Ghost Town

Introduction

“Ghost Town” is an important commentary on social injustice in the early 1980s, especially the tremendous dissatisfaction many young people felt towards politicians and their economic policies. For example, Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government were blamed for the terrible rise in both unemployment and taxation. Sadly, the deep recession seemed to be leaving an entire generation without work and few opportunities.

Spending three weeks at the top of the UK charts, the unsettling and grim depiction of urban rot in “Ghost Town” certainly reflected that mood of despair and the desperate desire for change. This guide will take you through the media form of the music video and its narrative, but also issues regarding representation and the black Atlantic identity.

“Ghost Town” Music Video

Structure and Form

Directed by Barney Bubbles, the music video consists of two important structural elements: the band’s unnerving performance intercut with shots of the bleak urban landscape. The narrative seems to be straightforward. The Specials are dressed for the weekend, but they drive aimlessly through the streets of London looking for somewhere to go. However, the futility of their journey is confirmed by closing shot of the group throwing stones into the Thames.

Performative Mode

Typical of the performative style of music videos, the band members perform the song to the camera and look straight into its lens. By lip-synching the lyrics and making eye contact with the viewer, it creates the impression the group are communicating directly to the audience.

The hypnotic chanting of the line “this town is coming like a ghost town” expresses a nightmarish vision of the world and the wailing chorus suggests we should be incredibly frightened by the prospect of this dystopian future. The lyric “can’t go on no more” is particularly sombre.

The tone of despair is supported by the band’s performance inside the car. For example, during the first verse, their body language is stiff and their facial expressions are lifeless. Nightclubs are supposed to places where young people can meet and have a good time, but “all the clubs have been closed down” so their lives are muted or dead.

The madness in the band’s faces during the hellish chorus is an appropriate signifier to convey the anger and sense of insanity felt by young people who were abandoned by the uncaring elite. Finally, the way they are crammed uncomfortably into the car probably connotes their struggle to find a place in society beyond the confines of the vehicle. In fact, towards the end of the last chorus, it appears one member of the band is thrown out of the car. If the car signifies their journey through life in the 1980s, then not everyone will survive.

Interestingly, since the band are performing in a car, it could also be argued they are merely repeating the lyrics they are listening to on the radio like many people do when they are driving. In this way, The Specials are not only providing a soundtrack for the disenfranchised youth, but feeling the pain being felt by millions of people nationwide.

Narrative Analysis

The music begins with the dismal sound of the wind, which was created on a synthesiser, so it seems unnatural. The shots of tower blocks are taken from a worm’s eye view. This makes the observer appear insignificant and powerless against the menacing architecture. The brutalist grey concrete and glass set against the flat grey sky helps connote the uninviting society which built this harsh landscape. The audience might feel a disorientating unease from the opening tilting and panning shots of these buildings.

In music videos, the movement from one shot to the next is determined by the rhythm of the song. “Ghost Town” follows this convention by then focusing on different skyscrapers with each beat. Their frightening presence establishes them as one of the dominant signifiers in the text.

The green traffic light is an obvious symbol which tells the driver to proceed through the junction. Here, it signifies the start of our journey with the band through the deserted streets of East London. Note the shot of the police cones positioned on the double yellow lines which force us to continue around the corner. You are not welcome here.

Importantly, the director establishes the link between the shots of London with the members of the band in the car by making certain the windscreen reflects the tunnel’s lights. The narrative’s conceit should be clear at this point.

Since the terse lyrics focus on disaffected young people and a government blind to their needs, it makes sense for the urban landscape to be represented in such a desolate and intimidating tone. The streets should be thriving with energy, enterprise and the vibrancy you would expect from a bustling capital city, but there is little evidence of life. Instead, there is the eerie emptiness of a “Ghost Town”.

The Chorus

When the song reaches its first maniacal chorus, there is a frenzied series of whip pans and canted angles focusing on the car careering out of control. Even one of the band members hangs dangerously out of the window while the driver tries to steer his way around unseen hazards. In fact, the camera seems to topple off the car bonnet at one point. This chaotic movement obviously signifies the emotional and economic turmoil of the early 1980s.

The Bridge

The bridge section changes to a major key and the lyrics “remember the good old days” of the “boomtown”. In a rare comic moment, the three band members dance together in the back seat of the car. This optimism, reinforced by the horns, offers an obvious contrast to the depressing reality of the present. It is also important to note that there are no cuts in this section and, at the end of the long take, the dancers are exhausted.

Interestingly, in the build up to bridge, there are actually steel girders of a bridge reflecting on the windscreen of the car when they pass underneath. A subtle gag which connects the music to the video. It is a great visual pun.

The Climax

The story shifts to night and the visual style changes to a more expressionist approach to filmmaking where the emotional and psychological states of the characters are more important than a realist portrayal of their actions. For example, the car’s shadow darkens the walls of redbrick factories and houses which are tinged with an intense blue from the city’s lights. This could be the mise-en-scène of a realist crime drama, but the shadows of young people fighting, connecting with the lyrics “why must the youth fight against themselves”, is a little more abstract. Using the language of Charles Peirce’s sign categories, instead of the icons of people brawling on the screen, we only see their indexical shadows. This allows the target demographic to place themselves into this narrative.

