Ghost Town: The story behind a special song

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?

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From discovering new bands as a teenager and spending all my money on records and going to concerts, to being obsessed with album covers and pouring over liner notes, music was quite literally the soundtrack to my life. Nowadays (well, before the pandemic kicked in) I spent much of my time shooting live music, reviewing gigs and interviewing musicians.

I still listen to a lot of music, although Spotify and YouTube have replaced records, cassettes, minidisks and CD’s. As a writer, and one who has never even lifted a single instrument, as much as I appreciate the music, I equally appreciate the visual side of the industry, the image of the album sleeve, the identities of the bands and the image they portray. Perhaps, more than anything though, what I’m drawn to most is the lyrics.

All too often, it’s the words being sung that draw us to a particular song, we identify with its message, we relate to what’s being said, we can contextualise it to our own lives.

Steely Dan’s sardonic and wry lyrics fascinated me the most, they still do. Becker and Fagen were as brilliant at penning intriguing lyrics, as they were at composing fabulous music.

Similarly, Queen’s lyrics, especially those by Freddie Mercury, were ones I really admired, as I did David Bowie’s. Other lyricists I rate highly include Don Henley of the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

In all my writings (and there are over 200 posts here on Medium, most of which are gig reviews) so far I’ve only written in depth about one band — The Drifters. As it turns out, it happens to be my most read article.

I’ve also told the story behind one song before — These Foolish Things, a song I first heard on Bryan Ferry’s brilliant covers album of the same name.

Now, I’m turning my attention to another classic— Ghost Town by The Specials. Not only is it one of the most important records of the early 1980s, but it remains one of the most evocative and provocative singles of all time.

Four decades on, it still stands up today, both musically and lyrically. As a piece of social commentary, it’s also as relevant now as it was when it was first released. Our shuttered high streets resemble ghost towns, all the clubs have been closed down and millions of people are either furloughed or out of work.

As a song, Ghost Town is remarkable for many reasons, not least how it went from an idea, to a recording, to a chart topper in less than five months.

When I first thought of doing this deep dive, I had no idea quite how interesting the story behind it was going to be — or how much time I’d end up spending scouring the internet in search of the facts. Much has been written about the song over the years and gleaning a nugget of hitherto unknown information from a new source became somewhat obsessional.

To help tell the tale, I decided to break the story down element by element. So let’s begin at the beginning.

The background: Released almost 40 years ago, Ghost Town was a protest song, a bitter commentary on Thatcher’s England. Its despair-laden lyrics reflected the depressing time: a country in deep recession and the decimation of towns and cities like Coventry where The Specials hailed from. The song caught the mood of that summer, a summer which witnessed levels of civil unrest not seen in a generation.

Some have described Coventry as being Britain’s Detroit as it was once home to a thriving auto industry. When that disappeared, the Midlands city became the epitome of the post-war urban wasteland, the quintessential concrete jungle.

The car industry had brought prosperity and attracted incomers from across the UK and the Commonwealth, meaning the future Specials grew up in the 1960s listening to a mixture of British, American and Caribbean music.

The genre: Musically, The Specials were part of a movement: their contemporaries included Madness, The Beat and The Selecter who all played ska, a Jamaican dance hall genre from which reggae evolved. Their label — 2-Tone records — was started in the late 70s by Jerry Dammers to promote the new ska sound at a time when other labels were focused on the punk scene. Ska and the related Jamaican Rocksteady were 2-Tone’s musical foundations, sharpened further by punk attitude and anger.

The band: Formed in 1977, The Specials quickly became the most influential band of the UK ska scene. What made them so interesting was they were one of the first bands with a multi-ethnic and culturally diverse line-up. As a result, their musical influence was different to other bands of that time.

The original lineup consisted of lead singer Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, vocalist Neville Staples, guitarist Roddy Byers (aka Roddy Radiation), bass player Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman) and drummer John ‘Brad’ Bradbury.

Compared to many of their contemporaries, The Specials had a strong visual identity, not just the individual band members, but with their adoption of the black and white iconography including their ubiquitous checkerboard pattern (something other bands notably Madness and Cheap Trick also came to be known for)

Their eponymous debut album in 1979 was produced by Elvis Costello and featured a cover of ska legend Dandy Livingstone’s Rudy, A Message to You (renamed A Message to You, Rudy) as well as covers of Prince Buster and Toots & the Maytals songs from the late 1960s.

