One Track Minded | On ‘Ghost Town’, The Specials listened to the heartbeat of a troubled generation

“I dread to think what the future will bring”

Top Of The Pops, August 1979: Coventry ska band The Specials have caused a minor stir in the charts with their first single, ‘Gangsters’, released on their own 2 Tone label and kicking off what was to be an ultimately short-lived but massively influential chapter in the UK’s musical story.

The BBC duly come knocking, attempting to bottle magic in the first of a handful appearances the band would make on the once-essential show. Neville Staple leads the charge, curling a lip, stomping the intro – “Bernie Rhodes knows, don’t argue!” At the rear, 2 Tone’s founder and the movement’s spiritual core, Jerry Dammers, sporting toothless grin and shades – channelling Peter Tosh, the quintessential Jamaican rude boy who inspired the label’s stylised Walt Jabsco logo. John ‘Prince Rimshot’ Bradbury sits bolt upright beside him; both straining for release, tethered in place only by their respective organ and drumkit, the only things keeping the band from flying clean away.

The rest form a suited and booted front line, ricocheting off one another: guitarist Lynval Golding and toaster Staple in pork pie hats, bouncing in unison at either side of Terry Hall; Roddy Radiation stalking in and around them, carving out guitar licks; Horace Panter hopping out bass lines, crisscrossing the middle distance.

The final 10 seconds of that performance sums up the band’s early days. Golding raises a fist, triumphant, and then he’s off, dancing across the stage and setting fire to one final bout of hot-stepping. From every angle, a chaotic tangle of bodies and guitar necks weave in and around one another; organised chaos, all in it together. At one point it even looks like Terry Hall cracks a smile.

Top Of The Pops, July 1981: Two albums, six singles, one EP and countless gigs later, there seems a weariness in the limbs that goes deeper than the song’s more sombre tempo…a manic malaise. Staple’s dancing seems almost a pastiche of itself and the band inhabits the same room for no other reason than to mime together. It’s like a post-funeral drinking session, down to Golding’s Hawaiian shirt amid the black suits. The country was falling apart, the band was falling apart, and the song they performed was now the only glue that bonded The Specials as an entity. They were done, and ‘Ghost Town’s radiance was the only thing that staved off the inevitable implosion, if only for a short time.

“Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry”

Released in the summer of 1981, ‘Ghost Town’ towers over almost anything the ensuing decade produced, its resonance undiminished even after Father Billy O’Dwyer appropriated it as the Irish national anthem in a classic episode of Father Ted. To record the new track, Dammers drafted in John Collins, an early-reggae nut who had just had a UK hit with Victor Romeo Evans’ ‘At The Club’. Collins had his work cut out.

The band were coming off the back of the More Specials tour, exhausted and fractured, the relationships of its seven members – nine if you include the horn section of Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell – as coiled and volatile as the tensions that simmered in the streets. The session was a chore – for the band at least – with Roddy Radiation kicking a hole through the studio door at one point, and certain members of the band pulling away from Dammers’ increasingly esoteric musical leanings and predilection for muzak (something he was soon to explore further with The Special AKA). It was “played in a very deadpan style that mirrored our distance from one another” remembered Panter, and all that frustration and pent-up rage seeped straight into the grooves, giving ‘Ghost Town’ a crackling menace that couldn’t be faked.

Around the time of the single’s release – from the start of July, and for two weeks afterward – racial riots flared around the UK, a hangover from the Brixton riots earlier in the year: pockets of disarray in London, with Brixton’s Railton Road now a war zone dubbed the ‘front line’; the first use of CS gas on civilians in the Toxteth area of Liverpool; the Moss Side area of Manchester; Handsworth in Birmingham; Chapeltown in Leeds; the Highfield area of Leicester, the list goes on. “I saw our cities dying, the youth being left to rot, people turning on each other,” Staple later recalled. With all this happening, and with unnerving timing, ‘Ghost Town’ went to number one in the UK charts.

“Too much fighting on the dance floor”

‘Ghost Town’ was backed by the double B-side of the Golding-penned ‘Why?’ and ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’. “I recall Brad [John Bradbury] saying that ‘Why?’ should be the A-side because of its anti-racist stance” said Panter, “but he may have said that just to wind Jerry up.” The band played an anti-racist gig in Coventry on the single’s release in the wake of two racial murders in the city – one an unprovoked attack on 20-year-old Asian student Satnam Singh Gill, the other the stabbing of Doctor Amal Dharri in a chip shop, “supposedly for a fifty pence bet” according to Dammers.

The National Front had taken to using football matches and concerts as recruiting grounds, and the band’s own gigs weren’t immune to far-right infiltration, with malicious references to ‘The Specials plus two’ – Staple and Golding. Another gig, Northern Carnival Against Racism in Leeds, ran concurrent with a NF march – a bad performance, a fight down the front, a disgusted Rico who wouldn’t play his solo in ‘Ghost Town’. The pressures were growing, and the fissures deepening. Jerry Dammers’ magnum opus was a song born into disharmony.

An ill wind blows, Bradbury’s distinctive backbeat kicks in, and the chill of Dammers’ organ and those high-pitched backing vocals stand alongside the apocalyptic pronouncements – forsaken clubs, poverty and decay, “too much fighting on the dancefloor”. Staple likened his own toasting to a “musical newspaper”, just like the Jamaican ska vocalists who sang about everyday events, straight up – “Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving the youth on the shelf.” Everything came together – the band’s louche performance, the vocalists trading off, Dammers’ off-kilter chord changes and Eastern evocations all feeding into an overarching musical motif of the Third World rising up.

‘Ghost Town’s mid-section is one of the decade’s perfect musical achievements and Jerry Dammers’ apogee as a songwriter, when everything transforms, so briefly, from stark monochrome to vibrant colour. “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” Crime and unemployment held sway, and racism, rubber bullets and water cannons had scoured the good old days from most people’s memories. The horn section remembers, though, and Dick Cuthell answers Terry Hall’s question with a triumphant, euphoric trill from the brass. “We danced and sang, and the music played inna de boomtown” – a lament for the fans, and the towns, for their broken country and the band itself; for one moment, a shining respite from the overcast mood that enveloped them all.

Then, just as suddenly, back to the present – bleak, oppressive reality – with Dammers’ eerie construct once again shifting the mood. It was 2 Tone at its most effective – darkness into light, and back, in 10 seconds – beautiful, untouchable, and unsurpassed. It breathed one last bit of life into the band before they disintegrated – not a break-up, more of a parting of ways – but The Specials, the beating heart of one of the UK’s most important and influential musical movements, were finished.

“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”

Top Of The Pops, July 1981: It’s the second BBC performance of ‘Ghost Town’ as The Specials reside at the top of the charts. Golding, Staple and Hall seem energised, and the singer’s smile is unmistakable this time. “Can’t go on no more” mimes Hall, throwing his arms skyward with a grin, the studio audience and those at home unaware that they’re watching the death throes of the band – a Danse Macabre, right down to the skeleton standing sentinel beside Brad’s stacked drums. In the dressing room after the recording, Golding, Staple and Hall announce that they are leaving the band to form Fun Boy Three.

And that was it. On 24 July 1981 in Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre – amid rioting, a government resorting to violent methods of control, the continuing deaths of IRA hunger strikers and with ‘Ghost Town’ still at number one – The Specials played their last UK show. Dammers’ end of days masterpiece sound-tracked a country in turmoil and a band in exodus. There has never been a more fitting, flawless epitaph.

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