by The Specials. I first heard this song on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and ever since then, its haunting melody and thought-provoking lyrics have stayed with me.

Table of Contents

A Captivating Composition

I remember stumbling upon this song at a friend’s house. We were going through his vinyl collection, and he excitedly pulled out The Specials’ album that featured “Ghost Town (Live)”. Intrigued by the name, I decided to give it a listen. Little did I know that I was about to experience something extraordinary.

From the very first note, I was captivated. The slow-paced intro, filled with melancholic horns and eerie keyboard chords, set the perfect atmosphere for the lyrical journey ahead.

A Town in Decay

The lyrics of “Ghost Town (Live)” paint a vivid picture of a town gripped by despair and abandonment. With lines like “This town is going like a ghost town” and “All the clubs are being closed down,” the song highlights the socio-economic issues and decline faced by many communities.

The Specials draw attention to the conflicts plaguing the youth, with lyrics such as “To much fighting on the dance floor” and “Why must the youth fight against themselves?” It delves into the frustration and disillusionment felt by an entire generation, who feel neglected and left behind by the government.

Reflecting Societal Realities

Released in 1981, during a period of economic recession and social upheaval in the United Kingdom, “Ghost Town (Live)” resonated with listeners who could relate to its depiction of a deteriorating society. The song’s lyrics rang true for many, as unemployment soared, businesses closed, and communities felt the weight of economic despair.

The song reflects the frustration and anger of the time, with lyrics like “People getting angry” and “No job to be found in this country.” It became an anthem for the marginalized, shining a light on the social and political issues of the era.

A Timeless Message

The power of “Ghost Town (Live)” lies not only in its historical significance but also in its ability to resonate with audiences across different generations. Its themes of social inequality and economic struggle are sadly still relevant today.

The Specials’ masterful composition and the raw emotion in their delivery create a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the song ends. It serves as a reminder to address the underlying issues in society and strive for a better future.

In conclusion, “Ghost Town (Live)” by The Specials is a masterpiece that goes beyond being just a song. Its lyrics and haunting melodies serve as a powerful reminder of the socio-economic challenges faced by communities and the frustration that can arise. As I listen to this song, I am transported to a time and place where music became a voice for the voiceless.

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Macguffin - Year 12

Information and Tasks for Year 12 Media Studies Students

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Music video: the specials - ghost town.

  • Mise-en-scene: setting, lighting, colour, actor placement/movement, costume and props
  • Camerawork and editing
  • A link between the visuals & lyrics (complement, contradict or amplify)
  • Genre characteristics (heavy metal in industrialised settings; rap music in urban street contexts etc.)
  • Contain intertextual references (references to popular culture)
  • Contain notions of looking (e.g. screens within screens)
  • Include objectification of females (e.g. male gaze)
  • Include demands of the record label (close ups of lead singer, symbols or motifs associated with the band / performer etc.)
  • Video will be performance, narrative or concept based.

The origins of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ (and why it eerily resonates today)

By Dylan Jones

Image may contain Human Person Clothing Apparel Hat Suit Coat Overcoat Sunglasses Accessories and Accessory

Having spent the last week or so working from home, trying to marshal the troops via Zoom, a few days before the lockdown I walked into the office to pick up some material I needed for a project we had just successfully moved to the autumn. In the end I spent most of the day there, doing emails, making more video calls and – mostly – cancelling things. After a brief trip to the Pret at the top of our square (egg sandwich on white bread, a Diet Coke and a banana, eaten in that order), I finished up and started to walk home. But, compelled by the inactivity around me, I took the long way, turning right instead of left, striding along Regent Street on my way down to Piccadilly Circus, where I was going to dart right, along Piccadilly itself, and stroll home via Hyde Park Corner.

And the faster I started to walk, the slower I became. I found myself being transfixed by the silence, alone in the vast city, padding around my own private video game. It certainly didn’t feel empowering, as the sensation of being alone was intensified by being in the city. It was as though I’d been walking around at night and someone had suddenly turned the lights on. 

Weird, just weird. 

The first thing I felt was guilt, being outside when I probably should have been indoors, but as I was completely alone this was a pretty futile emotion. The streets weren’t just empty of people, they were empty of life. As I walked south, I may as well have been self-isolating, because I was completely, completely alone. I felt as though I’d stepped out of one of those British TV science fiction programmes they made in the 1960s – back in a land of bowler hats, umbrellas and red phone boxes – those austere black and white ones when London had been the target of a neutron bomb, the ones that killed all the people but left the buildings intact. For a short while, I felt as though I could have been the last person in the capital, the last person alive, last man standing.

For a short while, I felt as though I could have been the last person in the capital

I’d felt like this before, intermittently, in the early summer of 1981, when, after days of rising tension and years of social deprivation, relations between the Metropolitan Police and the local community resulted in the Brixton riots. The first major Brixton riot, on 11 April, resulted in 450 injuries, the destruction or burning of more than 200 vehicles and 150 damaged buildings. Even though the police’s stop and search powers were about to be curtailed by a government who could see that they weren’t working, many in the force had become almost institutionalised, especially in their attitudes towards black youth. This situation was particularly fraught in the London borough of Lambeth, where over a quarter of the population were black, while 40 per cent of those were under 19. So the levels of anger were huge.

Although there were only 80 arrests during the first riot, more than 5,000 people were involved, a massive groundswell of anger. One policeman said it “looked like World War III. Cars blazing, people running everywhere”, while another said it was “like Beirut, not London. It was like another country.” At one point a double decker bus found itself weaving into the rioters; its conductor was quickly assaulted, its driver dismissed and, having been commandeered, was then driven at speed right into the police line.

