There was nothing terribly exciting on my Release Radar this sweep so for this Track of the Week I’ve decided to go back in time to visit 1981.
The UK was in the grip of a recession as the ’70s ended and the ’80s rolled in. There were 1.5 million unemployed in the Spring of 1979 (6% of the working population); that number had risen to 2.5 million (10%) by April 1981. The inner city areas, with large ethnic minority communities, bore the brunt of the economic downturn. Many of the high street shops had closed down and Britain’s cities were beginning to look like ghost towns.
Deprivation and racism had created a pressure cooker atmosphere of anger and resentment, especially among the young. The Specials could see it first hand as they toured the UK in support of their More Specials album in autumn 1980. And so, when the band released the single, Ghost Town, on 12th June 1981 its commentary on unemployment, urban decay and simmering violence caught the prevailing winds of public opinion.
Bands won’t play no more.
Too much fighting on the dancefloor.
Then, on 10th July, a wave of rioting spread across the whole country. Angry mobs clashed with the police and each other in some 35 cities from London, Birmingham and Liverpool to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. The following day Ghost Town reached number 1 on the UK pop music chart.
According to founding member, Jerry Dammers, anti-racism was intrinsic to the formation of The Specials. The band included black and white musicians and their music drew inspiration from Caribbean roots. Dammers set up his own record label, which he called 2 Tone Records to reflect the ethnic mix of The Specials, and that name soon came to be used for his band’s particular style of music: 2-tone is a sub-genre of ska and a close cousin of Jamaican reggae.
In Ghost Town the unmistakable off-beat rhythm of reggae is supported by dissonant Hammond organ chords. A flute conjures up mental images of deranged Egyptian mummies while a prominent brass section of flugelhorn and trombone provides islands of reassuring sanity. The extended version even has a conventional jazzy trombone solo. The ghosts in this song, it seems, were as nervous and uncertain about the future as radio listeners in early ’80s Britain.
Three months before the widespread disturbances in July 1981 there was a similar riot in the South London suburb of Brixton. After that episode of ‘serious disorder’ the government set up an inquiry headed by Lord Scarman. Although his report only covered the Brixton riot it was recognised that its findings and recommendations applied equally to other parts of the country. The report recommended a softer approach to policing and a greater emphasis on community relations.
In the wake of the Scarman inquiry the controversial ‘sus law’, which allowed the police to arrest anyone merely suspected of intending to commit an arrestable offence, was repealed in August 1981. One reason for unrest had been removed and tensions slowly eased. Unemployment, however, continued rise, reaching 3 million (12%) in January 1982. It remained above 10% until 1987. Nevertheless, the eighties were a period of economic expansion in the UK – it was the age of the Yuppie – and city centres eventually began to recover.
The Specials, on the other hand, went through their own recession. They lost three members shortly after the release of Ghost Town, continued with varying lineups until 1984 and then disbanded. They have re-formed twice since then and are still performing, although Jerry Dammers, the original songwriter and keyboard player, has never rejoined. He remains a shimmering ghost in the history of The Specials.
For more background information about Ghost Town see this article in The Guardian newspaper from March 2002.