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Classic Tracks: The Specials 'Ghost Town'

Producer: John Collins By Richard Buskin
Published November 2011

The haunting dub of 'Ghost Town' perfectly captured the mood of its time, and spent three weeks at the top of the British charts during the turbulent summer of 1981.

The Specials playing live at The Hope & Anchor, Islington. The Specials playing live at The Hope & Anchor, Islington. Photo: David Corio/Redferns

On 2nd April, 1980, less than a year into Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, public anger about police racism and rising unemployment led to a riot in the St Paul's district of Bristol that resulted in 130 arrests and 25 people ending up in hospital. Then, in the Autumn of that same year, while Coventry-based ska band the Specials were in the middle of a UK tour, keyboardist Jerry Dammers was so appalled to see old women trying to make ends meet by selling household possessions on the streets of Glasgow that, with the Bristol riot and rising neo-Nazism serving as the backdrop, he began penning lyrics about a sense of impending disaster that surrounded such scenes of civil unrest and urban decay. These were the roots of 'Ghost Town', one of the most timely — and now evocative — singles to ever top the British charts.

As it happens, Dammers' doom-and-gloom mind set was probably inspired as much by the fact that, while the UK appeared to be coming apart at the seams, so was the group that he had formed some three years earlier as the Coventry Automatics with bassist Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman). After adding guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Byers (aka Roddy Radiation), drummer John Bradbury, singer Terry Hall and toasting virtuoso Neville Staple, Dammers had then launched the 2 Tone Records label. This was in 1979, at around the same time as the purposely multiracial band had changed its name from the Special AKA to the Specials and recorded an eponymous, Elvis Costello-produced debut LP. A string of ska- revival British Top 10 hits had followed but, by the time of the summer 1980 sessions for the More Specials album and similarly-titled autumn tour, personal tensions and musical differences had reared their ugly head.

While Byers smashed his guitar over Dammers' keyboard during one particularly memorable live gig, the latter's ongoing attempts to fuse Jamaican reggae with jazzy British sounds alienated several fellow band members, paving the way for the 1981 departures of Hall, Golding and Staple to form the New Wave pop trio Fun Boy Three. Beforehand, in March of that same year, after quitting the road due to escalating audience violence, the Specials commenced work on what would turn out to be the original line-up's final — and, ironically, most enduring — recording; one whose lyrical references to "Government leaving the youth on the shelf,” "The people getting angry,” and "Bands won't play no more, Too much fighting on the dance floor” pretty much summed up the then-current state of affairs. Little did anyone realise how prophetic these words would soon turn out to be.

Midnight Phone Call

In the meantime, when Jerry Dammers heard Victor Romero Evans' reggae/ambient lover's rock recording 'At The Club' getting the thumbs-up on BBC Radio One's Roundtable, he was intrigued. It boasted the same kind of haunting vibe that he wanted for his latest composition. So he contacted the record's producer, John Collins.

"It must have been one o'clock in the morning when the phone rang and got me out of bed,” recalls Collins, who had recorded the track in the front room of his home in Tottenham, North London. "A tired-sounding voice said, 'This is Jerry of the Specials here. I've heard your record. Will you produce us?' I thought it must be a joke. I said, 'Do you know what time it is?' So he apologised and said he'd call me back the next day, which he did.”

Prior to recording 'At The Club' John Collins had produced an album of reggae instrumentals and actually pitched a couple of the tracks — 'Robber Dub' and 'Working Dub' — to 2 Tone. No reply had been forthcoming, but when Jerry Dammers saw that Local Records had released the Victor Romero Evans record, he recognised the name and gave Collins a call.

"He'd subsequently want 'At The Club' on 2 Tone with 'Robber Dub' as the B-side,” Collins says. "Victor, however, wasn't keen because 2 Tone wasn't a proper reggae label, so we accepted an offer from Muff Winwood at Epic, who had just signed Aswad.”

Small Beginnings

John Collins had first familiarised himself with Jamaican records during the late 1960s, when he had a Saturday job at a Tottenham record store where a special section catered to West Indian customers. At around the same time, he acquired an Elizabethan LZ29 three-speed, four-track recorder and began taping and overdubbing himself playing the guitar.