Then, a few weeks later, in Toxteth, came the predictable sequel, followed by copycat riots in Southall, Moss Side, St Pauls, Handsworth and Chapeltown, in Leeds. Accustomed to low-level civil unrest, nothing had prepared the police for confrontations involving rioters using axes, sledgehammers and even cars as weapons. All of a sudden the country appeared to be spiralling into an endless cycle of violence, framing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the villain.

In the days after the first riot, Brixton was a binary postcode: furious and violent at night and completely empty and silent during the day. When we all woke, to survey the damage, most people quickly squirrelled back to their homes, appalled and embarrassed by the carnage they saw all around them and by lunchtime the streets were empty again. Completely. It felt as though everyone had been shipped out to the country, as the city shimmered with silence.

And breaking that silence wasn’t just the sound of petrol bombs and broken glass, it was the sound of “Ghost Town” by the architects of the recent two-tone revolution, The Specials. Not only was this one of the most important records of the early 1980s, it remains one of the most evocative, provocative singles of all time, a prime piece of agitprop that still has the power to shock. With its melancholic wailing, its hypnotic lope, its ominous organs and “The people getting angry” chant, there is no better mirror to the societal privations of 1981, a year that often felt on the brink of collapse. It’s one of the most baleful records to ever make No1. While punk was largely a cultural insurrection, repeatedly using thematic working-class imagery – the brutalist modern tower block being the most obvious manifestation of this, a symbol of post-war progress that very quickly became a totem of social deprivation – “Ghost Town” was a direct response to the urban distress that The Specials’ leader, Jerry Dammers, saw around him. The band had already had huge success as the standard-bearers of the multiracial 2 Tone organisation (which included the likes of Madness, The Selector and The Beat) and had had hits with “Gangsters”, “A Message To You Rudy” and “Rat Race”, among others. Inspired by punk, they had their own grudges to articulate and they were doing it through the medium of ska.

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“Britain was falling apart,” said Dammers. “The car industry was closing down in Coventry. We were touring, so we saw a lot of it. Glasgow were particularly bad.” In Liverpool he saw shops closing down, more beggars on the streets, little old ladies selling their cups and saucers on tables outside their homes and he started to see the frustration and anger in the young faces of those who came out to see his band. He felt that there was something very, very wrong affecting the country. “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, It’s hard to explain how powerful it sounded. We had almost been written off and then ‘Ghost Town’ came out of the blue.” 

The Specials were advocates of late-1970s postmodern ska, the inventors of two-tone and – for the briefest of times – quite simply one of the coolest, most important British bands of the post-punk period. They were a gang – five white men, two black – who dressed well, spoke sharply and didn’t look like they wanted to be messed with. In the space of just two years, from 1979 to 1981, the original Specials managed to embody the new decade’s violent energies, morals and conflicts – though always with an ironic and often sardonic detachment that kept the band cool as the 1980s grew increasingly hot. Their records defined a slice of a generation who weren’t sure they wanted to be defined in the first place. They were slightly yobby – the NME called their debut album “a speed and beer-crazed ska loon” – but they had an underlying social conscience. They would turn out to be temporal, but they left their mark in the same way The Clash did, or The Undertones, by connecting. Sure, the band were earnest, but they were studiedly sarcastic, too, which endeared them to everyone from ageing punks to their younger siblings. Not only that, but they came from Coventry, Britain’s very own answer to Detroit, the epitome of the post-war urban wasteland, the quintessential concrete jungle, and felt they had a right to bleat about anything they wanted to, especially the determined onslaught of Thatcherism. 

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Nineteen-eighty-one was a desperate year in the UK. Youth unemployment was rife as the country felt the bite of Thatcher’s cuts and riots were erupting all over the country, riots that appeared, with eerie synchronicity, at the same time as “Ghost Town”. It even felt like a riot, or rather how a riot felt just before it kicked off, or maybe just after it, when all the dust had settled. Dammers’ record was an apocalyptic portrait of inner-city oppression set to a loping beat offset by an unsettling and vaguely Middle Eastern motif: “Government leaving the youth on the shelf… No job to be found in this country…” The single sounded like the fairground ride from hell, a snake charmer of a song, complete with strident brass, madhouse wailing and dub-style breaks. The video was just as bleak, featuring a road trip through some of the least salubrious streets of Central London. The week after the song was released – bingo! – there were riots and civil disobedience all over the country.

The genesis of the song started back in 1980, after Dammers had witnessed the St Pauls riots in Bristol. For most of the 1970s, St Pauls – a predominantly black and white working-class area – had been the victim of deteriorating housing, poor education services and an increasingly strong police presence. Racial tension was high, as the Afro-Caribbean community felt victimised. Although the exact cause remains unclear, in early April, a riot erupted, involving nearly 2,000 people. It was this event that started Dammers thinking of “Ghost Town”, a song that would go on to define him, his band, and two-tone in general.

“St Pauls was the first riot, so I was aware of the situation,” he says today. “I was aware that things were deteriorating. ‘Ghost Town’ was obviously referencing the situation. Unemployment was heading for three million and it was a very worrying time.”

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“It wasn’t a surprise when it went to No1 – most things two-tone became hits,” said Pauline Black, the lead singer of fellow 2 Tone band, The Selector. “‘Ghost Town’ epitomised the two-tone idea that black and white can operate in the same unit and speak to the youth. And its sense of melancholy spoke clearly: there was the ‘sus’ laws [the informal term for the stop and search law that enabled the police to stop, search and potentially arrest suspects], inner cities not functioning, racism dividing the working class. There was fighting at our gigs; there were lots of National Front people around. There was frustration about two-tone falling apart. We were 1970s bands in a time of two-man synth bands. The record companies were happy to leave two-tone’s problems behind.”