A second album — More Specials — followed in September 1980.

The vocalist: As much as ska informed their sound, it was Terry Hall’s deadpan delivery that made them so unique. Coventry born and bred, Hall had replaced Tim Strickland as lead singer of The Automatics in 1978 when he was just seventeen. Jerry Dammers had approached him when he was singing in a punk band called Squad. Dammers recalls: “Terry was given to performing with his back to the audience. At the time he was also working in a stamp shop. I told him, philately will get you nowhere!”

The writer: Ghost Town was written by Jerry Dammers. Born in India, but raised in Coventry, he met future Specials founder member, Horace Panter, whilst studying art at Lanchester Polytechnic (later Coventry University). Together with guitarist Lynval Golding in 1978 they formed a band — The Coventry Automatics — and began playing across the Midlands. Later they were joined by Terry Hall (vocals), Neville Staples (vocals, percussion), Roddy Radiation (guitar) and John Bradbury (drums) They then changed their name to The Coventry Specials. By 1979, they had evolved into The Specials.

According to Dammers, the song took a year to write and was inspired by the band’s split. He said in 2008: “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.”

The producer: When Dammers heard Victor Romero Evans’ reggae/ambient lover’s rock 1980 recording At The Club on Radio One’s Roundtable, it had exactly the haunting vibe he wanted for his latest composition. In March 1981, he contacted the record’s producer, John Collins who had recorded it at his north London home. A couple of days later, Collins went up to Coventry to meet the band. It was the first time he’d been to Coventry and they even paid for his train fare! He was surprised to find they were serious. They were surprised to find he was white.

They played him three songs, including an instrumental version of Ghost Town.

Recalls Collins: “Jerry was disillusioned with high tech, expensive studios and liked my homemade approach and reggae credentials. He’d found a small 8-track studio in nearby Leamington Spa and although it was a step down for The Specials, it was a step up from my 4-track home studio. It was decided to go there to record three songs —one of which was about the decline of industry and the rise of unemployment in Coventry — for the band’s next single. I was given a producer’s contract for two points (2% royalty) and an advance of £1500 which was a good deal for an unknown producer. Time wasn’t a problem, the studio was relatively cheap and I was told by the band’s manager, Rick Rogers, to take as long as it takes.”

The recording: Ghost Town was produced by John Collins over two separate sessions: at Woodbine Street Recording Studios in Royal Leamington Spa between 3–9 April 1981 and mixed and overdubbed between 15–17 April 1981 at Collin’s own flat in Tottenham, North London.

Before recording began, every part of the song — apart from some of the lyrics and Rico’s improvised solo — had been worked out, meaning there were little or no rehearsals so to speak. As the studio was so small, each band member recorded their part separately.

Recalls Collins: “On the first day in the studio I wanted the rhythm tracks to be recorded: drums, bass, rhythm guitar and guide organ. The band usually recorded by all playing together live, but I was used to building a backing track bit by bit. They wouldn’t have all fitted in the studio anyway. I got John Bradbury to set up just his bass drum, snare and hi hat; and bass player Horace Panter to plug directly into the mixer, going for a Sly and Robbie sound. The other songs we recorded, Friday Night Saturday Morning and Why? were also begun in the same way.”

Recalls studio owner and engineer John Rivers: “The guy [Paul Heskett] who played the flute was a member of the [Coventry-based new wave] band King and we recorded him in the hallway with a microphone at the top of the stairs to get the natural reverb from the stairwell. However, overdubbing the flute nearly killed me because it was not on a free track. [Flugel horn player] Dick Cuthell and [trombonist] Rico Rodriguez had already gone back to London, and I had to record that flute by actually dropping in.”

According to Collins, the only instrument that was recorded but didn’t make the final track was some congas.

Apparently, the sessions were so fraught that guitarist Roddy Byers tried to punch a hole in the studio wall.

“Ghost Town was a rough time for the band members,” recalls John Bradbury. “We were more or less at each other’s throats. It was very intense. That definitely makes you play in a certain way.” Perhaps it was this tense environment that produced the song’s extraordinary sound.

