This case study focuses on The Specials’ 1981 single release Ghost Town on 7” and 12” vinyl. It will predominantly focus on the eponymous A-Side track, which was and still remains of great significance as a stand-alone piece of popular music that encapsulates a period in our society’s history.
The Specials, initially called the Automatics, formed in 1977 in Coventry. They were uncertain as to what sound they were trying to produce, drawing on the combined interests of the diverse membership of the group. Having navigated around various guises of punk and reggae, punk being a particular genre that resonated with every member, the group finally settled on Ska as a genre to bridge the different preferences.
From its inception, ‘Ska’ was always linked to the provocation of established authority. The name of its ancestor ‘Calypso’ was used by slaves to mock their masters on the plantations in Jamaica without them knowing what was being said. This style of insult was in the style of the African Griot, a travelling artist, usually a poet or musician, who collected and narrated collective history. Ostensibly, they “entertained through history, gossip, satire and political comment” (Williams, 2009, p8).
The advantage of Ska was that it provided social positioning, a fixed manner of expression and, just as importantly, a style, both physical and musical for the band to work from. The decision to work within the Ska genre helped to style The Specials’ beloved rude boy gait and tailoring.
Through 1977-78, the band watched their heroes like The Sex Pistols and The Clash play a number of anti-racism gigs, which fuelled their ambitions to be a mixed race outfit and they began to play the Coventry circuit. They were soon spotted by an emerging DJ Pete Waterman, who would become the 80s pop maestro. He became their manager, but had little success introducing them to the mainstream industry and “reluctantly let them go” (Williams, 2009, p22). After more disappointments, The Automatics came to the attention of Bernie Rhodes, manager of The Clash, who driven on by The Clash’s guitarist, Joe Strummer, employed The Automatics to open The Clash’s gigs in their English tour. On the day of the first concert, the band were notified that The Automatics were another emerging band already signed to Island Records and that they were “never, and unequivocally, ever allowed to use the name ‘Automatics’, ever, again!” (Painter, 2007, p38). Eventually, the group decided on the name The Specials AKA, which was later shortened.
Now established, The Specials AKA tried to release a first single but could find no label that would to take them. They decided to release a self-financed single: The Specials AKA present Gangsters. Jerry Dammers, keyboard player in The Specials AKA, decided in 1979 to found the now iconic 2Tone Record label, under which they released their first song. It received very positive recognition by the market and Chrysalis Records snapped up both The Specials AKA and their record label. The song went straight into the UK top 10 and the sub-label was established.
The Specials had acknowledged chart success with Gangsters, A Message To You, Rudi and Too Much, Too Young and their tours were very successful but behind closed doors the group was struggling. The tensions created by having a group of ambitious and talented musicians with very diverse backgrounds and visions of the future, was beginning to tell, and touring life had become very unpleasant: every member had an individual venture that was growing alongside their commitment to The Specials. In March 1981, Dammers made a call to John Collins, a little known reggae producer, he wanted The Specials to make a new record: “The atmosphere was bordering on the unbearable. We all stood as far away from one another as was humanly possible. The room did not have seven corners but if it had, each would have been occupied by a member of The Specials” (Painter 2007 p267). The record would be released on June 20th 1981 with the eponymous title track as the A-side and Why? And Friday Night, Saturday Morning making up the B-side.
The Specials’ new producer John Collins brought to the group’s work a range of new recording experiences. Until Ghost Town, the band had recorded around 10 live performances of every song and supervised the producer as the final track was cut together from the best bits. For Ghost Town, however, Collins changed The Specials’ method of recording to suit his own elementary methods. It was the first time that they laid down their individual lines of a song separately. With hindsight, it appears that this was a fortunate thing as it helped relieve the mounting tension within the group. In response to Dammers’ disillusionment with “high tech, expensive studios” (2-Tone.info: John Collins), Collins’ next fundamental change brought a technical step down for the group who had been used to recording in progressive and modern recording studios with the latest equipment, often with up to 64-track systems on offer. Collins, instead, took Dammers’ disillusionment as consent to revert to more basic recording techniques, which would complement the concept behind the record. He booked a small studio with only an 8-track recording system. This coincidently was a huge improvement on Collins’ own home studio that stretched only to kit-made synthesisers and a 4-track recording system, which would later be used as the only mixing site for both the 7” and 12” singles.