Weren’t they just. Surrounded by a burgeoning new romantic movement, two-tone felt very council estate, very rough and very monochromatic.

“Ghost Town”, though, felt properly revolutionary, the kind of record that no one had the right to expect anymore. The riots themselves felt contemporary and weirdly particular. These were domestic experiences, the kind that visitors to the UK just wouldn’t understand. 

“Seventeen months separate The Specials' two No1 singles and a million musical miles,” wrote Simon Price of the Independent On Sunday . “Their first, a live recording of ‘Too Much Too Young’, was essentially The Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ gone ska, but the intervening year saw The Specials ditch that punky-reggae template. Jerry Dammers experimented with lounge-noir on their second album, causing intra-band friction. ‘Ghost Town’ initiated a strand of spooked British pop that has lived on in Tricky and Portishead’s trip-hop and the dubstep of Burial and James Blake.”

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Realism? This was urban decay writ large, accompanied by a kick drum and a muted horn. The kaleidoscopic “Ghost Town” didn’t offer balm for a world-weary pop-culture; rather it was a political exhortation. “For those of us who were not part of Thatcherism’s good life, for those of us who were excluded, then ‘Ghost Town’ spoke to our bruised hearts,” says Tony Parsons, who was still writing for the NME at the time.

The song was as much about the dissolution of the band as much as deindustrialisation and the toxicity of the streets. There had been internal fights within the group almost from the off, as Dammers was always trying to push the band in an experimental fashion. The recording of “Ghost Town”, which was the last time the original band were in a studio together, was so fraught and so obviously frustrating, that the guitarist Roddy Byers tried to kick a hole in the wall. As the studio was so small, each band member recorded their part separately, adding to the sense of separateness; and when they were together, there was bickering, scowling. It was this tense environment that produced the extraordinary sound of “Ghost Town”.

“The aural landscape is so vast that each member sounds disconnected from the next,” says Dorian Lynskey, in his history of protest songs, 33 Revolutions Per Minute . “[Terry] Hall’s chirpy memories of the ‘good old days’, Rico Rodriguez’s long elegiac trombone solo and that ghastly chorus of taunting wraiths. The record does not so much end as lose the will to go on, sinking back into the fog. Like all great records about social collapse, it seems to both fear and relish calamity. The ghost town is theirs to haunt.”

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“When I think about ‘Ghost Town’ I think about Coventry,” said the band’s drummer, John Bradbury, who grew up in the city. “I saw it develop from a boom town, my family doing very well, through to the collapse of the industry and the bottom falling out of family life. Your economy is destroyed and, to me, that’s what ‘Ghost Town’ is all about.”

The riots would eventually end, although not before The Specials themselves collapsed. As they were due to appear on Top Of The Pops to promote the record, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples told Dammers they were going to leave, appearing a few months later as Fun Boy Three (weren’t they just) with their debut single, “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum”, a record that owed much to the lyrics and orchestration of “Ghost Town”.

In some respects 1981 was defined by the riots as much as by the music they inadvertently inspired. Yes, there was a royal wedding, in sharp juxtaposition to inner-city decay, a wedding that would produce a genuine royal superstar, yet the riots – the worst for a century – would resonate throughout the country for years. Motivated by racial tension, a perception of inner city deprivation and heat, the defining factor was the ongoing war of attrition between the black community and the police. The four main riots occurred in Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool, although there were disturbances in at least 20 other towns and cities, including Derby, Bristol and, almost unbelievably, High Wycombe.

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The worst were in Brixton, on 10-12 April. Dubbed “Bloody Saturday” by Time , the main riot took place on 11 April, and resulted in a mass confrontation between the mob and the Metropolitan Police. There were 45 injuries to members of the public and nearly 300 to the police; more than 5,000 rioters were involved, many of who had simply come out to fight, as they had nothing better to do and nowhere better to do it.

“We were watching a live TV broadcast of the Brixton riots and saw this bloke smash a camera shop window and grab the biggest camera he could find, which looked like a Nikon with a motor drive,” says my friend Chris Sullivan, the former owner of the Wag Club. “He ran off with it, but then as soon as he passed an off licence, he stopped, turned around and then threw it through the window. He nicked as many bottles of booze as he could carry. He then ran away, leaving the camera behind. The camera was probably worth two grand, while the booze probably wasn’t worth more than £100 tops. That summed it up for me. It was a boys’ jolly.”  

In Toxteth, eye-witnesses recalled the ‘brazen calmness’ of the looters

In Toxteth, eye-witnesses recalled the “brazen calmness” of the looters, who were almost using the rioters as a human shield. They turned up with supermarket trolleys, safe in the knowledge they would never be caught. “Refrigerators, dryers, you name it,” said one observer.” I even saw one lady hold up a piece of carpet and ask if anyone knew whether it was 6ft by 4ft.”

The riots were more than a collection of urban disturbances, they were a media flashpoint that drew international attention to the huge rift in ideologies between the left and the right in the country, as well as the gap between perception and reality in terms of how the government were coping with the economy. There was also a growing sense that the Tories had no understanding of, and no pastoral interest in, the have-nots under their care, those who hadn’t wouldn’t benefit from financial deregulation, privatisation or Thatcher’s changes to the welfare state. While she would always say that she was empowering those who had previously been beholden to the state, Thatcher was criticised most often for having no idea what to do with communities when the safety net had been withdrawn. Especially as she was the one who had withdrawn them. The resulting report into the riots concluded that they were due to complex political, social and economic factors that had created “a disposition towards violent protest” due to racial disadvantage, inner-city struggles and the attrition between the local communities and the police. 

