The Specials and the story of the UK's most remarkable chart-topper

In 1981, Britain was in a state of crisis: the government was as unpopular as any since the war, unemployment was rampant and riots were breaking out across the country. Into this turbulent mix, the Specials released their doom-laden, highly political single, Ghost Town. On the eve of the re-release of the Coventry band's albums, Alexis Petridis tells the story of the most remarkable single ever to top the UK charts

It doesn't happen often these days, but pop singles have occasionally shown a startling ability to sum up the mood of their times. The Beatles' winsome All You Need Is Love encapsulated the blissed-out, dippy logic of 1967's Summer of Love. Twenty years later, the Pet Shop Boys' Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) offered an arch deconstrution of the yuppie dream: a suitably cynical record for a cynical era.

No record, however, can claim to have captured the spirit of its age quite as acutely as The Specials' Ghost Town. Released 21 years ago this summer - an anniversary heralded by the reissue of the Coventry septet's complete back catalogue - it remains the most remarkable number one in British chart history. Despairing of rising unemployment and frustrated by the most unpopular government of the post-war era, it was not only a peculiarly unsettling record, but a uniquely prescient one. As Ghost Town reached number one, its lyrics were horribly borne out. "Can't go on no more," sang the Specials, "the people getting angry." As if on cue, the worst mainland rioting of the century broke out in Britain's cities and towns. For the first and only time, British pop music appeared to be commenting on the news as it happened.

"Everything else in the charts was starting to go a bit Human League," says Billy Bragg, Britain's foremost political songwriter, who, in the summer of 1981, had recently left the army. "Ghost Town summed up how much exciting stuff was going on in the town during punk. Clearly the Specials and a whole generation had been hugely inspired by what had happened with punk, culturally, socially and politically, but what had it led to? Synthesizers and floppy haircuts."

The Specials formed as the Coventry Automatics in 1977 when Jerry Dammers, the keyboard-playing son of a clergyman, asked a fellow student at Lanchester Polytechnic, bassist Horace Panter, to help him record a set of self-penned reggae songs. They recruited musicians from Coventry's thriving club circuit: Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding had played in local soul bands, singer Terry Hall and guitarist Roddy "Radiation" Byers were faces on the punk scene. Dammers' flatmate John Bradbury was drafted in on drums. Finally, Automatics roadie Neville Staples, a former member of disco-dancing troupe Neville and the Boys, simply plugged in a microphone during a gig and began chatting along with the music.

They released their self-financed first single, Gangsters, in early 1979. A year later, they were one of Britain's most successful bands, the authors of five top 10 singles - one, Too Much Too Young, topped the charts in January 1980 - and a hit album. Their success had spawned its own genre and attendant youth cult, called Two Tone: the name of the Specials' record label and a nod to their multi-racial line-up. The charts were filled with bands aping their punky, politicised take on ska, the long-forgotten precursor to reggae which had been popular in Jamaica during the 1960s. While the Selecter, Madness, the Beat, Bad Manners trailed in their wake, the Specials sealed their supremacy with a second album, More Specials. A daring and audacious attempt to add jazz and easy listening muzak to the Two Tone stew, it had sailed effortlessly to number five. "Punk was dying, the Sex Pistols had split, the charts were full of second-division punk bands and people were after something new," says Horace Panter, now a special needs teacher. "We were in the right place at the right time and we had the tunes."

The Specials embarked on their More Specials tour in autumn 1980, a band at the top of their game. It should have been a golden time, but as their bus ploughed around England, the Specials were self-destructing. Relations between the band members were at a low: they had endured a gruelling schedule for over a year, and the sessions for More Specials had been spectacularly stormy. To add to their woes, the tour was marred by audience violence which disrupted gigs in Newcastle, Leeds and Cambridge. At Cambridge, Hall and Dammers attempted to intervene to stop fans battling with security guards. The pair were arrested, charged with incitement to riot and fined £400. "What started out as a big party ended up like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," says Roddy Byers.

"Everyone was getting under pressure and the band was getting tired," says Dammers. "It wasn't just that, the country was falling apart. You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. Margaret Thatcher had apparently gone mad, she was closing down all the industries, throwing millions of people on the dole. 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."