Given the size of the recording studio, it was, fortunately, impossible for the whole band to record together. Collins was keen to record each instrumental section individually; a technique often used before samplers were a part of a conventional studio. He was then able to mix down the tracks as he saw fit. Indeed, his first action was to mix the drums, guitar and organ down to mono and free up the other tracks so as to better manipulate the other layers. Collins insisted that Dammers replaced the home entertainment organ, which had featured in the earlier Specials tracks with a more professional Hammond organ to rejuvenate their familiar sound, which is ironic given that the Hammond organ, the “modern replacement for the pipe organ” (Kirk and Hunt, 1999, p12) was hardly a new instrument having been invented in 1935. It was, however, new to The Specials and definitely plays a part in making Ghost Town distinctive from the repertoire. The home entertainment organ was a comparatively normal instrument like a diatonic harmonica, something that people might play at home, whereas the Hammond was still an instrument for a ‘performer’ like the chromatic harmonica, requiring more skill and dexterity. This change, along with the intelligent editing and synthetic sounds, prevented Ghost Town from sounding homemade, and therefore more commercial than The Specials’ previous records.
In order to work with the basic resources that he had, Collins was forced to edit each section of the track individually and then splice them together manually onto ¼ tape. In the process, he identified that the only weak areas of the song were its beginning and end. Using his own “kit-made synth” (Williams 2009 p107), Collins created the ghost-like siren that now tops and tails the Ghost Town track. He (Collins) also pared down the ending, Dammers having intended merely to end with a fade out during the refrain, by thinning the texture “dub-style” (Williams 2009 p107), which left only backing vocals, drums and bass with Collins’ siren.
Key Background to Release:
Before looking at the events leading up to the release of the Ghost Town EP, which in this instance is fundamental to its initial reception, it seems necessary to note that the only ‘number ones’ in the charts in 1981 that featured black artists followed in succession from one another. The Specials bring up the rear following Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson. This is particularly noteworthy because of the increase in racial tension throughout England around 1981, beginning with the Brixton riots in April. In the months leading up to the release of Ghost Town EP, unemployment figures hit a record high of three million. This was particularly evident in the Midlands and the north of England, leading to unrest in urban areas and elevated racial intolerance. In Coventry, The Specials’ hometown, an Asian student was murdered in the city centre by a white youth associated with the local neo-fascist movement. In immediate response, The Specials organised a peaceful protest concert with other local artists to raise money for anti-racism charities and the victim’s family. The concert was set for June 20th 1981, the official release date for the Ghost Town record. It immediately entered the charts at number 21. Although the turn out to the concert was much smaller than expected, the press reported that houses all over Coventry had their windows open to hear the sound of Ghost Town; thus highlighting the single and its topicality nationwide.
Over the next 3 weeks, disenchantment grew across Britain culminating in the week beginning 4th July with riots taking place in Toxteth, Liverpool and spreading throughout the major cities and working class areas of England. The following weekend Ghost Town was number one. Its topical lyrics, sparse instrumentation and the impeccable timing of its release had given it a unique platform. It was a song that pre-empted and captured the mood of mass youth culture. It remained at number one for three weeks; the three weeks running up to the royal wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales. The status quo was restored as the rioting subsided, the heir to the throne was married and Shakin’ Stevens became the UK number one.
When it was first released, Ghost Town met with very mixed opinions: “Sounds didn’t know what to make of it, New Musical Express were less than impressed, but Melody Maker said it was ‘magnificent’ (Painter, 2007, p38). The change in sound was a stark departure from their previous upbeat hits and on a first listen, may not have packed the same punch as The Specials’ previous number 1: Too Much, Too Young, which resembled far more their roots in punk. To add to the change, the trademark 2Tone look had shifted from the rude boy “pork pie hats and tonic suits” (Staple & McMahon, 2009, p233) to “baggy zoot suits and trendy t-shirts” (Williams 2009 p109). This change in look was firmly established on the 900th episode of Top of the Pops: the smart rude boys had dressed down, somehow echoing the change in sound and 2Tone’s Ska records attempt to replace punk as the working class voice of the popular music industry.
Given the well kempt competition in the charts at the time, it is understandable that the critics, also acknowledging the rise of the New Romantics – the dandy, made-up man using escapism through flamboyant dress which was more polished and commercialised – would see a group in trouble with a downtrodden record and scruffy clothes as a sign of decay.
Instead, the record was an expression of a change that was sweeping a large section of the country from the death of John Lennon in late 1980 all the way to the Royal Wedding in mid July 1981. The reality of the changes to the distribution of wealth, generally to the detriment of the working classes under the new government shows in the surge towards feel good songs, similar to wartime periods. Ghost Town shows the change in expression from aggressive to downtrodden protest is arguably an expression of this.