Horace Panter remembers it being “an absolute triumph of the will, trying to get everybody in the right place at the right time. We did it all separately and I think Jerry, Lynval, Brad and I put the backing track down then stuff was put on top of it — but the results were tremendous.”

As it turned out, the recording session was also the last time the original band were in a studio together.

Recalls John Collins: “After the tracks were laid, I spent the following three weeks at my flat in Tottenham mixing and editing.”

“To keep the 7 inch version close to three minutes long I decided to leave Rico’s trombone solo for the 12 inch version.”

The song: Written in E♭, more attuned to “mood music”, with nods to cinematic soundtracks and music hall tradition, it reflects and engenders anxiety. Starting with a hushed wind sound effect (played on a Transcendent 2000 synthesizer) and a Hammond organ’s six ascending notes and a mournful flute solo, it paints a bleak aural and lyrical landscape.

The hushed chorus of “This town is coming like a ghost town” is then heard, followed by front man Terry Hall’s deadpan vocals lamenting how “all the clubs have been closed down” because there is “too much fighting on the dance floor”.

Over a sparse reggae bass line, a West Indian vocal mutters warnings of urban decay, unemployment and violence. “No job to be found in this country,” one voice cries out.

And when they all sing “yah, ya ya, ya, yaah, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya…”, they seem like an insane Greek chorus, before Lynval Golding, the band’s rhythm guitarist and vocalist, murmurs the last line “the people getting angry”.

The 6 minute version features Rico Rodriguez’s long elegiac trombone solo.

The song fades out in dub reggae tradition, inconclusive, echoing.

The lyrical references: Ghost Town was the mournful sound of these riots, a poetic protest. It articulates anger at a state structure, an economic system and an entrenched animosity towards the young, black, white and poor.

“When I think about Ghost Town I think about Coventry,” said 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 the song is all about.”

One of the clubs referred to in the song was the Locarno. Built in 1958–60 by the Coventry City Architects Department in association with Kett and Neve as the Locarno Ballroom. Named after a Swiss town, the Locarno was the symbol of the re-born city after the damage it suffered during the Second World War. The dance hall was sold by Mecca, its original owners, and became Tiffany’s nightclub. It was also a concert venue and throughout the late 1970s hosted some of the most well-known bands including of course The Specials. It closed in 1981 and lay empty for five years until 1986 when it was converted into the city’s library. Interestingly, the Locarno is the subject of another song by the Specials: Friday Night, Saturday Morning, which was the B-side to Ghost Town.

The artwork: The man responsible for the single’s cover was David Storey. As art director of Chrysalis Records, one of his first assignments was to work with Jerry Dammers new label 2 Tone. Storey found the skeleton image in a photo library off Tottenham Court Road. It was from a vintage postcard from Kansas.

The music video: Directed by Barney Bubbles, it was filmed in London’s East End, Blackwall Tunnel and a before-hours City of London. Opening with shots of brutalist grey tower blocks, the band members are seen crammed into a black 1961 Vauxhall Cresta, lip syncing while driving through the empty streets.

The charts: Released on 20 June 1981, Ghost Town climbed up the chart as Britain’s streets ignited. Between 3 and 11 July, serious rioting broke out across the country, notably at Handsworth in Birmingham, Toxteth in Liverpool, Southall in London, and Moss Side in Manchester. By 10 July, Ghost Town reached number one and topped the UK charts for 3 weeks. It was their last song before splitting up.

The reaction: The Guardian’s music critic, Alexis Petridis said this about it: “There’s something frenzied and mad about Ghost Town, it has such a kaleidoscope of influences — jazz, (film score composer) John Barry, Middle Eastern music, a solid reggae undertone and stuff that sounds like nothing else.

This live performance of Ghost Town from 2012, complete with a string section, is interesting to watch. Although it doesn’t feature all the original members, it helps you appreciate the complexity of the song whilst seeing who does what and when.

This live performance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2009, is probably my favourite version of the song as there’s so many interesting things going on: the slide guitar, the keyboard parts and the horns.

What happened next: The band celebrated its success by splitting up in the dressing room at Top Of The Pops with Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples telling Dammers they were going to leave. A few months later, the trio reappeared as Fun Boy Three with their debut single, The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum, a record that owed much to the lyrics and orchestration of Ghost Town.