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The forgotten riot is the one in Brixton that started on 28 September 1985. It was sparked by the shooting of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce by the police, while they were looking for her son Michael Croce in relation to a suspected firearms offence. They thought Groce was hiding in his mother’s home, raided it and accidentally shot Mrs Groce, paralysing her from the waist down. As news of the attack spread, so hostilities began and the police lost control of the area for two days, during which time dozens of fires were started and shops looted, photojournalist David Hodge died a few days later, after a gang of looters he was trying to photograph attacked and beat him. The Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham, in North London, a week later, was dominated by two deaths. During a police search of her home on 5 October, an Afro-Caribbean woman called Cynthia Jarrett died of heart failure, triggering a sequence of events that resulted in a full-scale riot on the Broadwater Farm council estate, involving youths throwing bricks, stones and Molotov cocktails, as well as using firearms. At 9.30pm police constable Keith Blakelock was trapped by a gang of local balaclava-clad boys, blowing whistles and ringing bells, who tried to decapitate him using knives and machetes. He was butchered to death. According to a man watching from his second-floor flat, the mob was relentless, like “vultures tearing at his body”. When he was examined later Blakelock had 42 different wounds. Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, although all three were cleared by the court of appeal in 1991 after it emerged evidence had been tampered with (Silcott remained in prison for the separate murder of another man, Tony Smith, finally being released in 2003).

I spent the years between 1981 and 1987 knocking about in South London, living in various housing association flats in Brixton, Peckham, Herne Hill and The Oval. The 1981 riots happened just a quarter of a mile from where I lived in The Oval, while the 1985 riot happened right outside my front door. That year, 28 September was a Saturday and having just come back from a trip abroad, I had spent the whole day indoors, transcribing tapes, writing, listening to music and cleaning the flat, not bothering to go outside for a paper or turn on the radio or TV. The flat was right behind the Ritzy cinema, just off Coldharbour Lane, a first-floor, two-bedroomed housing association flat that backed on to a small courtyard and faced Brixton’s Front Line. The first I knew something was up was around five o’clock in the afternoon, when I started to hear screaming, windows being smashed and the sound of accelerated running past the window. I looked through the vast, seven-foot-wide venetian blind that faced the street and I saw dozens of local residents – almost exclusively young black men – running by my window carrying record players, televisions, CD players, radios, amplifiers, microwaves, small fridges, speaker systems, anything they could carry. They’d been looting in and around the shops in Brixton market and in a second I realised I was in the middle of a full-scale riot.

Now I was attuned to everything, including the sound of looters breaking in through the front door of our building. They streamed into the four ground-floor flats and took anything they wanted that they could carry (again, audio equipment, vinyl, TVs). I had already barricaded our own front door with various pieces of random furniture, although this was largely to try to appease my girlfriend, as I knew that any concerted push from the other side would have caused them to come tumbling down the corridor as the door flew open. The looters (even though they were ostensibly rioting, all they were really doing was stealing) did actually run up to the first floor, although they immediately headed back down again as the sound of sirens approached. Police ran into our building, but by then most of the looters had run off in the direction of Railton Road and safe havens.

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These were small gangs, little groups of boys who had grown up together, becoming disenfranchised together. When I rang my friend Robin, who lived up the road on Brixton Hill, and told him about the dozens and dozens of people still running by my window with enough stereo equipment to start their own branch of Curry’s, he laughed and rather unhelpfully suggested that I nip out and find something for myself (“Don’t you need a new stereo?”). We had both lived in Brixton for some time and had become almost immune to the attritional nature of the place. It was our version of gallows' humour, as we were no longer surprised by break-ins, muggings or harassment from the locals.

The next morning, Brixton looked as though it had been turned inside out, as everything that was usually inside someone’s house appeared to be outside, all the household detritus that looks so pathetic and parochial when removed from its natural habitat. And it wasn’t quiet, so much as mute. No noise. No sound. Nothing. The area soon went back to normal, although the fact that there were even more boarded-up windows in the market and along the high street just made you think that whatever forms of gentrification were taking place, Brixton was never going to get any better as, every time it did, there would always be those who would find a way to destroy it (most of whom lived there).

As we eventually moved out – shipping out to Shepherd’s Bush, in West London – so others took our place and a gentrification of sorts did occur, the kind that increasingly appealed to those who couldn’t afford to get onto the housing ladder anywhere else. By the end of the 1980s, those pockets of gentrification that had started to pop up around Central London would become so oversubscribed that those on the bottom rungs were pushed farther and farther out, so those previously out-of-bound areas east of the city villages that promised the sort of luxurious loft-living the young bankers in Docklands had been promised a decade before. Some thought this was progress, although what was rarely advertised in the Sunday Times’ Home section was the fact that most of these new developments were nothing less than gated communities. They didn’t need to say anything, as it was implicit. The gentrification of London was continuing at an unusually fast pace, one that reflected the new money swirling around and rushing into the city and the way in which it was being used as an architectural hothouse; but what was rarely discussed was the divisive way in which we were all now being forced to live, the rich rubbing up against the poor and neither of them appreciating it very much. 

London wouldn’t experience riots again for another 26 years, when the looters couldn’t even be bothered to swathe their frustration with their own plight with anything tangible; the looting in 2011 was simply an excuse to steal some new trainers. The gangs were bigger, more organised, more vicious, more resigned to living outside of society; no explanations or excuses were needed nor offered. Compared to the two-speed society of the tweenies (as economists are still trying to describe the second decade of the 21st century) 1985 seemed almost quaint.

The 1980s riots were devoured so much by the international media that the burning oil drum became as much a part of modern British iconography as the white suits in the 1981 television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – and for a while seemed to appear in any film about the British underclass, surrounded by a gang of Rada-trained professional cockneys and a smattering of generic gangsters, drug dealers and punky fishnets molls. To the outside world it looked as though rioting was what any youth cult worth their salt did when they’d grown tired of posing for style magazines or making bad pop records.

