Two great versions of one song from the early 80s!
Few remember but 1983 was a year of pop carnage. Bands that were going to dominate the 1980s nosedived in to the ground like the Hindenburg. Most shocking was the decision by Fun Boy Three to go their separate ways when it seemed they’d only left The Specials yesterday morning.
I wrote Neville Staple’s biography and for him, the phone call from Terry Hall was a bit of a surprise. Ultimately it let Neville return to the 2Tone sound and get away from the bouncy bubblegum pop of Fun Boy Three. The demise of that trio was just the start of the year’s musical bloodshed.
ABBA’s demise was not so surprising – many of their later songs seemed to be about their divorce court proceedings in heavy code. And thank God the Bay City Rollers pulled down the shutters – how on earth did they survive punk, let alone the 1970s? A few short years later, ABBA would enjoy a revival in popularity without reforming. Such good fortune didn’t come to the Rollers.
And then there was Roxy Music – when the LP Avalon was released, it seemed they were at the top of their game again, but all too soon they called it a day. One of the greatest combos of the 70s, a highly intelligent art school pop band, had gone. No more Pyjamarama! Not until they reformed in 2001.
The Human League wobbled through 1983, nearly coming to an end then struggling past the end of the year to release Lebanon in 1984. Some reports thought they’d gone in 1983 but they held out. Shame as Dare was such a great album at the start of the 80s.
Scritti Politti had been hailed as the future in 1982 but became the past in 1983. Off went Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Wah! – two bands I thought would have a longer lifespan. Dexy’s had toured with the 2Tone bus at the start of the decade.
Altered Images called it a day. In fact, I remember seeing Clare Grogan hanging round the Cambridge pub in Liverpool one day but I didn’t buy her a drink. Yazoo – gone in May, 1983. Female vocalist Alison Moyet continued with a solo career.
Looking back now, you can see that an era was slowly coming to an end. The post-punk explosion of youth cults like mod, 2Tone, New Wave, futurist, etc, etc…would soon give way to new sounds and new bands.
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.
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. 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.”