It’s a little surprising how many of the now classic records in this series were conceived in chaotic circumstances.
This track was nominated single of the year in 1981 by the UK’s three biggest music papers of the day (NME, Melody Maker and Sounds) and spent three weeks at number one.
Yet it was created in a fractious environment by a band that was in the process of self-destructing.
The Specials had followed their eponymous 1979 debut album with ‘More Specials’ a year later.
And whilst ‘More Specials’ had charted in the top 10, and delivered singles that had done the same, its more produced sound hadn’t met with unanimously positive reaction.
More importantly, several bandmates were skeptical of Jerry Dammers’ approach to production, and unhappy with the slightly different direction it took the band in.
Against this backdrop – and the backdrop of riots on the streets of Bristol and Brixton – Dammers had continued writing, and in particular, had been honing this new track for some months.
He and the rest of the band had witnessed the growing crisis in urban Britain first hand as they’d toured the ‘More Specials’ album around its provinces.
And whilst what they saw influenced this track, they couldn’t have foreseen the scale of unrest that would exist by the time of its release in June 1981, by which time unrest had been reported in no less than 35 towns and cities across the UK.
‘Ghost Town’ would provide a suitable soundtrack for broadcasters, and instant social commentary for its listeners, adding interest even beyond the sheer quality of the track itself.
So what of the almost equally riotous recording?
Whilst writing and refining ‘Ghost Town’, Dammers had been enjoying a reggae track called ‘At The Club’ by Victor Romero Evans, and had decided he would like its producer and co-writer, John Collins, to take over production duties for this single.
Dammers first called Collins in the middle of the night with the offer, but Collins believed the request a joke and put the phone down. But Dammers persevered and eventually Collins travelled to Coventry to meet Dammers before agreeing to produce the track.
Dammers had used a 24-track studio for the ‘More Specials’ sessions, but it was agreed they would ditch this in favour of a modest 8-track studio in a house in Leamington Spa for ‘Ghost Town’.
Collins would also insist the band recorded in mono, with reverb and delay used to add width to the sound, to give a more authentic reggae/ska feel.
The limited space available in the house meant the band had to record their parts independently, providing another departure from the band’s previous sessions.
In an attempt to encourage a common approach in this environment, Collins played band members records whose style he wanted to inspire the recording.
Drummer John Bradbury for example was played ‘What a Feeling’ by Gregory Isaacs (a Sly & Robbie production) before being invited to mimic its drumming style.
But not all of the band were behind ‘Ghost Town’ as it developed in the studio.
Dammers remembers guitarist Lyndal Golding rushing into the control room at one point shouting about how wrong it sounded, and recalls vocalist Neville Staple being reluctant to try out some of the proposed ideas.
Collins eventually got sufficient material work with, and took the mono recordings back to his Tottenham home for mixing, during which band members visited individually to pass comment on the developing track.
We now know the end result as a classic of course, but that was far from the feel at the time the record was completed, and given the troubled recording, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this would become the band’s final release before they split.
Interestingly, critical reaction was also not instantly positive. This at the time was a very unusual single, with very unusual sound and subject matter. But it gathered momentum and respect during the second half of 1981 in good time for the end of year polls it topped.
As for the 12” single, it features an extended mix which clocks at 6’02” compared with the 7” single version at 3’40”.
The package is completed neatly with two additional tracks, both written by different band members, and both with nightclub connections as per the a-side.
‘Why?’ is Lynval Golding’s plea for progress following a racist attack he suffered outside a nightclub, whilst ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ is Terry Hall’s epithet to a mundane night out in Coventry.
Quality and history in roughly equal measures then in this particular record, and yet another classic track which surely can’t be enjoyed more than when in its 12” format.
Label: 2 Tone Records
Cat No: CHS TT 1217