When The Specials hit number one in the pop charts with the song Ghost Town – they couldn’t have anticipated that it would be the theme tune of that year’s riots. It brilliantly summed up the sense of despair and anger as the country nosedived into a deep recession.
The Specials and the 1981 riots
The summer of 1981 was warmer than most in the UK – but not because of the weather. Cities across the country exploded in rioting. First it was Brixton in April and by July, like a forest fire it had spread to Toxteth, back to Brixton, Coventry, Birmingham, Southall, etc, etc. Even middle class suburbs felt the need to stage a mini disturbance in case they got left out.
A huge leap in youth unemployment; a prime minister who didn’t seem to care (Thatcher); police forces imposing stop and search that left black youth feeling targeted and a general sense that Britain was on its knees. I was 18 at the time and everywhere, there was a sense that the country was fit to blow.
Goodbye punk; hello Ska!
Punk no longer served the purpose of channelling this youth anger. And there was plenty of fury under the surface. It needed a new music that would articulate the problems as opposed to just screaming: F… off! Not that punk hadn’t done a sterling job in the mid-70s but now it fell to ska and 2Tone to convey alienation and despair.
The Specials, a band made up of black and white talent, found its time. It would articulate the hopelessness felt by young people involved in the riots. Terry Hall was the snarling ex-punk front man. Neville Staple brought a street-wise knowledge as a young black man who had known the inside of borstal and prison. Jerry Dammers was the musical genius who revived a Jamaican sound, ska, that captivated us from 1979 to 1981.
The single Ghost Town rocketed to the top of the charts. It was bleak. It was uncompromising. It painted Britain as a soulless dystopia ruled by a government that had turned its back on millions of people. Unfortunately, the song was the last hit for The Specials – as divisions within the band erupted to the surface.
There was always a lot of chat about whether Terry Hall had been plotting for ages to leave The Specials and form Fun Boy Three or if it was a sudden flash in the pan. I’ve found one interview where he says that he knew when The Specials got to number one with Ghost Town, it would be their final appearance on Top of the Pops.
“I knew that would be the last time I was ever going to be on telly with the Specials and it was, well, emotional.”