For the public, it was a breath of fresh air. The song wasn’t clean; it wasn’t about conventional themes, but reflected a view of Britain that they could understand and relate to. It had translatability. There was a sense that this was a culmination of The Specials’ good work: a song about the decline of public industry, mass unemployment and bleak prospects, a disheartened cry of protest against the progress of British society under Mrs Thatcher. The provocative lyrics, written specifically about The Specials’ perception of Liverpool, Glasgow and other suffering cities during their British tour the year before, meant the song had an unprecedented topicality: “Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving the youth on the shelf” (Williams, 2009, p106). This impetus gave it immediate appeal to the working class youth movement as the punk movement decreased in popularity and the image conscious New Romantics began to emerge.
Given its topicality, it is surprising that Ghost Town only entered the charts at number 21. Over the next 3 weeks, it rose through the rankings, landing on different chart positions depending on different versions of event. What is certain is that The Specials: Ghost Town EP reached number one in the UK charts on 11th July 1981 and maintained it’s position there for three weeks, before it was replaced by Shakin’ Stephens: Green Door. The single was undoubtedly The Specials’ most successful single, gaining some recognition abroad. It reached number 3 in Ireland, number 7 in Norway and number 12 in the Netherlands. In fact, Ghost Town was the first 2Tone record to sell of a million copies, a record for the label that was not broken by any subsequent 2Tone release. When the single was re-released, in 1991, to celebrate 10 years since its first release, it was unplaced, possibly indicating that the single had had its time. All subsequent covers by other artists, most notably by the experimental electronic group The Prodigy, have been album tracks or a part of live performances, thus marking the single out as a piece of significant influence but minor profitability.
Ghost Town became the soundtrack to the 1981 riots and is now synonymous with that period for many who were young at the time. It gave The Specials and 2Tone an exemplary platform to publicise themselves, and had they had more material they probably could have continued more successfully. It consolidated 2Tone as a sub-label of substance with which people still identify today. Unfortunately the group was unable to follow Ghost Town with anything else having focused its entire energies on the single. Herein, we see the first decline.
If it has not been made clear up to this point, it is now necessary to restate that the discontent amongst The Specials had reached such a point that the members could not bear to be in one another’s company. “The atmosphere was bordering on the unbearable. We all stood as far away from one another as humanly possible. The room did not have 7 corners, but, if it had, each would have been occupied by a member of The Specials.” (Panter, 2007, p267)
At the end of their second Top of the Pops performance, three of the band members announced that they would be leaving after the upcoming tour. The final tour in America was fraught. Dave Jordan, The Specials’ main sound engineer, went out on the night before a show with former Rolling Stone Keith Richards and did not reappear, forcing the band to rely on the support of a junior engineer and hope. In a matter of weeks after their return, sound engineer Dave was managing three of the original band members: Terry (singer), Neville (singer) and Lynval (rhythm guitar and singer) in a completely new ensemble. By October 1981, the split was widely known. Jerry, in debt to Chrysalis Records, continued working under the name of The Specials right up to their re-formation in 2010. The mark of Ghost Town’s unparalleled success is that in 2011, the year of its 30th anniversary, The Specials still play it as their encore and not as part of their main set: it has become their anthem.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Ghost Town as a song or a single had a huge effect on the recording industry in this country but it did achieve three things. Firstly, it created a place in the mainstream market for the music of more commercial contemporaries like Madness. It had become possible to ascend the charts with Ska music, and not produce a one hit wonder. Secondly, it proved that a mixed race, predominantly white, band could play ‘black’ music authentically, and thirdly it showed that the divide between ‘ethnic’ or ‘urban’ artists and the mainstream white pop market could be dissolved. Subsequent mainstream artists were able to be commercial and topical, allowing a band like The Spice Girls to exist. They also proved that a song that captures a moment in society’s collective memory can overcome more commercial, prominent forces: The Specials removed Michael Jackson, one of the highest selling artists of all time, from the number one slot.
Ghost Town’s “in depth technique… combined with hard-hitting lyrics, really made this track the most prominent recording of the Specials’ catalogue” (Williams 2009 p106). No subsequent single by a UK artist has succeeded in knocking it from its position. Earlier in 2011, the power of the Ghost Town track was clearly demonstrated as it accompanied numerous news reports following the riots in London and other cities. No song, before or since, has caught the sense of unrest and collapse as aptly while also demonstrating solidarity between different races.
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