brent johnson examines The Specials’ career — and greatest single — as they take their reunion to The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., this weekend …
It opens with the faint sound of a police siren whirling in the wind. Then, out of nowhere, comes a blast of horror-movie organ. Soon, a spooky flute melody floats overtop a reggae beat. Finally, ominous voices start singing about the sad view of a deserted, crumbling town.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is some forgotten track on a long-lost Halloween album.
But in reality, it’s one of the most unusual and underappreciated pop songs of the 1980s.
‘Ghost Town’ was the crowning achievement for The Specials, an interracial British band that helped bring Jamaica’s ska movement of the 1960s back to life a decade or so later. The single hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts in the summer of 1981 — a remarkable feat considering it sounded like the work of a demented circus gang and featured lyrics about the economic crisis and riots that were breaking out across England at the time.
Head to the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., tomorrow night, and you’ll see The Specials play ‘Ghost Town’ live — a remarkable feat for different reasons. Three decades after splitting up, the original lineup of the band (well, most of it) is four years into a prolonged reunion. (One key piece missing is Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist who wrote and produced much of the group’s material.)
If you’re an American who doesn’t spend their time trolling in record shops, this may not mean much to you. After all, The Specials are one in a long line of bands who struck big in their native Britain but never found major success Stateside — i.e., The Jam, The Smiths, Suede, Manic Street Preachers.
But even if the only ska you like is early No Doubt, The Specials are worth getting to know. They formed in the late 1970s in Coventry, a town north of London. Featuring a mixture of white and black members and sporting a full horn section, they spearheaded the two-tone movement — aka the second wave of the ska genre — that also included groups like Madness and The English Beat. (The name “two-tone” was not only a reference to the black-and-white clothing they wore, but also a nod to the racial unity of the movement.)
The Specials’ 1979 self-titled debut album — produced by Elvis Costello and released on Dammers’ own label, 2 Tone Records — was stellar. Their songs were both danceable and catchy — like ‘A Message To You, Rudy,’ which bounced with a pogo-stick rhythm. Their sound sometimes mixed ska with surf rock, rockabilly and dancehall pop. Their hits often highlighted controversial subjects — like ‘Too Much Too Young,’ a tune about teen pregnancy that also managed to reach No. 1 despite its topic. And they were fronted by Terry Hall, a singer who seemed both unaffected and wildly charming at the same time. (His spoken introduction to ‘Enjoy Yourself’ — a happy ode to impending doom — is priceless.)
‘Ghost Town’ was actually the original lineup’s last great hurrah. After helping The Specials score seven Top 10 British hits in less than a half-decade, Hall, singer Neville Staple, and guitarist Lynval Golding left in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three. Hall also co-wrote ‘Our Lips Are Sealed,’ the first hit for The Go-Go’s. Dammers soldiered on with a new incarnation of The Specials for a few years, but by the mid-’80s, the band was no more.
Of course, The Specials were a strong influence on the third wave of ska in the late ’80s and early ’90s — a movement that included bands like Sublime and Reel Big Fish. And hipsters and audiophiles continue to gobble up their records to play on home hi-fi systems and college radio shows.
Now, fans also get to see The Specials back on stage. Quasi-reunions featuring a few founding members popped up every now and then over the last two decades. But in 2009, Hall and most of the original lineup’s core got the band back together. Of course, Dammers was missing — with Hall saying he declined to join and Dammers claiming he was forced out. And earlier this year, Staple departed because of an ongoing illness. Still, The Specials taking the stage at the Pony tomorrow is pretty close to the same band that cobbled together the off-kilter magic of ‘Ghost Town’ 32 years ago.
The Specials will play at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on Saturday, July 20. Doors are 4 p.m. Tickets are available here.