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 election win under Margaret Thatcher, the aggressive economic policy of increasing interest rates and taxes reduced the inflation but had a major 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 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 the 10th Ghost Town went to number 1 in the singles chart. The mantra-like chanting of the phrase ghost town and the lyrics:
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

perfectly captured in real-time the essence of the times and the overall mood that descended on the country.

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.

Ghost-Town-cover

In its arrangement the song is am 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 of a typical radio listener. Then again maybe this is exactly what was needed 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.

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.

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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

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: Songs

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