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Ghost Town - a fantastic representation of place

Tony Hardman

11th January 2023

A few days before Christmas Terry Hall, the frontman of socially conscious ska band The Specials, passed away after a short illness, and his death got me thinking about the impact his music has had on my teaching.

Upon setting eyes on the AQA Changing Places specification, however many years ago that might have been, I knew that I would be playing Ghost Town to my students at some point during the course. The Specials’ 1981 number one hit is one of the best pieces of social commentary that I have ever heard, and is nicely summed up by film director Gurinder Chada’s with this quote - “If there is one song Margaret Thatcher wishes never got released, it’s probably Ghost Town."

Despite The Specials hailing from Coventry in the Midlands, the song is an apt description of any northern city in the early 1980s. Set against a backdrop of de-industrialisation, urban decay, unemployment, civil unrest and increasing levels of deprivation, with the wailing police sirens and references to “Too much fighting”, “No jobs to be found”, and “Government leaving the youth on the shelf” - highlighting that these cities were a far cry from the boom towns of today.

The accompanying music video, sets the scene perfectly as well. Upshots of brutalist grey tower blocks, gangs of youths either careering through the deserted streets in a car or stood on the riverbank, throwing stones with derelict industry in the background provide a very strong visual narrative to the story being told.

The very idea that the likes of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham or Liverpool would develop into 24 hour cities would have been seen as fanciful at best, when considering their situations in this era. Band leader Jerry Dammers told The Guardian, “You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. In Glasgow there were these little old ladies selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers.”

City centres would attract in people to work and to go shopping… but there was a massive morning influx of people, followed by a huge exodus in the evening when the shops and offices closed at 5pm. There was also no real residential population to speak of in the city centres, and most of the residents (which could be counted in their 10s, rather than 1000s) would have been caretakers of large buildings. Furthermore, there were far fewer leisure opportunities in city centres when compared to contemporary city centres. Outside of the far less rigid shop and office opening hours of today, these areas were quite literally ‘Ghost Towns’ back in the day.

The song truly grabbed the zeitgeist of the time. The fact that it spent three weeks at number one and a total of twelve weeks in the charts is testament to that. But the song and its message has also stood the test of time. I would like to think that the late Terry Hall would have been pleased that the message he and The Specials were trying to spread in 1981 is still being referenced in 2023 and that no other song from the intervening period does as much to represent place so accurately.

Read this brilliant summary by Colin Patterson -

Tony Hardman

Tony Hardman is an experienced teacher and examiner of 20 years. He is Manchester (well Oldham) born and bred and is passionate about urban geography!

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