The roots of Ghost Town go back further, to the Specials' first major UK tour. In 1978, still a good time local reggae band, they had wangled a bottom-of-the bill support slot with the Clash. In Bracknell, however, the gig was disrupted by neo-Nazi skinheads allied to rabble-rousing street punks Sham 69. Losing out at the polling stations thanks to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the National Front had instigated a programme of "direct action", infiltrating football hooligans and skinheads: "bovver" at gigs and matches was the far right's new route into the headlines. Earlier in the year, seig heiling skinheads had caused £7,500 worth of damage at a Sham 69 concert at the London School of Economics.

"In Bracknell, the Sham Army turned up, got onstage and attacked the lead singer of Suicide, the other support band," says Dammers. "That was the night the Specials concept was born. I idealistically thought, we have to get through to these people. It was obvious that a mod and skinhead revival was coming, and I was trying to find a way to make sure it didn't go the way of the National Front and the British Movement. I saw punk as a piss-take of rock music, as rock music comitting suicide, and it was great and it was really funny, but I couldn't believe people took it as a serious musical genre which they then had to copy. It seemed to be a bit more healthy to have an integrated kind of British music, rather than white people playing rock and black people playing their music. Ska was an integration of the two."

A year after the Bracknell gig, the Specials' eponymous debut album set out their stall. The cover featured the band in the mod uniform of tonic suits, loafers, pork pie hats. Inside, simplistic pleas for racial tolerance were set to the choppy beat of ska, popular with the skinhead cult in the 1960s. The album dealt in social realism. Despite their complaints that London was burning with boredom, most punk bands had retained a whiff of metropolitan glamour. Terry Hall's vocals, however, described a grimly provincial world of shopping precincts and shabby ballrooms in a deadpan Coventry whine. The album also displayed the band's ability to define the preoccupations of post-punk youth - the NF are on the march, teddy boys and punks punch it out, "boot boys" lurk in the shadows, waiting to strike. It was a talent that would come to its fullest fruition on Ghost Town.

So would Dammers' plan to create "a weird new music that was a Jamaican-British crossover". He had begun experimenting with the band's trademark ska sound on their second album, More Specials. Not every member was enthused by Dammers' attempts to fuse reggae with easy listening. "He wanted to do this sort of muzak thing, put drum machines on everything," says Byers. "He'd been right up to that point, but I started to think he was losing it a bit." Rows erupted in the studio. "It was horrible," says Lynval Golding, on the phone from his home outside Seattle. "Every day somebody left the band."

The acrimony spilled over into live performances. During one show, Byers smashed his guitar over Dammers' keyboard. There were further pressures on the band. Golding was seriously injured in a racist attack in south London, an incident that inspired Ghost Town's horrified B-side, Why? Dammers refuses to discuss the band's drug use in depth, but admits there was "too much drink in the dressing room, too many drugs". He also admits the Specials' penchant for inviting their audience to invade the stage during concerts had got out of hand: "At first it started off, it was a great laugh: we're all in this together, there's no stars here. Then gradually, people were getting onstage two numbers into the set and it became tedious and dangerous. In the end, the whole audience wanted to be onstage, the PA stacks were swaying and it was dangerous, but you couldn't stop it. We told the audience it was too dangerous and they wouldn't have it and it ended up in a massive ruck with the bouncers."

After the Cambridge debacle, the Specials announced they would quit touring. "You're in this amazing, fantastic group making this wonderful music and you can't play it any more because people are hitting each other," says Panter. Disillusioned with life as a Special, he joined a religious cult, Exegesis, which preached self-assertion, creating yet more friction in the band. "Just to add to the fun and games, Horace joins some nutty cult and starts giving them all his money!" complains Dammers. "It was a nightmare." By the time the Specials met in early 1981 to record Ghost Town, the band was in its death throes. "Everybody was stood in different parts of this huge room with their equipment, no one talking," Panter remembers. "Jerry stormed out a couple of times virtually in tears and I went after him, 'Calm down, calm down.'" It was hell to be around."

