“Ghost Town” by The Specials: The Sound of Impending Doom | New British Canon

“Ghost Town” by The Specials: The Sound of Impending Doom | New British Canon

November 17, 2019 100 By William Hollis


This video is sponsored by Squarespace. For when you need a website for your independent business or band. The UK single chart used to mean something. Now not so much but before the age of streaming an number one single was an achievement
to be proud of especially when the artist wasn’t your
stereotypical pop act. Many influential acts have never reached
the chart’s apex not even close. But yet Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden,
The Clash, Arctic Monkeys and the Manic Street Preachers
have taken the top spot With rock always stuck
in the shadow of pop supremacy there’s a sense of accomplishment in the face of impossible odds. But rarely if ever has a number one single captured a moment in history as
concisely as The Specials did in 1981. The band’s legacy is audible in artists
as diverse as Operation Ivy, Massive Attack, The Streets, The Prodigy and Lily Allen but with their second number-one single
The Specials managed to capture the malaise of the British public, the strain
of unemployment and the tensions of cultural unrest. This is New British Canon,
and this is the story of “Ghost Town.” The Specials started in Coventry in the
British Midlands in 1977. The first stable lineup the group consisted of
vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staple, guitarists Lynval Golding and
Roddy “Radiation” Byers, bassist Horace Panter, drummer John Bradbury, horn players Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez, and keyboardist and mastermind Jerry Dammers. Growing up in multicultural Coventry The Specials lineup consisted of both white and black musicians, a rarity at the time. Said Dammers: Their music was an extension of this: equally inspired by the UK punk scene of late 1970s as well as by Jamaican ska music from the 60s. It was a powerful new sound
and the nation’s youth soon latched on to it. The Specials first single, “Gangsters” was released in May 1979. It was a punkier reworking of Prince Buster’s 1964 ska classic “Al Capone” with the original’s wordlessness traded for the nasal wail of Hall and the gruff toasting of Staple. It was released on their own independent
label called Two-Tone. The name was inspired by their multi-genre and multicultural synergy; the label’s trademark monochrome checks showing black and white peacefully coexisting beside each other. Despite being independent release,
“Gangsters” reached number six in the UK charts. With this brought new acts on Two-Tone including Madness, The Selecter and The Beat All creating new spins on the ska punk formula set out by The Specials. The 8th of November 1979 episode of Top of the Pops would feature performances from three of those acts showcasing a new direction in British rock music, separate from the post-punk
and new wave acts of the time. Over the next two years The Specials released
two albums becoming one of the biggest bands in
Britain in the process. But their defining statement would arrive in May 1981. The Specials were at a turning point in
their career. On their preceding album More Specials,
the punked up ska was still present in part but Jerry Dammers had taken influence
from easy listening musak keys and rhythms Not only was this not what the
majority of the band wanted to be doing but also confused their audience. Their next release would be the Ghost Town EP. Its Dammers penned title track incorporated
discordant horns, haunted chords and demonic vocal harmonies for something
decidedly not easy listening. The song’s subject matter was inspired by the economic depression that the band was seeing as they toured the UK. Local businesses closing down, joblessness
and a rise of violence at their shows. While previously the band had written about nightclubs as a poor excuse for escapism even this was being taken away. Said Staple: The place mentioned to be closing down
in “Ghost Town” is the Locarno which is also mentioned on EP track,
“Friday Night, Saturday Morning”. Dammers recalls in Glasgow seeing two old women on the street selling their cups, saucers and plates, such were the financial issues facing the country. “You know, Margaret Thatcher was busy closing down huge swathes of British industry” “because they were profitable.” “She was like Al Capone, I would guess, because her mob weren’t getting paid, “she was gonna shut them all down
so that’s what happened.” “And we were touring the country and
we could literally see it happening.” The National Front movement was blaming this unemployment and economic depression on the immigrant population of the UK and the racist skinheads that supported the movement started making trouble at shows of the
multiracial Specials This line references the fact that the
violence at their shows was getting to the point
that the band had decided to quit touring. To further make
the immigrant population of Britain on edge the police were employing stop and search tactics on minorities which led to the St. Paul’s riots in Bristol in April 1980. 130 people were arrested, 25 taken to hospital including 19 police and members of the press Other similar upheavals were happening
