482. ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials

When a song both begins and ends with police sirens, then you know things might just be getting a little tense at the top of the charts…

Ghost Town, by The Specials (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, 5th – 26th July 1981

What makes this record great, though, is that the tension, the anger in this record, is controlled and channelled into a brilliant pop song. In The Specials’ first #1, ‘Too Much Too Young’, the message was spat out, obnoxiously. ‘Ghost Town’ still has that two-tone anarchy, but here it’s under control. They have a plan: every note and lyric is set for maximum impact, and it’s catchy as hell.

This town, Is coming like a ghost town… The band look around Coventry, their hometown, and see clubs closed down, disenchanted kids kicking lumps out of each other… Bands won’t play no more, Too much fighting on the dance floor… They look around, and they know just who to blame.

What makes this record great (Pt II) is that they perfect a ‘haunted house’ vibe with creepy organs and eerie flutes, plus the high-pitched, ghoulish backing vocals, but at no point does it sound like a novelty record. It does mean that this song is fated to be wrongly included on Halloween playlists for the rest of eternity; but that’s a small price to pay for such a unique sounding chart-topper.

Is this the most political number one single yet? The Jam might argue their case, but I think, compared to ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Going Underground’ sounds a little one-dimensional, as great as it is. Here the social commentary is blended with the funky horns and the catchy chorus line. The anger comes through slowly, peaking when Neville Staple starts chanting: Government leaving the youth on the shelf… No jobs to be found in this country… before ending with the succinct: The people getting angry!

‘Ghost Town’ was at #1 as riots broke out across the UK in the summer of 1981, with unemployment rates heading rapidly towards three million, making it sound very prescient. Sadly, the band couldn’t enjoy their ‘told you so’ moment: they split up, according to the history books, as they were waiting to record the song’s ‘Top of the Pops’ performance. Many Coventry locals weren’t too impressed either, hearing their home described as a dying town on radios across the land. Perhaps the truth hurt too much?

I’ve got to the end of this post without mentioning my two favourite bits of this song. The brassy middle-eight, that sounds completely different to the other three minutes, all swinging and upbeat, as they reminisce about the good old days inna de boomtown... And then there’s the drumbeat, that only becomes obvious as the song fades out. It sounds really modern, like ‘90s trip-hop. It sums up a very cool, and very important, moment at the top of the charts.

16 thoughts on “482. ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. There is no mistaking what made The Specials so angry in ‘Ghost Town’. I just re-read your piece on ‘Going Underground’, and Paul Weller doesn’t really get the point of his anger across. His life is in a rut, he’s p—ed off with the system (like all of us were at times in our teenage years and early twenties). The Specials are actually pointing the finger at the state of Coventry around them far more strongly than the man from Woking. To draw a sporting analogy, Terry Hall 3, Paul Weller 0. I’m trying to think of other really angry songs like that that came close to No. 1, and the only one that instantly comes to mind ls is ‘Eve of Destruction’ by Barry McGuire. And THAT was a few years ago…

    • I mean, there are plenty of #1s that are ‘angry’… like ‘Going Underground’, ‘Firestarter’, ‘Killing in the Name…’, even a soon to be chart-hit name-checking our beloved Prime Minister. But yes, ‘Ghost Town’ has even more impact because it hits its target like a cold-blooded assassin, rather than just shouting and screaming.

  2. Cool song…never heard it but it’s cool. That ska influence really took in the UK back then…Madness used that a lot.

    • Yeah, Madness were a slightly more… ‘friendly’?… ska act. The Specials were much more punk. Amazing that you’d never heard it before – it’s such an 80s staple in the UK. But I guess the subject matter is very British.

      • Yes they were much more fun. No I never heard of it but while reading your post I listened to the song at least 3-4 times…it grew on me by the end. It does have a mean sound.
        I have heard of them but never heard them. I have read where the Thatcher years were terrible….I don’t know enough to blame her or if it just happened under her.

      • It definitely didn’t start under her, but the way she went about sorting the problems hurt a lot of people, and industries… Not that I’m an expert on it either, though

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  4. Total classic. As one of the ignored 3 million for 2 years, this topped the chart at the halfway point and summed up the uk at thst time. I have no nostalgia for the 80s – apart from the music tv and films – cos my life was pretty grim at a period when 20 somethings should be enjoying life.

    The record is genius, and then wallop split up. Fun boy three did exactly the same: genius Our Lips Are Sealed and then split up. Just to give terry hall a hat trick he had a genius one off with the lightning seeds too, Sense.

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