One of the most of the extraordinary chart-toppers if all time, The Specials masterpiece, Ghost Town has been wheeled out a lot in the last few years, be it because of global recession, or last summers riots in London (and elsewhere). It remains a prescient a damning indictment of government, of elements of youth culture and of the far-right, but if it remains appropriate 21 years after its release, that is nothing to how it summed up how it was to live in the UK in 1981.
Yet Ghost Town was The Specials swansong, just two years after their début single, Gangsters. The band had fallen to pieces, and Ghost Town was a final chance to make something coherent, and they couldn’t have picked a better statement.
The Specials had formed in Coventry in 1977, but really found their identity after supporting The Clash (Joe Strummer was an early supporter of the group) where a member of fellow support band Suicide had been beaten up by members of the National Front, at that point on a mission to disrupt as much of society as possible. The band realised they had to make music to unite these people – a curious mix of the hippie and punk aesthetics.
The Specials were a multi-racial band, which enabled them to stand out – by mixing rock music with Ska they came up with what would become known as Two-Tone, and within a year of that gig would have a brilliant album out, and a string of hit singles, including the political jaunt of Too Much Too Young, which got to No 1.
Sessions for the second album (More Specials) though, were fraught, the band fighting after endless touring and general dismay at what was going on in Bitian at the time – youth unemployment was at all time high, riots were breaking out in Notting Hill and the governments policy of stopping and searching people “of a different culture” (i.e black people) was causing infighting between skinheads and the black community.
After spending most of the second album sessions fighting each other, on the tour to support it, the audience turned on each other as well. With riots at Specials shows an almost nightly occurance. The band had also taken to inviting the crowd on stage, which they soon regretted when it got dangerous. Terry Hall and Jerry Dammers had tried to pull two fighting factions apart at one show, and had ended up being fined with incitement to riot. After the charge, Terry Hall suggested the band wouldn’t bother touring again, as the shows invariably led to trouble.
In a last chance to bring the band together, Dammers pleaded with the rest of the group to come back into the studio to record a single – Ghost Town. A wonderful, bleak vision of where the UK was at the time, the song was perhaps as much a commentary on the band’s situation itself (“Can’t go on no more/the people getting angry”). A low-key, highly politicised, not exactly jaunty single, it is incredible to think it did so well, but it perfectly summed up the times.
It summed up the times so well in fact, that it seemed bizarrely prescient – the day before it reached the summit of the UK Chart, riots broke out in Toxteth in Liverpool, as well as in Brixton in London. Suddenly pop music was commenting on current affairs as it was happening.
The band appeared on TOTP in what should have been a celebration of thier finest hour. Yet after the performance, the band split up, with band members leaving sporodically from that day onwards over the next 12 months. The ghostly apocolypse of Ghost Town had summed up everything too well.
Dammers would carry on manfully through a largely disappointing third album (which did yield Nelson Mandela, a song that bought him to the attention of the British press and putting the anti-apathied movement front and centre in the news) before going off to do other things. The band has reformed on and off since, though never with the full line up, and Ghost Town casts an enormous shadow, as perhaps the single greatest political single ever recorded. There may be many bad memories associated with it for writer Jerry Dammers, but he can be forgiven for being incredibly proud of that moment.