Inspired by the scenes Dammers had glimpsed in Glasgow, Ghost Town was powered by despair and anger at everything from the state of the nation ("Government leaving the youth on the shelf," intoned Neville Staples, his voice gloomy and thick with West Indian patois, "no job to be found in this country") to the Specials' decision to quit touring: "bands won't play no more, too much fighting on the dancefloor".

The single's stark lyrical vision was set against an equally unique musical backdrop. Ghost Town offered a loping reggae beat topped with eerie, jazz chords, stabbing horns influenced by soundtrack composer John Barry and instead of a chorus, a harrowing wail, which according to Dammers was "supposed to sound a bit middle eastern, like a prophecy of doom". Once again, the sessions were fraught.

"People weren't cooperating," says Dammers. "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. It was a combination of the first album and the second album, the complete history of the band gelled in one song. I can remember walking out of a rehearsal in total despair because Neville 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!' In the meantime, Roddy's trying to kick a hole through the wall from the control room to the studio room. It was only a little studio in Leamington and the engineer was going, 'If that doesn't stop, you're going to have to leave!' I was saying, 'No! No! This is the greatest record that's ever been made in the history of anything! You can't stop now!'"

"Can't go on no more, the people getting angry": under the circumstances those lines could have referred to the situation in the Leamington studio. But as the Specials argued, events in the country were progressing at a dramatic rate. New unemployment figures showed a rise from 1.5m to 2.5m in 12 months: unemployment among ethnic minorities had risen 82% in the same period. In the first week of April, police in Brixton introduced a stop and search policy, named Operation Swamp after Margaret Thatcher's 1978 assertion that Britain "might be rather swamped by people of a different culture". In six days, 943 people - the vast majority of them black - were stopped by plainclothes officers. The first rioting in Brixton broke out on April 10. Ten days later, over 100 people were arrested and 15 police injured in confrontations in Finsbury Park, Forest Gate and Ealing.

There were also 350 arrests in incidents outside the capital. In Coventry, an Asian teenager, Samtam Gill, was murdered in a racist attack: in subsequent fighting between skinheads and ethnic minorities, police made 80 arrests. The Specials announced they would play a concert in Coventry for racial unity on the day of Ghost Town's release, June 20. The National Front announced a march through the town on the same day. "The gig was half-full," says Horace Panter. "There were rumours the NF was going to turn up and attack."

Then, on July 10, Britain erupted. A second wave of rioting in Brixton spread throughout the country. The list of areas involved makes remarkable reading now: Brixton, Southall, Battersea, Dalston, Streatham and Walthamstow in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds, Highfields in Leicester, Ellesmere Port, Luton, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Preston, Newcastle, Derby, Southampton, Cirencester, Nottingham, High Wycombe, Bedford, Edinburgh, Wolverhampton, Stockport, Blackburn, Bolton, Huddersfield, Halifax, Reading, Chester, Cardiff and Aldershot all reported "riots" of varying degrees. The next day, Ghost Town reached number one, developing a terrible currency not even Dammers could have predicted.

"It was an incredible moment," he says. "I can remember Rico [the Specials' veteran Rastafarian trombone player] saying, 'Jerry, if your army combine with my army, it's a revolution!'" "It floated on a tide of what was going on in society," says Billy Bragg. "If you think of songs that are expressly political like Robert Wyatt's Shipbuilding, did its political content keep it from getting to the top of the charts and did Ghost Town sneak up there because it wasn't overtly political? What's being expressed in that song? Nothing's happening, everything's going down the pan, it's that classic no future, nihilistic punk thing. Ghost Town might well have been the only punk number one."

Its success couldn't halt the Specials' demise. At their Top of the Pops appearance, Neville Staples, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding announced they were leaving the band. "We didn't talk to the rest of the guys," says Golding. "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."

"After more or less getting on my knees and begging them to do the song, I thought, after it got to number one, I've proved myself to the band, they're going to respect me and realise I knew what I was doing," says Dammers. "Critical acclaim, popularity, it's at number one, the critics think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Then Neville came into the dressing room and announced they were leaving. I was really, really upset."

