Forget moons in June, walks along the beach and holding hands in the back row of the cinema, there’s nothing quite so likely to make for a memorable number one hit than some meaningful lyrics about urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence in inner cities.
OK, perhaps it’s not going to be the golden staircase to the top every time – but in the case of Ghost Town by The Specials, released in June 1981, the combination was commercial enough to give it three weeks at number one and 10 weeks in total in the top 40 of the UK singles chart.
The fact that it was a hit at the same time as riots were occurring in British cities didn’t do sales any harm either.
Behind the headlines internal tensions within the Coventry band were also coming to a head when the single was being recorded, resulting in it being the last one recorded by the original seven members before splitting up.
That didn’t stop the song being hailed as a major piece of popular social commentary and all three of the major UK music magazines of the time awarded Ghost Town the accolade of Single of the Year for 1981.
But things were coming to head. The tour for the group’s More Specials album in autumn 1980 had been a fraught experience. Already tired from a long touring schedule and with several band members at odds with keyboardist and band leader Jerry Dammers over his decision to incorporate “muzak” keyboard sounds on the album, several of the gigs descended into audience violence.
As they travelled around the UK the band witnessed sights that summed up the depressed mood of a country gripped by recession. In 2002 Dammers told The Guardian: “You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong.”
In an interview in 2011, Dammers explained how witnessing this event inspired his composition: “The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom. Certain members of the band resented the song and wanted the simple chords they were used to playing on the first album. It’s hard to explain how powerful it sounded. We had almost been written off and then Ghost Town came out of the blue.”
The song’s sparse lyrics address urban decay, unemployment and violence in inner cities. It doesn’t beat about the bush but approaches its subject matter in a much more melancholic manner than its punk predecessors could or would have done:
“This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
Too much fighting on the dance floor.”

Then it briefly takes on a brighter more uptempo approach for a nostalgic nod to the recent past:
“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown.”

Then back to reality:
“This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town.”
Jo-Ann Greene of Allmusic notes that the lyrics: “only brush on the causes for this apocalyptic vision – the closed down clubs, the numerous fights on the dancefloor, the spiraling unemployment, the anger building to explosive levels. But so embedded were these in the British psyche, that Dammers needed only a minimum of words to paint his picture.”
The club referred to in the song was the Locarno a regular haunt of Specials members Neville Staple and Lynval Golding and which is also named as the club in Friday Night Saturday Morning, one of the songs on the B-side. The building which housed the club is now Coventry Central Library.
In March 1981, Jerry Dammers heard the reggae song At the Club by actor/singer Victor Romero Evans. Fascinated by its sound, Dammers telephoned the song’s co-writer and producer John Collins who travelled from London to meet The Specials at their midlands rehearsal studio and agreed to produce their new single.
After becoming overwhelmed with the multitude of choices available in the 24-track studio used during the recording of More Specials, Dammers had decided that he wanted to return a more basic set-up, and after a recommendation from bass player Horace Panter, the band chose the small 8-track studio in the house owned by John Rivers in Woodbine Street in Royal Leamington Spa.
The studio consisted of a recording space in the cellar and a control room in the living room which was too small to accommodate all the band members, so rather than their normal recording method of playing all together, Collins recorded each member playing one at a time and built up the songs track by track.
The three songs for the single were recorded over ten days in April 1981 in two separate sessions at Woodbine Street. Tensions were high during the recording with little communication between the band members
Member Horace Panter remembered: “Everybody was stood in different parts of this room with their equipment, no one talking. Jerry stormed out a couple of times virtually in tears and I went after him. It was hell to be around.”
Dammers said: “People weren’t cooperating. Ghost Town wasn’t a free-for-all jam session. Every little bit was worked out and composed, all the different parts, I’d been working on it for at least a year, trying out every conceivable chord. I can remember walking out of a rehearsal in total despair because Neville Staple would not try the ideas. You know the brass bit is kind of jazzy, it has a dischord? I remember Lynval rushing into the control room while they were doing it going, ‘No, no, no, it sounds wrong! Wrong! Wrong!’”
Collins wanted the song to sound more like a Sly and Robbie roots reggae track, so he brought a copy of a Sly and Robbie-produced single, What a Feeling by Gregory Isaacs, to the studio so that drummer John Bradbury could mimic the drum sound. He also suggested the two-handed shuffle rhythm played by Dammers on the Hammond organ throughout the song. Using just eight tracks limited Collins’ recording possibilities, but as a reggae producer he decided to use the common reggae method of recording everything in mono.
“As we were recording eight-track, I did go with a track plan. I wanted the drums in mono on one track, the bass in mono on another and the rhythm – that shuffle organ and Lynval’s guitar – on another. They’re the backbone of a reggae song. Then there was brass on another track, lead vocals on another, backing vocals on another, and various little bits and pieces dropped in. Ghost Town is basically a mono record with stereo reverb and echo that I added in the mix. The same applied to the brass. Recording simply in mono really helped the instruments balance themselves.”
However, there was a tense moment when Dammers decided at the last minute that he wanted to add a flute to the song, and with no free tracks available Collins was forced to record it directly onto the track containing the previously recorded brass section, with the possibility that any error would have rendered the entire track unusable:
As it had not been decided where exactly the backing vocals would be used, Terry Hall, Staple, Golding and Dammers sang a full backing vocal track throughout the song, which Collins used to his advantage as the lyric “this town is coming like a ghost town” had become like a “hypnotic chant” by the end of the song.
Collins took a recording of the separate tracks back to his home in Tottenham where he spent three weeks mixing the song. Hall, Staple, Golding and Dammers all turned up at the house at various times to add further vocals. Since the song had no proper beginning or ending during recording at Woodbine Street, Collins recreated the idea of fading in over a sound effect, which he had used previously on Lift Off, the B-side of At the Club.
The single had two B-sides, written by two different members of the Specials. Why? is a plea for racial tolerance and was written by guitarist Lynval Golding in response to a violent racist attack he had suffered in July 1980 outside the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead in London, which had left him hospitalised with broken ribs. Friday Night, Saturday Morning was written by lead singer Terry Hall and describes a mundane night out in Coventry.
Contemporary reviews of Ghost Town identified the song’s impact as an “instant musical editorial” on recent events (the 1981 England riots). Although initial reviews of the single in the UK music press were lukewarm, by the end of the year the song had won over the critics to be named Single of the Year in Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, the UK’s top three weekly music magazines at the time.
The summer of 1981 saw riots in over 35 locations around the UK.
Terry Hall said: “When we recorded Ghost Town, we were talking about 1980’s riots in Bristol and Brixton. The fact that it became popular when it did was just a weird coincidence.”
The song actually created resentment in Coventry where residents angrily rejected the characterisation of the city as a town in decline.
At The Specials’ Top of the Pops recording of the song Staples, Hall and Golding announced they were leaving the band.
Golding later said: “We didn’t talk to the rest of the guys. We couldn’t even stay in the same dressing room. We couldn’t even look at each other. We stopped communicating. You only realise what a genius Jerry was years later. At the time, we were on a different planet.”
Shortly afterwards, the three left the band to form Fun Boy Three.
For a while The Specials were nothing but a ghost band.

WRITERS: Jerry Dammers
PRODUCER: John Collins
GENRE: Reggae, two-tone
ARTIST: The Specials
LABEL 2 Tone
RELEASED 12 June 1981
COVERS The Prodigy