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Terry Hall
Terry Hall and Neville Staple from the Specials, in their music video for 'Ghost Town'YouTube

The radical, anti-racist history of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

In honour of Terry Hall’s passing, we delve into the history of the ska band’s best-known single – a prophetic portrait of a nation in crisis

Terry Hall, lead singer of ska band The Specials, died yesterday (December 19) at 63. 

The Specials are without a doubt one of the most significant and influential bands of the 1980s. The record label which they founded can be credited with creating a whole new genre: 2-Tone, a raucous blend of punk, New Wave, reggae and ska. Almost as important as the music was the attendant aesthetic, defined by Fred Perry shirts, mohair suits, slip-on loafers, and pork-pie hats. While this look was heavily indebted to Black culture, Hall – who once sang “fashion is my only culture” – can be considered a style icon in his own right.

From their first album onwards, The Specials dealt in bleak, kitchen-sink social commentary, a quality which was sometimes at odds with their boisterous music. The band was formed in Coventry, a city which – having been a car industry boom town for decades – was hit particularly hard by deindustrialisation in the 80s, by which point it had one of the worst unemployment rates in the UK. Thanks to Windrush-era immigration, it was also a multicultural place with a rich tradition of Black and white musicians playing alongside one another. As a multi-racial group, The Specials embodied this tradition and became were well-known for their explicitly anti-racist politics. These disparate elements came together most famously in “Ghost Town”, a 1981 single which sat at the top of the charts for three weeks, and remains one of the most iconic artifacts of British popular culture. 

“Ghost Town” is a snapshot of the UK at a point of extreme tension. It is associated with a series of riots that exploded across the nation at the exact time of its release. The song – written the previous year – prophesied rather than commented on these events. Built around organs, brass and a sinuous, eerie woodwind refrain, it evoked a feeling of impending doom and uneasy anticipation; the sense that things were about to explode.

As a comment on the effects of deindustrialisation, the lyrics could not be more explicit: “There are no jobs in this country… the government is leaving the youth on the shelf.” The desultory present is contrasted with “the good old days”, when the economy and nightlife were still thriving, before everything shut down and no one had any money to spend. As lyricist Jerry Dammers told the Guardian in 2002: “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.”

Racism is depicted more subtly in “Ghost Town”. Without being named directly, it’s something unpleasant lurking in the background. As both Hall and co-vocalist Neville Staple sing, “Bands won’t play no more, there’s too much fighting on the dancefloor.” These lyrics were drawn from personal experience, as a number of their gigs had recently been disrupted by the National Front and other neo-Nazi groups. Not long before “Ghost Town” was released, guitarist Lynval Golding had been the victim of a brutal racist assault, which inspired a song released on the same EP. What’s more, the riots which the song seemed to predict were sparked by police violence against young Black men, including indiscriminate and widespread use of stop and search. The Specials may have addressed the theme more explicitly elsewhere, but racism is an integral part of the song’s vision of Britain as somewhere sick, fractured and rapidly unravelling.

While it’s typically thought of as a snapshot of early Thatcherism, the song has continued to resonate over the years, which is depressing in its own way. Far-right violence, racist policing, economic stagnation, clubs shutting down… you’d struggle to argue that any of these themes are less relevant now than they were in 1981. We still live in the world that “Ghost Town” depicts, and the sense of doom it evokes isn’t leaving us any time soon