Friday, 6 February 2009

1981 The Specials: Ghost Town

In terms of social context, the appearance of 'Ghost Town' in the charts and the rioting in Brixton and Toxteth is a coincidence astonishing enough to question whether one begat the other and which came first? Certainly, no band had captured the mood of the 'nation you don't normally see' with such a bullseye accuracy since the Sex Pistols took their alternative national anthem to the top of every unfixed chart in the country four years earlier, and both tracks are the sound of planets grinding into alignment to prophesise doom.

In terms of ambition and musical progression, 'Ghost Town' is to early Specials what 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was to 'She Loves You'. The sound is eclectic; a broad, loosely stitched together patchwork of styles and influences soundtracking a theme that equates the abandoned ghost towns of penny westerns to the band's own contemporary Coventry. Throughout, a gentle ska beat shuffles to nowhere in the background whilst a ghostly Morricone whistle motif borrowed from a spaghetti western never filmed threads through the foreground and blows through the song like tumbleweed.

The desolate mood of abandonment is only punctuated by glaring stabs of brass and a brace of alternating lead vocals emoting a collective anger made all the more menacing by their curious tone of quiet resignation that suggests they know a change is a going to come and where its going to come from. At the refrain, more Morricone vocal stylings, only this time they are the screams of someone possessed.

Relief comes at the middle eight where the whole thing turns on it's head as Terry Hall remembers the 'all green fields round here' way things used to be over a blaring mariachi trumpet:

"Do you remember the good old days

Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown"

But the relief is shortlived and soon the tumbleweed starts rolling again and fades to silence as reality once again bites; after all, you can't live your life around memories.

I was on holiday in Cornwall with my parents when 'Ghost Town' was number one and the chill from Staples' 'People getting angry' and his blank stare into the camera on the video pervaded even there so lord alone knows how it went down in the inner cities. Yet despite this, the concern of the lyrics are essentially restricted to a plea and a warning from a generation under twenty five - who else really gives a toss about clubs being closed and no bands playing?

"Why must the youth fight against themselves?

Government leaving the youth on the shelf"

This was certainly true in Thatcher's Britain of the early eighties where to be young and poor were sins most foul and not compatible with the rampant free market politics, stinging welfare cuts and the capitalist yuppie agenda. And yet for all it's capturing of a time and a place, 'Ghost Town' today still sounds horribly, horribly contemporary. Only this time round it's not just the usual suspects who are suffering.

So there we have it, the decade is only some eighteen months old and already we have had its greatest number one.
In terms of structure, music, style, inlfuence and lyrics, 'Ghost Town' is unimprovable and the band, who were essentially no more even while the song was riding high, didn't even try to follow it. How could they?

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