Where are they now? In one way or another, all of the original members struggled with life in the shadow of The Specials’ legacy. For each of them, it gradually became apparent that nothing they did for the rest of their lives would ever quite measure up to what they’d achieved for two years in their early twenties. In the 1990s, various ex-members toured and recorded under names like Today’s Specials, Special Beat and the 2-Tone Collective.

Hall himself admits to having spent years trying to blot The Specials out of his life: “From 1985 to 1990, I distanced myself from the music as much as I could.” It was only a matter of time however before they bowed to the inevitable. In 2009, the reformed band went out on tour to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

However, while their high-profile reunion was a big success, it took them a further decade to record Encore, their first album of new material since 1998’s Guilty ’Til Proven Innocent! Encore saw Terry Hall rejoin original guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding and original bassist Horace Panter, but the band’s founding member, Jerry Dammers wasn’t involved.

The remaining members include Kenrick Rowe on drums, while Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, brass players Pablo Mendelssohn and Tim Smart completed the line-up. Encore went straight to No 1 on the UK albums chart on its first week of release. It was also The Specials first chart-topping album.

Terry Hall: Hall had always remained implacably resistant to a Specials reunion, while piloting an irregular solo career that took in everything from world music to a tenure as resident DJ. As well as two years with Fun Boy Three, he fronted a number of side projects including Colourfield and Vegas and released several solo albums: Home in 1994, Laugh in 1997 and The Hour of Two Lights in 2003. By January 2019, at the time of the release of Encore, his feeling towards the band’s 40-year-old legacy had softened.

“I feel the music hasn’t dated. Without wanting to sound arrogant, I think we made some important music and there’s a timelessness about it, so I hope new generations of fans can continue to latch onto it.”

He has been married twice. He has two sons Felix (31)and Leo (29) with first wife Jeanette Hall and another son, Orson (9), with his second wife Lindy Heymann, a British film director.

Lynval Golding: Having stopped playing guitar altogether, things changed in 2007 when Lily Allen asked him to perform The Specials’ Blank Expression with her on stage at Glastonbury. Golding was living in Gig Harbor, near Seattle in Washington state and enjoying life as a stay-at-home father, “I didn’t want to stay in Coventry so I got my backpack and went to Ireland. Then I went to New York, New Orleans and Arkansas, and finally met my partner, who is a native American, and ended up settling with her in Seattle.”

Horace Panter: As well as still performing with The Specials, Panter has developed a flourishing career as an artist. Before becoming a full-time musician he had studied fine art at Lanchester Polytechnic and when his musical career waned in the 90s he taught art at a Coventry school for children with special needs. In recent years his paintings, inspired by the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein and Peter Blake, have become much in demand. For The Specials Encore tour, the stage was adorned with painted slogan placards created by Horace Panter and Terry Hall. After the tour, they were auctioned in aid of charities including Save the Children and Shelter. More of his artwork can be seen at www.horacepanterart.com

Neville Staples: Jamaican-born Neville went on to form Fun Boy Three with fellow ex-Specials, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, and in the early 90s was part of the Special Beat — a group featuring various musicians from The Specials and The Beat. After a few reunions with different members, The Specials — minus Dammers — got back together in 2009 the same year that published his autobiography, The Original Rude Boy. He left The Specials in late 2012 due to health concerns. He still lives in Coventry and performs with his own band, The Neville Staples Band.

Roddy Byers: Original guitarist, aka Roddy Radiation, quit the band in 2014 citing creative differences, mostly with Terry Hall, who he felt was dominating the band’s decision-making. In lulls between Specials reunions, he played in blues bands and formed The Skabilly Rebels. He still lives near Coventry.

John Bradbury: Original drummer Bradbury continued with the reversioned band The Special AKA and took part in The Specials reunion tour in 2009. He also headed up his own soul band, JB’s Allstars, before retiring from music to work as an IT specialist. He died of a heart attack in 2015. He was 62.

Emmanuel ‘Rico’ Rodriguez: After The Specials broke up, the Cuban-born trombonist went to Jamaica where he spent time researching and recording Caribbean music. The result was the impressive Two-Tone albums That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico. Afterwards, he retreated from the limelight for a while, before being brought back from retirement by the Heartbeat Band from Switzerland. Then came a long residency with Jools Holland. He was awarded an MBE in 2007 for his services to music. He died in London, aged 80, in 2015.