Later, while he was studying for an electronics degree at London's University College, Collins upgraded to a Sony TC377 open-reel recorder, but the quantum leap came when he purchased a TEAC four-track in about 1978. This was the machine that he used to record Victor Romero Evans, after being introduced to the actor and other local West Indian musicians such as drummer Everton McCalla and singer Nat Augustin, when all three were members of Collins's wife's dance group.

Selling his front-room recordings of aspiring reggae/dance artists via London-based shops and distributors, Collins released them on his own, aptly-named Local Records label that was at the forefront of the post-punk indie boom. What's more, given his engineering prowess, he built a drum machine that he used, along with his contributions on guitar and organ, to supplement Victor Romero Evans's vocals — and the backing vocals of Evans's friend Barrington Levine — on 'At The Club'.

Jerry Dammers signing the cheque for the 'Ghost Town' sessions at Woodbine Street behind the studio's Soundcraft Series II mixing desk. Note the soldering iron in the background!Jerry Dammers signing the cheque for the 'Ghost Town' sessions at Woodbine Street behind the studio's Soundcraft Series II mixing desk. Note the soldering iron in the background!"I did the backing tracks, he did the singing, and I learned a lot working that way,” Collins says with regard to the record that suddenly took off and topped the UK reggae charts. "Then, after that call from Jerry Dammers, I went up to Coventry to meet the Specials. I'd heard [their first hit] 'Gangsters' and thought it was interesting, but it wasn't roots reggae, it was more like pop. I, on the other hand, had been producing records in my front room. So, after I was picked up at the train station by their road manager and driven to a pub where they were rehearsing, I asked them, 'What do you want me for?' It turned out that they liked my street cred as a reggae producer. I, quite frankly couldn't believe it — 'You don't really want me to produce you, do you?' 'Oh yes we do!'

"While I was there, they ran through three tracks: 'Ghost Town', 'Why?' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning'. 'Ghost Town' was played to me as an instrumental and it had a good groove, but the intro and ending still hadn't been worked out. John Bradbury counted them in and off they went, while for the ending they kept looping around until they got fed up and just sort of petered out. So those were the two main things that I'd change in the mix: adding the ghostly wind sound effects at the start — created on a Transcendent 2000 kit synthesizer — as well as the dubby ending. I'd done the same sort of thing on 'Lift Off', the B-side of 'At The Club', which starts with the sound of a rocket taking off before the track fades up exactly like 'Ghost Town'. Joe Meek did something similar on 'Telstar' — I wasn't the first person to do it, but it just seemed like a good idea for dub; a good, moody start. As for the echoey ending, I did something like that on 'Working Dub', which has a factory siren disappearing via repeat echoes into infinity; a very trippy sort of Pink Floyd influence.

"Even without a proper intro and ending, when I first heard 'Ghost Town', with all of those snake-charming and Hammer-horror bits, it sounded great and I was very impressed with the Specials as a band. After playing together solidly for a few years, they had a clear identity and sounded just like they did on the radio. Afterwards, at the pub, Lynval and Neville said, 'We didn't expect you to be white. We were expecting someone like Lee Perry; a wild rasta smoking ganja.' Obviously, I didn't fit the stereotype of a reggae producer, but that didn't cause a problem. They were all very co-operative.

"Having received a frosty reception at a gig that they'd done in Birmingham with Steel Pulse, the Specials probably felt like they didn't have enough recognition in the proper reggae market and thought I might change that. Reggae was a completely different world to that of a pop band — I suppose they wanted both, and in a way that's what they got with me. 'Ghost Town' was a bit more rootsy than what they'd done before, so it worked out quite well really. What's more, their second album had been done in an expensive, hi-tech studio, took a long time and cost a lot of money. So Jerry liked the fact that I worked with really basic equipment and I was relatively cheap.”

Keeping It Simple

Producer John Collins, 1980. Producer John Collins, 1980.

