“Ghost Town” — The Specials

Well here’s a line I never thought I’d write…The Specials, who spent the early 1980s railing against the worst excesses of the capitalist system, are hitting the chat show circuit.

With a new album out, there’s flesh to press and records to sell. I get that, and wish them well.

But their appearance on late-night sofas across the land seems a little out of character, given where they started in the music industry.

The Specials were one of 2 Tone Records’ key acts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This wasn’t as surprising as it might appear.

The now-iconic 2 Tone record label, responsible in large part for the revival of ska and reggae in theUK, had been set up by Jerry Dammers of The Specials who, as luck would have it, also wrote “Ghost Town”.

If you didn’t live in industrial Britain through the late 1970s and early 1980s, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how perfectly “Ghost Town” captured the spirit of those times. The Specials’ biggest hit summed up the experience of life for the ordinary working man or woman better than just about any other song, before or since.

So it was no great surprise when “Ghost Town” hit Number One in the charts in the summer of 1981.

It was a baking-hot summer. The simmering societal discontent bubbled up with the thermometer and spread out onto the streets. People who felt life had left them behind rioted in inner cities up and down the country.

This was a time when plenty of people were being left behind — big employers were shedding jobs as fast as they were able, leaving whole communities on the dole (unemployment benefit, if you’re a non-UK reader).

With no reliable source of income and the big employers gone for good, people took to the streets in anger and frustration.

“Ghost Town” has been described as a protest song, which it definitely is. It sides with ordinary working people against an unseen, unfeeling, uncaring economic, bureaucratic and political backdrop.

It’s got a very distinctive sound…brooding and eerie…which means “Ghost Town” instantly recognisable from the opening soundscape of a deserted street somewhere followed by some discordant notes on the organ.

There’s no chance of mistaking this tune for anything else…they really don’t make songs like that any more…

There’s a “spooky fairground” feel to the song. A brass section which somehow conveys every ounce of the weariness carried round on the shoulders of a downtrodden generation who’ve given up on life. All topped off with a screamed refrain which I can only imagine is what somebody going through an exorcism sounds like.

“Ghost Town” might not be the absolutely oddest song ever to hit the top of the UK charts…but it’s certainly very close to the top of the list. (I think Joe Dolce probably got the “oddest song” prize, although for entirely different reasons…)

The Specials’ Jerry Dammers wrote “Ghost Town” based on what he’d seen in his home town of Coventry. A formerly prosperous town in the industrial Midlands, where large employers provided decent wages and a good living to thousands of men and women in its huge factories, the late 1970s and early 1980s were not a good time for Coventry.

Or for plenty of other industrial centres, including my own home town of Glasgow.

I was lucky enough to have a good education which meant I could leave the city I’d grown up in to pursue a career elsewhere, but for people who’d worked in the mines for 20 years, or staffed an assembly line somewhere since they left school at 15, there were precious few options.

Unemployment rose, poverty grew, deprivation weaved itself into the fabric of life.

That was the spirit The Specials tapped into so well. And what took “Ghost Town” to Number One in the charts…

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown

Not long beforehand, the UK’s big industrial cities were doing pretty well. Jobs were plentiful and, for the most part, relatively well-paid by the standards of the time.

So people naturally contrasted the straightened circumstances of the early 1980s with the more carefree times they’d enjoyed only a year or two earlier. And the comparison wasn’t flattering…

This town is becoming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place is becoming like a ghost town
No jobs to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

Jerry Dammers’ Coventry had started to become a ghost town, along with many other industrial centres up and down the country.

I was part of that exodus, taking my education to where the jobs were. Like many of my contemporaries, I never went “home” again and likely never will.

35 years or so further on, there’s still no reason for me to go back.

Not that the economy isn’t better — it’s vastly improved on when I was growing up.

Of course there’s still poverty and deprivation…and too much of both…but there are a lot more jobs and opportunities for those who want to make a career in my home town than there was in the early 1980s.

No, the reason I have nothing to go back for is that Glasgow, the city of my birth, is a city of strangers to me. I know as many people who live in San Francisco today as I know in Glasgow…and I’ve never lived in San Francisco.

Before cheap air travel and the internet, there was no practical way to stay in touch with people several hundred miles away. When you left, you left for good, mostly, and people quickly forgot who you were.

The lasting impact of the major societal shifts in the early 1980s is still with us.

There are people in those former industrial towns, now in their 70s and 80s, who haven’t had a paid job for nearly 40 years, with all the consequences for themselves and their families that implies.

And there are people like me who left their hometowns and their families for good, never to return, taking their education and their skills with them to wherever they could find employers prepared to pay for them.

I can’t complain about my choice as I’ve had a good career and a decent life, by most people’s standards.

But there’s always been a hole in my soul from having to pack up and leave home when I was just a kid myself. It’s not like I was going into the army or something, with a built-in support network and comrades to support me.

I was off to make my own way in the world as a sort of wandering troubadour of the business world, travelling to wherever I could find someone who valued by expertise highly enough to pay my salary.

It’s not something I think about a lot, but I know that hole in my soul is still there.

I know that beyond a shadow of doubt because every time I hear the opening bars of “Ghost Town” I let out a little involuntary shudder as I remember how tough it was to leave behind everything I’d known to try and make my way in the world.

With one chord on a Hammond organ, The Specials take me right back to a de-industrialised Glasgow in the early 1980s, when I was a young man facing the choice of near-permanent unemployment or severing my connections for good with everything, and everyone, I’d ever known.

When the first few seconds of a song instantly transports you through time like that, with only a handful of discordant notes and an air of underlying menace, you know you’re listening to a wonderful piece of art and thereby one of the greatest songs ever written.

If you ever wondered what life in industrial Britain felt like in the early 1980s, this song gives you the answer in around three minutes…here’s The Specials with “Ghost Town”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.

The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2vEUFrRByOKob8yqOd6LuA

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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