The low-key lighting of the interior shots creates a scary chiaroscuro effect, especially when the handheld camera moves to the backseat of the car. There is a melodramatic sense of terror and foreboding on the band’s distorted faces. The low angle adds to the threat. These techniques are all typical of the horror films of expressionist cinema, such as Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922) which is free to view on YouTube. Again, London is represented as “Ghost Town” and we should be frightened of society’s evil monsters.

Rather than blaming young people for the violence on the streets of Britain, the use of shadows and other conventions of horror films suggests there is a larger ideology dictating the mood of the country. Phrasing it in the language of the supernatural is a good way to understand the emotional and psychological impact the Thatcher government was having on society.

Denouement

The emotional turmoil and chaos of the last chorus, including the man being thrown from the car, fades to a dub reggae baseline. This is the song’s coda. In terms of narrative, we are now in the denouement or Todorov’s concept of a new equilibrium.

While the diegetic sirens wail and the synthesised wind returns, there is a cross-dissolve from a blurred whip pan across the city to the long shot of the band members throwing stones in the river. There is something ethereal about their appearance. Like ghosts, perhaps, these young men have no real existence in the present.

Black Atlantic Identity

In “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness” (1993), Paul Gilroy argued race was intercultural and transcended national borders. The theorist pointed to the diaspora of Africans who had to construct a new black identity in the Americas because they were robbed of their heritage and sold as slaves. After the second world war, some of their descendants left their homes and crossed the Atlantic again. Named after the first boat that sailed from Jamaica, the Windrush generation began arriving in the UK in the late 1940s. In fact, Gilroy’s mother immigrated from Guyana to London in 1951.

The black Atlantic recognises the shared history and culture of an identity which cannot be defined by any national or ethnic label. The Specials are a good example of this complex cultural exchange because their fusion of Jamaican ska and punk rock created a new musical expression. Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist, coined the name “two tone” to describe their style and, of course, his own record label.

Importantly, two of the band members were born in Jamaica. Lynval Golding, the guitarist, immigrated to Britain with his family when he was eighteen. Neville Staple, the backing singer, moved to Britain when he was five. Rico Rodriguez, the trombonist who featured on many tracks and toured with band, was born in Cuba, grew up in Jamaica and then moved to the UK in 1961. It is also worth noting that the original drummer, Silverton Hutchinson, was originally from Barbados.

In this way, “Ghost Town” seems to validate Gilroy’s theory because the multicultural background of the musicians leads to a new genre. Finally, Gilroy rejected the concept of ethnic absolutism and believed identity was much more complex. Therefore, are The Specials a British act? Do they represent a more diverse British identity? Alternatively, of course, it could be argued their innovation is simply an example of postmodernism and cultural hybridity – an artistic inevitability that would have happened regardless of race.

Representation and Ideology

“Ghost Town” not only reflects the social and cultural context of 1981, it also provides the soundtrack to the economic hardship and racial tensions. In terms of discourse, the video is an obvious attack on the dominant right-wing ideology promoted by Margaret Thatcher.

For example, instead of a thriving and vibrant cityscape, the band travel around the lifeless and bleak streets in a 1960’s Vauxhall Cresta. Shops are shuttered and factories are closed. This represents the social collapse caused by the decline of car manufacturers and other industries in the UK. There is no more “boomtown” because there is “no job to be found in this country”.

Also, police sirens are supposed to connote law and order. However, the song was inspired by the Brixton and Bristol riots, so the sounds become a signifier of social unrest and police brutality, especially the implementation of stop-and-search powers which disproportionately targeted young black men. On the B-side of the original record, the song “Why?” refers to a racist attack suffered by Lynval Golding outside a nightclub in London in 1980.

In conclusion, “Ghost Town” positions the audience to sympathise with the band members who are struggling to survive in the deep recession and “can’t go on no more”. Named single of the year by various magazines, such as NME and Melody Maker, its message obviously resonated with the young people who bought the record and sang along with the lyrics.

Essay Questions

  1. Explain how the codes and conventions of music videos have been used to construct viewpoints in the Ghost Town Close Study Product.
  2. Explain how values and ideologies are communicated by media language used the Close Study Product Ghost Town.
  3. Analyse how young people are represented through a process of selection and combination of signs. Refer to the Close Study Product Ghost Town in your answer.
  4. How useful is Paul Gilroy’s theory of representation in understanding the Close Study Product Ghost Town?
  5. How useful are ideas about narrative in analysing music videos? Refer to the Close Study Product Ghost Town in your answer.
  6. To what extend are media texts influenced by the economic and political context in which they are produced?
  7. Explore the cultural and social significance of the Close Study Product Ghost Town.

Ghost Town Lyrics

This town (town) is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place (town) is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
Too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown

This town (town) is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place (town) is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

This town is coming like a ghost town
This town is coming like a ghost town
This town is coming like a ghost town
This town is coming like a ghost town

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