throughout the country. As stated in the song: While listening to BBC Radio One’s single review programme, Round Table Dammers heard “At The Club” by Victor Romero Evans. Impressed by the track’s rootsy, reggae sound,
he decided to seek out its producer, John Collins. The initial sessions for the EP were held
from the 3rd April 1981 at the eight-track Woodbine studios in Leamington Spa, a conscious stepped down from
the 24-track Horizon Studios where The Specials had created More Specials. Compared to the hyperactive rhythms present
on other Specials tracks, “Ghost Town” has more sedate spacious
drums and bass inspired by a 12-inch of Gregory Isaacs’
“Oh What a Feeling” that Collins had brought in for reference. Being that “Ghost Town” didn’t really
start beyond a simple drum intro, Collins faded the track in under a sound effect, a technique day he’d previously used on
“At The Club” b-side, “Lift Off”: He accomplished this using a kit built
Transcendent 2000 synthesizer to create the ghostly sound effect at the start and
the end of the song. While recording Dammers still hadn’t worked out where he wanted the backing vocals as such the backing vocal chant was recorded for the entirety of the song so that Collins could mix it in
whenever he needed. As Collins stated: During the “Ghost Town” sessions members of
The Specials were barely talking to each other. The previous two years touring and
living on top of each other had caused a strain on their
interpersonal relationships. Exacerbating this situation, Dammers had
instrumental parts pre-arranged, counter to the usual method of
jamming out song ideas. As such band members felt their input
was unimportant and grew increasingly irritated by Dammers’
dominance on the track so much so that guitarist Byers
kicked a hole in the studio wall. Said Dammers: “And at number one, a great song:
It’s ‘Ghost Town’ The Specials” The Ghost Town EP was released
on the 12th of June 1981 debuting at number 21. By the 11th of July it had risen to number one
where it stayed for three weeks. The Specials were no strangers to chart success. As well as “Gangsters” number six placing, their Too Much Too Young live EP was the second ever EP to reach number one as well as the first live release to top the charts
since Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. But “Ghost Town” was different. The week it got to number one the UK charts
riots ripped right through the country from Brixton in London
to Handsworth in Birmingham, with disturbances happening in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and many other towns. The government had left the youth on the shelf and they weren’t gonna take it silently anymore. “Ghost Town” getting to number one and remaining
there showed how much Britain’s state of unrest chimed with the song’s content. “Ghost Town” wasn’t just the catchy melody that had caught the public’s ear. The Specials had summed up a moment in history in three minutes forty seconds. The three major music publications in Britain at the time, the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds all voted “Ghost Town” as the single of the year. Billy Bragg told The Guardian: Though it’s their greatest achievement, the song also marked the end for
The Specials original lineup. While waiting to play “Ghost Town” on Top of the Pops, Hall, Staple and Golding announced that
they were leaving the band. Those lyrics about people getting angry and bands not
wanting to play no more might as well being about the members
of The Specials. Hall, Staple and Golding went on to form the new wave pop group Fun Boy Three soon after, while Dammers continued with the
remaining Specials as The Special AKA “Ghost Town” has a special place in the
British canon. Very few number ones have anything to say about how angry and pent-up the UK populace is about any given time and situation. The only other single that’s even close is the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” which got to number two the week of the
Queen’s Silver Jubilee. “Ghost Town” captured the moment but in a way that took the political situation
and boiled it down to the personal. This is not a song about Margaret Thatcher
and her purges. It’s a the song about old women selling their homeware so they can eat. It’s a song about your Friday nightspot closing down. It’s about people getting angry. And that sentiment is just as sharply relevant today as it was in 1981. That is “Ghost Town”‘s enduring legacy. Do you have a band? Want to release a song that captures a moment in history? Don’t know how to get your message out there? Then why not check out Squarespace? Squarespace is a website building
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of a website or domain. Thanks for watching. What’s your favorite UK number one and what did it say about its time and place? Be sure to like, comment and subscribe
if you haven’t already. As I usually do I’d like to give a big shout out
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and I’ll see you next time.