In South London, conflict gave an edge to every transaction in a corner shop, every late-night walk home

Living in London you certainly got the feeling you were somehow living under siege. In South London, conflict gave an edge to every transaction in a corner shop, every late-night walk home from the Underground. Walk into a Brixton pub and you felt eyes upon you. Television coverage of the riots painted them clearly as battles between residents and the police force, although what they really did was create even more racial tension between blacks and whites on the street, between neighbours of different ethnic backgrounds, between people who knew each other and of course those who didn’t. I had a friend who was chased down Gresham Road near Brixton Police Station by some of his black neighbours just because he happened to be white at the wrong time of day. He sought refuge in a (black) neighbour’s house, who promptly called out to the gang chasing him, who ran in and kicked the living daylights out of him. Police aggression made everyone paranoid, and made people who had previously lived quite happily side by side turn against each other because it seemed like the safest thing to do.

The morning after the first 1981 riot was almost as bad as the riot itself, as the mess and the devastation made you feel as though you were living in a place that was never going to improve, that was only ever going to get worse. And so you started treating the place with the same disdain; what was the point of throwing an empty cigarette packet in a bin if the bin was going to be thrown through the off-licence window later in the day? Back in 1981, walking around Electric Avenue and Atlantic Road after the first night’s disturbance was nothing if not surreal. You couldn't quite believe that things would ever return to normal, what with the broken glass, the boarded-up windows, the dozens of overturned cars, the smoke billowing from the shops in the market like some trashy post-apocalyptic movie. The carpet shop always seemed to suffer, not that any of the stock was ever taken. What had the rioters got against carpet shops? The looters concentrated on the electrical shops, on the ghetto blasters, television sets and radios. Coldharbour Lane always looked like a fairly unforgiving place at the best of times, but for weeks after the riots it felt as though it has been transported directly from some post-apoc wasteland, a tunnel of terror. Walking down the Lane at night you felt a little like Orpheus walking out of the underworld, too anxious to turn around and see what might be behind you. Everywhere there was tension. One afternoon that autumn, a few months after the 1981 riots, I had walked from a squat in Peckham up to The Oval and was just about to enter the Underground when I was approached by a gang of about a dozen skinheads. They were all over the place at the time, although they tended to leave Brixton and its immediate environs alone, so whenever you saw them in the area you suspected there might be trouble. I assumed that my dyed hair, red bandana and Chinese slippers had probably caused my shorn-haired friends to think I was a lily-livered liberal with a penchant for Afro-Caribbean culture, so as soon as I saw one of them reach into his pocket for his knife as he mentioned something I was meant to have said to his “sister”, I turned on my slippered heels and ran. All the way to Brixton. And, unlike Orpheus, without looking back.

The late summer of 1981 was a wake-up call for so many people I knew, as we had all finished college and were experiencing the inevitability of life on the dole, looking for work while juggling the day-to-day existence of a life without structure or a support network. For me and for so many others at the time, my support network was the black economy, acting as a cocktail barman at Brixton’s chi-chi nightclub The Fridge one minute and bunking the tube the next. On Tuesdays doing the door at a West End nightclub (where essentially you let in your friends for free and drank the profits) and on Wednesdays waking up with enough time to sign on. Odd jobs were essential to supplement what you got from the government: film extra work, a spot of photography, retail conference stewarding, modelling for friends who couldn’t find anyone else. DJing, drumming in bands who were never going to get signed, running a Sunday market stall in Camden Lock having spent the early hours buying up bric-a-brac in Brick Lane. Anything for cash. Seriously, what have you got? This was the time of Only Fools And Horses , of Minder , of Boys From The Blackstuff , of the nefarious and the naughty, the secondhand and the underhand. In our world, the economy was driven by nightclubs, as this was a completely cash economy. Club owners, club runners, DJs, bands, doormen, barmen, waitresses, bouncers and obviously the drug dealers. Everything was based on cash, as there was no other currency. Having no safety net meant we encouraged each other to be more entrepreneurial than perhaps we would have been otherwise, although none of us were the kind of people who would have pursued jobs for life.

Urban deprivation for us was a backdrop to a new world, one in which we knew we were going to have to fend for ourselves.

When Mrs Thatcher first arrived in Downing Street in 1979, there were many who thought she would become as much a prisoner of the Whitehall machine as her predecessor, Edward Heath, yet she quickly used abrasiveness to slap down the mandarins. “She gives the civil servants hell,” said one observer soon after she became prime minister. “She writes these brusque, caustic notes accusing them of woolly thinking and they are absolutely terrified of her.” The cabinet were terrified too, as her treatment of her colleagues was appalling. There would be no woolly thinking in Mrs Thatcher’s government. Elected against a background of rotting refuse and unburied bodies following the Winter Of Discontent, she took her mandate for governing as a mandate for change. 

No woolly thinking.

Thatcher had a habit of invoking the pernicious legacy of the so-called “permissive society” whenever she was confronted with something she didn’t understand. It was easier for her to stand back, aghast. Equally, Thatcher dismissed the idea that racism, heavy-handed police tactics and unemployment were behind the Brixton disturbances – even though police brutality and continual harassment of young black men has been one of the prime motivators behind the riots – saying “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened… What aggravated the riots into a virtual saturnalia was the impression gained by the rioters that they could enjoy a fiesta of crime, looting and rioting in the guise of social protest. They felt they had been absolved in advance.” She was criticised for this outburst, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. She was, though, when she claimed that money couldn’t buy either trust or racial harmony. What many forgot about the peace process in Northern Ireland was that it was as much to do with prosperity as political and sectarian will. Of course large-scale investments would have helped Brixton, although the more disquiet there was, the more unlikely any investment seemed. However, it was to come sooner than anyone thought, as Tesco bought a site on Acre Lane the day after the 1985 riots. Gentrification eventually came to Brixton, inadvertently moving it upmarket – not by much, but by enough. Pride followed prosperity and in the summer of 2011, when opportunistic revellers attending a street party used the excuse of the riot in Tottenham a few days earlier to loot and burn a string of shops in Brixton, local residents were incensed, calling the thugs “pathetic… It’s just an excuse for the young ones to come and rob shops. We are going to get people blaming the economy and what happened last week but that’s not the real reason this happened. This is costly for our community reputation.” It would have been difficult to imagine the residents displaying the same sentiments in 1981 or indeed in 1985.