Byers quickly followed. Today he performs with a Two Tone revival band, The Allstars. "I was relieved more than anything," he says. "If we'd carried on, I'd have ended up dead, or someone would have got hurt. I wish I hadn't drunk as much and argued less, but you can't change the way you are." Alienated by his involvement in Exegesis, Panter quit the next year: "I hated leaving. I just felt like I was being sucked into a black hole of depression. I was full of Exegesis and self-assertion and Jerry was dead against that. It must have been hell for him."

Dammers and drummer John Bradbury struggled through a third album, In the Studio, with new musicians. Released in 1984, it spawned the hit single Free Nelson Mandela, leading Dammers to form Artists Against Apartheid, but otherwise its dark and foreboding songs about war, agoraphobia and racism sank without trace. "The Specials were a really unique combination of people," says Dammers. "To find that kind of combination, the balance of the different people, the different talents, it just doesn't come up very often."

Today, it seems inconceivable that a record with the musical and lyrical content of Ghost Town would get anywhere near the charts, much less make number one. It was, says Billy Bragg, a product of its time. "1981 was really one of those cusp years. It was the end of punk, but it was also the beginning of a more engaged politics of the 1980s as a response to Thatcherism. 1981 was the year Glastonbury was revived as a CND-supporting festival. Ghost Town wasn't just the end of everything, it also marked the beginning of something different. That built up to the miners' strike and Red Wedge in 1987, but we went out of fashion around the same time Margaret Thatcher went out of fashion. The demise of Thatcherism and the events that led up to the fall of the Soviet Union have left us in a post-ideological political landscape. It would be very difficult for young bands to make political music these days."

Dammers is still a musician, yet he has released only a handful of records since the Specials' demise. "It does depress me that British music seems to have gone back to the way it was before punk," he says. "All these bands that sound like Gerry Rafferty, dressed up in trendy young people's outfits. It seems to have gone backwards, the music's split between black and white again. Some reggae guys once said to me, 'Ghost Town isn't the best record ever made by any means, but it's the best record ever to get to number one.'"

Specials, More Specials and In the Studio are re-released by EMI on March 25. Ghost Town is available on Stereotypical: A's, B's and Rarities (EMI).


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
CD: Various: Studio One Story

(Soul Jazz)

Alexis Petridis

13, Dec, 2002 @2:04 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 2, The Specials – Ghost Town
The remarkable, dark power of this song, with its harrowing wail of a chorus, plunges you straight back into the anger, violence and despair of the early 80s

Alexis Petridis

04, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
CD: Ska Cubano, Ay Caramba!


Robin Denselow

01, Jul, 2005 @1:20 AM

CD: Ska Cubano, Ay Caramba!


Robin Denselow

01, Jan, 2005 @2:20 AM

Interview: Alicia Keys

Stevie loves her, Oprah's after her and Prince is always on the phone. As Alicia Keys prepares to storm the UK charts, Ian Gittins meets the classically trained pianist turned soul diva.

02, Nov, 2001 @4:41 AM

Article image
CD: Madness, The Dangermen Sessions Volume 1


Adam Sweeting

29, Jul, 2005 @12:08 AM

Article image
The Specials review – veteran fighters strike a chord with young recruits
The highly influential band bring their 40-year campaign against injustice to a new generation of music fans

Caroline Sullivan

16, Apr, 2019 @11:42 AM

Article image
Interview: Terry Hall
Podium politics took the Specials to number one. But Terry Hall is relieved to have got off his soapbox, he tells Dorian Lynskey

Dorian Lynskey

22, Jul, 2003 @10:46 AM

Article image
The Specials: ’It’s something I wanted again in my life’
They broke up in a Top of the Pops dressing room in 1981, but now the Specials are back. In their first post-reformation interview, they tell Alexis Petridis how good it feels

Alexis Petridis

20, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
John Bradbury of the Specials dies aged 62
Bradbury, the multi-instrumentalist and key component of the 2 Tone sound, was drumming ‘powerhouse’ who played with the Specials for more than four decades

Guardian music

29, Dec, 2015 @3:50 PM