The Specials were a product of 70s rather than the 80s, but it was as a member of that group that Terry Hall saw in the decade celebrated by this blog. He was singing for a group called Squad when he was introduced to The Specials’ founder Jerry Dammers. “It was just like 1-2-3-4, then make a noise for two minutes, and then stop and say 1-2-3-4 again,” Hall said of his former band in 1980. When Squad got a gig supporting Dammers’ band The Automatics (both bands local to Coventry), Hall was impressed by some of the songs which he thought sounded like The Stranglers with a reggae influence. Dammers’ offered him a place in his band which Hall accepted, and gradually The Specials was formed.
A feature of the success of the band was Dammers’ setting up of their own record label, 2-Tone, a name evoking the musical fusion of new wave and reggae and the multi-racial line-up of the group. Specifically, the label was recognized as a leading exponent of the ska revival in the UK; the early acts signed to 2-Tone (especially The Specials and The Selecter) were intrinsically associated with that movement. In an extraordinary run for a new label (or for an established label, for that matter), 2-Tone managed a chart placing for the first dozen singles it issued. Making a major contribution to that tally were The Specials themselves: all of the seven releases of theirs that were eligible for the singles chart made the Top 10. Such success came at a price. Their debut album was a success but the follow-up, created on a much bigger budget with access to things like a 24-track studio, was not as well-received and spent a fraction of the time in the higher reaches of the chart than its predecessor. With seven members, each either fairly forceful in personality or opinion or both, tensions quickly became evident, particularly as they spent so much time in each other’s company while touring the UK. It was life on the road that inspired their biggest hit, the classic Ghost Town, which is still regarded as one of the very best singles of the 1980s.
The song took inspiration from the state of decay the band saw in Britain as they moved from town to town on tour. An example of the type of desperation Dammers saw was people in Glasgow selling their possessions to make end meet. The Specials’ home town of Coventry was also suffering, with high unemployment due to the decline of industry in the area. (The motor vehicle industry, in trouble during the 70s, had provided work for many families.) The single’s claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere – a mixture of suppressed anger and world-weary resignation – was achieved through monotone vocal delivery, a solid reggae bass and a haunting brass and woodwind section. Nightmarish, hysterical chanting in the back- and foregrounds of the mix, and the ascending notes from a Hammond organ that gave the impression of a situation out of control, added to the sense of unease. But it was the police sirens at the song’s fade which were especially relevant to the social situation in the country at the time.
Between 3 and 11 July, serious rioting broke out across the country: at Handsworth in Birmingham, at Toxteth in Liverpool, in Southall in London, and on Moss Side in Manchester. There was unrest elsewhere, across the UK: Bedford, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Halifax, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Wolverhampton. Ghost Town seemed to have pre-empted this; there had also been riots and disturbances at the time of its recording, but these latest incidences occurred just as the single made #1. While the news showed pictures from the riots, entertainment shows were airing the video for Ghost Town, a moody film with abandoned vehicles and shadowy figures and empty streets. It was filmed at an overnight shoot from Saturday 27th June to the early morning of Sunday the 28th, and featured the group driving around bleak locations in London’s East End; filming in the financial district of the City of London took place in the early hours of Sunday, where the streets were of course at that time deserted. The song’s ultimate legacy is that it is the perfect soundtrack to news footage from the era.
The Smash Hits review ran as follows: “A tune full of eastern promise about towns that are going west, due to the current rate of unemployment. But you don’t have to live in Corby or Telford to appreciate Jerry Dammers’ increasing brilliance or Rico’s flair for jazz licks of the ritzy kind on this ace 12-incher [the same tracks appeared on the 7”], which also includes Lynval Golding’s emotive Why and Terry Hall’s humourously descriptive Friday Night, Saturday Morning.” At the end of the year, it was listed as a ‘single of the year’ in New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker; in the year-end Smash Hits readers’ poll for 1981, it was voted 7th best single. By that time though, Hall had left the group, quitting while Ghost Town was still in the charts with the formal announcement coming a couple of months later.
Some years after his departure, Hall was dismissive of his time in The Specials. “The Specials got me off the dole, it was good music,” he told Record Mirror (7 July 1984), going on to add that “the kind of music I listen to is similar to the kind of music we play now. I’m a bit embarrassed when I look back on things like ‘Message’.” A few months later he distanced himself further from his old colleagues, telling Smash Hits (14-27 February 1985): “I look back on it as a very naïve period – our heads were in the clouds. We were supposed to be at the head of some new ska movement but it was only really Jerry who was heavily into ska. I thought it was crap. We had this ridiculous idea that just because we were from the same working-class background, we should be in a band together. It’s incredible that The Specials’ reputation has lasted so long.” He has revised his opinion since, as, following a one-off reunion with Golding to perform some of The Specials’ old hits at Glastonbury in 2007, the group was resurrected with several other past members and Hall continues to work with them today.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Jun. 12
The BEAT Doors To Your Heart (Go Feet FEET9)
Dave EDMUNDS with The STRAY CATS (Stray Cats) The Race Is On (Swan Song SSK19425)
The SPECIALS (Terry Hall) Ghost Town (Chrysalis CHSTT17)
WAH! (Pete Wylie) Forget The Down (Eternal SLATE1)
Samantha FOX Do Ya Do Ya (Wanna Please Me) (Jive FOXY2)
BRONSKI BEAT Cha Cha Heels (Arista 112331)
Julian COPE China Doll (Island IS406)
Kirsty MacCOLL Days (Virgin KMA2)
SONIA You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You (Chrysalis CHS3385)
U2 All I Want Is You (Island IS422)