Thus the decision was made to record 'Ghost Town', 'Why?' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' at the tiny, rudimentary, but solidly booked Woodbine Street studio in nearby Leamington Spa, owned by John Rivers, who had earned a good reputation working with, among others, the Selecter and Horace Panter, Felt and other John Peel favourites.

"Jerry Dammers had a nightmare recording the second LP on 24-track, and now had this crazy idea of taking away the choices,” explains Rivers, who engineered the Specials' tracks. "Imagine that back then he thought 24-track gave you too many choices! God knows how he'd manage now with digital and unlimited tracks.”

A self-styled 'audio geek' who started out as a touring musician, playing keyboards in a Northern Soul band during the mid-to-late '70s, John Rivers first indulged his love of engineering with a valve Sony stereo machine that he used for track-bouncing overdubs, as well as some old mics and a six-channel mixer that he converted to stereo. Housing these in the living room of his Woodbine Street home, he says he "started getting results that were as good as the local eight-track demo studio. So maybe I had a reasonable ear even then.”

Thereafter, Rivers invested in a TEAC four-track, as well as an MM mixer and, while converting his lounge into a control room, he also transformed the cellar directly below into a live area. Thus was born the Woodbine Street studio.

"The ceiling height of that cellar was ridiculous,” he says. "It was probably only six foot six, but I couldn't afford to do anything bonkers like taking the floor out and raising the head room. Still, the crazy thing was, that room sounded absolutely brilliant. Later, when I began studying acoustics as preparation for my early 1982 move to where my studio is based now, in St Mary's Crescent, I learned about the 'golden ratio' and it turned out that, purely by chance, the cellar had the golden ratio of height to width to length. It must have measured about six foot six by 12 feet by 10 feet — I can't believe anybody wanted to work there!

"Inside that cellar, I lined the brick walls with two-inch by one-inch blocks of wood and put fibre board on top, which was nearly one inch thick and very absorbent and non-resonant. While the floor was carpeted concrete, the ceiling was marine ply and I put dry sand on there to add soundproofing, as well as a dirty great RSJ across the centre to stop it all sagging. I also installed a false wall between the front of the studio and the road, as well as double doors to get the gear in and out.”

By the time the Specials loaded in their equipment, the control room housed a Soundcraft Magnetics eight-track machine, Tannoy Westminster monitors and a 24:8:2 Soundcraft Series II console which, John Rivers now asserts, "I so wish I still had. It was just bloody brilliant, with Sowter microphone transformers and discrete components — such a sweet sound; the same kind that people revere old Neve mic preamps for. It was all really old-school.”

For Collins, it was state-of-the-art. "Having been used to four-track, I thought eight-track was a luxury,” he says. "Whenever I said something that smacked of lo-fi, Jerry would laugh. He thought it was really funny when I told him I had been working with just one mic, but it was true and he loved that.”

Meanwhile, both Dammers and Collins loved the fact that Woodbine Street's outboard gear inventory consisted solely of a pair of ADR F760XRS compressors and tape machines being used for echo.

"Neither of us liked digital reverb,” Collins continues. "You'd hear these pop records where the snare would sound like a dustbin being whacked. I hated that, and I still do. I prefer the more natural acoustic reverb because it gives you more of a mental image. You don't get a mental image with digital reverb; it sounds like something, but you don't know what it looks like.”


Engineer John Rivers, 1982. Engineer John Rivers, 1982.

The 'Ghost Town' sessions commenced at Woodbine Street on Friday, 3rd April, 1981, and continued until the following Thursday, at which point everyone took a three-day break, before embarking on another three days of recording from the 15th through to the 17th — 10 days of work over the course of just under two weeks. "I can't believe I still have my 1981 diary,” John Rivers exclaims.

With separate composers for each of the tracks — Jerry Dammers for 'Ghost Town', Lynval Golding for 'Why?' and Terry Hall for 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' — each man had a vested interest in ensuring that his song was prioritised and accorded A-side status that would earn him more royalties. So, as soon as it became clear that, once again Dammers was driving this train, the existing tensions were magnified.