Brixton would change over the next 30 years or so, especially after the millennium. From 2001 to 2012, the Afro-Caribbean population of Lambeth, the borough that houses Brixton, fell by eight per cent, even though the borough’s overall population rose by nine per cent. As the Economist pointed out at the time, this was largely due to black flight. To escape crime and to buy bigger houses and to get their children into better schools, they fled to suburbia, specifically to the areas on the outskirts of South East London.

From 2001 to 2012, the Afro-Caribbean population of Lambeth, the borough that houses Brixton, fell by eight per cent

Gentrification continued apace, as Lambeth Council spruced up the area, preventing the conversion of houses into flats to attract middle-class house buyers and transforming the old covered market into a shopping mall with upmarket cafes and restaurants. A year after Brixton Village opened in 2011, just as the 2000s ended, house prices had risen by as much as 20 per cent, in a market where residential property was largely flat. 

Around the same time, if you had been reading the small ads in the arts pages of your favourite national newspaper, you would have seen that revival tours were all the rage. The Human League, The Who, Lloyd Cole, Ultravox, Deep Purple, The Eagles, Golden Earring and Simply Red were all treading the boards again, seemingly regardless of how these opportunistic outings would ultimately affect their legacies. And who could blame them? They were gigs, after all. People at the time would pay good money to see bands they enjoyed in their youth, sometimes regardless of how many original members they contained. That weird little band from 1983 whose only hit you once devoured as though it were the essence of life itself? Yup, well they were probably back too, playing the Shepherd’s Bush Empire the night after Joe Jackson and probably supporting Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or The Happy Mondays. With all the original members, too, strangely – apart from the drummer, who had no doubt died in a bizarre gardening accident in what the rest of the band at the time thought was a misguided, if not completely unfunny, homage to Spinal Tap .

At the time, as far as music was concerned, there was nothing quite so au courant as nostalgia.

And if you looked carefully, you would have seen that The Specials were back too, churning out the old hits as though they were a human jukebox. They were greeted with open arms by the critics and public alike, only they weren’t really The Specials at all, because the most important member, Jerry Dammers, the man who invented them, who gave the band their political edge, who wrote most of their songs and who was responsible for making them truly memorable, was not encouraged to participate in the reunion (“I founded The Specials and now they've excluded me,” said Dammers when the band first reunited, in 2008). There had always been friction between Dammers and the group’s singer – Terry Hall, one of the most (self-proclaimed) miserable men in pop – and that friction continued, obviously to the extent that they found it impossible to work together.

Dammers was the creative genius behind The Specials, the man who gave them their idiosyncratic musical tropes and who set them apart from the likes of The Selector, The Beat or Bad Manners. The Specials without Dammers were like The Doors without Jim Morrison, Queen without Freddie Mercury, or Morecambe & Wise without Morecambe or, er, Wise. I saw the reformed Specials support Blur at their gig in Hyde park in 2012 and the band looked like a bunch of fiftysomething cab drivers and sounded like the musical equivalent of a Sunday morning football match. They didn’t play “Ghost Town”, but then how could they? The man who wrote it wasn’t there.

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I knew Dammers extremely well for about five years in the 1980s. I would regularly hitch up to Coventry to sit in sullen working men’s clubs with him and his extraordinary circle of friends and acquaintances, discussing socialism (we differed), the provenance of Prince Buster and the validity of Heaven 17. We went clubbing together, spent a few memorable New Year’s Eves in Bristol (where his parents were from), spent birthdays together and once DJ’d together at a miners’ benefit at the Wag Club in 1983 (he played politically correct funk while I played right-of-centre disco). I even sat through some of the tortuous recording of the 1985 album In The Studio by The Special AKA (as The Specials morphed into), containing Jerry’s defining moment, the monumentally influential “Free Nelson Mandela”. Inspired by Live Aid, this song ultimately led to the Mandela Seventieth Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988 and helped add to the groundswell of support that led to Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. 

Dammers was always a genuine bohemian and in a way it was no surprise to me the way his career panned out (DJing, production, forming various esoteric dance orchestras). However, I also thought he might turn out to be our generation’s John Barry, scoring important movies with solemn yet iconic orchestral themes, balancing Jacques Derrida with Francis Lai, Scott Walker with Dr John. To me, Dammers was the Lennon and McCartney of ska and one of the most important voices of the post-punk generation, a man who always appeared to be carrying his generation’s hopes and dreams on his shoulders, as well as his own. That he didn’t turn into John Barry was a disappointment to me, but probably not to him.

I was thinking about “Ghost Town” the other day as I walked home, lost in reverie, but oh-so-aware of everything around me. I knew the enemy was out there, just as it had been nearly 40 years ago. I couldn’t see it, couldn’t smell it, but I just knew it was coming.