Jerry Dammers: The 1985 album In The Studio by The Special AKA (as The Specials morphed into), contained Dammers’ other career defining song, Free Nelson Mandela. Inspired by Live Aid, it ultimately led to 1988s Mandela Seventieth Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium and helped add to the groundswell of support that led to Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990.

John Collins: Surprisingly, having had a number one single, Collins didn’t go on to repeat that success with other artists. The Specials broke up soon after its release and Collins began working with Malcolm McLaren on Bow Wow Wow. Speaking in 2015, he recalled: “What worked so well with The Specials, didn’t really work in any other situation. I never got a band like them or a song like Ghost Town to work on.” Collins later went on to produce TV music for the likes of Harry Hill and Frank Skinner. He also formed his own label, Local Records.

John Rivers: Still owns and operates Woodbine Street Studios in Royal Leamington Spa.

Barney Bubbles: British graphic designer Bubbles was an odd, publicity-shy figure. Born Colin Fulcher (he changed his name legally) as well as making music videos, Ghost Town among them, he made his name creating album covers for Hawkwind. He went on to work for Stiff Records where he created covers for Elvis Costello and Ian Dury. In 1978, he designed the logo for the music magazine, NME. He died in 1983.

Torp Larsen: Took over from Jerry Dammers on keyboards.

Rick Rogers: As manager to bands including The Damned and The Specials, Rick went on to manage the careers of several other bands including The Fun Boy Three, The Soup Dragons, Right Said Fred and The High Fidelity. He also spent time as the Marketing Manager of Big Life Records. After a successful career in the music industry, Rick was appointed business fellow in music at Falmouth University in Cornwall. Today as senior lecturer, he teaches mainly within the field of popular music, but contributes to all areas of Falmouth’s music programme.

The Vauxhall Cresta: Launched in October 1957, the Cresta took its cues from the 1957 Buick Special, mimicking the American fashion for tail-fins, wrap-around windows and white-wall tyres. Apparently, the original car was scrapped, although a replica, bearing the same number plate 4218 RO, is on display at the Coventry Music Museum.

The song itself also has an afterlife, appearing in numerous movies including Sean Of The Dead, Snatch and Natural Born Killers.

Not surprisingly, it has also been covered by other artists. The most recent being the Flogging Seagulls who just released an ’at home’ version.

And 2020 also saw a political parody.

My two-penneth: There’s a number of things that elevate a song to greatness. Among the most important is can you listen to it again and again and not be sick of it? No matter how many times I hear it, I never tire of Ghost Town.

Lyrically of course it’s very relatable. Although filled with nostalgia, its message still rings true today.

Then there’s the eerie mood of the song. Whilst its subject matter may be depressing, the music is in many ways uplifting. That I think is down to its rhythm, the sound of the brass section and the way the tempo of the song keeps changing. Then there’s Terry Hall’s haunting delivery, which adds so much personality and really sets it apart.

Another sure sign of a classic is how well it can be interpreted. Ghost Town definitely has the bones to be reimagined, yet still retain enough so you immediately know what you’re listening to.

It is, without doubt, a modern day classic: not just an important song, but a very special one.

In June 2020, the Guardian compiled its Top 100 No 1 singles. Ghost Town was named at No 2.

A couple of reader comments stood out for me:

“Ghost Town is a masterpiece, and fully merits its place. But it deserves to be heard in its majestic entirety. Without the dub section, and the dark, beautiful trombone solo from the late Rico Rodriguez, it’s literally half the track.”

“The song itself is still monumental. It’s almost like a miniature play, the variety of textures, the instrumentation, the melody changes, the drama. I’m still amazed at it, with or without the context.”

“A far reaching essential record that has not dimmed, with its message and its anger.”

“For many of us, this track has not aged, and as it stands unlikely too. Until inequality is a thing of the past, Ghost Town will be very much contemporary.”

Footnote: Whilst everything in this essay is based on extensive research and is as factually correct as I was able to get it, inevitably there will be omissions and errors. Confirming specific details is not easy, nor is finding out all you hoped you could.

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people

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