"Everybody was stood in different parts of this room with their equipment, no one talking,” Horace Panters told The Guardian in a March 2002 interview. "Jerry stormed out a couple of times virtually in tears and I went after him, 'Calm down, calm down.' It was hell to be around.”

"I remember the looks that Jerry got when he was trying to describe the vocal chant in the middle of 'Ghost Town',” John Rivers now says. "Everyone thought he'd finally gone mad. And then there was the day we spent with Roddy, recording his guitar, before scrapping it because he was off his head.”

When a frustrated Byers tried to kick his way through the control-room wall, Rivers decided enough was enough and threatened to throw the band out of his studio. Fortunately, things calmed down, everybody stayed and, after the initial rhythm tracks were laid down together — drums, bass, rhythm guitar and guide organ — individual parts were overdubbed.

"As we were recording eight-track, I did go with a track plan,” says Collins. "I wanted the drums in mono on one track, the bass in mono on another and the rhythm — that shuffle organ and Lynval's DI'd guitar — on another. They're the backbone of a reggae song. Then there was brass on another track, lead vocals on another, backing vocals on another, and various little bits and pieces dropped in — John Rivers was very good at sharing tracks with more than one part. With dub, you want to be able to mute things. So, had the bass and drums been recorded as a stereo pair we wouldn't be able to turn off the bass without doing the same to the drums. 'Ghost Town' is basically a mono record with stereo reverb and echo that I added in the mix.

"To my ears, teenage music was too hyperactive and it wasn't rootsy. I thought the Specials should sound more like Sly & Robbie, so I brought a Sly & Robbie track with me — the 12-inch of Gregory Isaacs' 'What a Feeling' — and if you listen to that, the drumming sounds a bit like 'Ghost Town'. No frills; with less drums for Brad to hit and less mics, it had a cleaner sound. The same applied to the brass: John put one mic in the middle of the room, placed Dick and Rico in diagonal corners, and when we listened in the control room it sounded great. Recording simply in mono really helped the instruments balance themselves and John is such a good engineer that everything was recorded spot-on, creating an intimate sound in that confined space.”

"It's a terrifying thought, isn't it, working with only eight tracks,” John Rivers adds. "How the hell did I do it? Remember, instead of the Specials being recorded as a live band, everything was painstakingly assembled. It really was insane and should never have worked.”

For Bradbury's kit, Rivers miked the bass drum with an AKG D12, the snare with a Beyer M67 and the hi-hat with a Calrec 1051. With the addition of a pop shield, the 1051 was also used for Terry Hall's lead vocal. "I only had 20-odd mics back then,” says Rivers. "It was all a big bluff, and it came off!”

The song's central rhythm — a pumping organ sound that tied in with Lynval Golding's guitar chops for the basic reggae shuffle — was suggested by John Collins and played by Jerry Dammers on the Hammond up in the control room.

"That was quite a sticky moment,” Collins remembers. "Jerry found the part difficult to perform, he felt that the track was slowing down and John saved the day by saying, 'I'll get a stopwatch'. He was very meticulous like that, but Jerry wasn't happy and I thought the session was going to stop until John checked the tempo and said it was solid. At that point, Jerry came back in and, thanks to John, finished it off.”

"I have to say, Jerry is a really good keyboard player,” Rivers adds. "Very skilful and extremely versatile.”

Dammers played his Yamaha keyboard down in the studio for the snake-charm-type clarinet lead lines that doubled with a keyboard flute. This was in addition to a real flute.

"The guy who played the flute was a member of the [Coventry-based New Wave] band King and we recorded him in the hallway with a microphone at the top of the stairs to get the natural reverb from the stairwell,” Rivers recalls. "However, overdubbing the flute nearly killed me because it was not on a free track. [Flugel horn player] Dick Cuthell and [trombonist] Rico Rodriguez had already gone back to London, and I had to record that flute by actually dropping in. Originally, the lead part was done on Jerry's guide organ before the flute was dropped in on the brass track. Well, I had to put a piece of tissue under my chin because sweat was dripping off my face due to it being so scary — one mistake and that would have been it!”