Jerry Dammers is in the middle – or thereabouts – of recording a new album, down in his studio in South London. He has hours of material “in the can”, as he says, but needs time to get it into shape. With all his DJing work cancelled for the time being, he is wisely using this period to try to finalise output he’s been tinkering with for years. “I’ll get there in the end,” he says. “I’m not a perfectionist but I want this to be good. I think it is good, but I want to give it my best shot. Once and for all.” I spoke to him for this article a few days ago and he is as disconcerted by the current crisis as all of us. Up until the lockdown he had been working late most nights, regularly seeing the crazies who still stalk the streets in the early hours in these desperate times and still freaked out by the desolation. “It’s quite spooky walking about at night. I would come back from the studio in the middle of the night and worryingly there would be the odd lunatics walking the streets. It’s only the most extreme people who appear to still be out there. It’s strange times.”

Head to GQ 's Vero channel for exclusive music content and commentary, all the latest music lifestyle news and insider access into the GQ world, from behind-the-scenes insight to recommendations from our editors and high-profile talent.

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The Specials - Ghost Town [12-inch] (Cover Artwork)

The Specials

Ghost town [12-inch] (1981), two-tone records.

Ghost Town is a remarkable time capsule of a song that showcases early 80;s UK turmoil and dilapidation in both Government, Unemployment, Urban Decay and the overall mood of the country through second wave Two-Tone Ska. Sad times happened in 1980 and 1981 (many riots!) and this song hit at the right moment. Band leader Jerry Dammers wrote the lyrics as a response to all the essence that was draining before him. People were losing jobs and living on the streets, the government was in shambles, recession swept through, businesses were closing with boarded up windows to show, clubs that once housed young adults on the weekends were empty, frustration, anger, doom, and so on and so on. Lyrically “Ghost Town” is so well written that it needs to be studied in creative writing courses in regards to prose and use of imagery.

It;s incredible that The Specials were actually able to record the song at all. As history now shows, inner turmoil was seeping through the group and breaking up didn;t seem far away. Their second release, 1980;s More Specials, didn;t exactly light up the charts and the reception was not as fawning as given to their excellent self-titled debut. After some lengthy time off from touring the members came together to whip out the three tracks on this ep, and after barely making it through the recording process, ending up having the #1 single in 1981 and song of the year in popular UK mags like Melody Maker and NME.

The ep was originally released on 7-inch but then given an extended edition on 12-inch. The extended edition is the one to go for. Each track is given a bit more time to breathe which added depth and insight. “Ghost Town” is the best example. The instrumentation is exceptional and when you read about the recording process the band went through with mono and 8-tracking each instrument separately, the end result is wonderful to hear. Roots reggae was an inspiration and the song's co-writer and producer John Collins stated:

“ As we were recording eight-track, I did go with a track plan. I wanted the drums in mono on one track, the bass in mono on another and the rhythm ““ that shuffle organ and Lynval's DI'd guitar ““ on another. They're the backbone of a reggae song. Then there was brass on another track, lead vocals on another, backing vocals on another, and various little bits and pieces dropped in... 'Ghost Town' is basically a mono record with stereo reverb and echo that I added in the mix... The same applied to the brass: John Rivers put one mic in the middle of the room, placed Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez in diagonal corners, and when we listened in the control room it sounded great. Recording simply in mono really helped the instruments balance themselves. "

Truly a testament to the rugged early days of studio tinkering and doing the best with what you got, “Ghost Town” sounds enormous and lush with atmosphere. The decision to make the song sound both eerie lyrically (the chant " This town is coming like a ghost town” “ is repeated many times throughout the entirety) and instrumentally (a synthesizer was used to create the ghostly fade in and fade out) was a genius move despite some members backlashing against the style Dammers and Collins wanted.

The rest of the ep is quite good as well. Second track “Why”, written by guitarist Lynval Golding, is a song in response to a racist attack he encountered outside a club which left him hospitalized with broken ribs. Lyrically it;s also stellar and lines such as: “I know I am black / You know you are white / I'm proud of my black skin / And you are proud of your white, so / Why did you try to hurt me? / Tell me why, tell me why, tell me why” “ hits hard in the face of racism all while hiding behind a pretty fun sounding Ska pop song. Third and final track, "Friday Night, Saturday Morning", is another gem and its self-deprecating tone, with an enormous amount of irony and sarcasm in the lyrics, is very familiar to this writer here. “ Out of bed at eight am / Out my head by half past ten” “ Ugh”

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  3. The Story Behind Ghost Town, by The Specials

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  5. 40 years on, The Specials' era-defining anthem 'Ghost Town'

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  6. Ghost Town (The Specials) ★ FREE Video Drum Lesson

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  3. Ghost Town (The Specials) An Instrumental Cover by Chris Rendall

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COMMENTS

  1. Ghost Town (The Specials song)

    "Ghost Town" is a song by the British two-tone band the Specials, released on 12 June 1981. The song spent three weeks at number one and 11 weeks in total in the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart.. Evoking themes of urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence in inner cities, the song is remembered for being a hit at the same time as riots were occurring in British cities.

  2. Ghost Town by The Specials

    "Ghost Town" was the seventh UK Top 10 for The Specials and their second #1, following "Too Much Too Young."The song wasn't even released as a single in America, where the band tried and failed to break through in 1980 with a tour and an appearance on Saturday Night Live.They learned that getting on the radio and placed in record stores there was nearly impossible because there was no ...

  3. The Meaning Behind The Song: Ghost Town by The Specials

    It serves as a reminder of how things have changed and how the sense of community and joy that once existed has been lost. Musically, "Ghost Town" is a masterclass in blending different genres. The ska and reggae influences are evident, creating a captivating and infectious rhythm. The use of brass instruments adds depth and power to the ...

  4. Classic Tracks: The Specials 'Ghost Town'

    The haunting dub of 'Ghost Town' perfectly captured the mood of its time, and spent three weeks at the top of the British charts during the turbulent summer of 1981. The Specials playing live at The Hope & Anchor, Islington. Photo: David Corio/Redferns. On 2nd April, 1980, less than a year into Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister ...

