The Story Behind The Song: The Specials’ era-defining anthem ‘Ghost Town’
Now, more so than ever, the message of racial unity that ska and 2-tone group The Specials enacted and shouted from the rooftops needs to be heard. Whether that is relishing in the joy of ska and the unity of 2-tone, or by revisiting their more poignant moments and using them to teach or re-learn a lesson.
One such track from the band that went on to define not only The Specials output but a whole generation was the band’s 1981 hit ‘Ghost Town’. It shone a light on the dystopia many working-class kids of every race faced during the time and acted as the soundtrack to swell of unease.
At the time, The Specials were a picture of youth in the inner city. Comprised of Terry Hall and Neville Staple on vocals, Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation on guitars, Horace Panter on bass, Jerry Dammers on keyboards, John Bradbury on drums, and Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez on horns. It was a multi-racial and multi-talented group.
They were a crucible of talent and musical genres. While they clearly kept aligned to the rocksteady and ska sounds of the ’60s, including their clothes, they also brought the feverous energy of punk. Having started in 1977, it’s unsurprising that the band would be influenced by genre’s three-chord fire but it was their cultivated message that felt most prevalent.
After struggling to convince labels to check out the new ska sound, the vast majority of them still preoccupied punk, Jerry Dammers decided to create his own record label to put out the band’s records; 2-Tone records was born.
Changing their name to The Specials, the group recorded their eponymous debut album in 1979. It’s an album which was also produced by Elvis Costello. It was just the start for the band and they carried on their message of solidarity into the new decade. By 1981, The Specials were one of the biggest acts in Britain and were leading a brand new musical movement.
Perhaps because the band were so well-loved or perhaps they just managed to capture the right audience at the right time, but ‘Ghost Town’ would become the soundtrack of disaffected youth and be heard across the country as riots once again erupted (the Brixton riots took place in April ’81) during the song’s ascent to the top of the charts.
There’s a good reason, too. The single was written as a pure protest anthem. Sickened by the uneven playing field that Margaret Thatcher had installed, with many of her policies hitting the working man harder than anybody else, the band decided to pen a song that accurately depicted the once-vibrant city centres. The Specials aimed to capture the new normal and show off their new ghost town.
Jerry Dammers, the man behind the song’s lyrics, has since said that although the song accurately depicted a country on its knees it was actually written about something a little closer to home: “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.” Yet Dammers does such a fine job of vividly drawing his audience a picture they had become all too familiar with and moving the song’s message out of his mind and into the mainstream.
The Specials forged their career with a little help from their city, Coventry. The former auto-motive city used to be brimming with the car industry but a swift turn in economics had left it, and its inhabitants, without so much as a pot to piss in. With horrendously low-employment and thusly low quality of life, the city proved to be the perfect breeding ground for racism. “When I think about ‘Ghost Town’ I think about Coventry,” says Specials 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 about.” It was this downturn that had sent many youths into the ranks of the National Front and consequently seen the tension within the city grow even greater. With the band actively rallying against such groups, they soon found trouble at their shows.
Soon enough members of the NF as well as the British Movement, would arrive at the band’s reggae-infused ska gigs and find fistfuls of anti-racist rhetoric. It would naturally lead to fights breaking out across the shows and cause Neville Staples to sing “too much fighting on the dancefloor”. It goes further too, guitarist Lynval Golding was brutally hurt in a racist attack which would inspire the song ‘Why?’ and end up as the B-Side to ‘Ghost Town’.
It meant that when the song was released, with the Brixton riots still barely in the rear view mirror, it exploded on to the radio and arrested audiences with every listen. While, of course, the potent nature of the song will have garnered fans it was the song’s musical power that really hit home.
Beginning with police sirens and confrontation you are immediately put on edge. It’s a dystopian sound of menace and confusion, the kind of fear that only strikes you too late. The Specials manage to convey not only the sense of impending implosion but the fragility of facing it all alone.
Looking back in 2020, the song feels as poignant today as it did in 1981. There are only a handful of songs that can resonate in whatever time period you hear it in and ‘Ghost Town’ is certainly one of them. It remains the anthem for the oppressed and the reflection of the modern dystopia they’ve been charged with keeping order in.