More Wailing

While the recording was going on, Jerry Dammers was still completing the 'Ghost Town' lyrics... and getting heckled by John Collins into the bargain.

"I'd say, 'Come on Mr Songsmith, let's get these words done so we can record them,'” Collins recalls. "He'd sit there with his exercise book, working them out, including all of Neville's parts — 'This town is coming like a ghost town.' However, when it came to the backing vocals, Jerry had in mind one or two spots where they should go, and I thought the guys should sing them wherever they fit. That way, they'd be less likely to make mistakes, and when you're doing dub it's also quite nice to know that when you unmute a track something will be there. So I had them sing all the way through like a mantra, every two bars, and that worked out well for the ending. Suffice it to say, they did more backing vocals than they'd planned and some of them were used in places where they didn't expect them to be.”

Collins did some tape editing and took care of the mix at his home in Tottenham, where he used a borrowed Tascam DA88 eight-track. "Since that was a half-inch machine and John had a Soundcraft one-inch, I didn't take the tape,” he says. "I took my tape recorder to Woodbine Street and we copied the multitrack across to the half-inch. I had Dbx noise reduction on my machine and he had Bell noise reduction on his. At the same time, I also borrowed a TEAC Model III eight-track mixer to go with the tape, joined it to my six-track Model II and mixed down to my TEAC A3300SX. Then I had a MicMix Master Room XL305 spring reverb, a DeltaLab DL4 mono echo, a stereo EQ circuit that I built myself, a Dbx 165 that I borrowed, an Eventide Harmonizer that we hired for stereo echo and B&W DM4 speakers for monitoring.

"I mixed down to the two-track, mixing each section and editing the tape as I went along. Then, after a week or two of doing this, Terry Hall had this idea to do a toast. Jerry, who went along with this, also wanted more voices added to the wailing section and said a harmony was missing from the line 'Bands won't play no more'. I thought, 'Oh shit, I don't want to start again.' So, as I'd previously done with Victor [Romero Evans]'s stuff, I put the two-track on my four-track TEAC A3340S and just recorded on the two inner tracks.

At that point, I had the sub-master, and then Terry came to my place on his own and tried doing his toasting on one of the other tracks. After that, Jerry, Lynval and Neville also came round and, after Neville did some vocal overdubs, all three of them did more wailing on another track to thicken it out. In Jerry's words, he wanted it "more over the top”.

"Once they'd gone away, all I had to do was play back that sub-master and balance in some extra bits, including the sound effects at the start and end. This was after Jerry had deferred to me and I'd made the slightly difficult decision to not use Terry's toasting — it was too busy, it broke the mood and it basically didn't fit. If Terry wasn't happy about this, I'd have to take the blame, but what the hell? I took it upon myself to edit out certain other parts that also didn't fit and at that point I didn't even know if Chrysalis would actually release the record.”

History Repeating Itself

Well, on 12th June, 1981, Chrysalis did release the record. Two months earlier, amid soaring unemployment among ethnic minorities and the introduction of a racially-based stop-and-search policy by the local police, a full-scale uprising on the streets of Brixton, South London, had resulted in the injury of 280 police officers and 45 rioters, the burning of more than a hundred vehicles and the vandalising of some 150 buildings. Now, as 'Ghost Town' began its climb up the UK singles charts, major riots erupted all over Britain. An eight-day stretch starting on 3rd July saw violence and mayhem in cities that included Southampton, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh.

On 10th July, 'Ghost Town' began its three-week stint at number one. Never has a record's timing been more appropriate. And in 2011, just as it was celebrating its 30th anniversary, riots broke out all over again. Three decades had passed, but the situation and, accordingly, the sentiments, remained the same.

"Imagine me sitting in my Tottenham studio while fires were blazing just up the road,” John Collins muses. "Unbelievable.”

"There's something about that song and the way the guys performed it,” concludes John Rivers. "The stripped-down sound is so appropriate. It's very honest, very in-your-face, and the overall effect is haunting and timeless. ”