  5. Ghost Town

    Neville Staples - Vocals/percussion. Sir Horace Gentle man - Bass. The Specials -. Formed in 1977. 2 tone Reggae and Ska Band. Established in Coventry, England. Instruments heard in 'Ghost town' are very different to the normally rock-'n'-roll such as: Haunted-house organ. Loping/strident bass.

  6. Ghost Town: The story behind a special song

    The background: Released almost 40 years ago, Ghost Town was a protest song, a bitter commentary on Thatcher's England. Its despair-laden lyrics reflected the depressing time: a country in deep recession and the decimation of towns and cities like Coventry where The Specials hailed from.

  7. Ghost Town, by The Specials

    On the evening of July the 10th the Specials song Ghost Town went to number 1 in the singles chart. The mantra-like chanting of the phrase ghost town and the lyrics perfectly captured in real-time the essence of the times and the overall mood that descended the country.: Government leaving the youth on the shelf.

  8. Why The Specials recorded Ghost Town

    Why The Specials recorded Ghost Town. 20 December 2022, 11:22 | Updated: 20 December 2022, 11:38. Terry Hall of The Specials performing at the Rock Against Racism show, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 4 ...

  9. Ghost Town (The Specials song)

    "Ghost Town" is a song by the British two-tone band the Specials, released on 12 June 1981. The song spent three weeks at number one and 11 weeks in total in the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart.

  10. The radical, anti-racist history of The Specials' 'Ghost Town'

    As a multi-racial group, The Specials embodied this tradition and became were well-known for their explicitly anti-racist politics. These disparate elements came together most famously in "Ghost Town", a 1981 single which sat at the top of the charts for three weeks, and remains one of the most iconic artifacts of British popular culture ...

  11. The Specials "Ghost Town" Sheet Music in C Minor (transposable

    Product #: MN0126090. More Songs From the Album: The Specials - Ghost Town. Publishing administered by: BMG Rights Management. Ghost Town sheet music by The Specials. Sheet music arranged for Piano/Vocal/Chords in C Minor (transposable). SKU: MN0126090.

  12. "Ghost Town" by The Specials

    The main issues it addresses are economic instability, unemployment and violence. You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for The Specials's Ghost Town at Lyrics.org. According to the singers, the said town which was previously noted for its industrial activities is being abandoned as majority of its people relocated to ...

  13. The Specials

    Ghost Town Lyrics. [Verse 1] This town is coming like a ghost town. All the clubs have been closed down. This place is coming like a ghost town. Bands won't play no more. Too much fighting on the ...

  14. The Meaning Behind The Song: Ghost Town (Live) by The Specials

    The Specials' masterful composition and the raw emotion in their delivery create a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the song ends. It serves as a reminder to address the underlying issues in society and strive for a better future. In conclusion, "Ghost Town (Live)" by The Specials is a masterpiece that goes beyond being just a ...

  15. The Specials

    You are watching the official remastered HD video for of 'Ghost Town' by The Specials. A timeless classic, which originally reached the UK number on in June...

  16. Ghost Town (The Specials)

    Download and print in PDF or MIDI free sheet music for Ghost Town by The Specials arranged by koen1123 for Trombone, Organ, Vocals, Flute, Trumpet in b-flat (Mixed Quintet) Browse Learn. Start Free Trial Upload Log in. New Year means new discount: Get 90% OFF 12: 23: 34. View offer. 00:00 / 04:00. Off. 100%.

  17. Ghost Town by The Specials

    Play-along of the main guitar parts to Ghost Town by The Specials followed by a tutorial on the chords, rhythm and lead parts. Intermediate level.

  18. Macguffin

    The Specials: Ghost Town video analysis The video combines eerie shots of a deserted East End of London with the band in a 1962 Vauxhall Cresta lip syncing. The mise-en-scene and cinematography seem to reference a range of film styles including British social realism, thriller and horror genres, with the expressionist lighting drawing attention ...

  19. Ghost Town by The Specials (Music video, 2 Tone): Reviews, Ratings

    The Specials go for a drive. The dark dead look on their face is kept throughout until Terry has his own vocal bit where they all become jolly. Weird vibes, but it's one of their best songs and it's not just them performing in a white void so it gets a pass.

  20. Why The Specials' 'Ghost Town' eerily resonates today

    It was this event that started Dammers thinking of "Ghost Town", a song that would go on to define him, his band, and two-tone in general. "St Pauls was the first riot, so I was aware of the ...

  21. The Specials

    Two-tone records. Ghost Town is a remarkable time capsule of a song that showcases early 80;s UK turmoil and dilapidation in both Government, Unemployment, Urban Decay and the overall mood of the country through second wave Two-Tone Ska. Sad times happened in 1980 and 1981 (many riots!) and this song hit at the right moment.

  22. The Specials

    Chords: Cm, Bbm, G, E. Chords for The Specials - Ghost Town. Chordify is your #1 platform for chords. Includes MIDI and PDF downloads. ... Instrument. Discover Premium. Diagrams Overview Edit Show all edits. Rewind to play the song again. Please wait while the player is loading. 3, 2, 1.. Volume; loop; 100% tempo; 100% tempo; capo

  23. GHOST TOWN TAB by The Specials @ Ultimate-Guitar.Com

    View all instruments. Use a mixing console in Pro version. Continue. Edit. Add to playlist. Add to Favorites. Ghost Town Tab by The Specials. 382 views, added to favorites 30 times. A tab that is accurate to how The Specials actually play this song. ... Author kerem.ozkan [a] 31. Last edit on Sep 29, 2022. View official tab. We have an official ...