The ghost of ‘Ghost Town’

Thirty years after The Specials’ iconic single was released, an old friend explains its significance.

Andrew Calcutt

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Coventry’s Hotel Leofric stood in a corner of Broadgate – not really a gate, but a central square built in the aftermath of the Second World War and the air raids that flattened this provincial British city. Perhaps the Hotel Leofric is still there: I’m not going back to look.

(‘Leofric’ because the eponymous Earl of Coventry went down in history as the man who forced his good Lady Godiva to ride naked through the streets of the city. But she was so well-loved that everyone averted their eyes except a solitary Peeping Tom. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the legend was invoked every hour on the hour in a mechanical masquerade (bells, models, windows opening and shutting – you get the picture) built into the new clock tower across the square from the aforementioned hotel.)

Inside the Leofric was a lounge bar, which, whether or not we were under age, Cov Kids like me had no business being in, since it was meant for visiting businessmen to do deals with the local money over glasses of Johnnie Walker (Red Label) and half-pints of Watney’s Red Barrel (and if their wives joined them later, they were to drink schooners of sherry or, possibly, lager in a ‘lady’s glass’). Nevertheless we did go there once.

As I dimly recall, it was like the inside of a Jag (quite right, too, since this was the city that made Jaguar cars and many other marques): that is, walnut and brown leather. But by the time we were old enough to get away with going in, somewhere at the tailend of the 1970s, this vehicle for Coventry’s Motor City status was already past its best. We looked at the tables, chairs and wallpaper, and said: these date from the year the money ran out – 1973, 1974. Then we sat back and listened to the music.

Correction: muzak. Perhaps my memory is serving me too well, but as I recall, the same light music was playing in the foyer, the bar and the lift that took us from one to the other. I couldn’t tell you (now or then) whether it was Mantovani, James Last or even Sid McVeigh and his Band of the Day. But at that moment we knew that piped music, like the décor of the hotel it was plumbed into, spoke of the heyday of British car manufacturing – and, inadvertently, it recorded how this had already come to an end. Exiting the era of Mad Men (we were where they made the stuff for Don Draper to sell), Coventry was entering the Madness of Deindustrialisation.

This D-word was the backdrop to The Specials’ single ‘Ghost Town’, a standalone release in the spirit of the previous year’s album More Specials, and released, so I am told, 30 years ago this week. ‘This town’ was becoming a ‘ghost town’ because it was no longer thickly populated with industry. With fewer jobs to go to and less money to go out and spend, Coventry’s working population was staying home, leaving the city centre to the starlings which flocked there in the early 1980s, like the immigrants (from inside the UK as much as outside) who had come to work in the car factories 20 to 30 years earlier.

So ‘Ghost Town’, which was a huge hit, staying at No.1 in the singles chart for three weeks, was a document of its time. But what makes it an engaging document, even now, is its musicality. The Specials’ main songwriter Jerry Dammers – the other young man in the Hotel Leofric bar with me – took various musical elements, none of them too seriously, and succeeded in constructing something special out of them. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, but each of the elements he chose to work with seems to have cancelled out some of the others’ limitations.

Punk stopped being embarrassingly po-faced when he ska-tified it; ditto reggae. When in More Specials, Dammers introduced another element – the corporate muzak of a soon-to-be bygone age – the effect of more ironisation was further humanisation: a musical combination which encompasses more of what it means to be human. Thus More Specials contains more pathos because there is more banality deployed in it. And for once the ensuing irony is worthy of the description – that is, it is tragic rather than tepid.

This is my final outing as Specials correspondent. If Jerry Dammers won’t join the reformed Specials because he refuses to make a Showaddywaddy of himself, I’d better stay away from cabaret criticism. But it seems only right to pay this tribute to perhaps the best moment in the life of the band led by my old schoolfriend.

Andrew Calcutt left Coventry a long time ago.

Listen to ‘Ghost Town’ here:

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