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A couple of months ago, Adam Lambert and Madonna both issued singles called “Ghost Town” — his, in his words, an “existential dance goth rave thing” to her “post-apocalyptic love song, mid-tempo”. For most people, though, there is only one “Ghost Town”: the song released by The Specials in the summer of 1981 that provided a soundtrack to UK-wide riots and split up the band. More than three decades later it is still a nexus of acrimony.
The Specials were the champions of two-tone, music steeped in Jamaican ska and bluebeat but played with punk aggression by a multiracial band. By April 1981, when the band convened in a tiny recording studio in the midlands town of Leamington Spa, tensions were high. Most of the group chafed at the tightly composed orchestration of the band’s founder, Jerry Dammers. The song they were recording depicted Britain as a ghost town filled with unemployed youths and no entertainment but violence. “Too much fighting on the dance floor,” runs the first verse, and the fighting had started in the studio: at one point guitarist Roddy Radiation kicked a hole in the control room door. Nonetheless, reggae producer John Collins assembled the individual parts into a coherent recording, fading in and out over a spectral synthesiser moan.
The song climbed to the top of the UK charts in July 1981, just as riots erupted across Britain, from Aldershot to Edinburgh. The juxtaposition seemed fated: “Government leaving the youth on the shelf . . . No job to be found in this country.” When the band appeared on the BBC music show Top of the Pops, vocalists Neville Staple and Terry Hall, and guitarist Lynval Golding announced that they were quitting. (As the Fun Boy Three they went on to record some of the decade’s most miserable music.)
Notably, “Ghost Town” has been unbundled into its core components. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band recorded a largely instrumental version, fast, hard-driving, heavy on the sousaphone. It was half celebration (“Do you remember the good old days . . . ?”), half wake. The black-and-white video shows flooding in Bywater and the Lower Ninth, residents cycling through standing water, a spray-painted warning, “You loot, I shoot”.
Dubstep pioneers Kode9 and The Spaceape went in the opposite direction. Their version is reduced almost to lyrics alone. “This town,” sighs The Spaceape, as if looking out from a high window on a scene of bleak despair. There are long gaps, punctuated by electronic murmurs that could just as easily be far-off emergency vehicles or breaking glass. There is nothing celebratory here, no joy even in nostalgia.
In 2009 The Specials reformed for a tour to mark their 30th anniversary. For reasons still unclear, they excluded Dammers. From the outside, the cause of the renewed fighting on the dance floor appears to be that while the rest of the band wanted a pension-boosting nostalgia trip, their former leader was bent on musical experimentation.
Dammers or no Dammers, “Ghost Town” remained at the heart of the band’s set — at one festival, bolstered by an overawed Amy Winehouse in a chequered two-tone top.
Dammers, meanwhile, materialised with his own Spatial AKA Orchestra, “a tribute to Sun Ra and other musical mavericks”. The one Specials song included in a set heavy on Sun Ra, Moondog, Martin Denny and Alice Coltrane was, of course, “Ghost Town”. The Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph toasted over the familiar wails before being overwhelmed by synthesisers and brass fighting like foxes in a skip. It was magnificent; and at the same time, you could tell why his former bandmates might have had their ears on something different. That, said Dammers curtly, would be his last word on the matter.
In the hot summer of 2011, as if to mark the 30th anniversary of the song, England again exploded in six days of riots, sparked by a police shooting in Tottenham and spreading to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Merseyside. On one midnight bulletin, the scrolling caption at the foot of the BBC TV news reported that the Metropolitan Police had been urged to call in The Specials. It just meant reinforcements, of course, but “Ghost Town” remained as relevant as ever.
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photographs: Sunshine/Camera Press; PA